Lessons to Learn from the Loss of Afghanistan

Kandahar is fallen.  Kabul, too.  To hear again those names is to bring back a lost youth a lifetime of operations overseas.  When I heard that Kandahar had fallen to the Taliban...I had a bad day.  I did not think the news would hit so hard — but it did, and I thought to take a moment to give hard-won advice to those who were there, as well as to reflect upon some of the reasons why the Taliban are on the cusp of victory.

Think of those who served

First, this moment is a bad time for those who served there in any way, and it is natural to feel that way.  Basically, our side lost — and we will question our service and sacrifice.  Whatever memories we have are going to come back, and some of them may be overwhelming.  Each day veterans kill themselves, with the loss rippling through their community, so this is a time to be extra aware of that potential.

My advice is mostly common sense: when you are emotionally weak, do not marinate in bad news.  If the news of Afghanistan's fall bothers you — do not follow the news.  Look outside: the sun is still shining, the birds are singing — stay in the present moment, and dwell neither on the past that you cannot change nor on the future if you have no capacity to change it.  Be active, focus on positive things, and do not stew in negative emotions.  Ask for help if you are having bad days.  Some of the hardest feelings of guilt may come for those with close ties to Afghan partners or interpreters.  Know that it is indeed a helpless feeling and that you may not be able to help, but that this is not your personal fault.  Talk to others — you would be surprised how even pastors, priests, or counselors can help just by listening.  Of course, some of the best conversations are with brothers in arms.

Why Afghanistan fell

Separating facts from emotions is useful for such tragedies.  So with what feels like a lifetime of observation and participation, I offer this main point: the government of Afghanistan lost the "Mandate of Heaven."  The people of Afghanistan had twenty years to experience Afghan government and decide that it was not worth fighting for.  The stories are legion: the first president, Karzai, constantly releasing captured terrorist leaders as he dealt directly with the Taliban.  President Karzai's brother being the top gangster of Kandahar.  The Afghan Air Force heroin-smuggling ring.  The Thursday Man Love sessions for all the pedophiles of the Afghan police and military.  The "ghost" soldiers and ever-stolen supplies of the Afghan Army.  The massive vote fraud of the Afghan presidential elections.  The Afghan judges who gave no justice without a bribe.  In sum, the Afghan government had the façade of a constitutional system — but inside its halls, it was a collection of thieves and robbers getting as much as could be gotten while the money was flowing.

To bring the image closer to home, imagine if the U.S. government were closer in substance to that of the city of Baltimore — feckless, dishonest, corrupt, possibly fraudulently elected.  How willing would you be to stand and die on the orders of such a government?  At times, I would put forth that some of our current national malaise is due to such a perception of our government.  The miracle is that so many Afghan soldiers, airmen, and commandos fought for so long and still continue to fight for a few more days, at least.

Getting the government the people deserve

It has long been my observation that groups, communities, and nations usually get the government they deserve.  A virtuous people is usually ruled fairly well — an anarchic people either collapses into anarchy or is ruled strictly.  I think this was President Bush's major conceptual strategic mistake in the post-9-11 wars.  He believed that every nation longed for freedom and was capable of democratic self-government.  As we have learned the hard way, our American constitutional government was not just ordered into existence by the Founders; it is the heritage of untold generations of Germanic tribal self-government, the monastic stewarding of the Roman legacy of education, the Anglo-Saxon traditions of consultative government, the compromise of the Magna Carta, the residue of the English Civil Wars and Bill of Rights, and the self-governing experience of the Pilgrims and the colonial founders in the New World interacting with the French and Scottish Enlightenment.

This was not Afghanistan's experience — the many peoples of Afghanistan lacked the human capital to democratically govern themselves.  The vast majority of Afghans could not read, write, or numerate — parts of Afghan Army basic training were simply teaching soldiers to recognize numbers.  The few Afghan elites were ethnically divided and mutually suspicious.  Often there was no tradition of peaceful self-governance — of the clans living in a valley, often there would be a low-level war among them over resources.  Simply put, the Afghans were not truly capable of self-governing democracy in the Jeffersonian sense.  Therefore, they could not create a government worth dying for.

Sadly, we Americans ourselves also lacked the moral clarity and realism to even try to make the conditions to help build a moral government.  All too often the phrase "it's an Afghan matter" was used as a rationale to excuse some immoral action of our Afghan government partners.  We saw the evil actions of the Afghan government officials but did nothing about it — in great contrast to the colonial heyday, when British officials would say, "It may be your tradition to burn widows alive, but it is my tradition to hang those who do so."  We simply shrugged our shoulders and said, "It's the culture" as we tolerated the evil that destroyed the legitimacy of the Afghan government.

Roads not taken

Our experience in Afghanistan reminds me of the biblical story of Abraham pleading with G-d to save the doomed city of Sodom: if fifty righteous men be found in the city, will you not destroy it?  What if only ten righteous men be found there?  And the city was destroyed because not even ten good men could be found.

Basically, there were not enough good Afghan leaders at all levels of the security forces to beat the Taliban.  This is why the Afghan forces did not fall apart until U.S. forces withdrew completely.  Afghan forces may not have trusted their own leaders, but they had some confidence in the U.S. forces.  Only a very small number of U.S. forces fighting alongside the Afghans during the Trump years was enough to hold the Taliban at bay.

One path that might have worked would be some type of mercenary Western leadership and technical force.  The military of the United Arab Emirates is led by an Australian general, with Western military staffing where appropriate, and the competent Jordanian forces were likewise led by a British general for many years.  Within the military advising realm, when U.S. advisers were not hamstrung, only a few U.S. leaders were able to lead many local forces in aggressive and effective operations.

Similarly, I imagine that had President Trump still been leading rather than President Biden, the drawdown would have been paused — and some special forces teams and bombers would have been dispatched in sufficient numbers to halt the Taliban's advance.  I note that during Trump's years, Afghanistan was relatively quiet.  The Taliban did not attack so dramatically until they had taken the measure of Biden.

Watching twenty years of American blood and treasure float away like dust in the wind hurts.  Perhaps we will draw some lessons from this pain.

Image via Pixabay, Pixabay License.

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