When Joe Biden ordered the withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan, he was able to say that they'd leave behind a formidable Afghan army with 300,000 troops, paramilitary police and some 30,000 special forces. That is, on paper, more than enough to secure the country against an insurgency if skilfully deployed and well motivated. The best of these troops are as good as any in the region. But they ended up strung out in thousands of checkpoints across the country, poorly fed, rarely paid, and with fuel and ammunition sold off before it reached them. Many of the units were composed of ‘ghost soldiers,’ phantom troops whose pay was collected by senior officers.
Just a few weeks ago, Joe Biden downplayed the risk of losing Kabul. His strategy was to leave Afghan forces to hold off Taliban for months as negotiators try to hammer out a peace deal. ‘The likelihood there’s going to be the Taliban overrunning everything and owning the whole country is highly unlikely,’ he said.
Even now, Biden has not changed his mind. ‘We cannot continue the cycle of extending or expanding our military presence in Afghanistan, hoping to create ideal conditions for the withdrawal, and expecting a different result,’ he said yesterday. ‘I was the fourth president to preside over an American troop presence in Afghanistan: two Republicans, two Democrats. I would not, and will not, pass this war onto a fifth.’
The first of these presidents, George W. Bush, made a big mistake in going along with Donald Rumsfeld’s plans to make Afghan militias to be the main force on the ground to defeat the Taliban and al-Qaeda. International support was to be composed only of air power and a ‘light footprint’ of special forces. But the Afghan militias he showered with millions of dollars were led by the very warlords whose banditry and violence in the mid-1990s had led to the rise of the Taliban in the first place, in reaction to that criminality. After 2001 the warlords used their new US-funded respectability to muscle their way into positions of power in the post-Taliban settlement, which became a constant driver of corruption.
Whatever other shortcomings occurred in the following 20 years, and there were many – the confusion over war aims, the distraction of Iraq, failure to rein in Pakistan, troops sent to Helmand for no clear purpose – they were dwarfed by this founding failure of the Afghan war.
The Afghan President, Ashraf Ghani, attempted to rally the nation with a speech to parliament and visits to big cities threatened by the Taliban, and encouraged the warlords to fight alongside government forces. But while the warlords were an impediment to good government for 20 years, when tested they turned out to have lost their capacity to make war. Their weakness was displayed when Taliban fighters mocked the warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum, parading in his field marshal uniform after taking his headquarters in the north, while another legendary warlord Ismail Khan was taken captive by the Taliban in the western city of Herat as the city fell.
The American’s light footprint did not last for long after 2001, with a gradual build-up to a peak of 150,000 international troops. But the intervention was not planned, because of an American aversion to anything that looked like ‘nation building’, so for several years there was no coherent policy. There were two impulses running through the administration of President George W. Bush. The first was not to get involved in long foreign engagements – in and out with only a light footprint, ‘Mission Accomplished.’ But on the other hand he drifted into rhetoric about spreading the American dream with a new Marshall Plan to rebuild Afghanistan – referring to the project to rebuild Germany after the second world war.
Twenty years on, and America has spent the equivalent of the Marshall Plan (in today's money). And though they have not exactly built a new Germany, there had been significant progress. The war was not for nothing and the aid was not for nothing. A confident new Afghanistan has emerged. Social attitudes have changed, and not just in the big cities. Women across the country now expect a different life to the narrow, closed path decreed by the misogynist Taliban.
Biden acknowledges this, and recently spoke about a visit to a school in Afghanistan:
‘And I said, “You know, the United States came here to make sure that we got this terrorist, Osama bin Laden, and that terrorists didn’t amass again to – to go after our country. And then we’re going to have to leave.” And a young woman said, “You can’t leave. You can’t leave.” It was – it was heartbreaking. “You can’t leave,” she said. “I want to be a doctor. I want to be a doctor. I want to be a doctor. If you leave, I’ll never be able to be a doctor.” Well, that’s why we spent so much time and money training the Afghan Security Forces to do the work of defending that.’
The Afghan security forces could not stop the Taleben. But these new expectations in Afghanistan will make it difficult for the Taliban to impose their will on the country – except by using constant violence. They do not govern with consent, and there are questions as to whether they can run an administration at all.
The Taliban who are seizing young women as sex slaves, a direct copy of the actions of the Islamic State group, are different to the Taliban of the mid-90s. It may be difficult to believe, but back then the Taliban came as a relief to many parts of Afghanistan, because of the violence and criminality of the warlords. One of the Taliban’s popular early moves in 1994 was to remove the checkpoints that extorted money from truckers along the main southern highway through Kandahar. Those checkpoints are now back and run by the Taliban, showing the Afghan people what the group are now – a criminal racket far more connected to the illegal trade in drugs, timber, and gems than it was when they were last in government.
The Biden administration is being criticised for its decision to pull the rug from under the Afghan state, with untold consequences for the wider region and the world. Biden’s response is to say that America has been there for 20 years now – and cannot allow its original mission of deposing al-Qaeda to mould into an unrealistic attempt of nation-building. As vice president, he was the strongest voice in the Obama team to reduce troops rather than surge back in 2009, and now in power he has not changed his mind. ‘We cannot continue the cycle of extending or expanding our military presence in Afghanistan, hoping to create ideal conditions for the withdrawal, and expecting a different result.’
So along with the criticism of Biden, there should be searching questions too about the start of the war, and why America led its allies into a complex failed state with no coherent plan – expecting to achieve success at the start with air power and a few troops, but with no grasp of the background of those paid to fight on the ground. Some time we will be called on to engage again in a complex intervention. If we do not learn the lessons of failure in Iraq, Libya, and now Afghanistan, we will be discarding the sacrifice of those who paid the ultimate price.