The optics of America’s pullout from an unwinnable war in Afghanistan
US President Joe Biden announces the withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan on April 14 (Photo: AP)
SOMETIMES ENDINGS TELL us more about an enterprise than its beginnings or even its stated aims. And sometimes the endings of the enterprises of great powers are also remarkably similar. The question that confronts each of them is how to package failure as success. As far back as the first century of the first millennium, the Roman historian Tacitus had confronted this fact: ‘And when in their wake nothing remains but a desert, they call that peace.’
Nearer our own times, we have the penultimate British Viceroy in India, General Archibald Wavell, reflecting on past parallels of their own impending departure from India: ‘I have been trying to find out something about the Roman evacuation of Britain and the state of the country afterwards.’ His own prognosis of the end of the empire in India was grim: ‘While the British are still legally and morally responsible for what happens in India, we have lost nearly all power to control events’ and ‘I have found His Majesty’s Government’s attitude to India negligent, hostile and contemptuous to a degree I had not anticipated.’
His successor Louis Mountbatten had possibly a better sense of the difference between substance and outward form and the primary importance of the latter. The term that passes as shorthand for this today is optics. In assessing his role in the winding down of the British empire, the British historian David Cannadine wrote over three decades ago that Mountbatten was the ‘ideal man for ending British rule in India’. This was so because: ‘The will to govern had gone; the machinery of government was breaking down; the incumbent Viceroy, Lord Wavell, had run out of ideas; there was growing sectarian violence between Muslims and Hindus; and the political initiative was increasingly passing to non-British hands.’ By advancing the date of British departure (and Partition), Mountbatten in a sense regained the initiative, but this frenzied speed led to the Partition massacres and much else that forms the burden of the past for the Indian subcontinent. Yet, Mountbatten has also to be judged by different yardsticks and these in brief are that the ‘circumstances of an inexorably declining Britain provided the background to Mountbatten’s life’. To quote Cannadine again: ‘By the end of the second world war, Mountbatten had come to realise very clearly and very early, that it was useless to ignore or to regret the decline of Britain as a world power; that handling the retreat from greatness would necessarily mean the best of many a bad and botched job; and that in getting such things done, presentations and performance were what counted. If people could be made to feel that something was well accomplished then, however much some of the evidence might contradict this and however different things might seem in retrospect, this was in practice more than half the battle won.’
So, Mountbatten in the process became an iconic figure because ‘he consoled the British people for their loss of national power. He was always in retreat, yet never in disarray.’
It is also the case that when a great power enterprise ends, we are riveted more on the consequences of that end for the great power rather than the subjects of the enterprise. How to keep face, therefore, is an end in itself. Much the same dilemmas that confronted the administrations of Presidents Obama, Trump and now Biden—how to exit with honour intact, however superficially—had confronted the Soviets soon after their fateful entry into Afghanistan in 1979.
For the US, the geopolitical stakes could not have been higher when Soviet tanks and columns entered Afghanistan on Christmas Eve in December 1979. This latest development seemed to cap a series of setbacks for the US in the region. The Revolution in Iran in February 1979, and the humiliation of the long hostage crisis that followed seemed to underline, more strongly than ever before, a US in retreat. Around the same time as its embassy in Tehran was seized and the hostages taken in November 1979, the US had to endure another external trauma when its embassy in Islamabad, Pakistan, was attacked and burnt. In February of the same year, in Afghanistan itself, prior to the Soviet invasion, the US ambassador was kidnapped in Kabul and, thereafter, killed in a failed rescue attempt. These were amongst other signs all of which suggested an erosion of influence in areas that were pivotal to the US. The initial assessment of the Soviet Union may well have been that they would do a quick ‘in and out’ of Afghanistan. They may well have also thought that the US would be too preoccupied with the Iranian hostage crisis to pay too much attention to Afghanistan.
There is a view that the Soviets were, in fact, prompted and provoked by the US into invading Afghanistan to get stuck in their own Vietnam. Certainly, this vision would be propagated later by Zbigniew Brzezinski, the US national security advisor from 1977 to 1981.
It is interesting to find that soon after the Soviet invasion, pressures for a negotiated settlement began. Much of the early initiative for this came from the West European countries concerned at the damage to détente the Soviet intervention had caused. The Soviets themselves were surprised by the extent of the resistance they faced in Afghanistan, and by the international condemnation. The Moscow Olympics was boycotted by the West. Islamic opinion worldwide, or at least a large section of it, was supportive of resistance to the Soviets. Negotiations with the UN being the principal mediator and intermediary began in mid-1982. Pakistan, ‘the front-line state’, was often at the heart of the meetings that followed. There were obviously widely divergent positions given the fact that the government of Pakistan did not recognise the Kabul government, which it saw as a puppet regime of the Soviets. The Afghan (and Soviet) government’s focus was on noninterference (especially interference by and through Pakistan) and international guarantees to ensure noninterference. Pakistan sought irreversible withdrawal. The US with President Ronald Reagan had little appetite for negotiations, and numerous bipartisan lobbies had emerged in support of the Afghan Mujahideen operating out of Pakistan.
The change in administration has pushed the date of US withdrawal back to September 11, 2021, the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attack. The announcement to this effect from President Biden underlines the obvious metaphoric value to this new date
The talks dragged on till a rapid changeover in the Soviet leadership suggested new complexities in the horizon. Between 1982 and 1985, there was a rapid turnover from Brezhnev (1964-1982) to Yuri Andropov (1982-1984) and then to Konstantin Chernenko (1984-1985). The advent of Mikhail Gorbachev would come to mean that change was in the air, not least because of his other moves on internal changes in the Soviet Union and on resuming arms control negotiations—one of the cornerstones of détente. In February 1986, Gorbachev described Afghanistan as an “open wound” and this was as good a sign as any that regardless of what his predecessors had felt or did, he was looking for a way out.
Soviet documents that progressively became available in vast volumes after the demise of the Soviet Union show discussions within the Politburo from 1985 showing a general consensus that the war was unwinnable and the 1979 military intervention a mistake. Gorbachev had been recorded as saying in November of 1986: “People are asking themselves: What? Are we going to be stuck there indefinitely? Or, maybe, we should just end this war? Otherwise, we’re going to be ashamed of ourselves in all respects.” In January 1987, the Politburo received briefings from Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze on his visit to Afghanistan (and again the parallels with contemporary Afghanistan are striking): ‘Very little is left of the friendly feelings towards the Soviet people, which existed for decades. Very many people have died, and not all of them were bandits. Not a single problem was solved in favour of the peasants. In essence [we] waged war against the peasants.’ What the discussions reveal most is the concern to save face while ending the war and leave behind an Afghanistan that was ‘neutral’—meaning to preserve some gains of the original intervention.
Many of these and related documents entered the public domain around the end of the first decade of this century when concerns were strengthening within the US about the trajectory of its own Afghan intervention. Soviet history became both a comment and a history tutorial for US analysts on the current dilemmas in Afghanistan. A remarkable revelation is a briefing given in November 1986 to the Politburo by Sergei Akhromeyev, the commander of the Soviet forces: ‘There is no piece of land in Afghanistan that has not been occupied by me or our soldiers at some point of time or another. Nevertheless, much of the territory remains in the hands of the terrorists…our soldiers are not to blame…but to occupy towns and villages has little value in such a vast land where the insurgents can just disappear into the hills.’ Similarly, he had said, ‘About 99 per cent of the battles and skirmishes that we fought were won by our side. The problem is that the next morning, there is the same situation as if there has been no battle. The terrorists are again in the village where they were, or we thought they were destroyed a day or so before.’
The problem was essentially a political one—peace with honour or how to withdraw. If Vietnam had haunted the US, it also haunted the Soviet leadership. Gorbachev told his foreign policy advisor Anatoly Chernyaev: “We cannot leave in our underpants.” Chernyaev had described Afghanistan as “our Vietnam. But worse.”
In February 1987, Gorbachev had announced a timeline of withdrawal and it was left to the Geneva negotiations sponsored by the UN to now square the circle as quickly as possible given the fundamental differences that existed between the US and Pakistan on one side, and the Soviet and Afghan governments on the other. Partners within each camp did not see eye to eye on many issues: the Afghanistan government had its own suspicions about Soviet consistency and intentions; the Pakistanis and the US also had suspicions about each other. The Geneva negotiating process and the accords that followed were to become an example of diplomacy working to find just enough bare minimum common ground to claim success between irreconcilable positions. The challenge then also had become one of finding the right words that would leave enough ambiguity to paper over the major differences which existed. The broader geopolitical context was one of détente where Gorbachev was seen as a new kind of Soviet leader. Both Pakistan and the US thus saw the advantages of giving the Soviet Union a face saver, but not much more.
Much the same dilemmas that confronted the administrations of presidents Obama, Trump and now Biden had confronted the Soviets soon after their fateful entry into Afghanistan in 1979
Two aspects of the Geneva Accords as signed in April 1988 were of great interest. The first of these was termed ‘symmetry’. The other was the question of recognition, or representation. The centrepiece of the accord, of course, was the withdrawal of the Soviet troops. The Soviet resolve to do so whether there was agreement or not in the UN talks in Geneva was certainly a factor in bringing the negotiations to an end. The issue that ran through the accords like a hidden spectre was—what next in Afghanistan after the Soviet withdrawal? This reflected itself also in the debates about ‘symmetry’. Symmetry referred, in short, to the obligations of major powers as regards various stakeholders in Afghanistan. What this meant, in effect, was what was to be the future of assistance, and this meant military assistance, to the Afghanistan Mujahideen. For the US and Pakistan, this was non-negotiable, especially as it was clear that Soviet assistance to the government of Afghanistan would continue. Discussions on this issue involved many nuances and hair splitting. ‘Negative symmetry’ meant a mutual agreement to cut all Afghan grants, including to the Kabul government. ‘Positive symmetry’, in contrast, was that both sides would continue to receive supplies of arms! What this prolonged debate really represented was the reality of the ground situation where the rival protagonists—the government of Afghanistan and the Mujahideen—would battle it out after the Soviet withdrawal with support from their respective partners and supporters.
The second aspect was of ‘recognition’. Pakistan did not recognise the Afghanistan government or the Republic of Afghanistan as it was then known. The Mujahideen were not represented in the talks, but Pakistan spoke on behalf of them. The US similarly did not recognise the Afghan government. So, given these non-recognitions between the negotiating parties, the actual agreements were, in commonsense terms, bizarre, but a diplomatic achievement nonetheless. The government of Afghanistan and Pakistan were signatories and the US and the Soviet Union were guarantors of the agreement. Along with the formal signatories, both Pakistan and the US put down statements on the status of the other signatory: the government of Afghanistan. Pakistan’s statement said that notwithstanding ‘the accords signed today will continue to adhere to its policy to withhold recognition to the regime in Kabul’. The US, in its role as a guarantor to the agreement, stated that it believed that the settlement was ‘a major step forward in restoring peace to Afghanistan, in ending the bloodshed in that unfortunate country and in enabling millions of Afghan refugees to return to their home.’ It also went on to say that it’s acting as a guarantor. It added, ‘The United States does not intend to imply in any respect recognition of the present regime in Kabul as the lawful Government of Afghanistan.’
The accords were thus successful as a diplomatic sleight to secure the only outcome on which the Great Powers had agreed upon—that Soviet troops needed to withdraw. For the rest, the absence of mutual recognition meant that there was a question mark over the agreement’s longevity from the beginning. In addition, the discussions about symmetry meant that the civil war would continue and no amount of diplomacy could have a role in deciding an outcome whose fate lay in the battlefield.
But as it happened, no early outcome appeared. Afghanistan under President Najibullah surprised both the US and Pakistan by its staying power. Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) had thought that President Najibullah would be a pushover without the Soviet presence. A major ISI-driven operation in the summer of 1989 to capture Jalalabad just 75 km from the Khyber Pass and the most important city between Kabul and Peshawar ended in failure. The fact was that while the Soviet troops had left, the Soviet support for the government in Kabul remained. President Najibullah emerged stronger after the botched-up Jalalabad operation and he was increasingly seen as an Afghan nationalist, unlike the Mujahideen groups who were viewed as Pakistan proxies. What finally changed this dynamic was a larger cataclysm which was the disintegration of the Soviet Union, leaving Najibullah and his government critically short of resources and support. The civil war, the Taliban takeover, 9/11 and the US military intervention are milestones in the subsequent history of Afghanistan.
FAST FORWARD TO our own times and the modalities of US withdrawal. The US, as it ends its longest ever military engagement in Afghanistan, will certainly contemplate its own hubris. It is in the nature of things that it must look for an exit that will allow it to leave with at least some honour intact. But alongside the tutorial of the Soviet predicament, an older history of Vietnam—where the US had succeeded in ending another unwinnable war following the conclusion of the 1973 Paris agreement—will also crop up. There were four signatories then—the US and South Vietnam on the one hand, and North Vietnam and the provincial government of South Vietnam on the other. The actual negotiation had been done by Henry Kissinger and Le Duc Tho.
Al Qaeda has been destroyed and the Taliban had given assurances that it would prevent future operations from its territory. To Biden’s critics, these aims had been realised at least a decade earlier if not even as far back as 2001 when the Taliban regime was overthrown
They were to be jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1973 for the successful completion of the process. The award remains a major milestone in Kissinger’s biography. Le Duc Tho did not accept it. The agreement was at the time hailed as a triumph for democracy, but it was a triumph most in terms of securing its principal objective—an end to the US’ war. The catastrophic collapse of the Nixon presidency heralded the collapse of the South Vietnam government two years later. Diplomatic role was over and matters would now be settled only on the ground. The final act was the scramble of US personnel out of Saigon in April 1975 which, as we saw, seared its imprint, not just on the American but also the Soviet mind.
An orderly withdrawal of its forces from what was evidently an unwinnable war has been a US priority for some time. The February 29th, 2019 agreement with the Taliban reached during the Trump presidency had eventually provided for the withdrawal of US forces by May 1st, 2021. The signatories to the agreement signed on behalf of the US government and the government of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. Each reference to the latter in the text of the agreement is followed by the clarification that ‘the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan is not recognized by the United States as a state’. If the similarities with the Geneva Accords of 1988 are too evident to require to be stressed, the fact is that ambiguities do not matter much beyond a point and, after a point, are useful to power decent withdrawals by great powers.
The change in administration has in effect pushed the date of US withdrawal back to September 11th, 2021, the twentieth anniversary of the 9/11 attack. The announcement to this effect from President Biden underlines the obvious metaphoric value to this new date. For the current administration, the ending of its military engagement on this date underlines that the original aims that led to the intervention in the first place have largely been met. Al Qaeda has been destroyed and the Taliban had given assurances that it would prevent future operations from the territory it controlled. To the administration’s critics, these aims had substantially been realised at least a decade earlier if not even as far back as 2001 when the Taliban regime was overthrown following the 9/11 attacks. These debates will long continue—about the limitations of US military power, about building a ‘new’ Afghanistan top down, and most of all, of the difficulties in ending a war even when it is unwinnable.
Continuities from the past will of course always be there, too evident not to invite comment. Regardless of the strength of these continuities and parallels with the past, history will never be a guide for the future, but it can still inform us for whatever that may be worth.