There’s a reason that Afghanistan has long been called “the graveyard of empires.” Conquering and keeping the place (it’s not really a nation) has been tried by experts from Alexander the Great to the Mongols onward. Some like the Russians and British have tried twice or even three times. In that company, Uncle Sam is a latecomer who has learned precious little from the experience of others.
Without delving overmuch into the Biden administration's vast ineptitude (how about removing U.S. staffers and civilians BEFORE the panic?) I’m offering some perspective. A bit of badly-needed background, some from my younger brother who was embedded with our hometown National Guard unit in 2005. He brings a Stanford-Oxford approach to the subject.
“Nation building was bound to fail amid tribal societies. Afghanistan is a decentralized, tribal buffer state with boundaries drawn by the Persian, Russian and British Empires, cutting across tribal territories. So naturally the tribes ignore them.
“It would have been cheaper just to pay provincial warlords to kill any Pakistani Pashtun invaders and local Afghan Pashtun Taliban. National army and police are bound to fail in such a decentralized entity.
“My solution was to give Luristan, Pashtunistan and Baluchistan to Pakistan, the Sunni Tajik (Dari), Kyrgyz, Uzbek and Turkmen bits to their respective Central Asian republics and Herat to Iran. The Dari-speaking Shia Hazaras could decide whether to go with Tajikistan or Iran.
“Dari is intelligible to Farsi speakers, but Iranians regard it as a hillbilly dialect although they’re equally valid Persian dialects. Pashtun is about equally distant from Persian and Hindustani (Hindi-Urdu), as befits the geographic position of Pashtunistan astride the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.”
So what could have been done better?
Snark alert: Just about everything.
We failed to organize Afghan defense along Afghan lines, trying to create national military and police forces in a decentralized region. The often unpaid army troops didn't have a country for which to fight. Our leaders never grasped that Afghanistan isn't a country, but a collection of tribes with arbitrary borders, drawn by neighboring empires. It's a nation state in name only. Kabul's writ doesn't run in the rest of the “country.” The Pashtuns are the largest tribal group in the world, united by a code of behavior and mutually intelligible dialects, but divided by the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, meaningless to them.
Arming and training local militias might have stood a chance, especially if paid regularly. But that would mean tolerating heroin trade or paying them ourselves indefinitely. Now, under the Taliban, poppy production will increase.
Presumably we could have held the Kabul-Bagram corridor, thus keeping some aircraft to support the Afghan commandos willing to fight. A helicopter pilot who’s been shot at on three continents adds, “I wonder if the abandonment of Bagram Air Base was just a stupid Biden blunder or part of a plan. We liked the Russian airstrips. The Chinese are gonna love ours. They come complete with climate controlled hangars, bombs and ammo and fully stocked with Hesco barriers and MREs.”
A couple of my DC contacts state that Biden & Co. was urged to withdraw THIS COMING WINTER. The Taliban, and Afghans generally, live for fighting. It’s what they’ve always done best. (For excellent insight, read John Masters’ masterful account of the prewar Indian Army on the Northwest Frontier, Bugles and a Tiger.) There’s always been a Fighting Season, and historically the Taliban/whatever suspend their yearly campaigns to sit out the weather, usually across the border in Pakistan. They can regroup, re-equip, and tell war stories while enjoying their poppy product.
Sidebar: in 1839 during the First Anglo-Afghan War (there’s a clue if ever we saw one) 16,500 British— mostly civilians—abandoned Kabul, hoping to make the 73 miles to Jalalabad. A week later one survivor reached safety; others likely were captured but disappeared.
In any case, in 2021-2022 waiting for a winter withdrawal would allow a planned, phased exit without the disastrous, panic-stricken flail we’re seeing this month. Leaving perhaps 3,000 U.S. and 8,000 NATO troops throughout the exit process certainly could have permitted negotiating room with the Taliban, rather than re-inserting several thousand Americans at the worst possible time.
You have to wonder whether Biden & Co. was misled by exceptionally bad “intelligence” (telling the front office what it wanted to hear), contradictory conclusions, or wishful thinking. Asked about a comparison with the Saigon evacuation of 1975, the president said “There’s going to be no circumstance where you see people being lifted off the roof of a (sic) embassy of the United States from Afghanistan.”
Days later we saw helicopters lifting off the roof of the U.S. embassy in Kabul.
Pundits play with numbers all the time, and the oft-cited stats for the conquest of Afghanistan are 300,000 Afghan Army troops (trained and lavishly equipped by We The People for 20 years) versus maybe 75,000 Taliban. How is that possible?
It has to do with motivation. The Afghan mujahadeen had almost no parity with the Soviets but wore them down over nine years, possessing a righteous belief in Holy Islam. By nearly every current account, the Afghan National Army suffered from problems endemic to the region: massive corruption, incompetence, and poor leadership, relying on U.S. air and artillery. This month apparently almost the only exception was several thousand special forces, many of whom literally fought to the last round, then were slaughtered by the Taliban.
At the operator level, the U.S. military still pulls off some spectacular feats. None moreso than the Air Force C-17 transport that somehow staggered into the air with 640 refugees aboard. (Early reports said 800; the published max capacity is 188.) Because the neighboring borders are closed—THERE is something for the U.S. Government to ponder about Our Border—air evacuation has to go elsewhere, such as Qatar.
But what of the Americans stranded in hostile territory? On August 15, shortly before closing, the embassy issued a notice: “The security situation in Kabul is changing quickly including at the airport. There are reports of the airport taking fire; therefore we are instructing U.S. citizens to shelter in place.” That means: “You’re on your own.”
Incidentally: the Russian consulate and Chinese embassy remain open.
Meanwhile, China shares a short border with Afghanistan along the narrow Wakhan Corridor. While hostile to Islamic militants, at least in China, Beijing will take advantage of the situation. Afghanistan offers the PRC another route to their port in Pakistani Baluchistan and for pipelines to Iran, plus natural resources.
In summarizing America’s chaotic, humiliating Afghan exit, we should remind the puppet masters in Washington:
THE ENEMY ALWAYS CASTS A VOTE.