“The war in Vietnam was not lost in the field, nor was it lost on the front pages of the New York Times or the college campuses. It was lost in Washington, D.C.”
H. R. McMaster wrote that statement in his 1997 scathing critique of the Vietnam War, Dereliction of Duty: Lyndon Johnson, Robert McNamara, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Lies That Led to Vietnam. He was a major in the Army at that time. Now, he is a retired lieutenant general and former national security advisor to President Donald Trump.
It is indeed ironic that McMaster eventually contributed to what many people thought to be impossible by repeating the mistakes of Vietnam and losing the Afghanistan war—both in the field and in Washington, DC.
The real tragedy is that America’s leaders, in particular its military leaders, long knew that the war in Afghanistan could not be won having chosen to fight it in a manner that was alien to its nature, thus wasting both treasure and precious lives.
For over seventeen years we have wrongly applied counterinsurgency doctrine to a proxy war waged by Pakistan against the United States and Afghanistan. At the same time, we supplied Pakistan with generous aid packages to bribe them from pursuing a course of action opposed to our own, which they considered in their national interest.
Counterinsurgency was never a winning strategy as long as Pakistan controlled the supply of our troops in landlocked Afghanistan and regulated the operational tempo through its proxy army, the Taliban, which has maintained an extensive recruiting, training and financial support infrastructure inside Pakistan, where it has been immune to attack.
In essence, our leaders, through a combination of incompetence and indifference, allowed the United States to be defeated by Pakistan and paid them to do it.
Pakistan’s objectives for Afghanistan have always been different than those of the United States. Not only has Pakistan not helped the United States in Afghanistan, but from the very beginning through its support of the Taliban, Pakistan has actively worked against our interests and is responsible for prolongation of the war and the deaths and maiming of thousands of Americans and Afghans.
For example, Jalaluddin Haqqani, then the leader of the Haqqani Network, controlled the Khost region of eastern Afghanistan, which is where most of Osama bin Laden’s training camps and supporters were, was a CIA asset in the 1980s and met with U.S. officials soon after 9/11.
Journalist Steve Coll wrote:
“There was always a question about whether Haqqani was really Taliban, because he hadn’t come out of Kandahar; he wasn’t part of the core group. And it was quite reasonable to believe after 9/11 that maybe he could be flipped.”
In early October 2001, Haqqani made a secret trip to Pakistan, where Lt. Gen. Mahmood Ahmed, a religious hardliner and then director of Pakistan’s notorious intelligence agency, the ISI, advised him to hold out and not defect, promising that he would receive help.
Subsequently, Haqqani decided to stay with the Taliban and the Haqqani Network continues to be a threat and a source of instability in Afghanistan.
The United States was aware of Pakistan’s duplicity early on. Gary Berntsen, one of the first CIA operatives to arrive in Afghanistan, said:
“I assumed from the beginning of the conflict that ISI advisers were supporting the Taliban with expertise and materiel and, no doubt, sending a steady stream of intelligence back to [Pakistan].”
The same pattern of duplicitous behavior by Pakistan has continued over the last seventeen years.
Late last year, during a Taliban attack on the Afghan provincial capital of Ghazni, large numbers of Pakistani nationals were found among the dead, presumably fighting with the Taliban. The bodies were subsequently returned to Pakistan.
In a recently released video, Al Qaeda emphasizes its unity with Taliban and its role within the Taliban insurgency, as the jihadists, including Pakistanis, fight together to resurrect the Taliban’s Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.
And yet American political leaders and senior military officers have done nothing, preferring to remain puzzled or indifferent as to why we have not won in Afghanistan.
Pakistanis openly brag that they have defeated the United States.
Shortly before his death in 2015, Lt. Gen. Hamid Gul, the former head of Pakistan’s ISI, a committed Islamist and known as the “godfather of the Taliban,” said in an Urdu language television interview:
“One day, history will say that the ISI drove the Soviet Union out of Afghanistan with the help of USA and another sentence will be recorded that says the ISI drove the USA out of Afghanistan with the help of the USA.”
The Pakistani audience roared with laughter and applauded in approval.
The problem of Pakistan as the actual instigator of the Afghan conflict was never adequately addressed and Taliban safe havens in Pakistan remained largely untouched.
Pressure was never applied to Pakistan’s pain points, its moribund economy and financial insolvency and the existential threat of ethnic separatism, in particular among Pakistan’s Baloch and Pashtun populations.
On the ground in Afghanistan, the war effort has been a program on automatic pilot, where everyone has been constantly reassured that everything was going according to plan and “progress was being made,” a phrase I heard endlessly during my own 2010 tenure at International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) Headquarters in Kabul. If the effectiveness of the strategy was ever questioned within the military chain of command, then it had no obvious effect.
Lacking any new ideas or even a recognition of reality, we chose to continue pursuing a proven inappropriate counterinsurgency approach in Afghanistan, which has now forced the United States into direct negotiations with the Taliban, a concession we had previously refused to consider.
Yet, an American withdrawal will only become a humiliating defeat, if the United States is forced into strategic retreat from South Asia because we do not have a plan in place to address the changing regional conditions in a post–U.S. Afghanistan.
The only bargaining chip the United States has in peace negotiations is our presence in Afghanistan, which has been the primary target of the Taliban negotiators, insisting that the United States announce a six-month withdrawal plan.
The American “presence” argument is tenuous at best. The United States should be identifying new forms of leverage to bolster our negotiating position in the short term and, longer term, provide a basis for a new South Asian strategy.
The recently-announced effort to strengthen military ties with India is a step in the right direction.
The United States should also include measures to thwart plans by the China-Pakistan Axis for regional hegemony. Beijing intends to extend its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) throughout South Asia, including Afghanistan, and follow it with the establishment of military facilities, such as Chinese naval bases on the Arabian Sea.
The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) is the flagship of BRI. Pakistan’s southwestern province of Balochistan is CPEC’s center of gravity and the location of a festering independence insurgency. Just recently, the Balochistan Liberation Army made a daring and high-profile attack on the Pearl Continental Hotel in the heart of the Chinese-run port of Gwadar, CPEC’s centerpiece project.
An independent Balochistan could fulfill a number of U.S. strategic interests in the region, for example: providing Afghanistan a friendly neighbor and access to the sea; eliminating a major area of Pakistan’s terrorist infrastructure; placing additional pressure on Iran, which has its own restive Baloch population; and blocking Chinese ambitions for economic and military dominance of South Asia.
The foundations of a new U.S. strategy in South Asia should include burden shifting and, when necessary, strategic disruption of our adversaries.
Lawrence Sellin, Ph.D. is a retired U.S. Army Reserve colonel, an international IT businessman and a veteran of Afghanistan, Iraq and a humanitarian mission to West Africa. He receives email at [email protected]