Destroy the ‘Evil Taliban’ if you wish; Moralizing, however, is futile
Dr N.C. Asthana
On August 19, a sedition case was registered by UP police against a member of Parliament Shafiqur Rahman Barq and two others. The FIR alleged that Barq had compared the Taliban to India’s freedom fighters even as Taliban has been declared a terrorist organisation by the government of India.
Illegality and Hypocrisy Evident in the Case
In the backdrop of a catena of judgments since the Constitution Bench judgment in the cases of Kedar Nath Singh (1962) until Common Cause (2016) that define what does and does not constitute sedition, the action of the UP police is plainly absurd. In fact, in several cases like Raneef (2011); Arup Bhuyan (2011); Sri Indra Das (2011); Ms Jyoti Babasaheb Chorge (2012) and Shyam Balakrishnan (2015), it has been held that even membership of a banned organisation will not incriminate a person unless he resorts to violence or incites people to violence, not to speak of applauding those organisations.
On August 19, the foreign minister sidestepped a direct comment on whether or not India was in touch with the Taliban. However, earlier in June, media houses like India Today and Hindustan Times had reported of Indian officials having opened channels of communication with Taliban factions and leaders, including Mullah Baradar. Radha Kumar, the former director general of the Delhi Policy Group, also spoke of secret talks. Foreign media like Al Jazeera had also been reporting about the backchannel. In fact, Al Jazeera has reported that the Indian embassy staff could be evacuated from Afghanistan only after they requested Taliban and they agreed to escort them to the airport. These reports were neither contradicted by the government nor were the Indian media houses booked for spreading fake news.
Thus, we have a paradoxical situation—an ecosystem where expressing any view not in sync with the populist, majoritarian view has been made into a crime by a police eager to please the former. Ghazala Wahab, editor of FORCE, was trolled for pointing out in an interview that, their cruelty notwithstanding, the Taliban insurgents, being natives, are indeed stakeholders in Afghanistan, a fact underscored by the US signing an agreement with them.
How the American War Machine lost to Taliban’s Asymmetric Warfare?
By March 2020, as analysed by Niall McCarthy for Statista, the US had dropped some 58,602 bombs in Afghanistan including the 21,600 pounds MOAB (Mother of All Bombs), 15,000 pounds Daisy Cutter bombs and the 2,000 pounds Thermobaric bombs that suck up oxygen and produce a long-duration blast wave. They were not used in any war earlier.
Andrew Buncombe had reported in January 2011 in Belfast Telegraph that the US forces had fired so many bullets in Iraq and Afghanistan, an estimated 250,000 for every insurgent killed, that American ammunition-makers could not keep up with the demand and they had to import from Israel. Thus, there is no case that the US forces failed because they had been exercising ‘restraint’.
As the sober, unbiased analysis of Griff Witte in Encyclopaedia Britannica also notes, after the initial military successes, the subsequent counterinsurgency strategy of the USA adopted since 2008 failed to achieve its aims. Insurgent attacks and civilian casualties remained consistently high, while many of the Afghan forces taking over security duties failed to hold off the Taliban.
While ‘fighting’ until 2005 was relatively easy, ‘securing’ the territory won or liberated proved enormously difficult, both operationally and in terms of cost.
The Taliban were quick to realize that there was no way they could fight the Coalition forces in direct, open combat, the latter’s firepower and protective equipment being greatly superior. Since 2005, they began laying emphasis on asymmetric warfare tactics like suicide bombing and IED attacks and avoiding direct combat.
In the end, the Taliban exasperated them by what Robert Taber had called ‘War of the Flea’ in his 1965 classic study by the same title. The insurgent fights the war of the flea and his enemy suffers the dog’s disadvantages—too much to defend; too small, ubiquitous, and elusive an opponent to come to grips with. A small number of highly motivated insurgents with simple weapons, excellent OPSEC, and agility could undermine security operations over a large area.
In my book ‘ISIS and Taliban: The Inside Story’, I had predicted back in 2016 that, given the inherent shortcomings of the American counterinsurgency strategy, the Taliban would eventually win—I have been proved right. Any excuse that the Taliban were helped by Pakistan is puerile because US intelligence should have known it all along—even WikiLeaks had disclosed it in 2010.
How the US lost the Perception War also?
The Taliban fully exploited the anti-American sentiments nurtured by the sluggish pace of reconstruction, allegations of prisoner abuse at US detention facilities, widespread corruption in the Afghan government, and civilian casualties caused by the aerial bombings.
According to the UN News (2020), the number of civilians killed in Operation Enduring Freedom and Freedom’s Sentinel are close to 100,000 besides some 60,000 Afghan security forces killed. Obviously, the death of so many civilians could not be passed off as collateral damage and it was universally recognised amongst the people being the result of wanton and arrogant use of force by occupation forces.
The Americans responded by the troop surge and more drone strikes. While the troop surge resulted in greater American casualties, the drone strikes fuelled more consternation.
Afghanistan went through the motions of elections six times since the US invasion. However, various irregularities in the elections could not impart an air of legitimate popular mandate to the governments that ensued. Hamid Karzai had himself, in 2010, accused ‘foreigners’ of trying to rig last year’s presidential election against him. ‘They wanted to have a puppet regime, they wanted to have a servant government,’ Karzai declared. He warned that US military operations threatened to turn the Taliban-led insurgency into a legitimate ‘national resistance’. He even threatened to join the Taliban himself if the international community did not stop meddling in Afghan affairs.
Americans’ losing the perception war was aided by their arrogance. In early 2012, a video showing US Marines urinating on dead Afghans circulated in the media, inciting public outrage and drawing apologies from the US officials. Then there were protests over the burning of copies of the Quran at a military base. It was followed by the incident of a crazy soldier leaving the base near Panjwai and shooting dead 17 civilians.
The writing on the wall was clear; thereafter, it was only a matter of time. In fact, shortly after the dismissal of Gen. McChrystal in June 2010, Robert Gates had confirmed that they had been holding talks with the Taliban. Two agreements were signed in March-April 2012 concerning detainees and night raids. The third agreement in May outlined a framework for economic and security cooperation after the combat mission of the Coalition forces ended on 28 December 2014.
The February 2020 agreement formally signalled that the US had accepted mission failure. It had started the war to quell public anger over the 9/11 attacks; it ended the most disastrous war in history once again to quell public anger.
Moralising and Pontificating are Futile
Taliban’s military victory and their worldview are two entirely different things. Their worldview could be repugnant, but the world cannot run away from the military position they have secured.
If bleeding hearts insist on adopting a highly moralistic stance denouncing the ‘terrorist’, ‘illegitimate’ and ‘barbarian’ tags of Taliban, they must keep in mind that from a legal perspective, governments formed after coups also do not have the people’s mandate. Did we not happily deal with Gen. Musharraf’s government?
The Pakistan Army had committed genocide, mass rapes, ethnic cleansing and other atrocities in East Pakistan. Why had that not rendered the ‘sinner’ Pakistan ‘untouchable’ for us? We had not chosen to break off with Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the UAE for their having committed the ‘sin’ of recognising the ‘immoral’ Taliban government of 1996! What happened to the moral considerations then?
We are all aware of the ‘regressive’ views of the Taliban about women and how they had suffered atrocities under their rule—who would not sympathize with that? If the world wants to punish Taliban for committing atrocities upon women, let us do it by all means—what are those knights in shining armour waiting for? However, is that all that offends them? If the Taliban made a solemn commitment today that they would treat Afghan women in exactly the way they are treated in say, Pakistan; would they then embrace them?
What can the Afghan people who are opposed to the Taliban do? They can decide to suffer the Taliban or fight them to the death in a civil war. Militarily, civil war is a perfectly feasible option. Heartless it may seem but there is no other way. Or they could request the world to accept millions of them as refugees evacuated under cover fire of ground attack aircrafts. After that, the Taliban can be bombed to oblivion.
What the World Could Do?
If we detest the very name of Taliban, we must mobilise world opinion and resume military operations. The ISAF (International Security Assistance Force) can be revived, and they can bomb the Taliban back to the Stone Age or whatever.
Remember, the world did not fail or abandon the Afghans. For 20 years, at the cost of 26,335 casualties and USD2.26 trillion, they threw everything in their repertoire at them including the best in weapons technology and Special Forces, and yet could not defeat them.
Prepare a better strategy next time! Until then, wailing, pontificating and moralising would not help the Afghans.
(The writer, a retired IPS officer, has been DGP Kerala and ADG CRPF and BSF. He is author of 49 books and 76 research papers including nine books on military science, defence and strategy and five on internal security)