No free lunch in diplomacy: India’s lesson in Afghanistan

Deccan Chronicle.  | Manish Tewari

Opinion, Columnists

It perhaps may be instructive for Indian strategic elites to acknowledge the American trajectory of leaving allies in the lurch


The United States of America and the Soviet Union were undoubtedly the super-victors of World War Two. The Communist Party of China (CCP) was a default winner. The two principal European Powers, namely Britain and France, lost their pole position in global affairs because of the loss of their colonial possessions.

Between 1945 and now the US has grown from strength to strength. The Soviet Union disappeared on December 26, 1991. The US emerged as the global hyper-power in the early 1990s. China back then was still far behind to even attempt to play catch-up.   

However the track record of the US after the Second World War in military interventions around the world has been chequered to say the least. Its first big military involvement after the Second World War was in Korea from 1950 to 1953. It ended in a stalemate. The only high point for the US being the ignominious of sacking General Douglas MacArthur on April 11, 1951, by President Harry Truman. A decorated war hero and the Supreme Allied Commander in Japan, MacArthur wanted to widen the Korean conflict and attack China.

The United States’ second big military involvement was in Vietnam. It commenced on February 28, 1961, and ended on May 7, 1975, in an unmitigated military humiliation. The iconic photograph of this mortification being of the last helicopter out of Saigon landing on the deck of USS Okinawa on April 30, 1975.
After 1975 till 1990, the US was engaged in a number of proxy wars around the world as a part of the larger Cold War paradigm but shied way from direct military involvement. The high point of its military prowess came in the First Gulf War of 1990 when a US-led coalition liberated Kuwait in a shock and awe operation that scattered the forces of Saddam Hussein like ninepins. Ironically, it is the US that had supported and resourced Iraq between 1980 and 1989, both materially and militarily, in its war with Iran. The second military involvement of the US in Iraq in 2003 again did not end well.

It de-facto ended up widening Iran’s influence across the region forming a Shia Crescent that includes Lebanon, Syria, Bahrain, Iraq, Iran, Azerbaijan, Yemen, and even western Afghanistan.

The US involvement in Afghanistan commenced in the dying moments of the Jimmy Carter Administration in December 1979. It was green-flagged by his National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski. He disclosed in an interview that “The day that the Soviets officially crossed the border, I wrote to President Carter, We now have the opportunity of giving to the USSR its Vietnam war. Indeed, for almost 10 years, Moscow had to carry on a war unsupportable by the government, a conflict that brought about the demoralisation and finally the breakup of the Soviet empire”. His words indeed proved to be prophetic. The Afghan misadventure did bring the end of the Soviet Union and its East European satellite states.

However, the American involvement in Afghanistan had commenced even prior to the Soviet invasion. As Zbigniew Brzezinski further opined, “It was July 3, 1979, that President Carter signed the first directive for secret aid to the opponents of the pro-Soviet regime in Kabul. That secret operation was an excellent idea. It had the effect of drawing the Russians into the Afghan trap.”

Brzezinski then goes on to lay out the rationale of the United States military aid and Saudi financing through Pakistan of the Mujahedeen in Afghanistan. He waxed eloquent stating “What is most important to the history of the world? The Taliban or the collapse of the Soviet empire? Some stirred-up Moslems or the liberation of Central Europe and the end of the Cold War?”
Mark the words, “some stirred up Muslims”.

The Americans, therefore, had only one objective in Afghanistan from 1980 to 1989 — to give the Soviets their Vietnam. They succeeded when the Soviets withdrew over the Amu Dariya in 1989. The subsequent collapse of the Soviet Union was a collateral bonus. They really did not care what they left in their wake for their purpose had been served.

Can the US be faulted for its approach in the early 1990s qua Afghanistan? No, it cannot, because each nation operates in its own enlightened self-interest. The US national interest ended the day the Soviets withdrew. The Afghans then had nothing to crib about for the US was not directly involved in Afghanistan then.
The period from 1989 to 2001 unleashed such tectonic forces in Afghanistan that they came back to bite the United States as never before. 9/11 necessitated the return of the US to Afghanistan. From then onwards till now, the objective of the US was to denude the capability of any non- or semi-state activities to hit the US again.

Having assessed they had succeeded in doing that and after delivering a harsh lesson to the Taliban including incarceration of its leadership in de-facto concentration camps like Guantanamo Bay, the United States got into a negotiation with the Taliban again.

For, hard politic dictated just that since the entire nation building efforts of the past two decades had not come to fruition in terms of a stable alternative that could stay afloat without sustained US support and long term commitment which no nation including the US is capable of making indefinitely.

In return for assurances from the Taliban that US interests would not be targeted from Afghani soil they were more than willing to hand Afghanistan back to the mullahs. For the United States, how does it matter, as the Taliban is only an extreme version of the many mullahs they deal with the wider Middle East?
Were the Taliban to renege on its commitment the US could always come back again. For all their protestations, the Pakistanis would be again willing to be the cat’s paw. For the gravy train that comes along with these interventions is just too finger-licking for the Pakistani elites to resist. In the meantime, the Afghans would have to grin and bear it if they cannot find their own equilibrium. That currently seems highly unlikely

Therein lies the lesson for India that wants to hang its coat on the American Quad peg to counter China. There is no free lunch in life. The Americans have their own interests qua China. Those interests do not necessarily converge with India’s. The American trajectory of leaving allies in the lurch except if they are from the Anglo-Saxon bouquet over the past seven decades is pretty well documented. It perhaps may be instructive for Indian strategic elites to drink deeply from these wells of knowledge.