Failure in Afghanistan: The Tragedy of Not Understanding Local Realities
Any discussion about the failure in Afghanistan should start with the dismantling of conspiracy theories or superficial arguments. The United States did not invade Afghanistan for its supposed oil reserves. These amount to a mere 1.8 billion barrels. Saudi Arabia has 268 billion barrels and Kuwait has 101 billion barrels. In truth, the Talibans were housing al-Qaeda training camps and hiding Osama bin Laden and refusing to extradite him. Also, the Taliban regime has a horrible human rights track-record.
There were few if any economic gains for the Americans during this invasion. In fact, the costs of this 20 year-war are around $3 trillion, an enormous amount. Also, the intervention was approved by the international community, unlike the more controversial invasion of Irak. This is obvious from the broader alliance in Afghanistan, involving countries such as France and Germany.
Origins of the Taliban
Their story starts with a different war, the 1979 Soviet invasion. It was meant to support the communist puppet-regime in Afghanistan. The West assisted the mujaheddin in their fight and Pakistan became the main base for this operation. Training was done in the madrasahs (Islamic religious schools), usually under the guide of religious fanatics. In this way the future Taliban became fanatics and radicals. They were mostly refugees fleeing the Soviet invasion.
In 1989, the Soviets left Afghanistan and the puppet-regime quickly lost power. However, the new victors were split by tribal rivalries and were thus, unable to create a stable government. This left room for the fanatic Taliban to win the civil war. By 1996, they were in control of the vast majority of the country. The only exception were territories held by the Northern Alliance.
The new regime was both ultra-conservative and totalitarian in nature. Women lost almost all of their rights (not allowed education or to hold jobs). Human rights did not matter to the fundamentalists. Criminal punishments were cruel and overly-violent.
Failure in Afghanistan
9/11 remains the worst terrorist attack in history. The United States invaded Afghanistan with the support of the international community. Fighting guerrilla war in the mountains was not easy, especially once it became an insurgency. Herein lays the explanation for the bleak outcome and the current situation.
This is also a story of Why Nations Fail. Firstly, it is a story about institutions, which are some of the building-blocks of a functional state. Afghanistan is, in a sense, the victim of corruption. This means the state is incapable of offering its citizens security. Thus, it was always unable to gain their trust. It never built the normal social and civil structures for a functional democracy.
The military disaster is also easy to explain through a phenomenon, phantom soldiers. Corrupt officers and regional leaders falsified the existence of soldiers on paper. This way they were able to bank the salaries. This made the standing army seem bigger, when in fact the numbers were much smaller (49,000 phantom soldiers in 2019).
The Americans actually spent huge amounts in Afghanistan, but they might have been very poorly targeted. Around $88.3 billion were spent on the development of security and military infrastructure. Education and good governance got only around $36 billion.
This reminds us of something the U.S. seems to have forgotten, the success after the Second World War. Military victory does not ensure winning the peace. This is not a new theory, we owe it to the famous military theorist, Carl von Clausewitz ( On War). Present-day tacticians seem to have forgotten that lesson. You must be able to construct durable new institutions and educate the population to make them truly functional. In short, people must become citizens for the state not to fail due to the burden of corruption.
Beyond issues of poor investments we must also take into account local realities and what Afghan life looks like. This is still a very tribal society, relying very much on traditional forms of organisation. In the West, when we think of family we have in mind a nuclear model, but for them family extends to a clan. Tribal leaders and gatherings of elders play a major role in the decision making process. They operate as a distinct entity from that of the central state, who in their eyes was already failing them once more. This means reliance for everyday issues and survival lays strictly within this close-knit community.
In this context, institutional processes there do not look as they do in our part of the world. Thus, when the Taliban offensive began, tribal leaders and elders did not trust the state to mount an efficient response. For them resistance seems futile, preferring to find individual solutions and accords with the new power. In a sense, this is also due to division and rivalries among tribes which only further hinders any efficient opposition.
There were neither enough motivation to fight the Taliban, nor any guarantee that the failing state would support such efforts. The government of Afghanistan was unlikely to resist in the face of the offensive. It was the victim of corruption at all levels which made both institutions and the army inefficient. The people did not feel they could trust the state for protection and are still heavily reliant on the decisions of tribal leaders. The sad reality of the failure in Afghanistan is that the people never had the proper chance to become more, to become true citizens.
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- Steve Coll, Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001, London — New York, 2004.
- Peter Calvocoressi, World Politics Since 1945, 9th Edition, London — New York, 2009.
- Patrick Wintour, A tale of two armies: why Afghan forces proved no match for the Taliban, The Guardian, August 15, 2021.
- James H. Lebovic, Planning to Fail: The US Wars in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan, Oxford, 2019.
- Carl von Clausewitz, On War, Oxford, 2007 (edition for this article).
Originally published at https://www.theworldbriefly.com on August 19, 2021.