America no longer wins wars – Shahid Javed Burki

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The United States came out of large military conflicts in Europe and Asia — known together as the Second World War — as totally victorious. But for the American involvement, the group of nations called the ‘allies’ would not have defeated the authoritarian states of Germany, Italy and Japan in the long drawn-out conflict waged on the two continents. After the conflict, the United States emerged as the dominant and invincible global power. This dominance was not only in terms of its military power but also, it was widely believed, that America after nearly 200 years of political development had evolved a system of governance the rest of the world would do well to follow. According to Francis Fukuyama, an American political scientist, whose book The End of History became a bestseller, the era of ideological conflicts was over. The participatory and mostly inclusive political system the Americans had evolved would sweep the world.

This confidence in American dominance came to be questioned as the country later in the 20th and the 21st centuries failed to prevail in some of the conflicts it chose to be engaged in. While it was able to arrest the advance of Communism in the Korean Peninsula, it failed in expelling the Communists entirely from the area. The Communist regime of North Korea remained a thorn in the side of the United States in particular and the West in general. But it was the American defeat in Vietnam that raised questions about America’s invincibility. The picture of helicopters flying out American soldiers from Saigon to escape the rapidly advancing army from the Communist North Vietnam became a symbol of America’s declining global power. To this picture were added the way the Americans pulled out of Iraq and then got disengaged in Afghanistan. While no longer aiming for total battlefield victory, the American approach was to build local forces to do what it tried to do. ‘Train and equip’ became the pronounced components of the American strategy in the parts of the world where their military could not win wars.

The United States not only trained local forces on the ground where they would need to fight but brought some senior people from these forces to the training bases America used for its own personnel. According to one estimate, in fiscal 2018, at least 62,700 students from 155 countries took part in US training programs at a cost of $776.3 million. In 2020, the Defense Department reportedly trained at least 31,000 foreign military students and had military advisers in more than a dozen foreign nations. This strategy has also run into serious problems. In more recent years, some foreign-based trainees were caught in the middle of major geopolitical disputes. In 2019, the US sent home Turkish students who were learning to fly the F-35 fighter jets. The US kicked Turkey out of the lucrative program after Ankara bought the Russian-made S-400 missile system.

The United States had some other problems with the trainees who came from the Middle East. In 2019, Saudi aviation student Mohammed Saeed Alshamrani opened fire at Florida’s Naval Air Station, Pensacola, killing three people and wounding eight others. US officials confirmed that six former Colombian soldiers with American military training were involved in the recent assassination of the Haitian president.

The most recent example of the likely failure of this approach is the way the Afghan situation developed after President Biden’s decision to pull out all American troops from the country by the end of August 2021. Pentagon leaders stand by the US training program and say that the fight for Afghanistan’s future is far from over. Gen Mark A Milley, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said on July 22 that the Afghan troops should be ready defend their country. “The Afghan security forces have the capacity to sufficiently fight and defend their country. And we will continue to support the Afghan security forces where necessary. The future of Afghan is squarely in the hands of the Afghan people.”

The claim that the Afghan security forces would be able to maintain their hold over the country was tested immediately after the Americans folded their operations in Bagram, by far the largest airbase from which the US had launched attacks on the Taliban. The insurgent forces then moved towards large cities such Kandahar near the border with Pakistan and Herat which lies close to the Iranian border. For the Taliban, Kandahar was especially significant. It was in that city that the Talban movement was born in 1991. On July 23, the United States used its bases in the Middle East to launch attacks on the advancing Taliban forces. However, a Taliban spokesman who was a member of the team that was negotiating with the Ashraf Ghani government said that his group did not plan to take control of any of the provincial capitals that were within their reach. They were interested in removing President Ghani from the position he occupied because of rigged elections in 2019. That notwithstanding, the Americans launched several airstrikes on or about July 23 in support of government forces. According to one newspaper report, the airstrikes were conducted at the request of Afghan forces under attack by the Taliban or to destroy equipment stolen by the militants, including artillery and vehicles. For weeks, the Afghan military fought to maintain control of provincial capitals after losing huge swathes of the country’s rural territory, often with little or no resistance.

Militants besieged the capitals by seizing districts nearby and choking off key roads in a bid to deny Afghan security forces freedom of movement. Washington, in discussing the strategy its forces and their commanders were pursuing, made it clear that it would not support Afghan airstrikes after the complete withdrawal at the end of August, a process which by the end of July was 95 per cent completed. The United States will reserve the capability only for militants planning terrorist attacks on the US homeland or against allies. The United States commanders were also attempting to demotivate the resurgent Taliban by using some aspects of psychological warfare. A B-52 long range bomber was spotted over Kabul in July and early August for the first time in several years. The plane’s massive size and distinctive silhouette were likely intended as show of force. The bombers have been moved to Qatar to cover the withdrawal of US and international forces. But the Afghan game changed quickly as the Taliban captured a number of large cities and began to move towards Kabul. Reading the writing on the wall, President Ashraf Ghani decided to abandon the country he had governed for seven years. On August 15, he took a helicopter that flew him out of Kabul and took him to the UAE. Within hours of his departure, the Afghan security forces surrendered to the Taliban. History would chalk the two-decade long American involvement in Afghanistan by the United States as yet another failure on the battlefield. America has yet to win a war after its triumph in the Second World War.

Published in The Express Tribune, September 6th, 2021.