Afghanistan: From Soviet Occupation to American ‘Liberation’
by Nauman Sadiq
During the election campaign of 2008 before he was elected as the president, Barack Obama made an artificial distinction between the “just war” in Afghanistan and the unjust war in Iraq. In accordance with the flawed distinction, he pledged that he would withdraw American troops stationed in Iraq.
The unilateral intervention in Iraq by the Bush Administration was highly unpopular in the American electorate. Therefore Obama’s election pledge of complete withdrawal of the US troops from Iraq struck a chord with the voters and they gave an overwhelming mandate to the ostensibly “pacifist” contender during his first term as the president.
In keeping with the election pledge, President Obama did manage to successfully withdraw the last American soldier from the Iraqi soil in December 2011 during the first term as the president, but only to commit thousands of American troops and the US Air Force to Iraq just a couple of years later during the second term as the president when the Islamic State overran Mosul and Anbar in early 2014.
The borders between Iraq and Syria are poorly guarded and highly porous. The Obama Administration’s policy of nurturing militants against the Assad regime in Syria for the first three years of the Syrian civil war from 2011 to 2014 was bound to backfire sooner or later.
More to the point, however, when President Obama decided to withdraw American troops from the unjust war in Iraq, at the same time, he pledged that he would commit additional American troops and resources into the purportedly “just war” in Afghanistan. And consequently, the number of US troops in Afghanistan jumped from 30,000 during the Bush Administration to more than 100,000 during the supposedly “pacifist” Obama Administration.
And now, the “steady hands” of the American deep state, the Secretary of Defense James Mattis and the National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster, have advised the Trump Administration to further escalate the conflict in Afghanistan by deploying 3,000 to 5,000 additional troops to a contingent of 8,500 US troops already stationed in Afghanistan as “trainers and advisors.”
If more than 100,000 US troops at their peak during the Obama Administration’s tenure failed to achieve any long-term objective in Afghanistan, then how do Generals Mattis and McMaster expect from 3,000 to 5,000 additional troops to salvage the failed Afghan policy of the successive US administrations?
If the Trump Administration adopted an attitude of appeasement towards the diktats of the deep state, then it will only be a first step before the quagmire in Afghanistan will suck in tens of thousands of additional US troops and resources in the coming years.
Coming back to the topic, no one can dispute the assertion that the notions of “just wars” and “good militants” do exist in the vocabulary; empirically speaking, however, after witnessing the instability, violence and utter chaos and anarchy in the war-ravaged countries like Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria, South Sudan, Somalia and Yemen, the onus lies on any “liberal interventionist” to prove beyond doubt that the wars and militants that he justifies and upholds are indeed just and good.
More surprisingly, however, if Afghanistan was an occupied country during the years of Soviet occupation from 1979 to 1988 then how did it become a free country after the American occupation of Afghanistan since 2001-onward?
Furthermore, if the Afghan so-called “Mujahideen” (freedom fighters) nurtured by the Carter and Reagan Administrations with the help of Pakistan’s intelligence agencies and Saudi money constituted a legitimate resistance against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, then by what principle of consistent logic, the resistance against American occupation of Afghanistan can be reviled as “terrorism”?
In international politics, the devil always lies in the definitions of the terms that we employ. And the definition of the term “terrorism” has been deliberately left undefined by the Western powers to use it as a catch-all pretext to justify their military presence and interventionist policy in the energy-rich Islamic countries.
More to the point, there is a not-so-subtle distinction between a terrorist and an insurgent: an Islamic insurgent believes in something and wants to enforce that agenda in the insurgency-hit regions, while a terrorist is just a bloodthirsty lunatic who is hell-bent on causing death and destruction. The distinguishing feature between the two is that an insurgent has well defined objectives and territorial ambitions, whereas a terrorist is basically motivated by the spirit of revenge and the goal of causing widespread fear.
After invading and occupying Afghanistan and Iraq and when the American “nation-building” projects failed in those hapless countries, the US policymakers immediately realized that they were facing large-scale and popularly-rooted insurgencies against foreign occupation; consequently, the occupying military altered its CT (counter-terrorism) approach in the favor of a COIN (counter-insurgency) strategy.
A COIN strategy is essentially different from a CT approach and it also involves dialogue, negotiations and political settlements, alongside the coercive tactics of law enforcement and military and paramilitary operations on a limited scale.
The phenomena which is currently threatening the Islamic countries is not terrorism, as such, but Islamic insurgencies. Excluding al Qaeda Central which is a known transnational terrorist organization, all the regional militant groups like the Taliban in Afghanistan, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, al Shabab in Somalia and Boko Haram in Nigeria, and even some of the ideological affiliates of al Qaeda and Islamic State, like Al Qaeda in Arabian Peninsula, Al Qaeda in Islamic Maghreb, the Islamic State affiliates in Afghanistan, Sinai and Libya which have no organizational and operational association with al Qaeda Central or the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, respectively, are not terror outfits, as such, but insurgent groups, who are fighting for the goals of liberation of their homelands from foreign occupation and for the enforcement of Sharia in their respective areas of operations.
The goals for which Islamic insurgents have been fighting in the insurgency-wracked regions are irrelevant for the debate in hand; it can be argued, however, that if some of the closest Western allies in the Middle East, like Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Kuwait, have already enforced Sharia as part of their conservative legal systems and when beheadings, amputations of limbs and flogging of criminals are a routine in Saudi Arabia, then what is the basis for the US declaration of war against Islamic insurgents in the Middle East who are deliberately, but erroneously, labeled as “terrorists” by the Western mainstream media to manufacture consent for the Western military presence and interventions in the energy-rich region under the pretext of the so-called “war on terror”?
Notwithstanding, the root factors that are primarily responsible for spawning militancy and insurgency anywhere in the world is not religion but socio-economics, ethnic differences, marginalization of disenfranchised ethno-linguistic and ethno-religious groups and the ensuing conflicts; socio-cultural backwardness of the affected regions, and the weak central control of the impoverished developing states over their remote rural and tribal areas.
Additionally, if we take a cursory look at some of the worst insurgency-plagued regions in the Middle East, deliberate funding, training and arming of certain militant groups by regional and global powers for their strategic interests has played the key role.
Back in the eighties during the Soviet-Afghan war, the Afghan jihadists did not spring up spontaneously out of nowhere. The Western powers with the help of Saudi money and Pakistan’s intelligence agencies trained and armed those “freedom fighters” against their archrival the Soviet Union. Those very same Afghan “Mujahideen” later mutated into the Taliban and al Qaeda.
Similarly, during the Libyan and Syrian uprisings, the Western powers with the help of their regional client states, once again, trained and armed Islamic jihadists and tribal militiamen against the “unfriendly” regimes of Qaddafi and Bashar al-Assad.
And isn’t it ironic that those very same “cute rebels” later mutated into Ansar al-Sharia and Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG) in Libya; and the Islamic State, al-Nusra Front, Ahrar al-Sham, Jaysh al-Islam and scores of other jihadist groups in Syria?
About the author:
Nauman Sadiq is an Islamabad-based attorney, columnist and geopolitical analyst focused on the politics of Af-Pak and Middle East regions, neocolonialism and petroimperialism.