In Afghanistan, the Americans Did Not Fight to Win

by Hugh Fitzgerald

There have been many attempts to analyze the reasons for the Taliban’s sudden victory in Afghanistan, almost all of them focusing on the failure of will of the Afghan soldiers themselves. They were clearly not willing to fight and die in defense of a quasi-liberal and most imperfect democracy, characterized by mismanagement and corruption, but preferred to abandon their bases and their equipment, while the fanatical Muslims of the Taliban were everywhere ready to fight and die for Islam. But the failure of the Afghan soldiers to fight as the Taliban overran city after city may obscure the other failure: that of the Americans themselves, who did not fight to win. More on this can be found here: “When it comes to the Taliban, the US didn’t play to win – opinion,” by Dan Perry, Jerusalem Post, August 22, 2021:

President Joe Biden can insist all he wants that America embarked upon the Afghan misadventure to combat terror and not to nation-build. It isn’t exactly true. The Bush Doctrine in a nutshell was to export democracy and Western values to hitherto benighted countries whose populace was surely yearning to be free.

The American effort in Afghanistan was twofold: first, to fight Al Qaeda, kill as many of it members as possible, and drive the rest out of the country, depriving it of its Afghan base. Many escaped to Pakistan, our so-called “ally,” that had given birth to the Taliban, and consistently offered the terror group refuge. Second, once Al Qaeda had been dispatched, the American soldiers and civilians would try to bring Western-style democracy to the Afghans, who would, it was assumed, respond gratefully. It is that second part of what is called the “Bush Doctrine” — the nation-building — that caused the Americans to become stuck for twenty years in Tarbaby Afghanistan. 2,443 Americans were killed, 20,666 were wounded, and two trillion dollars was expended in this quixotic and catastrophic effort.

Many predicted it would fail, both in Afghanistan and Iraq. Interestingly, it failed more in Afghanistan (which is to say, completely). This weekend [in mid-August], the whole thing fell apart as the puppet-like President Ashraf Ghani fled and the Taliban returned to power two decades after being kicked out, with the Americans effecting a panicky retreat reminiscent of the fall of Saigon. Afghanistan will once again be ruled by Islamist fanatics and women can expect the worst.

The flight of President Ghani was the last draw for Afghan commanders and soldiers around the country, a sign of surrender at the top that they in turn emulated, handing over their weapons to the Taliban and allowing it to seize billions of dollars worth of military vehicles and equipment, including helicopters.

It is not entirely surprising. The British and Russians also failed in their attempt to change this mountainous and isolated land. One of the challenges is that it suffers a yawning chasm between town and country which is a little like its cousin in the West but more extreme: the periphery is even more religious and even more tribal and it accounts for a larger share of the population. Corruption is perhaps the glue that holds it all together.

The Afghan government, with American help, had taken control of the cities, but it never tried to gain control of the countryside, where pro-Taliban sentiment continued to be high. This summer, the Taliban moved in on the cities and took them, one by one, as the government soldiers surrendered and fled; meanwhile, there was no great groundswell of support for the government among the urban civilian population, which was well aware of the colossal corruption among the country’s leaders and warlords – though Ghani himself was honest, unlike his predecessor Hamid Karzai, and unlike so many of the local warlords on whose support he depended.

The challenge NATO and the US undertook was enormous. Staying on for a bit might have made a difference, but possibly in the long term not. Still, it did not have to end in quite this shameful and shambolic way. There are several reasons why the Taliban has not been crushed by the most formidable military machine in history:

For many months, the Biden Administration had been warned of an impending Taliban offensive, and been told by U.S. intelligence that it should move tens of thousands of Afghans who had worked closely with the Americans – interpreters, drivers, helpers of every sort – out of the country before it was too late. The Bidenites kept finding excuse after excuse for inaction. Presumably they thought that moving all those Afghans to safety abroad would be taken as a sign of weakness, and embolden the Taliban. But the Taliban needed no emboldening. And the result of such cruel procrastination by Washington has been the spectacle we see today at Kabul Airport: the tens of thousands desperate to get out, and the certainty that many of them, including all those who could not even make it to Kabul from elsewhere in the country, will be abandoned by the Bidenites, and almost certainly will be executed by the merciless Taliban. This might have been avoided had Biden made saving the lives of our Afghan helpers his priority months ago; his failure will be hard to forget, and impossible to forgive.

America and NATO allies simply did not lay down the law with the governments they installed in Kabul (meaning that they should be fair, transparent, honest and competent); corruption continued unabated, including under Ghani. They oversaw a force four times larger than the Taliban’s (which has only about 80,000 fighters), but failed to pay them salaries anywhere near on time. The US complained about the corruption, but no riot act was read. The US is strangely reluctant to read riot acts and would be wise to relearn its own mythology: When you have to shoot, shoot.”

When you are allowed to spend huge sums of government money to win “hearts and minds,” and you are a civilian contractor, or an army officer, with pallets of dollars to distribute to pay for projects, and every one of the local leaders seems determined to help himself to some of that money, and your own promotion, if you are an army officer, or government contract, if you are a civilian contractor, depends on winning and keeping those local leaders’ support, it’s not hard to convince yourself that a little corruption on the part of these Afghans can be overlooked, and their demands satisfied; after all, it seems to be the best way to retain their loyalty.

Some of the warlords who control their own armies embezzled vast sums meant for construction projects; their take has been considerable. Consider just one warlord, Gul Agha Sherzai, who served as governor of Kandahar from 1992 to 1994 and from 2001 to 2003. Sherzhai cooperated closely with U.S. Special Forces based in the area during the early years of the Afghan campaign, providing base security and local intelligence. But as governor of Kandahar, Sherzai allegedly extorted large amounts of money from civilians at police checkpoints, embezzled reconstruction money, and ran protection rackets for opium traffickers. U.S. officials estimate that he ended up with a net worth of $300 million after running Kandahar. He has also been accused of murdering and torturing rivals. But he was on our side. And that was enough for the Americans to overlook his grand theft, and that of hundreds of other Afghans whom we came – disastrously — to rely on.

The Taliban was even more adept at raising money from illegal activities, and corrupting locals:

The Taliban were allowed to amass so much money through protection rackets, mafia-style shakedowns and almost unlimited trade in opium that they could bribe corrupt officials and commanders around the country, and this helped them rout the military in recent days with almost no struggle. Yes, the Taliban outspent the US-backed government where it counted.

America allowed Pakistan, its alleged ally who nonetheless not-so-secretly supported the Taliban, to continue to disrupt its unfortunate neighbor for complex regional-politics calculations that only its crafty leaders truly understand. For decades, it has given the Taliban shelter in its “tribal areas” far from Islamabad (that’s the excuse) and close to the Afghan border (recall that it was in Pakistan that Osama bin Laden was finally found). Pakistan assumed that its nuclear weapons gave it latitude for such shenanigans, and – incredibly – it was right.

The Taliban were created and nurtured by Pakistan, that recruited “talibs” (students) from madrasas that had been set up for Afghan refugees who had fled Soviet-occupied Afghanistan. Pakistan’s ISI supplied the Taliban with money, weapons, training, and refuge in the “tribal areas” next to the Afghan border. Occasionally, the Pakistani army would kill some Taliban, just enough to let the Americans continue to believe that Pakistan was on their side; mostly, however, the Pakistanis did what they could to support the terror group.

After initially routing the Taliban, the US has never really played to win. It never brought the same crushing force to the war against the Taliban that it brought to the fight against ISIS in Iraq and Syria. It was dragged into a war of attrition on the Taliban’s terms, including winter respites and a return each spring to the absurdly-but-precisely named “fighting season” with its regular massacres of civilians and military personnel, local and foreign.

Once the Americans had routed Al-Qaeda, and subdued the Taliban, they turned their attention in Afghanistan to nation-building, while the theatre of major war-fighting by the Americans was transferred to Iraq. More troops and weapons were poured into both countries. In Afghanistan, a slow-moving war of attrition, in which the Taliban seldom engaged the American military head-on but managed to eat away at the largely mercenary Afghan army, undermining its resolve, continued until the sudden shuddering collapse of that army, after Biden unwisely announced that the Americans would be pulling out entirely by August 31, 2021.

Playing to win would have taken a terrible toll on the lives of civilians, as Islamist radicals always embed in civilian populations. That’s what happened in Mosul, that’s what goes on in Gaza, and that is the way in any place unlucky enough to host their nihilistic jihad.

According to the author, the Americans held back from all-out war against the Taliban because of worries about massive civilian casualties, which would have been the inevitable result of the Taliban forces being embedded so deeply among the general population.

Can such a price be acceptable? This moral question is only a psychological one: it is a horror that starts to look acceptable to many when they are sufficiently fed up. Fed up with rockets from Gaza, with suicide bombings in Belgium, with beheadings of Western aid workers and the enslavement of Yazidi women.

It started to look OK when enough people were fed up with Japan’s alliance with the Nazis and kamikaze attacks in the Pacific. So the Americans mercilessly firebombed Tokyo and dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, and then – unbelievably – did not wait long and dropped a second on Nagasaki. It’s awful, and hard to justify, but in that war the US came to win, and won. There are no perfect historical analogies and there are always differences – but this is the main difference….

The Americans were intent on helping the Afghan army keep the main population centers out of Taliban control, not on entering into an all-out war akin to that the U.S. conducted against Japan in World War II. But no matter how much the Afghan recruits were paid, or how many weapons they were given, or how much training they received, they never acquired the esprit de corps of the Taliban. They would not die to maintain a “liberal democracy,” a concept they scarcely understood. But the Taliban were always prepared to die for Islam. And that made all the difference.

First published in Jihad Watch.