The war in Afghanistan was not lost over the weekend, despite the horrific scenes of Afghan civilians storming the Hamid Karzai International Airport. The war was lost more than a decade ago. Biden’s incompetent withdrawal is a microcosm of the reasons behind that failure, the roots of which were laid down many years earlier.
The Inability to Understand the Nature of the Enemy
Following the U.S. announcement of its withdrawal, the Taliban began to swarm areas previously defended by the Afghan military. On Thursday, August 12, the U.S. Embassy in Kabul tweeted, “Escalating Taliban violence, including executions of surrendered Afghan troops, shows a lack of respect for #HumanRights. Don’t erase Afghanistan’s human rights gains of the last 20 years.”
Refusing to recognize the Taliban’s ideological commitment to imposing a theocratic state produced any number of ludicrous takes from the Washington foreign policy establishment over the years. An example from June 20: “Chief Taliban Negotiator Renews Commitment to Afghan Peace, Women’s Rights.” Of course, what the Taliban negotiator Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar really said was,
We take it on ourselves as a commitment to accommodate all rights of citizens of our country, whether they are male or female, in the light of the rules of the glorious religion of Islam and the noble traditions of the Afghan society.
State Department spokesman Ned Price called on the Taliban to form an “inclusive” government, which includes women, apparently unaware that the Taliban has always been open about its intention to reimpose Sharia. Nor is he evidently aware of what Islamic law says about the rights and privileges of women.
After 20 years of combat in Afghanistan, and despite 10 years of on-again, off-again negotiations with the Taliban, U.S. leaders still projected upon the Taliban Western ideals and motivations that were never applicable. This failure led to any number of intelligence errors over the course of the war, including the inability to comprehend the Taliban’s war aims, the inability to understand its close relationship with al-Qaeda, or even that the Taliban was in fact an enemy.
The Inability to Understand the Nature of Our Allies
We not only failed to understand our enemies, but failed to understand what did, or didn’t, motivate our Afghan allies. “The Taliban had an advantage in inspiring Afghans to fight. Their call to fight foreign occupiers, steeped in references to Islamic teachings, resonated with Afghan identity,” wrote a former advisor to former Joint Chiefs chairman Joseph Dunford.
The United States successfully invaded Afghanistan in 2001 by effectively navigating Afghanistan’s tribal system, primarily employing the Northern Alliance, a patchwork of ethnic and tribal alliances opposed to the Taliban. We built alliances with specific tribal leaders and warlords and kept the men under their commands together fighting as tribal militia units.
After the success of the invasion, however, the U.S. government enforced upon Afghanistan a centralized nation-state model with a modern military. It further insisted upon a series of corrupt Afghan presidents, selected primarily for their ability to operate in and among the jet-set global crowd—President Ashraf Ghani who recently fled Afghanistan with $169 million in cash is best known for his TedTalk and authoring the book, Fixing Failed States.
As the Afghan military we built over a period of 20 years appeared to collapse within days (in reality, the collapse began far earlier), one can blame poor morale and lack of willpower (as the Biden Administration did) or the fact that the administration pulled military air support, and other cooperation around which the “modern” Afghan military had been built. But for the tribal leaders folded into this new nation-state institution, it was rarely seen as anything other than a cash cow. Something to be exploited for funds and prestige, but not a serious system that would preserve their interests—which remained regional and ethnic, if not local and tribal.
Having rejected the tribal model, the United States went out of its way to insert references to Islamic law into the Afghan constitution to bolster legitimacy. But the central government in Kabul could never present a credible alternative to the Taliban on such issues. When the Afghan government did take its Islamic identity seriously, it was by attacking rhetorically—and in the case of green-on-blue attacks, sometimes quite literally—its American allies. The image of Afghans turning upon U.S. troops played a major role in undermining domestic support for the war.
The only identities which genuinely motivated a willingness to fight were either familial and tribal or pan-Islamic and theocratic. The Afghan government we backed could successfully invoke neither.
The only sign of genuine resistance to a total Taliban rout appears, ironically, to be in the Panjshir Valley, led by the son of Northern Alliance leader Ahmad Shah Massoud, operating on the very same tribal militia approach that we abandoned as soon as it had secured us Afghanistan 20 years ago.
The Inability to Understand Ourselves
As images of the Taliban swarming Kabul flowed in, wags on social media took to retweeting a Twitter post by the U.S. Embassy in Kabul commemorating Pride Month on June 2, while U.S. preparations for withdrawal already should have been well underway. The implication, regardless of one’s views about LGBT issues, was the U.S. foreign policy community had priorities that are completely out of step both with the challenges facing Afghanistan, and with the concerns of the American people.
Importing these modern Western concerns was exactly what the U.S. government had devoted itself to doing in Afghanistan. As the SIGAR (Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction) “Lessons Learned” report noted:
In fact, blaming mistakes on a simple lack of information may be charitable. Many mistakes were borne from a willful disregard for information that may have been available. After all, in many cases, the U.S. government’s very purpose was to usher in an orderly revolution that would replace existing Afghan social systems with western or “modern” systems. If the intention was to build institutions from scratch, understanding and working within the country’s traditional systems was unnecessary. As one former senior USAID official told SIGAR, ‘We wanted to give them something they had never had before.’ But instead of being a society deconstructed to its foundation by conflict and primed for the introduction of western political, economic, and judicial systems, it turned out Afghanistan was a complex society with ingrained traditions and an incorrigible political economy. These traditions were neither easy to uproot and replace, nor could they be shoehorned into a Western institutional framework, as evidenced by the attempts to use strongmen and warlords to build a nascent bureaucracy.
The American establishment desired something contrary to Afghanistan’s culture and history, an effort doomed to failure. In many ways this was simultaneously mirrored by a companion effort to usher in an “orderly revolution” at home.
Maybe Chairman of the Joint Chiefs General Mark Milley should have spent less time trying to understand “white rage,” and imposing critical race theory on a U.S. military that he sees as hobbled with extremists, and more time determining whether Bagram Airbase was “tactically necessary” for our withdrawal from Afghanistan.
As the Taliban reasserted itself over Afghanistan, the location from which al-Qaeda had planned the 9/11 terror attacks, the Department of Homeland Security was in the process of pushing out a report warning that those opposed to vaccine mandates and concerned about election integrity, not resurgent jihadists, represented an increased terrorism risk. Comedian Stephen Colbert seemed to have the pulse of the Biden Administration when he encouraged leaving Afghanistan and instead focusing on American “threats.”
One might argue that the establishment, having failed to win a counterinsurgency abroad and a culture war at home, opted to export the culture war and import the counterinsurgency.