First, a bit of background. Over 20 years ago, when President Bush the Younger first sent our troops into Afghanistan, the troops’ mission was to burn the Taliban to the ground for their role in al Qaeda’s 9/11 attacks on our homeland—housing them and their leader bin Laden. Those forces did that in very short order. Mission Accomplished, and the men and women should have been brought home.
Then the mission drifted into getting bin Laden himself, as intelligence developed to identify his location with sufficient specificity. OK, that was mostly reasonable; we thought we knew where he was, so go get him. It turned out, given the terrain, we didn’t have enough specificity—which cave in a several-hundred square mile warren of caves was he? We couldn’t find him, and while the hunt should have continued (it did, and we got him somewhere else some years later), the troops should have been brought home. Both of those missions reached resolution within the first year.
But then the mission drifted again, this time into nation building—which we suck at—and into training and equipping the Afghan military. Even our successes in Germany, Italy, and Japan occurred only because those nations started out with a long history of Western concepts of freedom and governance. Japan had, if not the long history, an extended familiarity, and some practice with the concepts. Afghanistan, though, in the particular case, had no concept of anything beyond tribal and clan interaction; there was, and is, no understanding of Western concepts, except, perhaps intellectually (certainly not in their gut) on the part of a few elitists, but nothing at all in the general population—or in the Taliban and its popular supporters.
That last drift (frankly, facilitated by the first drift, even if that one was done for the Very Best Reasons) has provided the disaster that’s unfolding. I’ll leave aside, here, our own failure to continue fighting like we meant it, our own failure to continue fighting toward an actual, measurable victory under the new mission.
So why the Afghan failure now?
Here are a few questions, the answers to which will go some way to understanding our failure and—were our politicians to look beyond their own campaigns for their next election—preventing similar failures in the future, whether that prevention amounts to no more nation-building or to nation-building with an understanding of what’s involved, originating culture by originating culture.
What were we doing if 20 years of training has led to a military force that knows only how to run away when they don’t have Western troops beside them or in front of them or overhead?
What were we doing if 20 years of training has led to a military force that can’t maintain its own equipment—and no, lack of parts and manuals is no excuse. That lack hurts, but the Afghan military can’t use the parts and manuals they have.
What makes us think air power is the be all and end all, that we still need to stay to provide the Afghan forces “critical” close air support, air transport, air…? The Afghan army outnumbers the Taliban’s forces by 3:1 or more. The Taliban forces are still going through the Afghan army like Patton’s crap through a goose, when they can catch up with that running-away army—and the Taliban have no air power at all: no close air support, no air transport, no…. Although they’re gaining the makings of an air force as they capture all that abandoned Afghan equipment.
What were we doing if 20 years of working/training/cajoling the political side of Afghan has left the nation (and apparently, that’s a loosely defined term as it’s applied to Afghanistan) with a tribal/clan-oriented government whose members are more interested in their tribal and clan imperatives than they are their national imperatives? The nature of that fractiousness—far different from the Party fractiousness of the Western nation(s) we’ve been, sort of, trying to get the clans to emulate—is illuminated in the rolling out of the existential threat the Taliban is to the nation of Afghanistan. And given the nature of the Taliban, that also presents a soon-to-be-realized existential threat to the clans and tribes themselves.
The only Afghanis who recognize the benefits of some of the 20 years of our social training are the women who were able to go to school. There’re hints there, too—regarding treatment of women and regarding education in general—if we’re interested in learning from them.
The rate of collapse of the Afghan military, days after our withdrawal, and so of the nation it was supposed to be protecting, shows how thin the veneer of our training—military, governance, social.
If we don’t know what we’re doing, it would behoove us, and those we otherwise would purport to build up, to not try to do it until we figure it out.