By Lt Gen ® Asad Durrani
After the end of the Cold War, the US has invaded Iraq and Afghanistan; helped allies who attacked Libya and Yemen; and fueled insurgencies in Syria and Ukraine. Since most of these ventures seem to have floundered against rag-tag militias, we like to believe—gleefully at times—that the sole-superpower was now in terminal decline. The late President Eisenhower’ foreboding that its mighty military-industrial complex could land the country in unwinnable wars is often cited to reinforce this notion. But what if it was not winning on the battlefield that best served American interests!
To start with, even the infamous complex gains more from lingering conflicts.
In May 2006, I met a retired American general in Kabul who headed a private company training the Afghan Army. Of course, one had heard of these soldiers of fortune who had their recruits badly trained to get their contracts extended. Some of us also know that no Afghan, or for that matter any other army—even the most powerful, as you must have noticed—can ensure stability in that country—which is essentially a function of tribal consensus. But then billions in defense contracts bring-in a hefty commission. Half of the total aid to Kabul—about eight billion dollars every year—will therefore serve mainly the defense contractors.
No prizes for guessing who “trained” the Iraqi Army that crumbled the moment it was attacked by what is now called the Islamic State. The war lobby was indeed delighted. Unhappy with Obama’s withdrawal of military from Iraq in 2011, it was gratified when the emergence of Da’esh provided a window through which it could be brought back. In 2014, some Afghan and American participants of a conference expressed their gratitude to Baghdadi for his timely intervention. If there was any chance that the NATO forces might be pulled out of Afghanistan, that to their great relief had been averted. And just in case one was wondering why some mighty powers were making such heavy weather battling the IS in Levant, one now had the answer.
All of that but pales when compared to the rip-off in the Arab World. The Gulf States may spend billions on defense purchases from the West, they neither have the concept nor the wherewithal to employ this state of the art arsenal. These expensive toys were therefore even less likely to counter any serious threat than the Afghan National Army. And just in case their possession encouraged the Saudis to bomb the hapless Yemenis, the winner again were these merchants of death. They kept the supply chain well oiled.
Wars certainly benefit the huge American defense industry, especially if its major client, the American armed forces, were also involved. But then the US has not achieved its unique status merely by selling arms. There are enough number of disputes in regions like ours that help this hyper-power better than any other to play one country against the other—and thus remain relevant.
The finesse in this insidious game is that it does not have to be micromanaged. Once ignited, conflicts acquire a life of their own—as long as attempts to end them were scuttled. And that the US often has.
When Saddam invaded Kuwait in August 1990, after the initial jitters the Saudis were having second thoughts about a military response. The CIA bloated the threat posed by the Iraqi forces—as conceded by General Scowcroft, a former National Security Advisor—to convince Riyadh that war was their best option. The infamous WMD hoax before the invasion of Iraq in 2003 was merely a replay of this subterfuge.
Taliban’s offer to reconcile with Karzai’s regime in 2002 was rejected by Pentagon that at that time called all the shots in Kabul. Thereafter many peace efforts were sabotaged by the US, the latest being the May 2016 killing of Mullah Mansour, the person who used to send Taliban delegates to peace talks in Doha and Murree. That it happened just four days after the Afghan Quartet decided to restart the peace process, should have left no doubt about the intent.
Pakistan’s efforts to negotiate with militants in its tribal areas too were similarly subverted. Commander Nek Mohammad with whom a settlement was reached in 2004, became the first victim of an American drone. In 2006, the day our peace mission was to meet a Jirga in Bajaur, another US bombing raid killed nearly ninety children in a local madrasah.
The American “think tanks” also play their role to accomplish the larger aim.
Reports commissioned by Washington on its military ventures might mention flaws in their conduct—to establish academic credentials—but the root-causes of the disorder were always native: bad governance (by puppet regimes); inefficient security forces (raised and trained by the occupying powers); “terrorism” (conveniently ignoring the western role); and indeed Pakistan if the subject was Afghanistan. That provides the desired rationale to remain involved—and indeed to perpetuate chaos.
But blaming the US was futile. Giving it advice even more so. America knows what was in its interests and the paradigm would therefore continue. And if the Gulf dynasties believe that keeping the US in good humour helped them retain their crown, they too were unlikely to change the course. The onus of finding the right response was entirely on the victims of this infernal design. The likes of the Taliban for example could wage resistance and the states in the area were better served by getting together. Pakistan did well when it cooperated with Iran to defang Jundullah that was violating the latter’s territory, and then turned around its adversarial relationship with Russia. Along with China, and lately Turkey, the countries on the wrong side of the US in our region have been closing ranks for the past many years.
Two factors have still helped the US to keep its ball in the court.
There is a fair number of state or non-state actors who believe that once their rivals were taken care of with American help, they would be left to rule the roost. Obviously, they have never heard of Goethe’s Faust who lost his soul after doing a deal with the Devil. Ashraf Ghani’s regime in Kabul might have been whitewashed as the “government of Afghanistan”; for its survival it remains dependent on the American lifeline. And if Qatar thought that a US base on its soil would provide a hedge against the neighbors, it probably forgot that these insurance policies came with a huge premium—billions of dollars for F15s, just for starters.
America also controls the narrative. All the above may find space on the net, even in print, but is assiduously kept out of the mainstream. Most of us thus continue to believe that the mess created by the US was an unintended consequence of benign policies. Those who do not, are labeled conspiracy theorists.