The US top brass was on one of its frequent visits to the confessional, the Senate Armed Services Committee, revealing just enough to reassure the American people that they have an open system. Defence Secretary Gen. Lloyd Austin must by now be in drill rattling off boo-boos by the military on more occasions than one. I can never forget his being grilled by the same committee during the Syrian war when he was a four star General.
The issue then was a relatively small matter. Gen. Lloyd was responsible for the training of Syrians who would fight Bashar al Assad’s ‘militants’. An initial $500 million had been set aside for their wages plus state-of-the-art military hardware. Having received strenuous training, the Americans trained as a mirror image of Jabhat al Nusra just melted away exactly as the celebrated Afghan army did. There was an uproar. Secretary of Defence, Ashton Carter wept before TV cameras. It fell to Gen. Lloyd Austin’s lot to face the then Senate Committee.
Senator: “How many of the men you trained are still with us, fighting.”
Gen. Austin: “Four ..or .five.”
The General, now Secretary of Defence, was not as embarrassingly exposed on the Afghan withdrawal. He had the entire top brass for company to face the Senators. As on the previous occasion he was candid.
“We have to consider some uncomfortable truths. We did not fully comprehend the depth of corruption and poor leadership in the senior ranks.” Did he mean that had the senior ranks not been so corrupt, the foot soldiers, all 3,00,000 (three lakhs) of them would have been loyal?
There are lamentations galore on Ashraf Ghani’s “unexplained rotation of commanders”. Austin said, “We did not anticipate the snowball effect caused by these deals.” This enabled the Taliban commanders to strike deals with local leaders. In brief, “the Afghan army we trained simply melted away, in many cases without firing a single shot.”
This kind of a hearing is like a parade of American democracy in action. It can cause millions of viewers watching the show to suspend critical faculties. Not only did the Afghan army not fire a shot, in places it virtually spread out the red carpet for the Taliban to enter. In revelations like the Senate hearing, a great deal is covered up. The real story on an epic scale remains untold. Some really tough question needed to be asked. Why did it end this way? Many observers had told the US that this is the way the cookie would crumble. What the Senators needed to find out is ‘why’ did it crumble this way?
President Joe Biden is right. Any end to a 20-year-old involvement, unpopular with the people, would end in a mess. It is just as well that it has ended. But that is Biden’s point of view. The world is running around trying to cope with the void left behind.
“American troops cannot and should not be fighting and dying in a war that Afghan forces are not willing to fight themselves.” Can this statement of Biden’s be disputed? “We could not provide them with the will to fight for their future.”
The patronizing tone in the last sentence does reek of the quantity called American exceptionalism. This exceptionalism was obsequiously accepted by all in days when the US was paramount. Today even in a grouping like AUKUS, the US stands out as the only country that does not play cricket.
The withdrawal, despite military advice to the contrary, reflects on Biden decisiveness. His boss in an earlier era, Barack Obama became aware of the futility of extending the Afghan expedition, as early as 2010, but he allowed Gn. Stanley McChrystal and Gen. David Petraeus to talk him out of decisive action. They were looking for the perfect occasion, like the Philanderer, postponing his rendezvous until the wife is in another city, servants have taken leave, there is pitter-patter of rain and, at hand, a hubble-bubble charged with aphrodisiacs. Stars were never going to be in such perfect constellation. To that extent, Biden is right.
One could have written the script from the earliest days of the occupation when Americans were raining yellow packets of food to soften the population. The goodwill thus earned would breed informants with solid facts on the location of Al Qaeda operatives. “Red-hot” information would be passed onto the US chain of command right upto the fighter unit, airborne in a jiffy with lethal ordnance. A posse of Al Qaeda were on the march on the other side of the hill, whispered the informant. The group was bombed to smithereens. Field reports next morning revealed that the Americans had bombed a wedding procession. The “informant” had taken revenge on a rival tribe. Such mishaps were common.
Should not the Senators know how many wedding processions were bombed in this fashion? Would such episodes not augment the ranks of US haters by geometrical progression? Lynddie England became the notorious military officer, smiling over a pile of naked Iraqis tortured at the Abu Ghraib in Baghdad. This happened within a year of the US occupation of Iraq. How many Lynddie Englands posed with tortured Afghans by way of trophy over two decades? Torture cages at Bagram were televised recently.
The macabre headlines of marines urinating on a pile of dead Afghans made page one in many newspapers. A clipping from The Guardian is a bleak page in my scrapbook. Thousands of doors crashed open, men kicked and punched in front of their women.
The 3,00,000 Afghan soldiers being trained came from these homes. Green on Blue attacks were a consequence: Afghan trainees would turn upon their trainers, killing them. The collaborating media stopped reporting these incidents because they demoralized the Occupation. This and much, much more the Senators need to know in full public view to cleanse the soul of America and restore to it the élan which was its pride.
(Saeed Naqvi is a senior commentator on political and diplomatic issues. The views expressed are personal. He can be reached on email@example.com)