As Pakistani nationalism peaks in response to the “Trump challenge,” the old cliché of invaders never winning in Afghanistan has returned to the lexicon, glossing over the suffering experienced by Afghans each time foreign armies have been bogged down and “defeated”—or, more accurately, because they “did not win.” Like the bravado evident in Pakistan’s street response, this “historical” summing up of the “brave” Afghan is tragically misleading. Pakistan’s official narrative must stay away from it, no matter how strong the temptation to “be with the people” against America.
This is not the time to count the blunders the Americans have made in Afghanistan. Nor is it time to condemn the Pakistani rulers who sided with America after 2001 and allowed bases in Pakistan that facilitated the invasion using “daisy-cutters” to flatten the Taliban regime. The “error” of fighting America’s war against terrorism will deepen needless collective guilt and tilt Pakistan into more dangerous error. The fact is: every time invaders got bogged down, the Afghans suffered. By any account today, the women and children living in camps as refugees in Pakistan or scattered around in Europe, are going through suffering worse than any defeat.
Afghanistan never became a “normal” state because it never became centralized enough to be called a state. Normally, states emerge under centralized authority and become durable by decentralizing in the long run. Afghanistan fragments immediately after being invaded because of this lack of centralized authority. The Taliban tried to centralize but their efforts through civil war were overtaken by the events of 9/11 and a Chapter 7 invasion under the United Nations mandate. Thereafter the regional warlords took over and made their deals.
Even today, under the internationally supported government of Ashraf Ghani, warlords are an important component of the map of real power in Afghanistan. As Ahmed Rashid has observed, “Ghani’s inauguration featured two warlord vice-presidents, General Abdul Rashid Dostum and Sarwar Danish. Danish is an academic from the ethnic Hazara community, while Dostum, an ethnic Uzbek, is a military figure with arguably the longest presence in Afghan politics.” Because of lack of “nationhood” under a centralized state, the 300,000-strong, largest-ever Afghan army can’t fight a Taliban believed to comprise around 25,000 warriors. Income tax, a reliable index of the cohesion of the state, is hardly collected from the entire territory and stands at 15 percent of government revenues. Seeking friendly leverage in Afghanistan should not mean that Pakistan itself become like Afghanistan, losing its centralized character to “no-go” areas.