After 20 years

I marvel how prophetically my common sense words of 2001 both to the US ambassador to India and my NDC peer and later Defence Attache in U S Embassy in India, have come true.
After 20 years
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The more things change, the more they remain the same. This universal adage may remain true of most of developments around the world, but in the case of United States it applies with a difference in that the things go from bad to worse in its case.

It has been nearly 20 years since Al Qaeda operatives carried out the deadliest terror attacks on America in the country’s history, killing nearly 3,000 people and injuring thousands more. But, unfortunately, no lessons seem to have been learnt. The American notorious arms lobby does not allow peace to prevail in the world through the instrumentality of the American state.

As a delegate to the United States of the National Defence College of India, I visited USA along with a motley group of meritorious senior Indian defence services officers drawn from Army, Navy and the Air Force, in mid 2001 and were taken to the Pentagon, the White House, the UN Headquarters, other government establishments, an army base and other prominent places including the now obliterated twin towers of what was known as the World Trade Centre, where we were taken around the city of New York while sitting in chairs in a small theatre. We were also taken to inspect a warship specially ordered to the shore in New York. Everywhere, the American flags with stars and stripes and our tiranga would flutter side by side to welcome us. It seemed the United States was warming up to India and our group leader decided to visit their war memorial to pay our respects on the martyrs’ day.

By the time September 11 happened, we had returned to India and our normal curricula that included plenty of guest lectures, had resumed. The American Ambassador in India, Robert Blackwill, also happened to be one of these guest speakers. In his lecture he came down heavily upon “terrorists” who had struck at the iconic towers and would rave and rant invectives in the refined diplomatic jargon over them. In the ensuing Question-Answer session, while giving background to my question I had told him that these “terrorists” are the same people whom you would call “Mujahideen” until the other day. “Is it because the chickens have come home to roost that you feel so outraged? Did it not occur to the American policy makers that these battle hardened “terrorists” or “mujahideen”, who knew nothing except causing all-round destruction, would one day pose a threat to the Civil Society? Or did you plan to deploy them elsewhere like India to have leverage over us?” All the participants felt that the ambassador was visibly annoyed but waited for the reply. He could not say much except muttering some words against Russia but blushed despite his diplomatic finesse and nicety. I could see our commandant’s suppressed smile at the discomfiture of the ambassador.

When we broke for the tea, the American participant in the NDC, Col. Steven B. Sboto, who had been placed in my group, suddenly came rushing towards me and asked me, “You taxman, what do you know of world politics? Go and collect some revenue. And why did you embarrass our ambassador?” Without being ruffled in the least, I told him that I knew nothing; but I will quote to you the essence of two short stories I have read during my High School days. “Go on”, he said still fuming. I said, “these are: ‘as you sow, so shall you reap’ and ‘if you sow wind, you will reap whirlwind.’” “But how are you affected?” he demanded to know and I told him that because of their unjustified support to Pakistan against India, I had lost my home and hearth in Kashmir. My ancestral houses have been burnt by your yester-years’ mujahideen and today’s terrorists.” It is only after hearing this that he cooled somewhat and moved away.

The complex legacy of the Sept. 11 attacks and the U.S.’s ensuing “war on terror” is still unfolding, from the bloody conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq and beyond to division and distrust at home. Besides exposing itself as an unreliable ally, it has shown a lot of ineptitude in handling international issues, be it climate change, terrorism, South China Sea, North Korea, and a host of other matters that exhibit inconsistencies galore and are apparently bereft of logic. Only on the basis of its military might, it cannot win the world that it fights in various ways. With the growth of military power in other nations it must realize that it can no longer dictate terms as it used to do; it cannot look in the eye of China for example, in whose rise ironically it played a vital role apparently to spite Russia. America is seemingly going through convulsions that may destroy it as the country we and the world have known for more than two centuries and the undoing will, of course, be of its own.

As in Vietnam, where crowds of Vietnamese who had helped America, begged to be taken out of Vietnam along with American troops when the last American helicopters left Vietnam, were simply abandoned to their fate, so have the crowds of Afghans who helped it through the twenty years of occupation been abandoned and left to their fate too. Moral arguments didn’t matter to one Democratic senator, Joseph Biden of Delaware in 1975. As he put it in a Senate speech on April 23: “I do not believe the United States has an obligation, moral or otherwise, to evacuate foreign nationals ... The United States has no obligation to evacuate one, or 100,001, South Vietnamese.” A stiff measure of humility is in order, suggested Richard A. Boucher, who was the assistant secretary of state for South and Central Asian Affairs during the administration of President George W. Bush. “You can’t remake a country on the American image,” Mr. Boucher said to Retro Report. “You can’t win when you’re fighting people for their own villages and their own territory. Those were lessons we thought we learned in Vietnam. And yet, 30 or 40 years later, we end up in Afghanistan repeating the same mistakes.”

Joseph Capizzi, professor of moral theology at Catholic University of America, said, “Whatever one thinks of America's 20 years in Afghanistan, it is both a moral and political truth [that] our time there created obligations to Afghan allies who bravely assisted all aspects of our lengthy mission in their country…. No one could possibly be reassured by [President Biden’s] claim that upon our departure ‘we will find them and get them out.’ We're witnessing in slow motion, the colossal failure of evacuating thousands absent sufficient American and allied forces to guarantee civilian safety. How could this get better when the few remaining troops are gone?”

The current situation in Afghanistan is not unlike 1988 when the Soviet soldiers were withdrawing. The US is repeating the Soviet mistake in Afghanistan after three decades; Afghanistan and the world are again facing the circumstances of the 1990s, when the Soviet troops withdrew and global terrorism was unleashed. The hurried US withdrawal of its forces immediately ensured the collapse of the Afghan government, has triggered a civil war, turned Afghanistan into a playground for terrorist groups, and the terrorists in turn could plot vengeful attacks such as 9/11 in future against the US itself and several other countries.

The United States’ reported design to get China involved and tied up in Afghanistan so as to divert its attention from South China Sea is not a sure bet. China is weighing its options carefully and is not showing up with any army. It is showing up with gifts to all parties, not least the ascendant Taliban. Beijing’s prospects, therefore, are already looking much better - and relatively much cheaper - than the U.S. state - and military-building project. China has no interest in Afghanistan’s own politics or governance - and certainly not in the kind of human rights or state-building efforts that the United States and its NATO partners attempted, haphazardly, to encourage. For its part, Beijing sees Afghanistan in part through the lens of its Belt and Road Initiative. China has already built extensive transportation infrastructure through the Central Asian countries north of Afghanistan and continues to build apace both there and in Pakistan to Lahore and Gwadar.

Beijing’s traditional worry in Afghanistan has, however, been regional instability and the prospect of cross-border aid to Uighur militants in Xinjiang - or the provision of a safe refuge for Uighurs fleeing Chinese oppression. But the Taliban will likely have learned from the experience of the past two decades not to harbor terrorist groups, especially groups like Al Qaeda that might target the West or other big-power players such as China, Russia, and even India. Thus, the Taliban would be wise to carefully constrain their activities to Afghanistan and may be the Pashtun borderlands with Pakistan. The Taliban have already been distancing themselves from Uighur resistance and militancy. Instead, they have been reaching out to China.

The United States is, however, not willing to wash its hands completely clean off Afghanistan as a Marine veteran, professor at Fairfield University and writer, Phil Klay, agreed that Afghanistan will continue to be an important focus of U.S. military policy. Wrote he: “It is more correct to call the withdrawal a shift in the nature of the war than an end of the war, since he made absolutely clear that the counter-terror mission will continue.” The problem created to contain Russia is now devouring USA and the western world itself.

In hindsight, I marvel how prophetically my common sense words of 2001 both to the U S ambassador to India and my NDC peer and later Defence Attache in U S Embassy in India, have come true. In fact, these find an echo in what Hillary Clinton said recently; “The people we are fighting today, we funded twenty years ago….We created Mujahideen with Wahabi brand of Islam and armed them with stinger missiles to fight Russians inside Afghanistan; but let us be careful what we sow because we will harvest…We have helped create the problem….leaving these trained people who were fanatical in Afghanistan and Pakistan, leaving them well armed….creating a mess frankly.”

Bhushan Lal Razdan, formerly of the Indian Revenue Service, retired as Director General of Income Tax (Investigation), Chandigarh.

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