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Many factors made the Afghan war calamitous

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Although the Taliban had no hand in the barbarous 9/11 attacks (15 out of 19 attackers were Saudis), their connection was the presence of Osama bin Laden on Afghanistan soil. The Taliban neither had knowledge about the plan nor were they involved it.

However, there is no doubt that Osama bin Laden was the perpetrator of this atrocity and the Taliban should have handed him over to the US. Their miscalculation made the citizens of Afghanistan take the brunt of America’s vengeance, its violence, murder and mayhem spilling over into Pakistan.

The 9/11 Commission established in November 2002, issued its final report on July 22, 2004. Multiple criticisms were heard about many documents remaining undisclosed. One document recently released by US President Biden didn’t add to anything that we already know.

The 9/11 act of savagery was totally directed against non-combatants. It was a pure and unadulterated terrorist act that cannot be condoned by any stretch of imagination.   My son almost became one of the victims. He was working in a law firm in Chase Manhattan Plaza across the road.   Having heard the first explosion, he walked around to the Conference Room facing the World Trade Center (WTC) and actually saw the second aircraft plough into the tower.  Hunkering down for a couple of hours because of the falling debris, smoke and rubble, he eventually made his way through the unfolding chaos to find my daughter several blocks away.  It was a miracle that they found each other. With sore feet (their shoes torn by walking on the rubble), both walked crossing 90 blocks to get home.

Many New York residents offered them water, food and even temporary shelter on the way.  That this horrible act did not affect me personally, is God’s will. But should I not condemn it and grieve for all those thousands of innocents who died without knowing why?  Certainly I will unequivocally condemn those who perpetrated this atrocity.

The US was 100% right in seeking revenge. But it was 100% wrong in not targeting Osama bin Laden and Al-Qaida specifically and putting all their effort into taking them out.

The Commission established severe intelligence failures by the FBI and the CIA. The report has been accused of not giving the whole story about the warnings the US received prior to the attacks and many established facts not being declassified. The Commission opined that military means aside, public diplomacy should be used to bring Afghans around, envisioning an eventual government being able to build a national army, coordinate infrastructure and public services in major provinces throughout the country. The Doha talks and the Accord thereof, initially without participation by the Ashraf Ghani regime, recognized these home truths.

The tribal populations of Afghanistan have their own lifestyle and set of values. Tribal Afghans cannot be made to give them up and adopt Western culture and ways. They will stand up against anybody who tries to pressurize or colonize them, be it the British in 1842, the Soviets in the 1980s or the combined power of US and NATO in the last 20 years. This latest fruitless effort of the ‘most civilized’ nations, against a supposedly uncivilized population, has destroyed generations of young Afghans.

Born into turmoil, young Afghans have starved, missed health care and nourishment, been maimed or have died hit by bullets and drone attacks. Having never seen peace during their lifetime, it will take decades to overcome the trauma of 20 years of war.

The 9/11 Commission report was criticized heavily soon after its release. In a 2004 article titled, "Whitewash as Public Service: How the 9/11 Commission Report defrauds the nation", Harper's Magazine writer Benjamin DeMott stated: “The plain sad reality – I report this following four full days studying the work – is that the 9/11 Commission Report, despite the vast quantity of labor behind it, is a cheat and a fraud. It stands as a series of evasive manoeuvres that infantilize the audience, transform candour into iniquity, and conceal realities that demand immediate inspection and confrontation.”

In Search of Gas  

A story conveniently forgotten is US oil company UNOCAL’s attempting to secure a gas-pipeline deal with the fundamentalist Taliban regime and forge a partnership with them. This despite the regime’s not being recognized by the international community. Senior Taliban members were flown to Texas by UNOCAL in 1997 in an attempt to come to an agreement.  The point of contact for meeting the Taliban leaders in Houston was Zalmay Khalilzad, a Consultant for UNOCAL.  Having served as a State Department official when Ronald Reagan was President, he publicly voiced support for the radical Islamists.

Negotiations over the pipeline collapsed in 1998, when Al-Qaeda bombed two U.S. embassies in Africa. However, in 1998, the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) pipeline project became the new US attempt to get access to Central Asian oil and gas. The contract for TAP (without India then) was signed in 2002 soon after the US had installed a client government in Kabul.

Points to Ponder in Pakistan

This should be a moment of reflection for Pakistanis as well. General Musharraf's spur-of-the moment decision to join the US in the Afghan war had severe consequences for Pakistan. One must not blame Musharraf only.  Whatever criticism one may level at Musharraf, before taking any major decision, he would consult those generals who were his closest aides.  When he went wrong it was invariably because of bad or motivated advice – or worse, usually being told by some of his slavish aides sucking up to him for their perks and promotions what he wanted to hear (Anything new or strange here?).  Did any one of them remonstrate and advise against it? This requires courage of conviction! Some of these outright hypocrites now come on primetime TV and without any shame loudly pontificate on Afghanistan. Their present status of wealth was bought by the blood of our Shaheeds, both military and civilian.

US President Trump alleged in 2018 that ‘Pakistan had not done a damned thing’ for the US. Prime Minister Imran Khan summarized Pakistani contributions for him and the world. Pakistan suffered over 100,000 casualties in this war & over US$150 billion was lost to the economy. US "aid" was a miniscule US$20 billion " most of it being “Coalition Support” funds for which every penny spent was accounted for.

With Pakistan's tribal areas along the border with Afghanistan devastated, Imran Khan added that millions of people had been uprooted from their homes. "Pakistan continues to provide free lines of ground and air communications (GLOCs/ALOCs). Can Mr. Trump name another ally that made such sacrifices?"

This is only the tip of the iceberg. Hosting millions of Afghan refugees over decades, the spill-over of violence of a Kalashnikov and drug culture percolated into Pakistan society. Talibanization has resulted in a strengthening of a strict, close to Wahabi form of Islamic practice that today has been radicalized with connections to terrorism. Coping with the residual legacy of the Afghan war will take decades and demand considerable economic and intellectual effort. It also requires our security establishment to wake up to ground realities – photo-ops and a 9-to-5 syndrome will not do.  Above all it will require political will.

(The writer is a defense and security analyst, and  Chairman Karachi Council of Foreign Affairs (KCFR) and the Vice Chairman Board of Management Institute of Nation Building (Quaid-e-Azam House Museum).