Was the Afghan war wrong from the start?

March 20, 2013

In “An Enemy We Created,” authors Alex Strick van Linschoten and Felix Kuehn described assumptions about a supposedly unbreakable link between the Taliban and al Qaeda as “the principal strategic blunder of the war in Afghanistan.” Al Qaeda’s leadership, they wrote, relied on and coordinated closely with Jalaluddin Haqqani rather than the younger and less experienced Kandahari Taliban who ruled Afghanistan from 1996-2001.

Their contention – that with more political will and insight war might even have been avoided altogether – has been disputed by those who say Washington did try and fail to engage the Taliban in serious talks ahead of the Sept 11 attacks. Yet in a week where the United States has gone through a bout of soul-searching about the Iraq war, history matters. Were the assumptions that led to the Afghan war also wrong from the start?

A new book by Vahid Brown and Don Rassler, “Fountainhead of Jihad, The Haqqani Nexus: 1973 to 2012” adds to that history by focusing on the Afghan group that actually did have the closest ties to al Qaeda – the so-called Haqqani network.

As I wrote here, the book has unearthed primary sources to show that the patriarch of the Haqqani network, Jalaluddin Haqqani, had as much influence on al Qaeda as the Arab fighters had on him – providing them with support and an Afghan safe haven during the jihad against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan from 1979 to 1989.

The first Afghan Islamist known to have actively recruited Arab fighters into his ranks, Jalaluddin Haqqani was also the first to declare the Afghan jihad a duty for Muslims worldwide – preceding by at least four years the Palestinian scholar Abdullah Azzam whose 1984 writings are usually credited with being the foundation of modern global jihad.

But the book is about more than the relationship between the Haqqanis and al Qaeda. It is a treasure trove of history and footnotes about the role played by Pakistan in nourishing the ideology of al Qaeda – which emerged out of the Afghan jihad as a lethal mix of 20th century Arab and South Asian insecurities.

Take for example the earliest days of Pakistan after independence in 1947, when it faced a hostile Afghanistan which to this day refuses to recognise the border, and which for years supported then-breakaway Pashtun nationalists on the Pakistan side. In response, Pakistan relied on religion to suppress ethnic nationalism and hold the country together.

“Pakistan’s ‘Islam over tribe’ approach became a pillar of its policies on the frontier and has characterised its deep involvement in Afghanistan’s conflicts over the last thirty years, including its support for the Haqqani network,” the authors assert.

Much of the story after that is well known: from U.S. support for the mujahideen in the anti-Soviet jihad, to Pakistan’s use of Islamist militants to counter Afghanistan’s claims on Pashtun nationalism on its fragile western frontiers and India’s claim to Kashmir in the east.

By the 1990s, even after the Soviet Union withdrew from Afghanistan and the United States lost interest, the idea of global jihad had found fertile ground in Pakistan, particularly in its heartland Punjab province where international Muslim causes remain popular. Domestically, Pakistan – and especially its army – had come to rely on a particularly militant interpretation of Sunni Islam to override disparate ethnic identities; one which is now cannibalising the country by feeding in on its religious minorities, including Shiites.

At the time of the Sept 11 attacks, only some of al Qaeda’s leadership was in Afghanistan. Others – along with the environment that allowed its ideology to flourish – were in Pakistan.

It should always have been clear that the real challenge facing the United States in 2001 was in weaning Pakistan away from that ideology. Instead it turned to Pakistan, then under military rule after a 1999 coup by General Pervez Musharraf, as its main ally in the war.

Its focus was on the Taliban, who, however brutal their rule, had grown up in rural southern Afghanistan, isolated from world events.  Unlike Jalaluddin Haqqani, many of them were too young to have played a big role in the anti-Soviet jihad; they had no real ties with al Qaeda until after they took power – with Pakistan’s help – in 1996.

There are many reasons why the Afghan war went wrong. The lessons of the failed Russian and British invasions should have made it clear from the beginning that it was going to be difficult to manage Afghanistan. The United States might have succeeded had it not chosen to be distracted by the Iraq war in 2003. Perhaps Pakistan might have been won over to the U.S. side had the Bush administration not signed a nuclear deal with India in 2005, which in the eyes of the Pakistan army decisively tipped the balance in favour of its bigger neighbour. More recently, both Vali Nasr and Sara Chayes have, in different ways, blamed a lack of coherence inside the Obama administration on its approach to Afghanistan.

But read through the history of the Haqqanis for a reminder of what happened in the years before the Afghan war. And if you have not asked this question before, you will be left wondering why the United States was so confident in 2001 that it could turn Pakistan around while simultaneously fighting a war which put the two countries’  interests significantly at odds.

As Washington has discovered over the years, the alleged threat made in 2001 to bomb Pakistan back into the stone-age if it did not cooperate was only ever going to be enough to win acquiescence rather than support, passive resistance rather than overt defiance.

It is probably too much to assert that the Afghan war was lost before it started. The Sept. 11 attacks had such an impact on the United States that politically it would have been nearly impossible for it not to act – and, unlike Iraq, it did so with the support of the international community.  But it is not too late to ask about the systemic failures that meant it went into the Afghan war with such little insight.

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