The fall of Kabul on Sunday, August 15, and the chaotic evacuation of thousands of Afghans and foreigners by Westerners in the following 15 days will remain the major event of the summer of 2021. After the shock of the first days (how is this possible?), it is now time to analyze the circumstances, causes, and consequences of a historic military rout.
The result is not a surprise. President Obama had already understood this ten years ago, but he wanted to leave cleanly. Not Joe Biden. The imperatives of American domestic politics are not enough to explain such a rout. There has clearly been a disconnect between the U.S. military staff, which knows how to wage war and plan an orderly withdrawal, and the political authorities, who have imposed absurd military decisions. This is perhaps indicative of a deep crisis in American institutions, already shaken by the 2020 election campaign and the events on Capitol Hill.
However, Eric Lutz argues in Vanity Fair, that it is not entirely the fault of Joe Biden: [i]
“The sudden collapse of Afghanistan’s government isn’t entirely the fault of Joe Biden and his administration. He inherited a 20-year-old quagmire that had vexed three presidents before him, two of whom had vowed to end the United States presence in Afghanistan but ultimately did not, instead basically punting the problem. Though Biden, in ending America’s longest war, has a devastating, rapidly-unfolding foreign policy crisis playing out under his watch, it is the product not only of his decision to withdraw U.S. forces by the end of the summer, but a generation of policy errors, outrages, and futilities.” “
For other Westerners in general, this military-political rout completes the discrediting of the neo-conservative ideology. More generally, the fall of Kabul should mean the end of Western neo-imperialist pretensions. The reason for this is not only the defeat of their ideology, or simply their morality, it is demographic: when one represents only one human being out of seven, instead of one out of three 80 years ago, one necessarily carries less weight, especially when one no longer bears the cost in human lives of a military engagement. The West has lost 3,500 men in 20 years in Afghanistan.
The disastrous withdrawal of American troops shows the crass incompetence of the American elites in foreign policy. Incompetence that goes back several decades. This time, the incompetence reaches an abysmal depth. The American military went so far as to share lists of names and addresses of Afghan collaborators… with the Taliban! The failure of American foreign policy elites means that America’s allies must rely more on themselves, with the immense costs that this obligation entails.
The causes of the failure of the American foreign policy elites are multiple. The oil lobby, the arms manufacturer lobby, etc., account for some of the mistakes. But more often than not, at the end of the analysis, emotions have prevailed over reason. Thus, Richard Nixon was obsessed with the desire to make history. The lack of support for Russia seems to be rooted in an old hatred of that country among the military brass. The invasion of Iraq was a response to Bush Jr.’s desire to finish the war started by his father.
The war against Afghanistan was justified. But massive bombing against Taliban forces would have done the trick. The Afghan population would have probably then driven the Taliban out of power. But no, American troops had to land in the country, despite the precedents of British and Soviet troops, despite the American defeat in Vietnam. The presumption of the American leaders partly explains this bad choice.
Jeremy Suri argues in an article published by Foreign Policy: [ii]
“The rapid collapse of the U.S.-constructed state in Afghanistan is a poignant reminder that states are not the only form of political organization. Far from it. The early decades of the 21st century are dominated by evidence of state collapse across the global south. States in the developed world are also in crisis, even in the most historically stable countries, including the United States and Britain. Authoritarian strongmen have risen in many crisis-ridden states to protect order against threatening collapse; they are responding to fears of collapse among the most privileged beneficiaries of the current institutions. “
If the comparison with the fall of Saigon in 1975 is tempting, its explanatory dimension remains limited, as the Taliban have little to do with Viet Cong. [iii] In South Vietnam, the Marxist guerrillas were under the operational control of the North Vietnamese army, itself strongly supported by the Soviet Union and China (which sent tens of thousands of soldiers to Vietnam), to the point that the unification of the country was, in fact, the outcome of a war of conquest.
This is not the case in Afghanistan, where Pakistan’s role is not at all comparable to that of North Vietnam. Pakistan needs to control Afghan power to better control its own Pashtun minority and to give itself some strategic depth against India, but Kabul has not been conquered by the Pakistani army. And it is highly unlikely that China, Pakistan’s main supporter, or Russia, traditionally close to India, would have provided decisive military assistance to the Taliban.
The comparison with the Soviet withdrawal of 1989 (sometimes considered the “Vietnam” of the Soviet Union) is not relevant either: The Red Army withdrew in an orderly fashion according to rigorous military planning, in the face of guerrilla warfare armed by the Western powers, leaving behind a solid Afghan state that held out for two and a half years, until the dissolution of the USSR.
Indeed, the fall of Kabul in the summer of 2021 will remain, if not a mystery to the military observer, at least an abyss of perplexity. The most likely explanation is that U.S. military intelligence was itself intoxicated by diplomatic language, which peremptorily asserted that the Afghan state was able to hold. If this is the case, one wonders what intelligence is for.
The facts showed that this puppet state disintegrated instantly, proving its artificial nature, which twenty years of investment failed to make sustainable. In the end, it was the U.S. Congress that seemed best informed, thanks in particular to the uncompromising reports of SIGAR (Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction), [iv] the special inspection body set up to monitor the use of the trillions of dollars (the figure of 2 is commonly cited) that the American taxpayer has poured into Afghanistan over the past 20 years.
In addition to the failure of U.S. military intelligence, the entire military withdrawal operation seems to defy common sense. Everyone knows that the last hold you leave is the military airport. Thus, the French army has always kept a foot in Mpoko during its successive withdrawals from the Central African Republic. In Afghanistan, the U.S. Army abandoned the gigantic Bagram base several months before the planned withdrawal was to end, leaving the Turks to protect the (civilian) airport in Kabul. But the Turkish military and their Syrian surrogates eventually abandoned the airport to chaos, despite their commitments.
In fact, the Western special forces would not have been able to carry out their exfiltration operations without the support of the Taliban, who, after having taken Kabul “cleanly”, facilitated the passage of checkpoints (sometimes dirty) and even escorted the exfiltration of Westerners. Testimonies abound in this sense. One only has to ask the Western special forces about their losses and their consumption of ammunition: none. The main difficulty of these operations was therefore logistical (airlift) and not tactical.
More generally, Western armies will have to analyze the lessons learned from this new military failure in the face of a completely asymmetrical adversary (not even equipped with anti-aircraft weapons like the anti-Soviet guerrillas were). We will have to reread Sun Tsu more than Clausewitz, and especially Mao.
The Taliban won this twenty-year war for one main reason: the absence of a state outside the main urban centers. In fact, the state in the rural areas was them. The Taliban provided a certain amount of security, significant material aid, and, above all, swift, fair (predictable), and uncorrupted justice. Perfectly integrated into the controlled population, more terrorized by the retaliatory raids of the Westerners and their Afghan auxiliaries than by the attacks, which struck in the city and on the bases of the security forces, the guerrillas, who had a secure rear base in Pakistan, had time on their side. Eventually, the foreigners would leave. That is what happened.
The strongest and most lasting impact of the Western rout in Afghanistan, however, will be geostrategic. It is remarkable that the most virulent criticism of the American administration has come from its closest NATO allies: The British and the Germans. Even the EU has officially pretended to be concerned about exhuming the rapid reaction force project, which will soon be buried again since nobody really wants it. But this allows one to exist in the media for a few moments, even when one has abandoned all geopolitical pretensions.
Those who want to reassure themselves by looking for hidden causes put forward the hypothesis of a secret American-Taliban agreement sponsored by Qatar, to whom the Americans granted the Afghanistan “franchise “to gain much-needed importance in the Middle East, to promote the project of a gas pipeline bringing gas from the Caspian to India. The explanation for the Western discomfiture is more prosaic: The United States is redirecting its efforts without taking into account the opinion of its allies, whatever the cost.
Some evoke the precedent of Suez 1956, when the Franco-British expedition against Nasser’s Egypt, coordinated with Israel, had to be stopped because of American economic pressure and Soviet military threats. Among the British, frustrated at having been presented with a fait accompli in recent days and treated as auxiliaries, there is a similar feeling of abandonment and even betrayal. Will it last? Nothing is less certain, as the United Kingdom has been diplomatically weakened by Brexit. In France, the Gaullo-Mitterrandist tradition has made the authorities less emotionally sensitive to this type of setback, which only strengthens the validity of its original position within NATO. As for the Germans, once the election campaign is over, everything will return to the Atlanticist order.
Nevertheless, the reliability of the American commitment to its allies is increasingly being questioned. This should not affect NATO, which could in theory survive the defection of its main shareholder, with others assuming more responsibility. The NATO bureaucracy is a marvel of the human mind that it would be a shame to write off. NATO, despite its immense flaws, has the great merit of existing. It would be absurdly expensive to replace it with a new Brussels bureaucracy.
On the other hand, the other allies of the United States, who do not benefit from NATO membership, can rightly be worried, starting with Ukraine and Taiwan. As much as the two “strategic competitors” have little reason to welcome the American withdrawal from Afghanistan, which contributed gratuitously to their security, they can now envisage in the near future the realization of their strategic claims: on the one hand, the “neutralization” of Ukraine (or even its admission into a renewed Eurasian union), and on the other hand, the “reunification” of China with the end of Taiwanese democracy. We now know that the United States is militarily and politically incapable of opposing this. The question is no longer “if” but “when”. Let’s bet that it will be quite fast, so as not to miss the opportunity of a vacuum at the head of the American executive similar to FD Roosevelt’s last term.
The coming months are likely to be strategically active and perilous. A renewed Indo-Pacific policy among the bordering middle powers (including France and the United Kingdom) is all the more necessary. This will make it easier to justify an increased defense effort after the political deadlines of 2022.
Conclusion: Retreat without glory
As always, even a fragile solution could have been found, but two major impasses express the two fractures from which Afghanistan suffered greatly:
- The Pashtun areas feed the insurgencies that the Taliban live on;
- The recurring dispute between Mr. Ghani and Mr. Abdullah is a reflection of the territorial fissure: the non-Pashtun north of the country is the electoral basin of Mr. Abdullah, a former companion of commander Ahmed Chah Massoud, whose supporters are tired of the excessive Pashtun political weight of more than two centuries; while Ghani’s electoral stronghold, even if it transcends ethnic divisions, is naturally in the Pashtun tribal area where his Ahmadzai tribe originates.
These are realities of history and political anthropology that alone explain insurgent resiliencies; American strategists have paid little attention to them. [v] An anthropological approach to reconciling the Afghan nation, if not magical, would have at least hindered the great return of the Taliban, but it was taken into consideration. [vi] Instead, the American decision-makers opted for The Doha agreements which are not peace agreements, in the least. They only set the unglamorous withdrawal of an exsanguinated country and sign the return in force of those whom the most powerful armies in the world, the United States at the head of a coalition of thirty-eight countries, were supposed to defeat to the last.
On the anthropological argument, Jeremy Suri writes: [vii]
“Sumit Guha’s slim and learned book Tribe and State in Asia Through Twenty-Five Centuries offers crucial context for understanding one of the most powerful forms of a political organization pushing against states: the tribe. Guha is a historian of South Asia with a sociological orientation. He focuses on what he calls the “political ecology of tribal life.” Climate and topography, he argues, empower pastoral and decentralized forms of social organization on the edges of empires and states. The groups in these regions survive through kinship networks and adaptation to the land. They resist powerful intruders, and they adapt creatively to wider changes in politics and the economy. “
You can follow Professor Mohamed Chtatou on Twitter: @Ayurinu
[i] Lutz, Eric. “Joe Biden’s Disastrous Afghanistan Exit is in Keeping with American Tradition, “Vanity Fair dared August 15, 2021. https://www.vanityfair.com/news/2021/08/joe-bidens-disastrous-afghanistan-exit-is-in-keeping-with-american-tradition
[ii] Suri, Jeremy. “Why Afghanistan’s Tribes Beat the United States, “Foreign Policy Dated August 16, 2021. https://foreignpolicy.com/2021/08/16/afghanistan-taliban-tribes-state-withdrawal/
[iii] Yi, Shen. “Kabul’s ‘Saigon moment:’ the US trapped in the puzzle of how to end its strategic profligacy properly and decently, “Global Times dated August 17, 2021. https://www.globaltimes.cn/page/202108/1231685.shtml
Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) is the U.S. government’s leading oversight authority on Afghanistan reconstruction. Congress created the Office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction to provide independent and objective oversight of the Afghanistan Reconstruction funds. Under the authority of Section 1229 of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2008 (PL 110-181), SIGAR conducts audits, inspections, and investigations to promote efficiency and effectiveness of reconstruction programs, and to detect and prevent waste, fraud, and abuse of taxpayer dollars. SIGAR also has a hotline that allows individuals to report suspected fraud.
SIGAR’s mission is to “promote economy and efficiency of U.S.-funded reconstruction programs in Afghanistan and to detect and deter fraud, waste, and abuse by conducting independent, objective, and strategic audits, inspections, and investigations”. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Special_Inspector_General_for_Afghanistan_Reconstruction)
[vi] Rosen, Lawrence. “Anthropological Assumptions and the Afghan War.” Anthropological Quarterly, vol. 84, no. 2, The George Washington University Institute for Ethnographic Research, 2011, pp. 535–58, http://www.jstor.org/stable/41237504.
[vii] Suri, Jeremy. “Why Afghanistan’s Tribes Beat the United States, “Foreign Policy Dated August 16, 2021.