EXCERPTS from Vali Nasr’s eight-year-old book, Dispensable Nation, are being widely quoted in Pakistan these days. From Twitter to an APP story to WhatsApp forwards, the snippet about former army chief Gen Ashfaq Kayani’s opposition to the American proposal to build an Afghan army and his prognosis about its fate once the international forces left, makes for a great story. For it has a greater power’s ambition, a weaker nation’s understanding of the region, a prophecy and then vindication.
The account, in case someone has not been keeping up with their WhatsApp forwards, narrates an exchange in which Kayani tries to dissuade his American counterparts and other US officials from their grand plans to build up an Afghan army.
“‘You will fail,’ he [Kayani] said. “Then you will leave and that half-trained army will break into militias that will be a problem for Pakistan.’ We tried to stand our ground, but he would have none of it. He continued, ‘I don’t believe that the Congress is going to pay $9 billion a year for this 400,000-man force.’ He was sure it would eventually collapse and the army’s broken pieces would resort to crime and terrorism to earn their keep.”
But as we discuss the exchange and Kayani’s foresight, (while also bracing for the blame coming our way in days to come), it is important to not reduce Vali Nasr’s book to just this one exchange.
Dispensable Nation is a very good insider account of the Obama administration’s handling — or mishandling — of Afghanistan. Nasr, was brought into the State Department by Richard Holbrooke, special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, and had a ringside view of the jostling and debates that went on in the administration as Obama tried to shape his policy on what he had dubbed the ‘good war’ (as opposed to the ‘bad’ one in Iraq), during his election campaign.
Holbrooke, who in turn had been brought in by Hillary Clinton, was in favour of a political solution by negotiating with the Taliban (and improving the relationship with Pakistan). But he and Clinton weren’t trusted by the White House. Personality clashes, as well as recent memories of Clinton’s campaign against Obama, played to the disadvantage of the secretary of state, and the turf battle was won by the White House, as Obama voted in favour of options presented by the generals — the surge of troops to ensure a more favourable position on the battleground.
Apart from Kayani, most of what Holbrooke predicts about the policy decisions and their outcomes are also proven right, down to the number of troops the military will ask for and what Obama will agree to. On Pakistan, Nasr quotes Holbrooke as saying “Watch them [the CIA] ruin this relationship. And when it is ruined, they are going to say, ‘We told you: You can’t work with Pakistan!’ We never learn.”
Nasr was not the only one to highlight these internal battles and alternative policy options. Other books written around the same time about Afghanistan also pointed this out. Indeed, when the US invades a country, it is accompanied by press coverage and indepth reporting and research. Books are churned out aplenty.
Afghanistan was no different. There were countless accounts about Washington as well as what was happening on the ground — the mistakes made at Bonn; the misguided and even counterproductive aid efforts to win Afghan hearts and minds; the support, direct and indirect, to warlords; the corruption of the governments in Kabul; and how and why the Taliban were gaining ground.
And yet, in retrospect, it seems little of it seemed to impact a 20-year-long policy, which was followed by three presidents. It took a deal with the Afghan Taliban by Donald Trump for the fourth to finally pull the troops out. And apart from the troops, the overall manner in which the American presence operated didn’t change either in terms of aid or the groups the superpower allied with or chose to work with.
It forces one to question how little dissent and critique in a democracy feed into decision-making, especially in foreign policy. For at home, in weaker democratic set-ups, we keep arguing that dissenting views and difference of opinion allow for better policymaking.
But the existence of a freer debate and dissenting views, even when coming from those inside the tent, does not necessarily feed into policymaking. And perhaps, most of these critiques came from those who are not considered ‘credible’ by those in power. This may be especially true of foreign policy, which is seen as the domain of a few, who are willing to work within the accepted power parameters.
(The Vietnam war was a rare example where the anti-war sentiment among the people came into play, but the low number of troops in Afghanistan precluded a similar sentiment building up. For a comparison, the US lost around 60,000 troops in Vietnam while the number for Afghanistan is less than 2,500.)
For example, Nasr’s book points out that Obama, as a first-time president, could not have shunned the military option as it would have made him look weak.
Such limitations exist for all American presidents as they do for a superpower; it is hard to separate foreign policy from military power. Even before 9/11, it was evident that terrorism was to be addressed militarily. Bill Clinton had used missiles in response to the embassy attacks in Africa. And when the towers were struck in New York, the answer was a military invasion; there was no other option and neither could anyone have suggested it then, within the US or outside.
And over the years, despite all the talk of helping the Afghan people, the heavy spending in the country was on the military side. It is hard to envision a context in which it could have been otherwise?
Even now, as the US exits from Afghanistan, the harshest criticism of the decision is coming from those who think the troops should have stayed on — with little thought of what they would achieve, which wasn’t possible in the past 20 years. And even fewer are discussing or questioning the original decision to invade. This perhaps is the burden of being a superpower on the world stage.