United States had spent billions equipping and training Iraqi army, yet it crumbled in front of ISIS – only dual interventions of Western allies and Iran allowed it to prevail. Just as much money was spent on training Afghan military, yet that same military started crumbling the minute NATO troops left.
But why? There are multiple reasons, so I will start with the most important.
Anybody who knows something about the military history, especially irregular warfare, will understand the importance of morale. Strong convictions can keep a person in the fight even when everything seems hopeless. Religion and tribalism (e.g. nationalism) are thus a key to both gaining and keeping freedom, and the Taliban have strong elements of both. They are a conservative, religious force. By comparison, United States went into Afghanistan to protect the oil fields of Iraq and the Gulf from Russia and China, and tried to justify this through some foggy “ideals” of nonexistent democracy and human rights. The war had nothing to do with the average US citizen; it was fought to protect the globalist, neo-liberal, neo-Marxist empire run by the caste of plutocratic elites who have nothing but contempt for the average American, as well as for the key elements of civilization such as family, tribe and religion.
But the nature of the empire means that it expends itself and its moral strength in maintaining control of the periphery. The less strength is being expended, the longer the empire can last. Romans allowed their conquered peoples to keep their government, customs, traditions, so long as they paid the respects to the imperial order and did their duty. Assimilation was gradual. But the US, due to the nature of its national ideology, was unable to separate itself from its periphery – periphery which gradually grew to include most of the world. Its understanding of happenings in the provinces was distorted by the happenings in the home country, something which democracy was particularly conductive to.
Instead of acting like a proper empire would, United States kept pretending that they had a God-given mission to “civilize” the “backwater natives”. This, of course, is nothing new: Romans, British and other empires often used it as a justification for their own conquests. But unlike the American empire, none of these empires spent time and effort denything their basic nature. Instead, they reaffirmed it, and thus provided their subjects and allies (as well as enemies) a stable point of reference. Everybody knew what they were dealing with. With United States however, continuous denial of US’ imperial nature meant that its foreign policy ended up being lukewarm and confused, except maybe when it comes to matters of trade and cultural brainwashing of Europe (McDonaldization is one of the worst, and most pervasive, aspects of the American Empire).
War in Afghanistan was a conflict between traditional tribalism and progressive civic nationalism. But there is no Afghan nation: it is merely a relict of colonialism. Instead, there are dozens or hundreds of tribes, who want to preserve their independence and way of life. There is no conflict of conservatism and liberalism as seen from the Western perspective. The moment the Western imperialists have left, the country has reverted to its natural state – mostly peacefully, in fact, as the Afghan army simply melted away. Trying to establish a democracy was a mistake – a military governor would have been a better option, so long as he left the tribes to mostly self-govern.
This lack of understanding of Afghanistan by the West naturally extended to military; thus it is no surprise that Afghan military proved useless. It is a general assumption in the West that a standing army of long-term professionals is the best, but this is not necessarily so. As noted before, Afghanistan is a tribal society – which means that a tribal levy would actually work far better than a standing professional army. Reason is simple: former is rooted in the civilian society and exploits the peacetime social hierarchy, interpersonal relations and social censure to form an effective army. Meanwhile a professional army requires deracinated, urbanized society where tribal loyalties had been destroyed or suppressed in favour of national identity. It also requires intense drill and training to be effective. Afghanistan could not provide any of these conditions, so any attempts to ensure security of Afghanistan through a fully professional army of the Western model was doomed to failure. Soldiers sent to areas where they had no tribal or family connections experienced significant demoralization, sapping their will to fight.
The presence of the Western-model professional army undermined the effectiveness of the native forces, which suddenly became a second fiddle to the regime’s professional troops. Even if not treated with outright contempt, fact that they were subordinated to regime’s forces would have negatively affected their combat effectiveness due to degradation of internal cohesion. And Afghan professional army was singularly ineffective. Worse, the sudden decision to withdraw Western troops before the talks were finished led to demoralization, with Afghan troops and local communities alike switching to Taliban. Problem was made worse by the fact that the Afghan army was shaped according to Western doctrine – which assumes the presence of the air support. Sudden lack of close US air support left the Afghan army lacking one of keys of their doctrine. And the issue was not only with the regular Afghan army. While Northern Alliance had prevented Taliban takeover of the north Afghanistan in 1990s, it could not do so now. Its cooperation with the US occupational force undermined its legitimacy, and as a result defense of the North mostly fell to the central government and its nearly useless army.
Of course, this does not necessarily hurt the Western / American homoglobo neoliberal empire in physical terms. It does negate its claim to the universal truth, but this will hardly affect its propaganda. And it is not very likely that many Westerners will recognize the defeat in Afghanistan for what it truly is. Leftist-liberal order is quick to claim successes, but failure, as ever, is but a poor orphan.
In terms of military lessons, this again reinforces the old adage that soldiers win wars, not weapons. Napoleon put it succintly: “In war, three-quarters turns on personal character and relations; the balance of manpower and materials counts only for the remaining quarter.”. In other words, morale and motivations far outweigh any physical advantages when it comes to waging a war. Napoleon himself experienced this in Spain, as did US in Vietnam and USSR in, ironically perhaps, Afghanistan.
But as noted already, morale was not the only reason. The second reason was logistics and the political environment.
Distance from the US mainland to Afghanistan is 12 000 kilometers. While United States do have allies in the region, all of them are unreliable. Saudi Arabia had always supported islamic extremism, and Pakistan openly supported Al-Quaeda. Bin Laden was holed up on the outskirts of Abbotabad, 100 miles inside Pakistan. And Pakistan had been sheltering al-Quaeda and Taliban ever since the beginning of the US invasion, and after Bin Laden’s death continued sheltering next Al-Quaeda chief, Ayman Al-Zawahiri. It also provided weapons and supplies to the Taliban.
Pashtun insurgents also helped shelter Al-Quaeda and Taliban. Pashtuns make up 40% of the population of Afghanistan, and themselves straddle the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. As a result, insurgents could easily retreat to Pakistan, beyond the reach of NATO forces, whenever things got too hot in Afghanistan.
But for a long time, US refused to recognize this. US political and military leadership kept praising Pakistan for its “cooperation”, holding it as a valuable ally. Pakistan did cooperate, to be sure – Pakistani observers helped zero in US artillery strikes. But this cooperation was merely the absolute minimum necessary to be recognized as an ally. When Pakistan did decide to provide real aid, it went to Taliban. Safe havens gave insurgents time and energy to actually plan and carry out proactive moves. Or as the Taliban put it, “You have the watches, but we have the time”. Western, progressive, materialistic mentality is focused on here and now. Taliban understood this, and knew that the West will not have the patience necessary to achieve anything lasting. Western patience quotient is simply too low, and that of the Taliban too high. Medieval Byzantines, Hungarians, Croatians and Poles waged wars that in some cases stretched for hundreds of years of continual low-level warfare. That is not something modern West is capable of.
Pakistan’s goal was clear – it wanted to drive the US out, leaving Afghanistan a vassal state and removing influence of India. Freedom of movement led to facilitation of drug trade and support to extremists, and Pakistani government openly gave shelter to the insurgents while denying US the potential bases to keep an eye out on the area.
Third reason was the unclear mission. Winning means achieving goals – so if goals are unknown or flexible, victory becomes impossible. At first, the mission was simply to bring Al-Quaeda to justice. George W. Bush said in 2001. that “This particular battle front will last as long as it takes to bring al Qaeda to justice. It may happen tomorrow, it may happen a month from now, it may take a year or two, but we will prevail.”. But the US never defined just what “prevailing” in Afghanistan meant. As a result, while the original goal set by George Bush was arguably achieved some years into the occupation, the goalposts had shifted dramatically. By lacking a clear attainable objective, United States set themselves up for failure.
Under Trump’s 2020 deal with the Taliban, latter promised they would bar terrorists like Al-Quaeda from operating within Afghanistan. But the US Intelligence did not believe it, and indeed it seems that the two groups continued to cooperate. Biden decided to continue onto the withdrawal despite the situation obviously getting worse, but there was no other good choice. Even prolonged US military presence will not have ensured victory.
United States were defeated in Afghanistan, after just barely eking out a victory in Iraq. And the reason for the defeat was simple: they had set goals too high, trying to remake Afghanistan itself.