Event ReportsPublished on Jul 13, 2016
US made many mistakes on Afghanistan: Former US envoy

Former veteran US Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad has said that Afghanistan has undergone a substantial transformation compared to the civil war era, but the mother of all problems still haunts the nation, that is, the existence of sanctuaries of terror in Pakistan, namely the Afghan Taliban and Haqqani network.

Initiating a discussion on his book, The Envoy: From Kabul to White House, at Observer Research Foundation on July 1, 2016, Mr. Khalilzad, who had been the US Ambassador to Kabul and Baghdad besides the UN, said Afghanistan would have been a better place had these sanctuaries not been there.

The discussion was chaired by Ms. Suhasini Haider, the diplomatic affairs editor of The Hindu. She described Mr. Khalilzad, who was born in northern Afghanistan as the son of a local official, as an instrumental figure in the American diplomacy, especially in the aspect which affects South Asia.

Mr.  Khalilzad began by recalling his role in the American policymaking with respect to the post-9/11 Afghanistan. Pointing out where things went wrong for the US, he accepted the fact that the US did not have an elaborate plan to remould Afghanistan after 9/11, as the sole motive was to catch the perpetrators, that is, the Al-Qaeda leaders. Overthrow of Taliban became the objective only when Taliban refused the US request.

Almost 15 years have passed since the invasion took place. The promise of a stable Afghanistan is far from being realised and the Af-Pak region still continues to simmer, with Pakistan being accused of harboring the Afghan Taliban to destabilise the nascent nation building process, Mr. Khalilzad said.

Mr. Khalilzad pointed out that Afghanistan has not witnessed stability ever since the Soviet Army invaded the landlocked nation in 1979. While the Soviets were forced to withdraw in 1989, the emergence of Taliban plunged the nation in chaos again. Taliban’s regime in Afghanistan from 1995 to 2001 was characterised only by brutalities and the lost hopes of a nation with many ambitions. He said the Taliban complicity with the 9/11 masterminds made Afghanistan a center point of American policymaking, culminating in America’s ‘War on Terror’, the epithet under which US (and later NATO) invaded Afghanistan.

During the time of Soviet occupation of Afghanistan and again at the time of war on terror, some specific assumptions made by the Americans regarding the Soviets had a distorting effect on the US foreign policy. The support which the US provided to the Afghan Mujahideen was done with the objective of inflicting maximum pain to the Soviets to deter them from further adventurism. It was assumed that the Soviets were to stay for a long time, that too with expansionist plans. It was precisely at this point an understanding was arrived at with Pakistan which in turn favoured the Islamists to take on the Soviet army. Since the funds were routed through the ISI, substantial amount of American assistance went to these Islamists, which empowered them even after the civil war ended.

Once the Soviets made it clear their intention to withdraw, Americans still viewed them with mistrust. Mr. Khalilzad stated that he had even suggested engaging diplomatically with Soviets and putting a transitional government in Afghanistan once they had left. Unfortunately, Americans disengaged and let the disaster happen. He recalled having shuttled between the deposed king of Zahir Shah, the Mujahideen and the Soviets to discuss the possibilities of a post-war regime. If implemented, this decision would have had a huge effect.

Coming to the question of acting on sanctuaries in Pakistan, Mr. Khalilzad accepted that Americans should have been much tougher with Pakistan in earlier years but the need to apprehend the Al-Qaeda remnants held Americans back. During the ‘War on Terror’, US had to use Pakistani airspace and Pakistani territory to sustain its operations against Taliban.  But, the recent killing of Mullah Akhtar Mansour shows the American seriousness regarding Taliban. However, it is true that US missed the opportunity to act against these sanctuaries after 9/11.

With numerous political crises resulting out of American invasions, it seems that the Americans have failed to learn from their past mistakes. The examples of American policies in Iran, Iraq, Libya and even Syria point towards a reluctance to learn from past mistakes. Discussing this issue, the Ambassador stated that the US is a unique country, with Americans being more self-critical than any other country in the world. Unlike the Europeans, Americans do not have a hold of history on them like others. They have a pattern of foreign policy, that is, of going through periods of great exertion followed by withdrawal.

Mr. Khalilzad said there have been mistakes in dealing with the Afghan issue as well. Besides dealing with the sanctuaries of terror, the US should have helped create a strong Afghan security force from an early period. Allowing a sanctuary to operate and leaving a weak force to defend Afghanistan has driven Afghanistan into a crisis. In case of Iraq, dissolving the Iraqi army, the debathificition and giving power to political and not a judicial group was the crisis factor. Mr. Khalilzad said there were lessons to be learnt from Afghanistan and Iraq. It is to introspect on these matters and leave a lesson for future policy practitioners that he wrote the book ‘The Envoy’, Mr. Khalilzad said.

He admitted that the political vacuum which emerged out of the US’s handling of Iraq led to the creation of the Islamic State, which has threatened not only the West Asian region, but the entire world. To solve the ISIS problem, he suggested a political solution, which, in his view could only come when the regional players engaged in this proxy war (Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia) come to some understanding. This regional rivalry has become a sectarian issue. He expressed his conviction over the fact in the long term, there is a need for a new Westphalia type of agreement for the region. But as a first step, he urged upon the regional players to stop their mutual enmity and come together.

This report is written by Prateek Joshi, Research Intern, Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi.

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