The scenes of desperate Afghans trying to escape the Taliban by clinging to aeroplanes and then falling to their deaths after take-off shows part of the horror of recent days in Kabul.
Responsibility for the chaos in Kabul rests on the US for its hapless and panicky withdrawal. But blame must be shared by the Afghan National Army, which surrendered without firing a shot, and by President Ashraf Ghani who ran away, and by Afghanistan’s neighbours who hardly lifted a finger in the fight against the Taliban. The US has embarrassed its NATO allies and betrayed the Afghans who supported its mission.
Afghanistan is Vietnam and other interventions repeated as immense tragedy and farce. The lead-ups to Chinook helicopters evacuating Americans from the US Embassies in Saigon in July 1975 and from that in Kabul in August 2021 are frighteningly similar.
“How many more generations of Americans’ daughters and sons would you have me send to fight Afghanistan’s civil war when Afghan troops will not?” President Joe Biden said in his speech on Monday.
That is a good point, but it fails to address the failure of US intelligence to predict the Taliban’s intentions, and then to ignore or downplay its advance once it began in May.
To be sure, as Biden said, a premature withdrawal of American citizens and diplomats would have dented the Afghan National Army’s already shaky confidence. But it does not excuse the debacle last weekend.
When the Taliban signalled its intention to push for a complete takeover, the Americans should have had a Plan B in place to block the insurgents’ advance and reassure allies. They might have also laid the groundwork for an orderly exit, if not a power-sharing agreement between Ghani’s government and the Taliban. The Biden administration’s failure to come up with a plan is inexplicable.
The defeat of what was the largest and longest-ever NATO campaign says a lot about the nature of wars of insurgency and about being drawn into conflicts over many years. The longer a campaign, the more difficult it becomes for outside forces to sustain domestic political support. And the longer the campaign, the more the ineffectiveness of local allies is revealed.
The US went into Afghanistan to help crush the Taliban and Al-Qaeda after the attack on the World Trade Centre in September 2001. It might have ended there, but the Americans were then drawn into an ill-conceived nation-building exercise through the promotion of democracy, good governance, and gender equality. There were warnings of mission creep, but these went unheeded and it has ended badly.
In Vietnam as in Afghanistan, once the US Army began pulling out, they committed resources to military training and arming the local allies. Both the Army of the Republic of Vietnam and the National Army of Afghanistan lacked the stomach for a fight from the start. Why they lacked the motivation is uncertain. Did they feel deep down that the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong or the Taliban would inevitably win?
There were many reports of “arrangements” between the Afghan army and the Taliban not to fight. That the Taliban should appear en masse in highly visible trucks bristling with weapons might really have been no surprise to many in Afghanistan.
Biden opposed President Barack Obama’s decision to “surge” the US troop presence in 2009 and has long argued that the mission should have been confined to forcing Al-Qaeda out of the country. The most isolationist President in many years, Donald Trump, began the troop drawdown in Afghanistan and he might have been blamed for the fall of Kabul had he been re-elected.
If there is one overriding fact about fighting insurgencies, it is that long wars in foreign countries are unsustainable, particularly for democracies. This is particularly true in western democracies, where citizens are free to agitate against wars they don’t like, but the authoritarian bosses of the Soviet Union were also weakened by an unpopular counter-insurgency in Afghanistan. There were too many casualties, there was dissatisfaction in the army, the cost was too high, and the strategic reason for the war became obscure.
Volunteer armies do not make it a lot easier to fight these sorts of wars. In open societies there are constant questions about the course of the war, the costs, and then whether it is all worthwhile. And the returning coffins and casualties bear a heavy toll on sentiment and the government in power. Yet the military asks for more troops and equipment, and to win hearts and minds, nation-building campaigns begin. The military should take as given that they have limited time to do a job.
The long-running wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were not a central issue in the US 2016 Presidential election, but Donald Trump’s repeated denunciation of pointless wars seems have put wind behind his campaign. Trump might have been less critical if the US was fighting to win a war where vital interests were at stake.
After all, seeing US troops in endless firefights with the Taliban, but not achieving decisive victories raised questions about what had become of US military power. In one poll, more than 60 percent of Americans supported a withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan.
The US and its allies won most battles in both Afghanistan and Vietnam due to greater firepower and air superiority, but it meant little. In long wars, perseverance is ultimately the decisive factor. The North Vietnamese general, Vo Nguyen Giap and the Taliban were prepared to lose many more lives and stay longer on the battlefield than the US.
Above all, in both conflicts, locals were probably convinced from the start the US lacked the staying power to ensure victory. Ultimately, winning wars of counter-insurgency also requires a degree of ruthlessness that Americans were unable to muster.
If the local population could not be convinced that the US would stay indefinitely, it was not worthy of support. Democracy and human rights meant little in convincing people to support the government, if they believed the insurgents would soon return, stay, and come to power. Whose power was credible was the sole factor that counted. It is not clear that the mass of Afghans really wanted nation-building, when their allegiances were either religious or highly local and they lived in poverty.
Pakistan has been accused of playing a two-faced game with the US over the war in Afghanistan. On and off, Pakistan has been a large recipient of US aid and had to offer a semblance of assistance to the fight against the Taliban. Yet the Pakistanis gave safe harbour to the Taliban and its allies, including Osama bin Laden. The Pakistanis and Afghanistan’s other neighbours stayed out of the fight for reasons of realpolitik. They perhaps knew that ultimately the Taliban would be back in power and they would have to deal with them.
The lessons for fighting future insurgencies will be extensively debated, but in the years ahead expect fewer and more limited interventions from the US and greater reliance on targeted killings through drone attacks and bombings. It would be an immense mistake to view the exodus from Kabul as a sign of diminished American power. There were always questions about what could be achieved. The US still has a global military reach far beyond that of any power.
The perils of attempts at nation-building in foreign lands are evident. The reality is that basic conditions for a central state, never mind democracy, an independent judiciary, and good governance are simply not present in much of the world.
These are global lessons, to which South Africa as a regional military power ought to pay attention. Our presence in the long peacekeeping mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo could yet become a wider and deeper involvement. And our presence along with other southern African armies in Cabo Delgado has its own risks. What happened in Kabul over the weekend is not a uniquely American phenomenon.
Another lesson is to prepare for the exit.