Lessons from Afghanistan; It was More About Corruption, Culture, & Religion than Military Prowess
Over the next week or so, you may read many pieces explaining America's military failure in Afghanistan and while we shouldn't ignore the strategic mistakes on the battlefield, they are not the lessons that explain how the Taliban retook control in a few short weeks after our exit. The Taliban's victory was perfectly predictable once we withdrew. The only question was how long it would take.
There are numerous reasons for the Taliban's success, and they aren't all that complex. We learned similar lessons in Vietnam and Iraq, but seem to believe that we can reshape history and change human nature with bigger weapons and more sophisticated PR campaigns. Hubris is the correct description for that type of thinking.
1. The Afghan government in Kabul was widely viewed as a puppet of the United States. The Afghan people are proud of their history of kicking out foreign powers and the billions we spent building roads and hospitals didn't change how many Afghans viewed our presence there. The Taliban successfully framed their resistance as a jihad to drive an occupying power from their land. That narrative was far stronger than anything the government could muster to encourage their soldiers to fight and die.
2. Corruption. A recent story from Reuters nicely captures the rampant corruption in Afghanistan, from the President all the way down to military commanders in the field; ... "Afghan president fled with cars and helicopter full of cash." The story came from a Russian sources, so take it with a grain of salt, but it's not at all unlikely. And corruption within Afghanistan's military had become legendary as military affairs columnist Max Boot recently pointed out.
Boot, CFR.org: "The U.S. training effort was also hindered by factors beyond its control, including ... the pervasiveness of corruption. As a police officer in Kandahar recently told the New York Times, “We are drowning in corruption.”
"All of that corruption meant Afghan troop numbers, ... were vastly exaggerated. The Washington Post’s Afghanistan Papers project found that of the 352,000 soldiers and police counted as members of the country’s security forces, only 254,000 could be confirmed by the Afghan government. Commanders not only created “ghost soldiers” to pad their payrolls but also skimmed the pay of serving soldiers and failed to deliver necessary supplies,..."
After the US began to withdraw, few Afghan soldiers were willing to fight alongside commanders seen to have lined their pockets at the army's expense.
3. Religion. Carter Malkasian, the author of The American War in Afghanistan: A History and the senior advisor to General Joseph Dunford, the US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff explains the religious component like this in a recent article:
Politico: "More convincingly, multiple surveys of Taliban opinion by Graeme Smith, Ashley Jackson, Theo Farrell, Antonio Giustozzi and others have confirmed that the Taliban fight in part because they believe it their Islamic duty to resist occupation and are convinced their cause will enable them to win. Jackson’s survey of 50 Taliban, published in 2019, discovered that they described their decision to join the movement “in terms of religious devotion and jihad—a sense of personal and public duty. In their view, jihad against foreign occupation was a religious obligation, undertaken to defend their values.” Jihad was about identity, she concluded."
In other words, Taliban fighters were motivated to defeat a corrupt, puppet regime supported by infidels. On the other hand, government forces were fighting for a paycheck and western ideals of representative democracy and human rights imposed by an occupying force.
None of this is to say that Donald Trump and Joe Biden were correct to withdraw from Afghanistan and accept a Taliban victory. The troop levels of American soldiers along with our allies and contractors were adequate to maintain the status quo and sustainable for the long haul. Both presidents should have signaled that those forces would remain until there was a viable power-sharing agreement in place. That would have blunted the Taliban's psychological advantage. Even highly motivated soldiers have to believe that there is some hope of success and we had proven that wouldn't happen as long as we remained.
And, yes, the Taliban might have violated a peace agreement as soon as we left. However, we owed it to the Afghan people to try.
By: Don Lam & Curated Content