October 7 marked the 17th anniversary of America’s ongoing and no-end-in-sight war in Afghanistan. Despite the country’s reputation as the graveyard of empires, no one would have thought, as Kabul fell to the US-supported Northern Alliance forces in November 2001, that America’s longest war was just beginning. Nor would have anyone believed, as al-Qaeda and the Taliban retreated into Pakistan, that Afghanistan would continue to remain unstable combating endless insurgency and terrorism. What went wrong?

America’s primary target in the Afghan war was al-Qaeda, not the Taliban. Al-Qaeda’s leadership returned to Afghanistan in 1996. Its presence there coincided with the expansion of the Taliban. A close relationship developed between the two. After al-Qaeda’s attacks on its embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam in 1998, the US asked the Taliban to disassociate itself from it. The Taliban did not do so but the US adopted the path of persuasion, not coercion. This was because it considered the Taliban an “authentic” Afghan group and a factor of “stability” in the devastated country.

Indeed, US officials assisted the Unocal Corporation to build a relationship with the Taliban for construction of a gas pipeline from Turkmenistan to Pakistan and India via Afghanistan. Thus the Taliban per se was not a problem; it was its relationship with al-Qaeda that caused difficulties for the US.

The war on terror

After the terror attacks of September 11, 2001, the US directly and through Pakistan leaned on the Taliban to give up al-Qaeda. It was left with no alternative but to launch operations in Afghanistan when the Taliban refused do so.

The US also made it abundantly clear to Pakistan that it had no choice but to accept all demands for the successful conduct of operations against al-Qaeda and the Taliban. The Pakistanis immediately gave in to US pressure and allowed the full and unimpeded use of their territory. Thus Afghanistan was cleared of the Taliban leadership and al-Qaeda elements by the end of 2001. But they were far from finished, for they simply crossed the Durand Line and took refuge in Pakistan.

In a speech in May 2003, US president George W Bush said, “Al-Qaeda is wounded, not destroyed.” To destroy al-Qaeda, the US continued to look for Pakistan’s support and handsomely rewarded it for handing over the group’s elements living on its territory.

It is a different matter that Pakistan allowed or, as it claims, was not aware that al-Qaeda’s top leaders were living in its territory. This was brought home in May 2011 when Osama bin Laden was killed by the US in Abbottabad. In the same 2003 address, Bush had also said, “In the Battle of Afghanistan, we destroyed the Taliban, many terrorists, and the camps where they trained.” This was way off the mark. By 2003 the Taliban had recouped its strength to a large degree, with Pakistani help. Thus, either the US was not focused on it because of the continuation of the 1990s benign approach, or it was swayed by Pakistan to look the other way. It is likely that the latter was the case.

Thus the US had differentiated approaches against al-Qaeda and the Taliban. After the September 2001 attacks the object had always been to destroy the former. The aim against the latter was to achieve military dominance so that it became amenable to a negotiated settlement with the Afghan government.

Clearly, by now the quest for military dominance has also been abandoned. This significant difference in policies is reflected in how the US treated Pakistan qua these two groups. A coercive approach was adopted in seeking its cooperation in the case of al-Qaeda; not so when it came to the Taliban, despite the loss of around 2,400 US lives and more than US$800 billion spent over the past 17 years.

No exit strategy

In August 2017, US President Donald Trump announced his Afghanistan and South Asian policy, and later for a brief period early this year it seemed that the US was using the same tone as it had used immediately after 9/11. However, it is clear by now that Trump’s policy is no different from his predecessors’. The aim continues to be to get Pakistan to persuade the Taliban to negotiate peace with the Afghan government. Pakistan is not pursuing this seriously, for it wants a veto over Afghanistan’s India policy, which no Afghan government can provide.

Other factors have contributed to the continuing sorry situation. A lack of clarity and hence an absence of consistency in the US-led international community’s peace-building efforts in Afghanistan have always prevailed. In the wake of the initial operations, a simplistic light-footprint policy was adopted. A deeply conservative and ethnically diverse country was sought to be quickly transformed into a modern, progressive nation with centralized governance and new institutional trappings.

The leadership that emerged through more than two decades of civil conflict was sought to be cast aside in the quest for democratic functioning. It was not realized that nation-building has to take place organically through indigenous efforts and not by imposing external models of political and social order. All that external powers can do is provide a secure environment for these internal processes to take place.

It is here that the Americans failed completely.

As the US failed to root out the Taliban effectively, it began to lay stress on political processes of reconciliation with the very group that was the cause of preventing the return of stability. Carefully crafted messaging going back to the same assertions that were made regarding the Taliban in the 1990s became current: It was an “authentic” Afghan group with deep roots among the Pashtuns and had to be brought into the fold. It was overlooked that it had no incentive to do so as long as it felt secure and its sanctuaries remained intact.

The Afghan leadership too must share some of the blame. It failed to reconcile its ethnic divisions and ideological and regional contradictions to develop a national consensus, including in destroying the narcotics element in the polity.

Sadly, the cumulative impact of the failures of the US and other external powers as well as the Afghan leadership have led them to a position of strategic weakness that the Taliban and their external supporters are relentlessly exploiting.