Much has been written about lessons to be drawn from the American withdrawal from Afghanistan and the return of the Taliban to control. Notwithstanding Santayana’s warning that those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it, lessons are mostly not learned. My generation of Americans remembers the Vietnam experience, yet when we reached positions of power, in the person of George W. Bush, we jumped into war in Afghanistan and Iraq and stayed too long, only to leave as ignominiously as we did from Vietnam. We recalled the past yet repeated it, nonetheless.
But the lessons that we should have remembered are different from those being drawn today. Those arguing that it teaches us the United States is no longer a reliable ally have it wrong. Afghanistan has different lessons to teach us. Here is my list.
First, no matter how much training or resources the United States provides to armies it creates from scratch in another country whose culture it neither understands nor with whom it shares values, the resulting forces will not likely defend themselves and its citizens with a resolve requiring self-sacrifice and personal motivation. The moment their American allies leave, this army will fold. We saw this in South Vietnam, and again in Afghanistan.
Second, democracy is not a natural tendency among most nations. It is not easily acquired and even if it emerges, it is fragile and easily toppled by strong religious beliefs, power-politics, human hatred, veniality, graft, violence, and the quest for domination by the strong over the weak. Paeans to democracy will not persuade people who have no real historical experience with it or without a majority that has gained benefits from it to fight to preserve it. Afghanistan proves it. Most Afghans did not get enough from democracy to fight and die for it. This is in contrast to a place like Israel.
Three, accept the military’s judgments about its successes in training a foreign military force with great caution. They make extravagant claims about their trainees that turn out to be overly optimistic, especially in cultures they do not understand or whose language they do not speak. These claims have largely been wrong in almost every instance since the end of the Second World War. While there may be some places that appear to be a success – South Korea for example – until the true test of war, do not assume the training was a grand triumph. We have seen this not only in South Vietnam and Afghanistan, but there are signs that it is true in places like Saudi Arabia and Syria.
Four, coalitions with other nations may appear to be based on values but they are in fact based on national self-interest or fear. Hypocrisy and betrayal are to be expected. Any nation banking on another to protect and save it, even or especially when its citizens are unwilling or unable to do so themselves, does so at its own peril. South Vietnamese and Afghans who supposed that the Americans, having invested so much in their defense, would fight to the death for them, do what they would not do themselves, were living in a fool’s paradise. The nightmare that overtook that paradise should not be blamed on the Americans but on themselves. Israel has understood this truth over the years and therefore seeks to have its own army to be strong and its first line of defense, using Americans and other allies to help them but not to do what they are not willing to do themselves. When Israel did once stand aside at the request of the US during the First Gulf War as Iraq’s Saddam lobbed rockets down on them, they were most uncomfortable in that position. The Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) remained ready at a moment’s notice to take over their own protection; something the Afghans never learned to do. The difference is crucial.
And finally, countries that depend on the international assistance of democracies must understand that once the will of the majority or even an energized minority in that democratic ally no longer wishes to be engaged in that alliance or offer that assistance, nothing will keep it coming. Accordingly, a dependent ally would do well to remain non-partisan in its relations with that democratic ally on which it depends. This is a lesson that Israel briefly forgot during the Netanyahu government and for which it may yet pay dearly. Dependent countries must be good at public relations with all the constituencies in the democracies on which they rely. If not, they will one day find themselves holding the short end of the stick and grasping for help as their erstwhile allies fly away home.
There are other lessons too. But the oft-repeated “lesson” that America cannot be counted on by its allies is simplistic, one-sided and not particularly insightful. Other national will undoubtedly turn to America again when needed. Who else would they turn to that is better?