The Return of the Taliban and the Arrogance of Empire

Second in a series on the Taliban, Afghanistan, and the United States

It is less than three days ago that American newspapers, in their coverage of rapidly developing events in Afghanistan, cited ‘experts’ in American foreign policy as being of the opinion that Kabul was not likely to be breached by the Taliban before 30 days.  Six days ago, an analysis by the US military suggested that the fall of Kabul could take place in 90 days; and in June American analysts had forecast a collapse of the government led by Ashraf Ghani in 6-12 months if the US adhered to its plan to withdraw its forces. Many of these experts and other public commentators would have sensed over the course of the last few weeks as the Taliban overran one city after another that something was amiss in American military intelligence and the assessments of the State Department.  What is most striking is that at a White House press conference on July 8, Biden was unequivocal in the affirmation of his view that the US in withdrawing from Afghanistan was not handing over the country to the Taliban:

Q    Mr. President — do you trust the Taliban, Mr. President?
Q    Is a Taliban takeover of Afghanistan now inevitable?
THE PRESIDENT:  No, it is not.
Q    Why?
THE PRESIDENT:  Because you — the Afghan troops have 300,000 well-equipped — as well-equipped as any army in the world — and an air force against something like 75,000 Taliban.  It is not inevitable.

This is far from being the first time that American military analysts, policy wonks, and the myriad number of ‘experts’ have proven to be wholly inept.  The ‘mother of all terrorist attacks’, as Saddam Hussein might have said, though he had no hand in that affair, was the September 11 bombings of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon which caught Americans wholly unaware and to revenge which they launched an attack of Afghanistan where the mastermind of the bombings, Osama bin Laden, was believed to be sheltering.  Then President Bush declared that the United States would go to the ends of the earth to bring the perpetrators of the terrorist attack to justice and American troops would smoke them out of caves if necessary.  Vengeance may not be the way of Jesus, but it is nevertheless biblical; and though pious words and phrases such as ‘justice’, ‘human rights’, the ‘scourge of terrorism’, and the assault on the integrity of the ‘international community’ were mentioned as inspiring the US to wage war on Afghanistan, there was never any doubt that the US was thirsting for blood.  The US mainland had not been attacked since British troops burnt much of Washington DC to the ground in 1812 and it must have been particularly grating for the Americans that they had survived the cold war, outspent the Soviets and brought down the Soviet empire, but were outdone by a bunch of Islamic terrorists who had then gone into hiding in a country that more than one American commentator has described as the home of ‘primitive’ people.

One year into the US attack on Afghanistan in 2001, bin Laden was known to have made his way out of Afghanistan to some other country—identified, a decade later, as Pakistan.  Biden has now denied that the US had any set for itself any mission, as he put it in his address yesterday morning (August 16), to create the conditions that would facilitate Afghanistan’s transition to a ‘unified centralized democracy’, and he has similarly said that ‘our mission in Afghanistan was never nation-building.’  This retrospective justification of the decision to pull out of Afghanistan is simultaneously correct and incorrect.  On the one hand, much as Biden may deny it, nation-building was undoubtedly the rhetoric that informed the decision of one American administration after another to keep troops despite the escalating costs of a quasi-American occupation.  The core mission of the US in Afghanistan, the first Obama administration declared in opposition to the Bush administration’s design of attempting a vast project of nation-building, was ‘to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and to prevent their return to either country in the future’, but at the same time it was understood that this objective could only be achieved by introducing democracy in Afghanistan in at least some rudimentary form. Thus, in this respect, Biden’s statement yesterday is not merely incorrect, but suggests rather an elementary failure to recognize, or perhaps acknowledge, that the ‘core mission’ as set out by Obama cannot be disentangled from the introduction of democratic reforms and what is called nation-building.

In seeking to understand some though not all dimensions of the extraordinary return of the Taliban to power after two decades, we can attempt to identify some elements of the present discourse around Afghanistan that are now, and will remain, of critical importance—not just for the people of Afghanistan but for the rest of the world.  Twenty years ago, writing an article called ‘Terrorism, Inc.:  The Family of Fundamentalisms’, for the now defunct The Little Magazine (September-October 2001 issue), I suggested that Americans had been ‘warned that Afghanistan has never been conquered in the last millennium, and that it will be their graveyard:  the British were unable to subdue the Afghans, the Soviets got quagmired in that hostile terrain, and it is the fate of each superpower to be humbled by the intractable Afghans.’  It may be a cliché to speak of Afghanistan as ‘the graveyard of empires’, certainly modern empires, but the Taliban themselves have declared that their victory shows the resolve of the Afghans to never be governed by foreigners.  One might think that for this reason alone the Americans, who are prone to speak with pride of their own past as one shaped by the ardent desire for self-determination, might find common cause with the Taliban.  Somehow, such a sentiment has never entered into American calculations and never became part of the American discourse on Afghanistan, not even in those very limited circles that are highly critical of US foreign policy.

Just how the Taliban were able to run the opposition into the ground and make the government fall in a matter of days cannot of course be accounted for only by the notion that the American enterprise was doomed to failure from the outset since the Afghans will never tolerate foreigners as occupiers in their midst. There are many considerations at work here.  In my last essay, I wrote about the Taliban as non-state actors, but we can at this juncture profitably invoke the brilliant work of the anthropologist James Scott who drew a distinction between state and non-state spaces.  The fact of the matter is that the reach of the state in Afghanistan is always very limited and American boots on the ground for twenty years did not change that.  There are large tracts of the country where the state has no reach and is all but invisible.  The terrain is rugged, uncharted, hostile, and impervious to the penetration that technologies of the state have achieved elsewhere.  There are many consequences that follow, among them that the Taliban, who knew the terrain and could count on the hospitality—a key ethic among the Afghans, and one that Americans scarcely recognized—of local people, always had places where they could seek refuge.  But there are denser philosophical and psychological implications of the idea behind non-state spaces, the gist of which is that non-state spaces defy the logic of the master and make incapable the mastery that Americans have long assumed comes with technologies of the state.

Secondly, and relatedly, the so-called failure of the Afghan security forces must be scrutinized in a different language than that made familiar to us from all of contemporary political discourse, whether form the right, center, or left.  Nearly everyone is puzzled by how the Afghan security forces crumbled like tenpins in a bowling alley.  US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has spoken repeatedly of ‘the inability of Afghan security forces to defend their country’ and Biden likewise stated with some weariness that the Afghan military gave up easily, ‘sometimes without fighting’. The Taliban is not one group and there is no entirely reliable account of their numbers, but the most generous estimates place their strength at no more than 150,000. The Afghan security forces, in contrast, numbered over 300,000, and over the years billions of dollars have been spent on ‘training’ them.  Yet, it is reliably reported that in most cities little or no opposition was offered to the Taliban and when their fighters entered Kabul through its four main gates they were not met with any resistance.  Much before entering Kabul, or cities such as Kandahar, Mazar-e-Sharif, and Jalalabad—which they walked into without any shots being fired practically hours before making their way to the capital—as well as smaller towns, the Taliban are said to have struck deals with local elders and security forces.  Not only were the Taliban able to make inroads with little or no fighting but often arms were surrendered without resistance and the Taliban came into the possession of a large arsenal of armored vehicles, arms, ammunition, grenades, mortar, artillery, night sights, and rocket launchers—and now, after the capitulation of the Afghan security forces, tanks and over 200 fighter jets and choppers. Some have sought to explain their conduct by pointing to the corruption endemic in the security forces; others have pointed to the indiscipline within the security forces or argued that Afghans in uniform feared for their lives and chose the easier option of surrendering without a fight. 

Some of these arguments are merely lazy and rehearse worn-out ideas about the endemic corruption of the ‘native’.  To understand corruption, one might turn equally profitably to the machinations of the Trump White House and the nauseous shenanigans of the oligarchy in the US—but that is another subject.  None of the arguments about how the Afghan security forces virtually disappeared can be reconciled easily with the long-standing image of the Pathan and the Afghan more generally as an indomitable fighter who cannot be separated from his rifle.  But just what does it mean to have ‘trained’ Afghan men?  An average American soldier carries 27 pounds of gear and a few carry as much as 70 pounds; the Afghan fighter, by contrast, sports a rifle and some rounds of ammunition.  When you put the Afghan fighter and the American soldier side-by-side, the latter looks ridiculous—much as the American policeman often looks puffed up, overburdened, and something akin to a sack of potatoes in comparison with the English bobby.  There is some arrogance in supposing that men—even ‘civilians’, though it must be noted that there is no easy distinction in Afghanistan between ‘civilians’ and the ‘Taliban’—born into a culture of the rifle, wholly familiar with the terrain, and habituated to different notions of kinship can just be ‘trained’ into becoming ‘soldiers’ of the type familiar to us from a modern army. It is the Americans, on the contrary, that should have been receiving training:  barely any American soldiers or even commanding officers and generals know any of the languages spoken in Afghanistan and the history of the country is wholly foreign to them.  The American soldier, not surprisingly, reflects the general indifference of the US to most parts of the world, as well as what we can call the technological fallacy—the hubris of supposing that technology can overcome all shortcomings.

I have already suggested that whatever the differences among the Afghans, and the hostilities between ethnic groups, Americans were clearly seen as foreigners and as members of an occupying force.  While I have suggested that the Taliban may have forged links with local communities, the Afghans have a history of resistance to centralized state authority and to that extent there is no doubt that there will continue to be resistance to the Taliban as they once again take over the functions of a ‘state’. It would be difficult to overstate the sheer indifference with which most Afghans evidently treated the notion of Americans as liberators.  Many will dispute this characterization, pointing especially to their role, as the Americans themselves fondly imagined, of freeing Afghan women and girls from the shackles of drudgery, sexual abuse, illiteracy, and servitude.  The question of gender, the Taliban, and the American occupation and mission in Afghanistan is critically important and I will take it up in the following essay as it is deserving of lengthier treatment.  For the present, however, the resurgence and return of the Taliban poses difficult questions not only for those who seek to promote democracy around the world and are enamored of the idea that ‘democracy’ is the culmination (or nearly so) of the human aspiration for freedom, but even for those who live in those countries which are generally seen as established democracies.  The unpleasant truth is that democracies are under severe, indeed unprecedented, stress everywhere in the world.  The US presents perhaps the starkest example of the peril to established democracies, given that many Republicans are, by every measure, the Taliban of their own country.  The world will now have to ponder whether the fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban is not in fact an ominous portent of the impending demise worldwide of the short-lived idea of democracy.

An Ignominious End for a Superpower: Run, America, Run

First in a series of 2-4 articles on Afghanistan, the Taliban, and the United States

Afghanistan has fallen to the Taliban and the United States is scrambling to evacuate Americans.  So screamed a headline in the New York Times all of yesterday and so say the images being flashed on television and mobile phone screens.  How the Americans are running with their tails between their legs!  US Secretary of State Antony Blinken was on the air defending the Biden administration’s decision to undertake a rather abrupt withdrawal of American forces and the most striking pronouncement that came from his lips was surely this:  ‘This is manifestly not Saigon.’  The very fact that he attempted to disabuse people from recalling the humiliation that the United States suffered on 30 April 1975 as North Vietnamese troops occupied the city and the US sought to evacuate its personnel from its embassy in Saigon suggests the potency of the analogy.  Then, and now, the most iconic image from the end game is of American helicopters ferrying US personnel and ‘collaborators’, as the enemy dubs them, to safety—this time to a secure location at the airport the perimeter of which is ringed by American military forces.  Then it was the evil communists; now it is the dreaded Islamic terrorists.  But it is America, once again, which is fleeing from scenes of chaos—the very chaos that it engendered in the first place.

The United States, the preeminent military power of the post-World War II period, has suffered yet another crushing defeat.  Let us not minimize the enormity of this defeat.  Many commentators have sought to soften the blow:  some are calling it an ‘embarrassment’, others are speaking of the loss of American ‘prestige’, and yet others are speaking of how the US military has been caught flat-footed.  It is all this and far more than just the end of the US era in Afghanistan.  It cannot suffice to say that the Americans were committed to a withdrawal in any case and that Biden and his advisors only miscalculated if severely the extent to which Afghan security forces would be able to hold back the Taliban.  On this view, the present ‘humiliation’ can be put down to failures in strategic thinking and implementation of a policy laid down by Biden’s predecessor, though many American themselves will wonder why a ‘trillion dollars’ have gone down the drain.  This is the amount that is being mentioned as the cost of the 20-year war, allowing for expenses incurred in military engagements, maintaining a massive American presence, and nation-building in an attempt, as the Americans saw it, to secure the ‘free world’ from the scourge of terrorism and bring ‘civilization’ to tribal ‘savages’.  Such a view shows a complete unawareness of the culture of militarism, which is another form of savagery, which is as intrinsic to American foreign policy and even the American character as the purported love of liberty. 

Last Days in Vietnam: The Evacuation of American Personnel from the American Embassy, Saigon, 29-30 April 1975. Source: PBS.
Last Days in Afghanistan: Evacuation from the US Embassy in Kabul, 14 August 2021. Source: AP Photo, Ahmad Gul.

The brute fact of the matter is that, since the end of World War II with the decisive victory of the US and the Allies against the fascists in Germany, Italy, and Japan, the US has not won a war outright, if it has won a war at all.  The Korean War (June 1950 – July 1953) ended in a stalemate, marked by an armistice agreement, and its bitter legacy continues to the present day.  In Vietnam, the Americans assumed the responsibilities, as it saw them, that the French were no longer able to carry out of stemming the menacing advance of communism.  Then, two decades later, in what can be called another protracted entanglement, this time in Iraq, the Americans sought the submission of Saddam Hussein first by bombing Iraq back into the stone age and then, some years later, by cornering the Iraqi dictator and literally digging him out from a hole before he was sent to the gallows.  In the process, they not only left the country in shambles, but their ambition to introduce democratic reforms—when they had enough to do in their own country, as the rise of white supremacists and xenophobic militarists has established all too clearly—would have the effect of unraveling entire societies all over West Asia (or the Middle East as the Americans call it).  The debacles in Syria, where the atrocities committed by the Western-educated Bashar al-Assad make Iraq under Hussein look tame, as well as the civil war in Libya, precipitated by the US resolve to bring down the government of Muammar Gaddafi, bear the imprint of US foreign policy, even as one recognizes the role of other states such as Russia and Saudi Arabia in creating the unholy mess in which the Arab world is now enmeshed.  Now, to cap it all, is the story of twenty years of the presence of American troops dissolving into capitulation to armed tribesmen over a matter of a few days. Some might argue that the US did win the Cold War:  if it did so, which thirty years after the demise of the Soviet Union is far from being clear, it is worthwhile asking what the implications might be of winning only a ‘cold’ rather than ‘hot’ war.

What should be unambiguously clear now is that military power, indeed overwhelming military power, has limitations and indeed is even a liability. There is a lesson in this for other powers, especially China, though one should never underestimate the human tendency to forgo what historians fondly and sometimes wistfully call ‘the lessons of history’.  The US never fully acknowledged its military defeats and the generals only took back the lesson that they would not fight a war with one hand tied behind their back. American counter-insurgency operations would henceforth be focused on developing tools and the skills required to fight guerrillas and what are called non-state actors.  In the operations against the al-Qaeda, the Taliban, ISIS, and other jihadi outfits, the Americans thought that they had learnt something about how to engage non-state actors. However, none of this should be allowed to obscure the fact that overwhelming military power does not necessarily confer advantages as it once did, even when the asymmetry of firepower is astronomical.  What is seldom mentioned about the American triumph over Germany, in contrast to the wars that the US has fought in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan, is the element of the shared culture between the US and Germany as one of the torch-bearers of ‘Western civilization’.  This had a great many implications:  the US forces were never viewed as alien in Germany, just as the Taliban, whatever one might hear in the Western press about the dislike for them among common Afghans, have capitalized on the shared culture between them—even allowing for differences between Pashtuns, Tajiks, Hazaras, Uzbeks, and the handful of other ethnic groups—and the myriad other insurgent groups and political parties. The newly appointed Taliban mayor of Kunduz, Gul Mohammed Elias, is reported to have said that ‘our jihad is not with the municipality, our jihad is against the occupiers and those who defend the occupiers’.  The return of the Taliban, to which I shall turn in a subsequent essay, owes much to this consideration, not merely to realist political assessments of foreign policy, geopolitics, military strategy, and the like. 

A Polish translation of this article by Marek Murawski is available here.

A translation into Georgian by Ana Mirilashvili is available here.