The U.S. lost its war in Afghanistan, but not so long ago it won a war in that same country. Without any bombing or use of troops, the U.S. backed the Afghan rebels – Mujahedin – against the Soviet occupiers. With much aid like the Stinger anti aircraft missile, the Afghans forced the invaders into withdrawal, contributing to the collapse of the Soviet Union. It was a signal victory for the U.S. behind the scenes and served as a lesson about relying on indigenous forces in overseas conflicts.
Alas, it was a lesson lost a little over decade later when in the shock of the 9/11 attack, the U.S. followed the Russian example and not its own and directly invaded and occupied Afghanistan. Again, like the Russians, it eventually lost with a humiliating withdrawal. We would answer their bang with a bigger bang, we boasted. We did, but it didn’t win the war.
Another kind of war akin to the earlier one was possible. Local groups, varying greatly among themselves, were available and eager to overthrow the ruling Taliban. Just give us some help, they urged the U.S., as you did the Mujahedin, and we will do the job. But the U.S. wasn’t listening.
The opposition within Afghanistan had been building for some time. Afghans were appreciative of the Taliban for bringing peace to the country after the destructive clashes of the warlords who had followed the Soviet occupation. But its harsh repression was another matter, along with harboring outsiders like Osama bin Laden.
Abdul Haq was a top commander against the Soviets renowned for his independence and also reviled for it. Disgruntled Americans who wanted him to obey orders dubbed him “Hollywood Haq.” Even so, after a meticulous examination of the military scene in her book “The Afghan Solution,” Lucy Morgan Edwards with long experience in Afghanistan concludes that he was ideally suited to lead an insurrection against the Taliban. Because of “a history of excellence in asymmetric warfare, he was able to bring disparate groups together – even across the ethnic divide.”
He also worked closely with his opposite, Mullah Mohmmed Khaksar, a founder of the Taliban who had soured on the movement. A prime source for one of the best reporters on Afghanistan, Kathy Gannon, he made a trip at great personal risk to Pakistan to meet two CIA operatives to ask for U.S. help for his planned coup. Because of his objection to bin Laden and the other foreign fighters, he had been demoted by Taliban leader Mullah Omar from intelligence chief to deputy secretary of the interior, which left him in charge of thousands of police ready to move at his command.
Gannon writes in her book “I Is for Infidel” that other prominent Afghans were reluctant to join him without U.S. backing. He told her:“I know if there had been some flexibility, there were people in the Taliban who wanted to work with the international community, who wanted the foreign fighters gone. But with no help from the outside we couldn’t do anything, and then it was too late.”
Dissension within the Taliban was apparent to me on a trip to Afghanistan for the Voice of America a year before 9/11. First a requisite visit to the Ministry for Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, then the added privilege of witnessing a hanging, followed by a meeting with the Taliban leadership – minus Omar and bin Laden – who were not hostile but welcoming The foreign minister in particular, Wakil Ahmed Muttawakil, spoke of the need to get along with the U.S. and the rest of the world. Khaksar was among the group.
Would these Taliban be as good as their word? It wasn’t tested. Khaksar never got a serious reply from the CIA, and after 9/11 President Bush proclaimed “You’re either for us or against us,” ruling out any kind of ambivalence of a Haq or Khaksar. A brilliant strategist like Julius Caesar would have been aghast. You work with anyone, good, or bad or indifferent, to win, and Caesar always won.
After the war began, Haq was killed by the Taliban. Muttawakil was sent to prison for eighteen months until it was.realized he might be useful. Khaksar, knowing he was on the Taliban hit list, asked for U.S. protection. It was denied and he was assassinated. The Taliban wrapped up their internal divisions as they went on to win the war.
We now face a triumphant Taliban whose behavior is yet to be determined. If an opposition again emerges, will we be prepared this time?