It feels strange for me to be doing so much media this week on Afghanistan, as I haven't been following the conflict or the country closely since I finished the two books on NATO's experience and Canada's. The caveat I usually offer is that I studied the outsiders and their politics, not the politics of Afghanistan itself. Yet, I have spent this week far more focused, in part because of the media's questions and in part because of the dynamics of this year, on Afghanistan's politics.
The big questions involve why the Afghan National Army [ANA] has broken and what would have happened if Biden had broken the deal that Trump had signed and kept a magical 2,500 troops in country.
- I think the breaking of the ANA says less about the training and more about politics. Yes, the US and its allies built the ANA so that it was perhaps not best suited for situations where logistics would be difficult and transport would be hard. The departure of outside enablers made a difference. BUT the ANA fought hard for years, paying a huge price over time. What made it not sustainable was ... politics and governance. That any army can't fight forever if it is not getting the political support it requires. The stories this week of units running out of food, water, ammo are telling. Plus we must remember, wars like these are not just about who can kill but who can either govern or undermine governance. The enduring lesson of the past 20 years is that it is easy to break shit but not so easy to build stuff. I wonder how well the Taliban, good at breaking stuff, will be at building a functional government.
- Did Biden cause this to happen by pulling out the last remaining troops? Yes and no. Yes, in that it confirmed what people had long knew and expected--that the US was leaving--and there was not so much clarity about the US providing air support. But the idea Biden reneging on Trump's deal to get out in 2021 would have stopped this suggests that the Taliban would have just gone along with it. The Taliban had been working on this for quite some time, they have managed to upset efforts to build governance, and they may have made side deals with key actors (I am wondering about Karzai's clan....). So, I don't think keeping 2,500 trainers in Kabul would have stopped the semi- or un-governed provincial districts from falling or Herat and Kandahar from falling. I do think it is in part about expectations and anticipation--why keep fighting if you know you are going to lose? The US moves may have altered expectations somewhat, but people have been raising questions for years about how sustainable the pace of operations was for the ANA.
Since no one in the US and its allies has the desire to send another 100,000 troops to re-fight the war, the focus must be on helping as many people get out and find a home as possible.
Will a Taliban-ruled (not so much governed) Afghanistan be a threat? I am not so sure. ISIS proved you can inspire terrorism with or without a territorial base. The Taliban may have also learned that hosting international terrorist organizations may be more trouble than its worth. Sure, they may be coming back into power, but spending 20 years on the run may not have been so much fun for them. Of course, folks often don't learn, which means the US may end up using air strikes and special ops to disrupt terrorist organizations if they start making Afghanistan a home. We have learned a lot about what can be done from a distance, and I think there will be more willingness now than in 1998 to use force against potential terrorist groups.
None of this is good, but much of it was inevitable. I am reading a book about Afghanistan right now called Unwinnable by Theo Farrell, and it is pretty convincing. At the end of the day, the key thing is this: counter-insurgency is really hard and third party counter-insurgency is harder still. It tends to be easier to disrupt governance efforts than to govern (as the anti-maskers in the US are proving). If a government needs help to fight an insurgency, well, it is going to be very, very hard. And when those governing have competing interests, like grabbing every dollar they can find for themselves, the effort may just be doomed to fail.
So, the keys now are to do whatever we can to help those who helped us, to help the rest of the refugees, and to learn as much as we can, including developing greater skepticism about the utility of force and about the ability of outsiders to defeat insurgencies.