When a Superpower Loses
Big powers do not lose wars, they lose interest in wars. That is how they explain their defeats. By the early nineteen seventies, when it was more or less clear that the Americans would not win their war in Vietnam, they popularised the notion of ‘Vietnamizing’ the war. The idea was to tell the world that it was time for the Vietnamese people to manage their own affairs. As if the Vietnamese had invited the Americans to solve their problems in the first place. But since it was ‘America the Superpower’, the idea had its takers in the global media and among academics. Mercifully, there was no social media then, otherwise it would have gone viral overnight.
No such phrase is in circulation now in respect of America’s withdrawal from the Afghan War, though in some sense it means much the same, provided we agree with the Americans that the Taliban are the only spokesmen for all Afghans. The bilateral deal was struck on 29 February 2020, following 18 months of interactions between the United States Special Representative, Zalmay Khalilzad, and the Taliban. It is clear that between the two sides, it was the Americans who were keener to strike a deal, not the Taliban.
Ideally, there should have been at least three parties to the deal, if not more: the United States, the Afghan government, and the Taliban. But over the months, the Afghan government’s involvement was systematically marginalised. After all, the Afghan government troops were not posing any challenge to the American troops; the challenge was only from the Taliban. As a result, in real terms the government mattered little. But what particularly irked the latter was that it was virtually taken for a ride; so much so that the Americans seemed to commit on behalf of the government that 5,000 Taliban prisoners in government custody would be released.
One will have to wait and watch how the intra-Afghan dialogue, scheduled to commence from 10 March 2020 (seemingly put on hold due to intra-government strains), proceeds. In all likelihood, basking in the glory of their ‘victory’, the Taliban will dominate the negotiations from a position of strength and increasingly ignore the government.
In short, America has left Afghanistan at the mercy of the Taliban, marking the complete collapse of its commitment to eradicate international, read Islamic, terrorism from the face of the earth. In the aftermath of 9/11, almost the entire world was behind George Bush in his anti-terrorist ‘crusade’. But America squandered that opportunity. Its die-hard supremacist approach to global politics blinded it to such an extent that it reverted back to its age-old game of bullying anyone and everyone who even remotely questioned its hegemony. Libya, Iraq and Afghanistan were reduced to utter chaos without achieving even the semblance of what America, and the liberal world at large, had longed for.
The present Taliban deal seals that failure with ominous possibilities for a broader West-Central-South Asian region that is already rife with all kinds of sectarian tensions. And yet, most analysts have shifted attention elsewhere, explaining the deal in terms of America’s domestic politics, in particular President Donald Trump’s bid to play-to-the-gallery, keeping in view the November 2020 presidential polls. But if a superpower plays petty electoral games at the cost of international order, there are reasons to question its very claim to holding to that status.
It is true that during the previous election, candidate Trump had promised his prospective voters that if elected to power he would end the Afghan war. Some might say he is, therefore, duty-bound now to redeem his pledge. But does that befit a responsible great power?
A comparison here with the American retreat from Vietnam in the seventies may be instructive. In Vietnam too, America retreated leaving the field open to the Vietnamese Communists. But the circumstances and the potential consequences of the decision were not as ominous. In international security terms, America left Vietnam to a potentially stable and progressive regime that was not expected to jeopardise the regional order. On the contrary, the Vietnamese had the wherewithal to stabilise the situation in the region (admittedly, an impending conflict of interest with China would lead to war in 1979). In contrast, an Afghanistan under the Taliban has all the attributes to destabilise an already explosive region.
Unlike the Vietnamese Communists, the Taliban are fanatically Islamist and will take every possible step to repress Afghan women and nip in the bud anything even remotely liberal in nature. In that sense, Pakistan has to be especially worried because its politics have been vertically divided between progressives and traditionalists from its very inception. The ten years under General Zia-ul Haq (1978-88) witnessed the worst form of conservative ascendancy and many retrograde Islamic laws passed during the decade remain in place. Today, Pakistan is one of the most unstable nations in the world, accused of being a key breeding-ground of international Islamic terrorism. That it is also one of worst victims of such terrorism tells its own story.
Given this reality, Pakistan may love to appropriate the Taliban’s victory as its own, but at some future date it may well have to face another Bangladesh-type secessionist demand. Any thinking Pakistani, familiar with the controversy surrounding the legality of the Durand Line and its division of Pashtun dominated areas, ought to wonder: When will Pashtun nationalism ask for its pound of flesh?
There are three factors, in particular, that Pakistanis may like to ponder. One, the spectre of an impending civil war in Afghanistan involving multiple warring factions. These include intra-Taliban factions with or without the involvement of Al-Qaida and the IS (notwithstanding any commitment the Taliban might have made to the Americans), as well as intra-government conflicts between the pro-Ashraf Ghani and pro-Abdullah Abdullah factions. Two, the youth bulge. About three-fourths of Afghans are below the age of 35 and in our internet age these youth promise to be a dangerously unpredictable lot.
Finally, the fate of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (formerly North-West Frontier Province). Combine the first and second factors and they could well challenge Pakistan’s federal polity. A future irredentist demand for a greater Afghanistan that will include Khyber Pakhtunkhwa may not be as fantastical as it seems. (That a destabilised Pakistan is not a welcome outcome for India is an issue for another time.)
In any case, the re-emergence of a militantly Islamist Taliban is bound to exacerbate regional tensions because India is also in the midst of an unprecedented wave of Hindutva aggressiveness. As the siege mentality of its fourteen percent Muslim community (about 200 million in absolute terms) increases, so does the risk of broader India-Pakistan-Bangladesh tensions. To add to the complexity are the two Buddhist supremacist states of Sri Lanka and Myanmar. The common factor between Hindutva India on the one hand, and these two Buddhist nations on the other, is that they all view their Muslim minority populations with distrust. It is only a brave augur who will predict stability in South Asia. It is against this background that the American exit from Afghanistan has to be read.
One last point. The fact remains that the Taliban were America’s creation in the first place. The conventional wisdom is that once one creates a Frankenstein, one is bound to be eventually devoured by it. But since the creator in this case is a superpower, it can escape this inevitability by pushing someone else forward to take the fall. The natural choice is the Afghan government because it happens to be the weakest of the three.
Postscript: Stan Lee’s popular comic Spider-Man popularised the Peter Parker principle: ‘With great power comes great responsibility.’ But great powers are also profoundly reckless. Here is how America behaved during the Bangladesh liberation war. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger had characterised Yahya Khan in private as ‘that butcher’ who unleashed a reign of terror in East Pakistan. But what did Kissinger do?
When the United States Consul in Dhaka, Archer Blood, repeatedly informed him about the pogrom being unleashed by the Pakistani junta and reminded him about America’s ‘international moral obligations to condemn [the] genocide’, Kissinger, unmoved, remarked: ‘That Consul in Dacca does not have the strongest nerves.’ President Richard Nixon concurred.
To no one’s surprise, Blood was promptly recalled to the State Department and assigned an insignificant desk. He retired years later; his career effectively throttled because of the telegrams he sent from Dhaka. In contrast, the ‘legendary diplomat’ Henry Kissinger won the 1973 Nobel Peace Prize for his success in inking the United States-Vietnam ceasefire (which collapsed soon). By then, Bangladesh had already won its freedom, surviving a massive genocide in which hundreds of thousands of Bengalis perished.
The author is senior fellow at the Institute of Social Sciences, New Delhi and formerly ICSSR National Fellow and professor of South Asian Studies at JNU.
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