The Lesson of Afghanistan
The high cost of treating Pakistan as an ally.
Jonathan Ariel argues that the American debacle in Afghanistan can be traced back to Washington’s failure, decades ago, to confront Pakistan over its support of the Taliban, which has sometimes been hidden but never wavered. His analysis is here.
The seeds of the humiliating American withdrawal from Afghanistan were laid shortly after the post 9/11 US invasion of the country, when the United States refrained from confronting Pakistan over its continued support of its Taliban proxy.
The Taliban was founded in 1980 as a joint US-Pakistani-Saudi effort to combat Soviet troops in Afghanistan shortly after the USSR’s invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979.
Pakistan provided the geographical base and an almost endless supply of manpower, primarily Pashtuns, who comprise about 40% to 45% of Afghanistan and approximately 20% of Pakistan. About 85% of them live in “Pashtunistan,” which straddles the Durand Line. The United States provided the weapons while Saudi Arabia provided the funding to buy those weapons and cover the costs of maintaining Afghan refugee camps in Pakistan.
The Pashtun-dominated Taliban rapidly emerged as the biggest and best-armed component of the mujahideen, the umbrella organization of Afghan rebels fighting Soviet troops in Afghanistan….
The Taliban consists almost entirely of ethnic Pashtuns, who are spread between Afghanistan and Pakistan; the border – demarcated by the Durand Line – does not exist for them; they cross the porous border at will. Pashtuns from Pakistan helped Afghani Pashtuns in the “Taliban” movement that the U.S., Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia together created to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan. That effort proved successful; the Taliban turned out to be the most numerous and best fighters against the Russians in Afghanistan.
Once the Russians left Afghanistan, a civil war broke out between the Taliban and the other, less islamically fanatical, mujahideen groups. Pakistan at that point, through its sinister Inter-Service Intelligence (ISI), continued to support the Taliban with weapons, training, and when needed, safe refuges; ISI kept to this policy even after the Taliban started cooperating with Al Qaeda. The Pakistanis didn’t care. Many of them, too, supported Al Qaeda.
After 9/11, Pakistan could not be seen by the Americans as aiding the Taliban, a terror group that had given refuge to Al-Qaeda, which had just murdered 3,000 Americans. So it engaged in subterfuge, pretending to end its support of the Taliban, but all the while continuing to help it. The ISI persuaded the Taliban to leave Afghanistan and, without engaging American forces in battle – which would have ended in a crushing defeat for the group – to move to Pakistan where its members could live safe from American attacks, establish their training camps, and wait for the moment when American forces had been sufficiently drawn down, or perhaps pulled out altogether, in order to reenter, and reconquer, Afghanistan. That is exactly what happened this past August.
Pakistan, with Saudi financial backing, continued to maintain the Taliban as a viable force to be deployed when, in the fullness of time, the United States would tire of the never-ending war in the country and begin extricating itself. In addition, Pakistan continued to play a double game with the United States by allowing the ISI-backed Haqqani network to continue to operate in Pakistan. Khalil Haqqani, who despite having a $5 million bounty on his head as a wanted terrorist had long been a regular visitor to ISI HQ, is now one of the new rulers of Afghanistan.
Pakistan’s duplicity went beyond its continued support of the Taliban while pretending to the Americans that it had abandoned the group. The so-called Haqqani network of Islamic terrorists takes its name from a family; Jalaluddin Haqqani was the founder of the group of hardline Muslims; the Haqqanis were allies of the Taliban, and even more damning, of Al-Qaeda. Yet Khalil Haqqani, the group’s chief fund-raiser, was “a regular visitor”to the ISI HQ, where he received both money and weapons from the Pakistanis. Haqqani has just emerged as one of the Taliban rulers in Afghanistan.
It is clear that even as late as June 2021, had the United States made clear to Pakistan that if it didn’t ensure that the Taliban would permit a peaceful and orderly withdrawal of all US personnel and their Afghan allies who wished to leave the country there would be hell to pay, this debacle would never have happened. The United States has almost unlimited leverage over Pakistan, from applying crippling sanctions to broadly hinting it will give India a green light to retake the parts of Kashmir (Gilgit-Baltistan) that have been under unrecognized Pakistani occupation since 1948.
Pakistan has for decades been the spoiled child of American foreign policy. Its terry-thomas-moustachioed, swagger-sticked generals were regarded by their American counterparts as splendid fellows, so much more trustworthy than the Soviet-leaning Indians, such as Jawaharlal Nehru and Krishna Menon. Besides, Washington reasoned, those Pakistani Muslims hated Communists. So they did; but they also hated Infidels. The country has been a major recipient of American aid, year after year. It was American aid dollars that paid for Pakistan’s nuclear program.
The Americans had invested so much money, and trust, in Pakistan that they didn’t want to believe in the duplicity of Islamabad. The U.S. could have read Pakistan the riot act and told it to demand of the Taliban that it ensure an unhurried and organized withdrawal of the Americans and their local allies from Afghanistan, but it failed to do so. It could have threatened to cut off all aid, to impose economic sanctions, to give India the signal that it should go ahead, with American blessing, and take back parts of Kashmir that Pakistan has illegally occupied since 1948. None of this was attempted.
Given the huge disparity between Pakistani and American capabilities, Pakistan’s limited nuclear capabilities would have been irrelevant, because 165 warheads mounted on relatively short-range (2,650 kilometers) Shaheen-3 missiles do not constitute an actual threat to the United States. Pakistan’s generals might have chutzpah but are competent professionals, not suicidal maniacs. In the face of a credible US threat, they would seek a diplomatic solution….
Pakistan has 165 nuclear warheads, the U.S. has 5,550, more than 34 times as many. But more important, there is no threat of these landing in the U.S.; Pakistan’s Shaheen-3 missiles have a range of 2,650 km., but the distance from Pakistan to the U.S. is 12,350 km.; there is no chance of Pakistan’s nuclear bombs landing on American soil.
Israeli military planners are particularly worried about the huge armory of 150,000 rockets, some of them precision-guided, that Hezbollah now possesses, hidden throughout southern Lebanon. It doesn’t want them to be let loose in a series of massive barrages at Israeli civilian population centers; thousands launched every day for a month would be far too much for the Iron Dome missile defense system to handle.
This is not, however, the only reason, as militarily, Israel has the capacity to defeat both Iranian proxies. In order to destroy Hamas, Israel would have to resume the status of Gaza’s occupying power, or ensure in advance that a multinational force of some kind would be available and capable of assuming responsibility for Gaza. No such force is likely to come into existence anytime soon. A unilateral Israeli occupation of Gaza is possible, but would exact a prohibitive price economically, diplomatically and in terms of public opinion.
The Israelis do not want the massive headache of reoccupying Gaza militarily, even though it is the only way to assure the complete destruction of Hamas, and not merely offer another episode of “mowing the grass” in Gaza. There is no U.N. force likely to step in to do the job; it was had enough to find a handful of UN peacekeepers to ineffectually patrol in southern Lebanon. Once Israel had defeated Hamas in Gaza, and the IDF established its presence in the Strip, it would then be up to Israel, as the occupier, to prevent chaos, first of all by providing economic support to the impoverished Gazans. Israel is sure to be attacked, too, on the diplomatic level, in the UN’s various bodies, from the General Assembly to the UN Human Rights Council, to the Security Council, but also will be raked over the coals in the world’s media, that will paint the Jewish state as an aggressor and “occupier” that needs to be pushed out of Gaza.
Destroying Hezbollah would require Israel to destroy half of Lebanon, since Hezbollah is a state within a state that is more powerful than the legitimate state itself. Militarily it can be done, but would create a humanitarian and public relations disaster. Israel has therefore based its policy on containment and management, having concluded that the economic, diplomatic and military sacrifices and ramifications the alternative would entail are too expensive….
Hezbollah has entrenched itself so thoroughly within the civilian population of Lebanon, hidden its 150,000 rockets, and rocket launchers, inside schools, hospitals, office and apartment buildings, that in destroying as much of that weaponry as it can, Israel would also be destroying a great deal of the country’s civilian infrastructure. This would become for Israel, as Jonathan Ariel says, “a humanitarian and public relations disaster.” Nor do the Israelis want to endure the casualties — the dead and wounded IDF soldiers — that a full-scale ground invasion would entail.
In treating Pakistan as an ally, rather than as the duplicitous supporter of the Taliban, the US could never wipe out the group, which could find refuge and regroup, and continue to train safely, inside Pakistan.
Jonathan Ariel argues that Israel can no longer rely on the “containment” of the threat from Iran’s nuclear project; it needs to “neutralize” – that is, destroy entirely – the threat of a nuclear Iran. Israel’s Mossad has over more than a decade managed to repeatedly slow down — to “contain” — Iran’s race to the bomb. Mossad introduced the Stuxnet computer worm that caused 1,000 centrifuges to spin out of control and destroy themselves; Mossad agents assassinated five of Iran’s top nuclear scientists; Mossad’s agents stole Iran’s entire nuclear archive and brought it back to Israel, where study of the documents showed just how extensive, and well-hidden, Iran’s nuclear program had been; Mossad caused the destruction, through sabotage, of two centrifuge plants at Natanz, one in 2020 and another, its replacement that had been built 50 meters underground, in 2021. And Israel has kept the Iranian regime rattled, too, by a series of unexplained explosions and fires at petrochemical plants, electric plants, and other major infrastructure throughout Iran. But while Israel has slowed down Iran’s nuclear program, the Iranians have not been dissuaded: they continue to hide nuclear facilities from the IAEA, and are rapidly enriching uranium, which under the JCPOA was supposed to attain a maximum level of 3.7%; now the Iranians have managed to enrich uranium to a level of 60%, and the breakout period to a bomb is a matter, some — including Israel’s Secretary of Defense Gantz — say, of months, not years.
The debacle in Afghanistan should have startled the Israelis into this realization: they cannot count on the Bidenites to prevent Iran from producing a bomb. Biden may solemnly promise that on his watch Iran will not get a bomb, but how likely is it that, given his recent behavior, he would go to war, when he is so determined to leave the Middle East, in order to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear power?
The lesson of Afghanistan, now under Taliban rule after the hasty, ill-planned, confused, and ignominious American withdrawal, that has persuaded many Muslims of American decline and a Muslim ascendancy, is for the Jewish state very simple and very stark: Israel, you are on your own.