In 2014, when the Obama military surge in Afghanistan was over and a major drawdown was underway, Hamid Gul, head of Pakistan’s military intelligence service, who had worked closely with the U.S. during the Soviet War, in a televised interview opined, “When history is written, it will be stated that the ISI defeated the Soviet Union in Afghanistan with the help of America. Then there will be another sentence. The ISI, with the help of America, defeated America.”
In this prolonged, awful moment in which the United States has departed Afghanistan in abject failure, accusations about who lost Afghanistan to the forces of Islamism and terror are thick on the ground. Historic outcomes are rarely ‘inevitable,’ due to uncontrollable social forces, as the structuralists like to claim. But the way a nation pursues a goal can determine, or forever impede, success. Rarely has there been a clearer case of the seeds of defeat being sown at the very start of the endeavor than in the American 20 Year War in Afghanistan.
As the Taliban took over Kabul in mid-August, without much of a fight, the Pakistani Prime Minister, former cricket player Imran Khan, blurted out his congratulations, praising the Taliban for “breaking the chains of slavery.” He later clarified that he meant “mental slavery,” specifically to American ideas.
Khan, the current front man for Pakistan’s ever present military dictatorship, was indiscreet. But why shouldn’t he celebrate the clear victory of Pakistan’s ‘deep state,’ the Inter Services Intelligence agency (ISI), in its 20, or, really, 30-year war to install the Taliban in Afghanistan? This was the culmination of ISI’s relentless, intermittently covert plan to guarantee influence, if not precisely sovereignty, in neighboring Afghanistan. The stated reasons that this was so critical to them vary from desired “strategic depth,” to countering potential influence that their arch-enemy India might have with a democratic government, to a clear but not easily comprehensible desire to aid the most fanatic and primitive of Islamist regimes, even though Pakistan itself is relatively modern and moderate in its public practice of Islam.
The war was initially billed as a battle to destroy the terrorist forces, notably Osama bin Laden, and al-Qaeda, that planned the 9/11 attacks on the U.S., from Taliban-controlled territory. President George W. Bush announced that those who harbored such forces would also be our targets unless they chose to surrender bin Laden – which they emphatically did not.
Al-Qaeda was decimated, and the Taliban scattered by effective U.S. bombing and groundwork, in the “small footprint” years of 2001-02. Complications ensued when the mission came to include the building of institutions required for Afghan national stability. These complications include the choice of a centralized, elected government model that made little sense in an ethnically, tribally, and geographically riven nation, which has historically preferred decentralized power. The decision to build a modern national army, dependent on high tech equipment, that few Afghans could maintain, given high rates of illiteracy and low rates of technical competence among the forces, had consequences. And then there was the monumental financial corruption, which touched every institution we supported, and every leader we backed – and his brothers. As early as 2006 reporters noted that Afghan soldiers sometimes starved as officers skimmed funds meant to feed and pay them, which undermined legitimacy.
Could these problems have been fixed with honest reckoning? Perhaps.
But the main complication was political. It began and ended with the dysfunctional relationship between the United States and Pakistan.
Pakistan pursued a “double game” all along, playing ball with Uncle Sam, while training, fielding, and often leading the Taliban in battle, against our own troops and the Afghans we were training. The Taliban originated in madrassas in Pak border lands in 1994, funded with Saudi money and taught by Saudi Wahabi fundamentalist Imams. The young, mostly Pashtun students, were turned into a fighting force by Pakistan’s military intelligence branch, and deployed by Pakistan ostensibly to impose stability at a moment when neighboring Afghanistan had devolved into post-Soviet era internecine fighting.
It’s clear enough why Pakistan would do what it thought was in its interest. But it is not remotely comprehensible why a great power would tolerate conditions that were so obviously self-defeating to its goals, let alone bankroll it, under three presidents.
Geography is Destiny
George Bush stood at Ground Zero with a bullhorn on September 14, 2001 and told the world that the terrorists and their supporters would be hearing from the U.S. soon. Weeks later, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, and Undersecretary of Defense for Policy, Douglas J. Feith, were on a plane to meet with regional leaders, lining up support for the invasion to come. Because Afghanistan is landlocked, and its neighbors include nations with which the U.S. has problematic relations, it was always going to be the case that pursuing a war in Afghanistan required close co-operation with Pakistan.
In an interview, Feith recalled his initial meeting with then Pakistani Prime Minister Pervez Musharraf, who had come to power in a military coup. Musharraf was vocal about being willing to help destroy al-Qaeda, “but it was clear to me that they weren’t going to co-operate against the Taliban the same way. They were protecting them.”
On the other hand, the Paks were quite willing to work with the U.S. military, which was the key to an invasion. Feith noted that, while he was a bit skeptical of their commitment, the generals at CENTCOM were happy with the arrangements that were worked out to get men and matériel into Afghanistan, which required traversing Pakistani territory. And that was the critical issue.
It’s Complicated … Yet Mundane.
According to Feith the CIA also argued that the U.S. should attack al-Qaeda, but not the Taliban, because absent the stabilizing force of Taliban control, a civil war between Tajiks and Uzbeks in the North, and Pashtuns in the south would ensue. The Rumsfeld strategy called for destroying terror networks that were not entirely visible and imposing severe penalties on state sponsors of terrorism. As it turned out, al-Qaeda and the Taliban were deeply intertwined, as they remain today, making the distinction between them misleading.
The answer to the question “why did the U.S. allow a junior ally to undermine our military actions and foil our goals” includes the fact that, until recently, Pakistan’s national cohesion was considered fragile. There were endless predictions that the state would break apart over ethnic and tribal rivalries – which has not happened. And, of course, Pakistan is a nuclear power. One that no one particularly trusts and which the U.S. has long felt the need to monitor. That became urgent in late fall of 2001, when a conflict between Pakistan and India heated up, forcing allies to talk the two nuclear-armed enemies down. “The U.S. was friendly with both India and Pakistan, but we didn’t have much leverage with either one,” Feith noted. To be sure, even though U.S. aid to Pakistan rose rapidly over the ensuing decades, the U.S. never got much leverage.
Then, in early 2003, the Bush Administration invaded Iraq, with a whole different set of cultural and political pitfalls to navigate, and the Taliban’s revival fell further down the list of U.S. concerns.
Meanwhile, the double game was clear. Over (not much) time every American spy, diplomat, military officer, and journalist serving in Afghanistan or Pakistan, came to see the cost of ISI subsidizing the Taliban. Many spoke up. Nothing changed.
Carlotta Gall reported in the New York Times that in 2001, as the U.S. was bombing the Taliban into submission in northern Afghanistan, Pakistan was forced to send planes to Kunduz, where a few thousand of its military trainers, officers, soldiers, and ISI officers were stuck. Her 2014 book, The Wrong Enemy, detailed ISI’s double game in its most arrogant and brutal aspects, including murdering Pakistani journalists who got too close. The book took its title from a statement by U.S. Special Representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan, Richard Holbrooke, who said, “We may be fighting the wrong enemy in the wrong country.” He understood, as did every subsequent ambassador, that ISI was the real enemy. Yet nothing changed.
The late Steve Masty, a 35-year veteran Afghan hand, wrote from Kabul in the Imaginative Conservative in 2010:
America subsidizes the Pakistani military that supports the insurgency that kills American soldiers. As the US Congress confirms, American contractors pay bribes to the Taliban who blow up American troops. American contractors and spooks provide millions to strengthen brutal warlords and corrupt officials against whom American leaders rail, usually blaming President Karzai. Ten years of often-failed American development work, and little cooperation to help Afghans build their own government, policies, and priorities, have still had a few good results—but almost none of which are visible to ordinary Afghans who believe it was all a trick and America stole back the money it promised. American agencies fight each another within the U.S. Embassy and on Capitol Hill, lobbying for one another’s budgets and mandates, mindless of the work thwarted and the damage done to Afghanistan. Americans say they support dialogue with the insurgents while the CIA helps the Pakistani intelligence services arrest those Taliban leaders most likely to parley.
By 2011, U.S.-backed Afghan President, Hamid Karzai was deeply frustrated by the position in which the U.S. capitulation to Pakistan had placed him. He was so disgusted with the U.S. inability to guarantee Afghanistan’s autonomy that he was threatening to agree to a deal proffered by Pakistan’s ISI. By that point the Taliban were back in play as negotiating partners for the U.S., if there was to be the peace deal President Barack Obama wanted. Indeed, President Obama was pulling strings to find appropriate Taliban negotiating partners for the U.S. to talk to. Karzai understood that Obama would probably go around him.
And then came May 1, 2011, the day on which several SEAL Teams landed in the compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, literally down the block from the Pak equivalent of West Point, in which Osama bin Laden had lived for 6 years, and finally killed the man behind 9/11. You might wonder how the Obama Administration could forgive the Pakistani government for harboring Bin Laden for nearly a decade. Some American policy makers chose to presume Pak incompetence. President Obama was happy to get credit for the kill. The head of ISI at the time was mainly concerned that Pakistani citizens would be angry to learn how permeable their borders were.
Having gotten away with their game that long, having learned that there were no consequences for deception, betrayal, or undermining a two decade, multi-trillion-dollar American effort to turn Afghanistan into a free and stable nation that did not harbor terrorists, ISI was certainly not going to stop. President Donald Trump was clear about his intention to leave, whether or not some troops stayed behind on a base or two. By the time his Administration’s negotiations with the Taliban began at Doha, Qatar, Ashraf Ghani’s Afghan government was refusing to talk.
When the Taliban came tripping over the Durand line into Afghanistan from their bases in Pakistan last spring, President Biden had long since and adamantly decided to leave at any cost. ISI had beat the big, lazy, decadent superpower at the Great Game. And now, it will be interesting to see how long it takes the brutal and aggressive Taliban to figure out how to destabilize Pakistan.
Lisa Schiffren is a communications consultant at the Jewish Policy Center. She spent three years reporting from Pakistan and Afghanistan during the Soviet War.