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.