News reports from Afghanistan on Saturday indicated that Taliban forces had advanced as far as Maidan Shar, a town 40 kilometres from the capital Kabul. On Sunday, they were said to be on the outskirts of Kabul itself. This followed a remarkable week in which the Taliban captured the majority of the nation’s provincial capitals, including the second and third largest cities in the country, Kandahar and Herat. The collapse of the Afghan government has been extraordinarily rapid.
As I point out in an article published yesterday by RT (read here), the government collapse compares very unfavourably with what happened after Soviet forces left Afghanistan in 1989. Then, the government defeated the initial mujahideen offensive and held onto power for a little over 3 years, until the Russian government of Boris Yeltsin cut off the supply of aid. When it comes to building a strong Afghan regime, it seems that after 20 years of effort, America and its allies have managed to do even worse than the Soviets.
How do we explain this?
In part, one must look to the Taliban. They have shown extraordinary resilience and an ability to inspire tens of thousands of Afghans to risk their lives to fight the government. At some point, we in the West will need to do some serious reflection about why the Taliban message resonates so strongly with a segment of the Afghan population, whereas the message of the pro-Western, notionally liberal democratic government has failed to do the same.
But beyond the successes of the Taliban, one must also look to the failings of the Afghan government and its Western backers. The collapse of government forces this week is not due to a lack of training and equipment, both of which they have had in abundance. It’s a collapse of morale, and of leadership. So, let’s examine some of the issues that contributed to this undoubted disaster.
1. Objectives. The first principle of war is ‘Selection and maintenance of the aim.’ Western states failed dismally in this regard. The aims of their operations in Afghanistan were unclear, kept changing, often contradicted one another, and in many cases were totally unsuitable for successful military or political action.
In the first place, it was never fully clear why American and NATO troops were in Afghanistan. Was it just an act of revenge for the terrorist attacks on the United States in September 2001? Was it, for NATO members, to be good allies to the USA? Was it a matter of prestige (we can’t leave without losing face)? Was it to defeat terrorism? Was it to create a stable government? Was it about democracy? Was it a humanitarian matter – educating girls, and so on? At different times it was all of those and others besides. There was a total lack of focus.
Beyond that, aims were often contradictory. Soldiers sought to win the ‘hearts and minds’ of locals by quick-fix aid projects. Development specialists disliked such projects as not contributing to long term development, and even harming it, and so sought to divert aid in a different direction. The two then argued with each other, with projects swinging first one way then another according to who had the ear of whoever was in charge at the time. It was not a recipe for success.
And even further beyond that, many of the aims chosen were simply non-conducive to success. In Canada, for instance, the country’s involvement was often justified by reference to the need to be friendly with the USA. We were there to show that we were good allies. But think about this for a bit. The aim was achieved just by turning up. What was done after turning up was neither here nor there. The chosen objective therefore lacked any link to what military, political, and development actors might do on the ground. In a sense, it didn’t matter what they did, as far as achieving the aim was concerned. Incentives for sensible policy were therefore absent. Again, it was a recipe for failure.
2. The nature of the Afghan regime. One of the most often cited objectives for Western intervention in Afghanistan was the desire to build a stable Afghan regime. The problem with this was that the people who made up the regime were in too many cases completely unsuited for the role. I don’t want to say that there weren’t, and aren’t, Afghan officials who are honest and well-intentioned, but there were, and are, too many who weren’t and aren’t. Once you got down to the local level where ordinary Afghans confronted state officials face to face, their experiences were all too often pretty awful. Basically, we were backing a regime that was rotten to the core.
Let’s given an example that I cited in my recent talk to the Group of 78 in Ottawa. This is how one British officer, Stephen Grey, described the situation in Helmand province when the British arrived there in 2006:
“The chief of Helmand’s secret police [Dado] … had turned Sangin into his private fiefdom … Dado had started a private jail, was always drunk or stoned, had raped boys and women and was systematically stealing from the population … as far as … most were concerned, the British were there to prop up Dado and his cronies. Many of the fighters were locals.”
Another British officer – Frank Ledwidge – described the situation as follows: “Dado was one of a large network of drug warlords – exactly the sort of individuals that the Taliban had removed only a decade before … Now the British were seen to be supporting these criminals’ return.”
This was a pattern repeated across the country. In Kandahar province, for instance, the Canadian propped up the notorious drug-running warlord Abdul Razik. As Canadian journalist Mathieu Aikins reported:
“A grim irony of the rising pro-Taliban sentiments in the south is that the United States and its allies often returned to power the same forces responsible for the worst period in southerners’ memory – the post-Soviet ‘mujahideen nights.’ … By installing these characters and then protecting them by force of arms, the ISAF [i.e. NATO] has come to be associated, in the minds of many Afghans, with their criminality and abuses.“
There were other problems as well. A report in The New York Times noted that American soldiers had ‘been instructed not to intervene’ in cases where Afghan soldiers sexually abused children. According to the report:
“The policy has endured as American forces have recruited and organized Afghan militias to help hold territory against the Taliban. But soldiers and Marines have been increasingly troubled that instead of weeding out pedophiles, the American military was arming them in some cases and placing them as the commanders of villages.“
So, these were the people the Americans and their allies were supporting. One should hardly be surprised that the Afghans didn’t like them very much, and that very few people have been willing to risk their lives to defend them.
3. Too much aid. One could argue that the rotten nature of the Afghan regime is simply a product of the local culture and as such beyond America’s control. But one of the reasons that the Taliban are popular among elements of the population is that they are perceived as honest – they don’t run drugs, commit paedophilia, etc. So, you can’t say that it’s some inherent Afghan thing. Rather, I think, the massive corruption that personifies the current Afghan regime is at least in part a product of Western policy. Instead of not aiding Afghanistan enough, the problem is that we have flooded it with a vast excess of aid, creating a perfect basis for massive corruption.
I’ve been saying this for years, but it’s worth saying it again. To reinforce the point, though, I’ll limit myself to quoting an article I wrote for The American Conservative magazine back in 2009. In this I said:
“ In our efforts to fight the Taliban, we are providing Afghanistan with a massive army, a huge police force, and vast numbers of schools, hospitals, roads, and so on. All of this has to be paid for. The Afghan state cannot do so, nor will it ever be able to. … Only if a state relies on taxes levied directly from the citizenry does it have to respond to those citizens’ needs. It is no coincidence that rentier states that rely on oil or gas revenues or on foreign subsidies are associated with autocratic government and corruption. … The country probably needs less aid rather than more. It needs to tax its own people directly. (It scarcely does at the moment, and has little incentive to as long as the foreign checks keep flowing.) It needs a small army, not a big one, and a manageable social infrastructure, one it can afford. As happened in the past, pumping in more aid and sending in more advisers will simply reinforce the institutional barriers to progress. The pursuit of our immediate military goals is condemning Afghanistan to perpetual governmental, and thus economic, failure.”
I think that the events of the past week have shown this analysis to have been correct.
4. Poorly directed aid. It’s not just that the West provided too much aid; it’s also that the aid was often wasted on useless, or counterproductive, projects, and eventually flowed down into the hands of the Taliban.
Again, this is something I’ve banging on about for years, citing the reports of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR). It was impossible to read SIGAR’s reports and not view the aid provided to Afghanistan as waste on a most phenomenal scale. As I wrote in 2017 SIGAR
“uncovered the stories of how the US spent $6 million airlifting 9 Italian goats to Afghanistan; spent $486 million buying aircraft for the Afghan airforce which were so dangerous to fly that they were never used and ended up being turned into $32,000 of scrap metal; built an entirely unused 64,000 square foot command centre at a cost of $34 million ; spent $150 million building luxury to lodge staff of its economic development office; and expended $3 million on building a navy for landlocked Afghanistan, but never actually delivered the boats.”
As I said, “Unfortunately, these stories are just the tip of the iceberg, a small part of a chronicle of folly which boggles the mind.” The scale of American, and more generally Western, incompetence in Afghanistan is truly amazing.
5. Arrogance and ignorance. This incompetence didn’t just come out of nowhere. It was a product of arrogance and ignorance – that is to say a firm belief that we knew the answers to what constitutes good governance combined with a total lack of knowledge of local conditions and culture.
Soviet general M.A. Gareev remarked that, “It wasn’t so much the fault as the misfortune of our civilian advisers [in Afghanistan] that they were typical products of our cadre system, trained to be loyal executors, capable only of putting into life the line that the party had given them.” One might say much the same of Westerners. Just as when Soviets were plonked down in Afghanistan, they pulled out the communist handbook and tried to turn the country into the Soviet Union, so too, as Antonio Giustozzi and Artemy Kalinovski have pointed out in their book Missionaries of Modernity, the tendency of Westerners in such circumstances is to whip out the template of liberal democratic reform and apply it regardless of local conditions.
There’s a striking moment in the documentary film Restrepo, when a group of American soldiers enters an Afghan village while red-bearded men look at them like beings from another planet. It’s a wonderful depiction of how the two worlds – American and Afghan – were utterly alien to one another. To imagine that we could somehow understand such a place, let alone bend it to our will, was an act of extraordinary presumption.
6. Deceit. Another reason why the gross incompetence of the US/Allied intervention continued for so long, and for why the regime in Kabul was allowed to rot away in such a terrible fashion, was the unwillingness of Western leaders to face reality or tell their people the truth. It’s not as if there weren’t experts telling them that truth. But they chose to ignore it and to pretend to their publics that all was well. Let me quote SIGAR again. At a Congressional hearing last month, he said the following:
“Every time we went in, the US military changed the goal posts, and made it easier to show success. And then finally, when they couldn’t do even that, they classified the assessment tool. … So, they knew how bad the Afghan military was. And if you had a clearance, you could find out, but the average American, the average taxpayer, the average congressman, the average person working in the embassy wouldn’t know how bad it was.”
I’ve often wondered over the years whether our leaders believed their own propaganda about imminent success in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere, or whether they were simply lying. SIGAR suggests an answer.
US president Joe Biden will no doubt get a lot of stick for his decision to pull American troops out of Afghanistan. Some will blame him for what has happened this week. There will be talk of “betrayal.” But Biden was absolutely right. The problem is not that the Americans are withdrawing now from Afghanistan, the problem is that they didn’t withdraw many, many years ago. In an article in Armed Forces Journal in 2010, a US army officer, Lieutenant Colonel Daniel Davis wrote the following:
“Absent a major change in the status quo that currently dominates in Afghanistan, the U.S.-led military effort there will fail to accomplish the president’s objectives and, despite our best effort to spin it otherwise, we will lose the war in Afghanistan.”
How right he was.