Over the last month or so we have seen several reports out of Afghanistan registering the shock of the Americans, the Afghani government, and even the Taliban itself with the speed at which the Taliban forces have captured the Afghani countryside.
I am surprised with this surprise. Last year I wrote a book review of sorts of Dexter Filkins’ Forever War, a 2006 on the ground account of combat in Afghanistan and Iraq over the preceding eight years. Here is how Filkins describes the the nature of warfare he witnessed the first time the Taliban tried to seize control of the entire country–and the first time they were defeated.
People fought in Afghanistan, and people died, but not always in the obvious way. They had been fighting for so long, twenty-three years then, that by the time the Americans arrived the Afghans had developed an elaborate set of rules designed to spare as many fighters as they could. So the war could go on forever. Men fought, men switched sides, men lined up and fought again. War in Afghanistan often seemed like a game of pickup basketball, a contest among friends, a tournament where you never knew which team you’d be on when the next game got under way. Shirts today, skins tomorrow. On Tuesday, you might be part of a fearsome Taliban regiment, running into a minefield. And on Wednesday you might be manning a checkpoint for some gang of the Northern Alliance. By Thursday you could be back with the Talibs again, holding up your Kalashnikov and promising to wage jihad forever. War was serious in Afghanistan, but not that serious. It was part of everyday life. It was a job. Only the civilians seemed to lose.
Battles were often decided this way, not by actual fighting, but by flipping gangs of soldiers. One day, the Taliban might have four thousand soldiers, and the next, only half that, with the warlords of the Northern Alliance suddenly larger by a similar amount. The fighting began when the bargaining stopped, and the bargaining went right up until the end. The losers were the ones who were too stubborn, too stupid or too fanatical to make a deal. Suddenly, they would find themselves outnumbered, and then they would die. It was a kind of natural selection.
One of the Afghan militia commanders with whom I traveled, Daoud Khan, was a master of this complicated game. He was portly and well dressed, and he ate very well. The Afghans spoke of him in reverent tones, but he didn’t seem like much of a warrior to me. He’d never fought for the Taliban himself, but thousands of his former soldiers were now in the Taliban ranks. Why kill them when he could just bring them back to his side? Khan captured his first city, Taloqan, without firing a single shot. He did it by persuading the local Taliban leader, a man named Abdullah Gard, to switch sides. Gard was no dummy; he could see the B-52s. I guessed that Khan had probably used a lot of money, but he never allowed me to sit in as he worked the Taliban chieftains on the radio. The day after Taloqan fell, I found Gard in an abandoned house, seated on a blue cushion on the floor, warming himself next to a wood-burning stove. His black Taliban turban was gone, and he had replaced it with a woolen Chitrali cap just like that of Ahmad Shah Massoud. “All along, I was spying on the Taliban,” Gard said, his eyes darting. No one believed him, but no one seemed to care.
On the first night of the long-awaited offensive against the Taliban, carried out at the urging of the Americans, the Alliance commanders bombarded the Taliban lines and then, as night fell, sent their men forward. Yet when I arrived the next morning, the Alliance soldiers stood more or less where they had the day before. They’d run, and then they’d run back. No one seemed surprised. “Advancing, retreating, advancing, that’s what you do in war,” Yusef, a twenty-year-old Alliance soldier, told me with a shrug. He was sitting in a foxhole. It wasn’t that the Afghans were afraid to fight, it was that they’d fought too much. And now, given the opportunity, they wanted to avoid it if they could.
“My dear, I am your brother, you know how much affection I have for you, there is really no point in resisting anymore,” Mohammad Uria, a Northern Alliance commander, said into his radio to a Taliban commander a few miles away. Of course, there were plenty of Taliban soldiers who wanted to fight forever. Fight to the death. They were the Pashtuns from Kandahar, for the most part, a different breed. “I’ve seen them run right into the minefields— they want to die,” Pir Mohammed said, shaking his head in awe. But where I was, in northern Afghanistan, many if not most of the Taliban soldiers weren’t from Kandahar, they were from the north— Tajiks and Uzbeks who’d switched sides when the fearsome Kandaharis rolled in. Now the northerners wanted to quit. The one group of people who really took fighting seriously were the foreigners— that is, the Americans and Al-Qaeda. They came to kill.1
Dexter Filkins, The Forever War (New York: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 2006), 50-54.
Filkins traveled south to Kabul with the advance of the Northern Alliance, but the same dynamic played out in Pashtunistan. When the CIA inserted Hamid Karzai into Kandahar province to raise up hell, he was met by a large contingent of truck borne Taliban eager to squash the rebellion in its tracks. Special Forces A-team 574 called in airstrikes, five hundred Taliban died without managing to kill a single member of Karzai’s force, and every village elder in the province saw it happen. Pillars of Taliban rule the day before emerged as grateful liberated the day after.2
Steve Coll, Directorate S: The C.I.A. and America’s Secret Wars in Afghanistan (New York: Penguin Books, 2018), 100; Carter Malkasian, The American War in Afghanistan: A History (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2021), 68, 72. PBS also has an interesting set of interviews with the special forces team that accompanied Karzai through the battle.
Thus when the New York Times reports that Taliban “fighters have directions to treat captured government soldiers with care and ultimately release them” in a bid for good will, we should not frame these happenings as an extraordinary attempt by the Taliban to “rebrand themselves” or “polish their image.”3 This is how they fought the first time around; this is how everybody in Afghanistan fought until we got there.
Najim Rahim and Thomas Gibbons-Neff, “Taliban Try to Polish Their Image as They Push for Victory,” New York Times (21 July 2021)
Our failure to understand this dynamic has had consequences. It was not just the village elders who were ready to sign on to Karzai’s project–both in the immediate aftermath of his 2001 victories and sporadically in 2002 Taliban leaders offered to quit armed resistance and join in with the new Afghani government. Karzai was in favor. Washington was not. Without consulting Karzai or the CIA folks running the show on the ground, Donald Rumsfeld announced via press conference that defeated Taliban would not be negotiated or cooperated with; when the CIA tried to press the issue through interagency channels a few months later, Dick Cheney shut the effort down.4
As Filkins wrote, the Americans came to Afghanistan to kill. With Al-Qaeda gone, Taliban were the only folks left on the target list. “The Bush administration’s message to the movement’s survivors and their backers [in Pakistani intelligence] was clear: The Taliban could expect no future in Afghan politics unless they fought for it.”5
Fought they have.
Coll, Directorate S, 101-2, 140-44; Malkasian, The American War in Afghanistan, 73-76; 99-101.
Coll, Directorate S, 144.
The consistent problem with most comments about the conflict in Afghanistan is they fail to fully account for the role of the Pakistan Army/ISI in all of this. They are the most important element in the conflict, not the Afghans, not us and not the Taliban. If they weren’t involved and the conflict were limited to Afghanistan and Afghans things like what Mr. Filkins describe would hold sway and accommodations and arrangements might be made. But that won’t happen because the Pak Army/ISI won’t let it. They have a mad idea of requiring Afghanistan for strategic depth (‘After the Indians beat us we can fall back on the tank factories of Kabul and regroup.’) and they require a compliant regime running the country. So they make it happen. As plucky as the Afghans can be, Afghanistan can’t handle Pakistan, especially a Pakistan that is a conduit for Gulf Arab money being sent to buy the donors a place in heaven.
Handling the Pak Army/ISI was our job and we didn’t do it. We never really even tried to do it. If we had kept the Paks out and the conflict was contained within Afghanistan, the Afghans could have handled what would have been left of the Taliban through means such as those described by Mr. Filkins. But we didn’t. We got had by Pakistan and tales of the Raj and their special knowledge. We gave them money even, lots of it to kill us and Afghans.
We did get something for this though. Hundreds of high ranking officers got their tickets punched. The spec ops community got their budgets and fanfare. Multitudes of State Dept. people got hazard pay and career points. Contracting companies and contractors galore got lots and lots of money over lots and lots of years. Several thousand of our guys died but they were mostly deplorable NASCAR fans and don’t much count. Now the party is over and the Afghans get to pay the final bill.
Nice going Americans! This is the second time in my life where we’ve bugged out on people who trusted us when we told them we wouldn’t bug out on them.
I agree in part. The Pakistani angle made the prospect of foreign counter-insurgency absurdly dumb. (If you aren’t Iran or Russia it’s not physically possible to send more then 10K people into country and not have them starve to death without Pakistani cooperation. The country is on the brink of famine already.)
A defeat like on this scale has many fathers and the failures in this case go straight to bone. Do people forget that none of the countries bordering Afghanistan support the current government? Or the severe and prolonged disunity in counter-insurgency strategy? Or that the current government is dominated by well connected criminals who divide their time between raping little boys and embezzling foreign aid? Or how it’s so corrupt that some analysts claim that the Taliban may benefit from legal trade more then the legitimate government? Or the severe military/political errors that are directly responsible for this immediate collapse or could have potentially catastrophic consequences down the line?
At this point the Pakistan argument is a desperate cope, in a bid to evade real recognition of failure, grafted on to an old unironic Indian psyop.
Anon: All the points you raise are true. Every one. However, I still contend that Pak Army/ISI sponsorship of Taliban was the critical factor in their impending victory. None of the things you mentioned would have been in isolation or as a whole fatal if the safe haven of Pakistan was not available. If the conflict could have been confined to Afghanistan you would have had Afghanistan, a big corrupt mess but not something that will inspire jihadi killers worldwide ruled by jihadi killers who are still hand in glove with Al Queda. We could have done that. We could have kept the Punjabi empire builders in their place and not by warring on them. Just to consider one thing: Say you are an ISI general and want to secure your place in heaven by helping to restore Taliban to their rightful place. You, of course, have a nice secret bank account somewhere and you get a notice from your banker that you account mysteriously went to zero for 5 minutes than went back to normal. You sit at your desk wondering when you get a strange e-mail warning you that it might happen again if you don’t watch it with the Taliban. That would get your attention. Imagine that on a wide scale. We could have done a lot of things like that. But we didn’t.
IF we had exercised some moxie and imagination, 10k people who stayed in place for years and had money to spend could have done the trick. Knowledgeable people with money to spend can be very effective. The utterly ignorant with even more money to spend aren’t, as we spent 20 years proving. Would Afghanistan been turned into a Muslim Switzerland? Nope. But it would not have been an inspiration for jihadi killers for the next generation or two either.
The Pakistan argument is quite valid I think and to not recognize it is the major failure, without with all of our others could have been coped with.
This is just another little thing to consider. Remember some of the various high profile attacks in years past in Kabul or the one at Bastion? Most all were planned, trained for and launched from Pakistan. They could hit our side in Afghanistan but we couldn’t hit their side in Pakistan. Our side had to sit and wait to get hit and their side could relax in the knowledge that we wouldn’t hit them back as long as they were in Pakistan. They had the initiative. For twenty years they did; and it was a gift to them from the Pak Army/ISI. Winning is hard without the initiative.
So now we get to watch people who trusted us to stick by them, go down because we didn’t. Second time in my lifetime I’ve seen it happen. Maybe people will learn in the future that the Yanks can’t be trusted. That will help them.
Desperate? Hindu psyop? Taliban leaders went to Pakistani cities like Quetta in the safer Pashtun-dominated areas of Baluchistan and elsewhere _every winter_. OBL, himself, Mr. Anon, was eighty-sixed while holed up a couple of blocks from the Pakistani Military Academy in North Pakistan.
Re: “Fathers”: Failure lacks an orphanage here, true, but our failure nonetheless contains frustratingly obvious mistakes:
1) Going in there in the first place. “The Graveyard of Empires” is not a just a catchy phrase, but an accurate description of history, ask the English and the Russians, or read W. Churchill’s Story of the Malakand Field Force. The ‘ghan possesses physical and human terrain obstacles that make achieving military victory (as defined total area dominance) nearly impossible.
2) Bungled war fighting, “nation building” strategy. Rotations resembling a regular war of attrition (hence tickets punched), but mushed up with hearts and minds COIN tactics that had to be relearned year after year by the new guys, continuity be damned. Strategists past, from 19th century European imperialists to the Roman generals of Judea understood that conquest of other peoples meant zero quarter with opposition and a permanent constabulary force for governorship. You can’t half-way this stuff and expect to succeed, certainly not in Afghanistan.
Good article. I also thought the “Bactria” tag was cute.
This whole thing reminds me of the contrast between Mughal warfare and the British equivalent. The Mughals would precede actual combat with a lot of talking shop about money and mansab (loosely translated: a position of power and rank within the Mughal hierarchy). The British had a more…modern way of looking at things. Quoting from Gommans in “Mughal Warfare,” pg 205-206,
“Generally speaking, Mughal policy was usually aimed not at destroying but at incorporating the enemy, preferably by means of endless rounds of negotiations. But the Indian conception of honour did not coincide with that of eighteenth-century English gentlemen. The latter usually mistook Indian flexibility for devious duplicity and collaboration. As expressed in the words
of Arthur Wellesley, the later Duke of Wellington, the British attitude was that of one who ‘would sacrifice Gwalior, or every frontier of India, ten times over, in order to preserve our credit for scrupulous good faith’.(6) For the calculating Indian rulers of the day this mentality must have been sheer madness. It was the unsporting attitude of a party that suddenly and unilaterally changed the rules of the ongoing game. While Indian politics lost a great deal of its earlier openness and flexibility, war also lost much of its earlier playfulness and, instead, became deadly earnest.”
Obviously the British were far more successful than we were.
Fascinating excerpt; thanks for posting it.
However, this doesn’t seem accurate to me — or, rather, it seems accurate, but the language is loaded. They weren’t *misinterpreted* as devious and duplicitous, they *were* devious and duplicitous: that’s exactly what he describes, albeit in softer, nicer terms!
Make no mistake: when we read through the history of the Raj (although not in modern books, probably), we see instances where British soldiers died due to this “flexibility”, as the author calls it. What matter whether your new ally stabs you in the back because it’s part of a long tradition in his country, or because he’s a dirty no-good ruffian? You’re still stabbed!
Afghanistan Government wouldn’t have folded like a pack of cards , if Trump didn’t seek a PR win. Biden doesn’t want to spend any political capital on Afghanistan. Both in war and politics , the unprincipled always reap the reward. The hard deadline USA decided for withdrawal and freeing 5000 battle hardened Talibani terrorists that trump forced Afghan Government to release is what gave them momentum . A joke of a treaty with which Taliban never complied and US never held it accountable for any violations. Loyalties on the ground wouldn’t have shifted so decisively against the national government, if there was even a modicum of western support in form of NATO armies or UN peacekeepers. Merely 5k soldiers would have kept Taliban in check. Retribution for any violation for peace treaty would have kept them in check . But no, lives of brown and white people are not worth the blood of even a single white life . The mujahids will soon arrive in Kashmir and US will achieve the rare task of betraying 2 partners.
In India, over many many years, the British developed a reputation for keeping their promises and delivering on their threats, and being consistent. This was very valuable to them, and permitted them to behave in a way that the other rulers generally could not. Of course, when the British arrived, they gave no indication that they planned to leave, and there’s visibly sunk deep roots, indicating a commitment to staying there permanently. This was expensive but effective signaling. But even the British realized that staying permanently in Afghanistan was a bad idea. There simply was not enough of value there to make it worth keeping, do there was no reason to make the investment. General Sir Charles Napier, during the course of the punitive expedition to Abyssinia, wrote back to London and said this country is simply not worth keeping, so please do not get any idea about us staying here. The British were able to make assessments of that type and get decent results. Plus, they did a lot of it, so they had a base of practical knowledge to draw on. The USA, not so much.
Vietnam scenario. The Americans keep using conventional war tactics against an unconventional enemy. They win a few battles but lose the wars.
The Islamic leaders said they would continue fighting and would not compromise or surrender. They said they will win even if it takes a thousand years. So with that agenda there will never be peace and innocent civilians will continue to be victims and killed.
Pakistan is a safe and protected haven for the Taliban and other Islamic terrorist groups.
Afghani is the currency.