An Assessment of International Coalition Forces Intervention in Afghanistan
Brig (Dr) Ashok Pathak

The Al Qaeda attack on the twin towers on 9 September 2001 turned America’s global war on terror into a crusade. The operation Enduring Freedom commenced in Afghanistan on 07 October 2001 followed by Desert Storm in Iraq (2003).

Our focus in this article is on the twenty year long war on terror in Afghanistan. The expectations from the American intervention in Afghanistan were coloured by what the popular international and Indian media propagated. Hence the specter of mid-August 2021 caused shock and surprise. Most observers were also puzzled and were hard put in finding answers to three questions. How did a super power (the only one at present) fail? How come the Taliban that was generally written off as a viable force, won so rapidly and comprehensively? What would be the global implications of these dramatic turn of events- especially for India?

Why Did the International Coalition Forces Fail?

When operations commenced in Afghanistan, the International Coalition (IC) had all the prerequisites for a quick and comprehensive victory. These included information that is needed, overwhelmingly superior technology, highly tech savvy and efficient forces and above all vastly superior Comprehensive National Power (CNP) compared to their rivals- the Taliban supported by Pakistan. As per the tenets of Information War/Information Operations (IW/IO) [1] and the CNP [2] achievement of ‘mission’ Afghanistan’ was just a matter of time. But this did not happen. As last transport air craft of US Air Force took off from Kabul it was quite evident that the IC had failed. [3] What went wrong?

Information in itself has Very limited Value. There is no dearth of information in the current global information environment. What we do with the available information makes the difference between success and failure. ‘Information’ is just one component of value chain that includes the decision maker (leadership at various levels), character or psychological orientation of the decision maker, presence of bias or lack of capability for accurate interpretation, capability to optimize resource utilization to get more from less and lastly learn from the feed back after each execution cycle. In this value chain the decision makers must have clarity about their goal. Secondly, they must focus on the relevant or contextual information, interpret it accurately without bias. Thereafter they need to prepare an action plan for maximizing the gains (as against minimizing the losses) set the execution cycle in motion. Fourth stage is to look for the outcome variables that validate success of the plan or suggest course correction [4].

In the instant case overall goal of the IC was elimination of global terrorism (war on terror). They had primary information of the region (Pakistan, Afghanistan) from their operations against the Soviet forces (1979 to 1989). Additionally, enough secondary information was available to them in the public domain on the nature of turbulence in Afghanistan since 1747 when Afghanistan came into being as a nation [5]. Had they looked at the contextual information and interpreted it honestly and accurately it was not difficult to infer that the center of gravity of global terror perpetuated by the Taliban and Al Qaeda was (and still is) in Islamabad and not in Kabul. Afghanistan had defied external interference from the British (1839-1842, 1878-1880). It had contested the Soviet intervention (1979-1989). The ethno-tribal, sectarian Afghan society has people who are mostly traditional, illiterate, and fiercely (not radically) Muslim. For more than two centuries the nation could not institutionalize any structure for governance. Regional warlords, personalization of social fabric and poverty, deprivation of general populace remained constant factors in Afghanistan. Add to these a propensity for seeking external doles, subjugation of women, deep rooted religious dogma, and abhorrence for reforms- the dismal picture would be complete [6]. Careful study of the above factors in ‘information’ would have suggested an altogether different approach. The IC either ignored the relevant information or did not interpret it correctly. This is a fundamental error that often limits the use of ‘information’ in IW.

Military has a very Specific and Limited Role to Play in Such Missions

Military operations in Afghanistan commenced with massive air attacks for the first five days by B1B and B 52 Bombers on Taliban and Al Qaeda targets followed by ground operations of Northern Alliance supported by the US Special Operations Forces (SOF) and close air support by the US strike aircrafts. By 23 December 2001 Taliban was completely defeated and first phase of operation Enduring Freedom ended. During these 76 days 6500 air strikes were conducted, 17500 pieces of munition were dropped of which 57 percent munition were precision guided [7]. Till now the US had committed around 5000 ground troops [8] primarily SOF to guide close air support. Bulk of the fighting was done by the Northern Alliance [9]. A few interesting facts emerge from this phase of military operations. First, it was a combination of American air power, SOF and Northern Alliance that completed the mission. Second, the collateral damage due to the air attacks till now was around 812 as per the US survey (Global Exchange – an American organization) [10]. The reason for the collateral damage was faulty information given to the SOF by the Afghan forces!! Even technical errors occurred; a failed battery in Air Force Combat Controller that caused the controller’s own position being bombed and Hamid Karzai almost being killed. An AC 130 attack plane fired at a marriage procession by mistake [11]. The Americans apologized for this error. However, many innocent civilians were killed in this air attack. The combat pilots undertaking these missions from Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean and from the air craft carrier flew for almost 10 to 12 hours per sortie before carrying out the attack [12]. This kind of human fatigue does result into errors of judgment.

After the conventional operations ended the Counter Insurgency operations began. The US military presence increased gradually from 5000 in 2001 to 30000 in 2008, jumped to 65000 in 2009 and then peaked to 110000 in 2011. It started tapering down thereafter- coming back to 5000 in 2020 [13]. When the bombing operations started the Bush Administration took care to manage perception of Afghan population by dropping food supplies and aid to the people to project an image of “liberator”. Moreover stringent measures were taken to avoid collateral damage [14]. But as it turned out collateral damage did take place. The Afghans did not buy the ‘liberator’ image. On the contrary the Taliban’s propaganda of massive civilian casualties was accepted by the Afghans. The perception of Afghan population shifted in favour of Taliban exponentially with every additional year of stay. The Mehman (guest) turned into Dushman (enemy). The curve of diminishing returns commenced from early 2002. The Americans realized the futility of continuing with Afghanistan operations in 2011. [15]

In all modern conflicts military has an extremely important but limited role. Military operations must be short, swift and precise with very clearly defined objectives in synch with the overall political goal. The decision makers must be very clear about their action plans after the military has achieved their objectives. In Afghanistan the primary role for the military was over on 23 December 2001. The forces not only overstayed for almost twenty long years but their numbers also swelled. This turned out to be a cardinal mistake.

Coercive use of CNP does not help in Achieving the Strategic Objectives of Nations. The IC in Afghanistan included developed nations (US, UK, Germany, Australia, France, Italy, Netherlands, Turkey) [16]. Even a small fraction of their cumulative CNPs would have been much above the CNP of Afghanistan under Taliban and their Pakistani handlers. This massive asymmetry in favour of IC did not help. After spending twenty years in Afghanistan they left the same mess behind without achieving any of their stated goals. You cannot coerce a nation, people if they decide not to be coerced (Vietnam) or are immune to coercion after centuries of abject poverty, deprivation and internal strife (Afghanistan)

What Made the Taliban win so comprehensively?

The reasons for the dramatic victory of Taliban can be broadly seen in four dimensions- political, ethnic, psychological and military.

  • Political. Abdul Ghani never proved to be an effective and popular leader in Afghanistan. His electoral victory was suspect from the very beginning. Rampant corruption and inefficient governance had turned the ordinary Afghan against their central leadership. When the Americans started talks with the Taliban leadership at Doha the writing was clear on the wall. As per Foreign Affairs Report of 17 August 2021 [17] the rot in the Afghanistan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDFS) had set in as early as 2015. Disgusted with the central leadership and ditched by the IC, desertion, and abandoning posts/weapons to the Taliban was rampant for a long time.
  • Ethnic. The Afghan population is sharply divided in to ten macro ethnic groups. This was also reflected amongst the ANDSF. The Taliban on the other hand are a revolutionary force deeply opposed to the Afghan Tribal System and determined to create an Islamic Emirate in Afghanistan. This synergized the Taliban against a fragmented ANDSF.
  • Psychological and Perception Management. Though the IC tried their best to minimize the collateral damage and project themselves as liberators the Taliban leadership was able to magnify the collateral damage out of proportion due to their local roots. The atrocities on the captured Afghan nationals at Bagram Air Base further alienated the population from the IC.
  • Military
    • As per Carnegie Endowment for International Peace Report (Gilles Doronsorro- 2009) [18] the Taliban is a resilient force engaged in strategic planning and coordinated action. Against this force the IC actions were disjointed and incoherent.
    • The Taliban had efficient leadership, learnt from their mistakes and were quick to exploit the weaknesses of the adversary. They had parallel administration, nationwide logistics and impressive intelligence network. The general belief of their inchoate and divisible organization proved to be incorrect [19].
    • The political leadership in the US refused to see the facts on ground. Lt Col Daniel L Davis of the UK Army who participated in the operation as part of the IC writes in The Guardian [20] that there was an incentive to paint a rosy picture on Afghanistan situation. On one accession a career diplomat (Karl Eikenberry) from US sent an accurate cable to the Secretary of State (Hillary Clinton) but while testifying in the Senate said exact opposite of what he had seen and warned the Secretary of State. This kind of spin doctoring the facts did not help. The IC refused to learn from their mistakes. The feedback loop was turned ineffective.
Future Impact on India’s Security

The regional and global situation post US withdrawal from Afghanistan will be vastly different than what it was before August 21. China is likely to play a more proactive role in the region for obvious reasons. The Pakistanis will be more upbeat in their anti-India activities. The Central Asian Region will be divided on their stand towards a Taliban governed Afghanistan. Iran too will be much more cautious in dealing with Taliban, so would be Russia. The US and the Western European countries will not be supporting Pakistan to the extent they had been doing earlier [21].

As regards India the effects are already being felt. Infiltrations from across the Line of Control with Pakistan are on the rise since September 21. There have been targeted killing of Hindus in Srinagar [22]. To understand the trends and likely future trajectories in the region some of the critical issues that do not need elaboration are listed below:

  • The general character and functioning of Taliban have not changed from what these were in their earlier stint in ruling Afghanistan.
  • Afghanistan of 2021 is significantly different from what it was in 2001. 22 percent of population uses Internet, 69 percent are mobile users, and 4.4 percent are social media savvy. 22 percent of women are in jobs, 27 percent of Members of Parliament were women. As compared to 2.4 million girls going to schools in 2002 the number rose to 3.5 million. However, the rate of poverty has grown over the last twenty years. Dependence on opium cultivation has increased [23]. The data indicates huge aspirational surge and capability to communicate among the current Afghan population. Given the current behaviour and the past record of the Taliban controlled by the Haqqani network of Pakistan [24] the new regime will find it extremely difficult to manage the people.
  • The US-China as also US -India relations are not the same what these used to be hitherto before.
  • It will be exceedingly difficult for Pakistan to gain favour from the US and the West. China with its debt driven economy, cannot be the best replacement for the US and the Western European nations.
  • India of 2021 is much better prepared and highly assertive in protecting her national interests.
  • So far no nation has benefited from ‘close ties’ with the Taliban. This includes Pakistan. A close look at Pakistani growth before and after 1990 will amply prove this point. From a growth rate of 7.71 percent in 1992 Pakistan has registered negative growth rates in 1993 (-5.95 %) 1997(-3.83%)) 2002 (-1.05%)) 2008 (-3.13%)) and 2020 (-.46%). Besides the Afghan population in general see Pakistani hand in all atrocities inflicted on them by the Taliban [25]. It is expected to be 1.5 percent in 2021 and 4 percent in 2022. Russia and the US would also provide ample evidence of disastrous side effects of their ‘enmity’ and ‘friendship’ with Taliban.

The recent jubilation in Pakistan and excitement in China are quite likely to be short lived. For the global community it may be relevant to revisit the modern theories of war and understand the limitations of military power as also the much touted CNP in subjugating or transforming a different nation. In the knowledge society, war as envisaged by Clausewitz (involving high level of violence) must always be the last resort. The goal of information war should be to achieve political objectives through skillful use of knowledge and wisdom, if this fails then violence- dominated conflict commences. This phase must be very carefully calibrated in a manner so as to achieve a better and sustainable state of peace with minimum casualty to own people and property as also to those of the adversary. Kautilya propagated the theory of minimal damage to own and enemy states as also to the militaries in fourth century BC. [26]

As regards India it is very evident that the national security hence forth will be under tremendous stress both in terms of internal security and external threats. Nevertheless India of 2021 is vastly different from India of 1989. We need to be vigilant, strong, proactive and bold in safeguarding our national interests. India’s soft power lies in non-intrusive and harmonious influence as against the urge to dominate, teach or impose own will on others. It will be very relevant to borrow from Henry Kissinger’s book “World Order” [27]. Referring to India he felt that India generated currents of vast cultural influence, art and statecraft to Burma, Ceylon (Sri Lanka), China, Indonesia, Thailand, Indo China (Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia) and beyond. It attracted invaders, traders and spiritual seekers”. India he said transcended foreigners by treating their ambitions with supreme equanimity. Thus the core values of Bharat remained steady while the fragrance of India’s culture, wealth and spiritualism spread all over without any effort to dominate or subdue. Perhaps the world needs to take note of this aspect when it comes to dealing with situations in Afghanistan, Iraq, Tibet and Xinjiang.

End Notes

[1] Libicki Martin C, What is Information Warfare? Center for Advanced Concepts and Technology. Institute for National Strategic Studies. National Defence University. August 1995 also John Arquilla and David Ronfedt , ‘In Athena’s Camp Preparing for Conflict in the Information Age’ Rand Corporation 7 October 1997 ISBN 0833025147
[2] Defining elements of CNP J S Bajwa
[3] Taliban Celebrate Victory as Last US Troops Leave Afghanistan
[4] Ashok Pathak India’s Strategies for Information War &Cyber Deterrence Vitasta Publishing Private Limited Ansari Road Daryaganj 2020 ISBN 78386473875 (Pp 32 to 39)
[5] M NazifShahrani (Editor) Modern Afghanistan The Impact of 40 years of War Indiana University Press 2018, ISBN 9789389137514
[6] Ibid 5
[7] American Conduct of Operation Enduring Freedom Benjamin Lambeth 2005, ISBN 0833037242
[8] Afghanistan What has the Conflict Cost the US and Allies A reality Check Team 03 September 2021(US Troop level in Afghanistan 2002-21)
[9] Ibid 7.
[10] Ibid 7.
[11] Ibid 7.
[12] Ibid 7.
[13] Ibid 8
[14] Ibid 7
[15] US War in Afghanistan CNN Editorial Research
[16] Ibid 15
[17] Why the Taliban won and what Washington can do about it now by Vanda Felbab Brown
[18] The Taliban Winning Strategy in Afghanistan Gilles Doronsoros
[19] Ibid 18
[20] Why is Afghanistan Falling to Taliban so fast Lt Col Daniel L Davis (UK Army took part in the Afghanistan war as part of International Coalition)
[21] Impact of Developments in Afghanistan on India: A Report 27 September 21
[22] Terrorists Check IDs, Shoot Sikh, principal, pandit teacher in J&K Times of India 8 October 21
[23] In Numbers How has life Changed in Afghanistan during the Last 20 years
[24] The Tenacious Toxic Haqqani Network Marvin G Weinbaum, MeherBabbar September 2016
[25] Afghanistan Pakistan Ties and Future Stability in Afghanistan United States Institute of Peace August 2021
[26] Rangarajan L N, Kautilya: The Arthashastra, Penguin Books New Delhi, 1990, ISBN 9780140446036
[27] Henry Kissinger ‘World Order’ Penguin Books New York 2015 ISBN 9781594206146(Pp 192)

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>

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