Pyrrhic Defeat: Seven Days which shattered the Great Game of Smashing Afghanistan

Jolly Somasundaram

            “Truth is like the Sun, one can shut it off for sometime, but it will not go away.” …. Elvis Presley                  

Afghanistan has done it again! A country, where her geography was her destiny, made her push towards repeated trysts with history- Alexander’s Greeks, Mongols, Mughals, the Brits, Russians, Americans. She, redoubtable to foreign invaders, specialised in making her country, micro- Kanattestans for these invading hordes. These done-in foreign forces now out-done, were not small fry but superpowers.

Troops from Britain- the Rotweiller in her time slot of Empire building- were decimated three times, bleaching this arid landscape. Undaunted, Sysyphean Britain ventured on the fourth, though now a metamorphosed American poodle: same wipe-out. Russia, in her own time slot of imperial hope, was similarly sent scurrying home. Smaller European countries- Australia, Germany, France Italy, Canada, wishing to taste Petite Gloire but lacking oomph, hitch hiked on the NATO bandwagon: the same degrading exit.

The US- the world’s only hyper power- tested in Afghanistan, her own unending craving for exceptionalism. Using the pretext of 9/11 seeking revenge, the US waving human rights protocols with one hand and bikinis with the other, wanted to bomb Afghanistan to a democracy and women out of all-enveloping burkhas. It took five of their presidents, thousands of combat lives, tens of thousands of civilian lives, trillions of dollars- lavished within a fifth of a century on this 178th poorest country- to replace the former enemy with the very same enemy! The US should have heeded, the 2 1/2 millennia old wisdom of Confucius, “When preparing for revenge build two graves, the first for yourself.” The US upended Heraclites’ claim that it is not possible to enter the same river twice. The US strokes the head with one hand, then turns to stab with the other, the wounded deserted at the airport “ Eli, Eli, lama, Sabachthani?” (My God! My God! Why have you abandoned me?) Time past and time present are enveloped in time future. All time is unredeemable.

Breathes there a man with soul so dead, who never to himself has said, this is my own, my sovereign land, my very cultural heritage, never to be turned to a client state, a Dollarstan? Souls yet alive, in these days of global gloom caused by events beyond their control- Covid, climate change, sliding economy, drugs- would be blissful that Sunday morning (15/08) to be alive: if young, they would have sensed very heaven. Kabul had been wrested once again from occupiers, this time after a twenty year interregnum. At the end of the first round, the defeated freedom fighters had said “you may have wristwatches but we have the time.” To lose Kabul the first time may be regarded as a misfortune but to lose her a second time appears to be crass. But to lose her, when defended by US suborned 350,000 local mercenaries, on whom $800 billion had been spent on training alone, given air support and best available ordinance, seems comic opera, sheer Gilbert and Sullivan, hubris meeting nemesis. These occupier cohorts, in cascade collapses, cut and ran, melting away in seven days like snow flakes in a desert, as they faced a 50,000 ill-equipped Taliban with only rocket propelled grenades, land mines and AK47’s. None of these foreign occupiers had borders with landlocked Afghanistan nor were there Arabs, Asians, Africans in their ranks: these occupiers were strangers, almost aliens from continents away. The Gilbert and Sullivan comic opera has now hallucinated: the losers are directing the winners about the size and composition of the cabinet.

History has many cunning passages, contrived corridors and issues, deceives with whispering ambitions and guides by vanities. Afghanistan, with other beleaguered small nations experiencing history’s capriciousness, was condemned to be passive- pensive on-lookers in the stadium- when the Great Game was played by imported outsiders. All thought these small countries were damned: it was their karmic inheritance! Indomitable determination to free their country of invaders, had not been factored into this equation. Fate can be changed, as similarly karmically enchained Cuba and Vietnam, went onto show.

Marx, wrote that history unravels in two phases, one as tragedy, the other, as farce. History is also unstoppable, emerging in cycles. The end of the current Avatar of history is symbolised by Saigon. This phase has ended with Kabul. The farcical image of Saigon- becoming its defining symbol- was that of the last American diplomat scurrying at hyper speed to clamber on the last departing helicopter taking off from the embassy roof. Both in Saigon and Kabul, the hyperpower just abandoned the battle, showing many human-blood caked pairs of heels and carrying their tales between their legs. In Vietnam and Afghanistan, the shark- the savagest predator in world’s seas- challenged these two sprat countries. In repeats of the David and Goliath episode, the sprats prevailed! Manifest Doom was now the operating mode.

With true implacability and cynicism, history is now laying a Thucycydian trap for a new avatar of inevitability. It is in another theatre- the South China Seas- and meant to impose two more centuries of humiliation on China. The rejected SEATO is being resurrected as the QUAD. The US has a fantasy of USS Amethyst sailing majestically up the Pearl River. But China is no sprat but a hyper power in the making. Hegel would have been delighted that the Dialectic was working, though the emerging Synthesis would not be progressive but regressive.

In the latter part of the 1770’s thirteen British colonies clustering in North America turned terrorist- terrorism defined as the infliction of violence either by State or non-actors on a hapless civilian population- and declared war on their oppressing ruler, Britain. They succeeded- with 25% of the population leaving as refugees to Canada- and banded themselves as the United States of America (US). It was now US’ turn to be terrorist and engage in forever wars. “In God we trust” they said and mounted attacks westward and southward. In 250 years of US history, only three years were free of US attacks and bloodletting. In one instance the US depopulated an entire country (Diego Garcia) to build a military base. Violence is endemic to the US, a part of her genetic code, common as apple pie. Homo Sapiens would have heaved a sigh of relief, if, instead of the Pilgrim Fathers falling on the Plymouth Rock, the Plymouth Rock had fallen on the Pilgrim Fathers. It was a fantasy not to be!

The western war thrust into Asia started with Alexander, the not so great. Emerging from Greece, he scythed through Asia Minor and South Asia ending at the river Indus. It was a journey of murder, massacre, miscegenation and mayhem. At the Indus he was confronted with the local King Porus who taught him a lesson or two about battle. Knowing that further East was the mighty Mauryan Empire, Alexander turned tail and scampered down the Indus by boat. That was his Saigon moment.

Fast backward to the year 1500 and forward from there. Vasco da Gama rounding the Cape of Good Hope was bad hope for Asia and Africa. It led to European power grabs in both continents. Come the second half of the 1900’s Vasco da Gamas from each of these countries got their hands on exit permits to their home countries. From Asia, the Dutch departed from Indonesia, the French from Indo-China, the Brits from Burma, Bangladesh, Pakistan and India. The only countries where there were no departures were Thailand and Nepal, where they were never in, and Afghanistan, where they were always out.

Afghanistan was a unique case where the play was called the Great Game, a pressure contest between Britain and Russia to prevent Afghanistan being a route to India. But Afghans refused to play ball and cede the playground for this bizarre game of proxies. In the 1990’s America- ever busy at war- insinuated herself into the Great Game, with Britain as her baggage master. Then came 9/11, which ended exactly twenty years later, on 9/11/2021.

9/11 was an outrage in which over 3,500 American civilians died almost instantly when three hijacked large commercial airliners were deliberately crashed into New York’s Twin Towers and the Pentagon in a co-ordinated attack. The fourth, en-route to the White House, was shot down by the US Air Force before reaching its target. The civilian passengers in all the airliners died. The objective of the hijackers was nothing more than to rub the faces of power talking ugly Americans in the dust and show that they- the high jackers- were equally vulnerable as the civilian populations subjected to US terrorist air and drone attacks. The US under Bush declared war on Iraq on trumped up charges of Weapons of Mass Destruction being stock piled in Iraq. Colin Powell, his Foreign Minister, made a presentation to the UN producing photographic evidence. All of them proved to be false. So far about 1.5 million (and continuing) have died in this war. While any terrorist action is unacceptable, a 3,500, 9/11 deaths are miniscule compared to ongoing, US delivered terrorist carnage in Iraq.

While agnostic to moral aspects, any strategist would recognise 9/11 as an exquisitely planned activity which delivered results, achieving 75% of planned outputs and an infinity of planned and unplanned outcomes, all at xero cost, an Economist’s dream. There were no belligerent weapons used, civilian transport mechanisms were converted on the move, to deadly effect. Optimal use of information technology was made. On-line recruitment was made using IT, logistics prepared using IT. The irony was that an operation which was IT heavy, possibly planned in Washington itself, could not be detected in the home to the three largest information surveillance operators in the world- FBI, CIA, and the National Security Agency. In addition, there are 14 smaller intelligence agencies scattered around Washington. The claim of the US that this operation was planned in Afghanistan is as valid as a claim that the 9/11 operation was planned by Veddhas in Dambana. Victors write history. In this case, losers fantasising they are victors, continue to do so.

The role of historians is to re-rewrite history. It is hoped that they grasp this opportunity, with both hands, to re-write a definitive history, like Warren did for the Kennedy assassination.


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