Our Afghanistan project has failed. The Afghan National Army (ANA) has disintegrated, and as we leave, the Taliban fill the vacuum with breathtaking speed.

What went wrong?

The basic explanations are the only ones necessary.

The first is that their holy book teaches them to oppose us and our works. It doesn’t get any more basic than that.

The second (an extension of the first) is that the people of Afghanistan never bought into what we are selling. In the generation we have been fighting there, little cultural affinity grew between us. Try to imagine the gravesite of a fallen US serviceman lovingly tended by Afghans the way the liberated French and Dutch do. We had to sneak out of our most crucial base, in the dead of night, like a battered wife, because of the likelihood of Afghan treachery. No group anywhere in the Middle East, during what amounts to an intra-Islamic civil war, rose to risk with blood or treasure the values of democracy, rule of law, minority rights, freedom of speech or political transparency. That includes allies like Egypt, who chose Islamofascism the one time they were given the opportunity to vote. Hamas was also popularly elected. Across their diverse spectrum of tribes and cultures, our notions of good governance have inculcated no discernible will to fight for them. And, as soon as we leave, our fight will be left off, because our fight was never theirs (they have more than enough of their own).

Another: you can have a People without a nation (the Kurds), but you can also have a nation without a People, like Iraq and Afghanistan. These are ancient cultures, and you can bet that they are fractured the way they are for very good reasons: their “me against my brothers, my brothers and me against my cousins, my family against the world” ethic is a rational survival strategy against a government that has the same predatory ethic, and recognizes no general public good. In a society like that, you don’t want to be the sole romantic we tried to make them be. In all those years, with the USA in complete control (the illusion of complete control anyways), we were unable to affect the corruption of these two of the most corrupt nations in the world.

Understanding our failure in Afghanistan (and Iraq) should be seen through the lens of corruption, rather than in the study of maps, tactics or military hardware: Afghan National Army (ANA) soldiers and the Taliban are the same people. One fights fanatically, on and on, year after year, the other is fleeing as fast as their US-provided transportation can carry them. Corruption is the cause: the Taliban gets paid (largely by exporting illicit drugs), and fights for something not abstractly alien to their culture, while the ANA have their salaries and equipment siphoned off by their leaders. It’s hard to not sympathize with soldiers so completely abandoned by their society (whatever that means in Afghanistan). The same dynamic was in play when a column of ISIS pickup trucks routed the heavy Iraqi Brigade guarding Mosul.

A similar enemy among our friends faced us in Vietnam: we backed a Christian faction, which had been co-opted by the colonizing French, in a Buddhist country. Minority (and alien) cultures, attempting to invade from the outside in. Our South Vietnamese allies similarly gorged on the “free” money the USA sprayed on them, and became extraordinarily corrupt (inevitably, I’d think). The huge array of hardware we left for South Vietnam’s defense dematerialized when they had to fight for themselves, just like the ANA’s in Afghanistan.

As with all armies, going back before the Romans: the sophistication of an army reflects the sophistication of the society, and no society has ever been forced into sophistication. Post WW2 Germany and Japan shows that a nation can be forced into passivity, but the sophistication must come from within. The futility of trying to train up a modern army for a primitive nation is another basic lesson.

Another: modernizing to us is cultural genocide to them. The analogy would be if the Chinese invaded, co-opted one of our parties (pick the one you hate), and tried to force us to be like them. Cooperation would be seen as treason, same as the ANA in their own country. Add in that when our Afghan proxies steal our aid, and their corruption drives the insurgency, counter-insurgency means having to make war on our own allies. That’s destroying your friends for their own good (kind of like war-on-drugs logic). Meanwhile, we can’t force cultural change on our own countrymen without excessive conflict (nor should we try to).

Another: our power never came from a centralized state, emanating endless action plans, and top-down blueprints for progress. The USA can’t build a high speed rail line in our own country, with no war, without waste on a galactic scale. I’ve written many articles in these pages arguing the opposite: our power had once been diffuse, which allowed peaceful evolution, which allowed our unprecedented sophistication to evolve naturally and over time. Our over-centralized approach to Vietnam and Afghanistan was more like how Soviet Commissars came up with their 5 year plans than allowing for bottom-up, evolutionary stable, development.

Another is the non-adaptive inertia of our big political projects. I had a friend who was an Afghan war veteran (as a Soviet army medic), and he had stories that would make your hair stand on end (God rest him). He said: “You cannot civilize wolves.” We would be far ahead of where we are now, if the Joint Chiefs had simply asked Alex about strategy back in 2005. A visit to American soldiers’ forums on the internet will reveal only pessimism and endless stories of Afghan corruption: equipment being sold to the enemy, only half of a complement of ANA troops showing up for duty, rampant opioid addiction, ad nauseam (again, counter-insurgency means hurting your “friends”). It’s plain we cannot win under these conditions, just as it was plain to the Soviets (but they realized it sooner). But our experts were not asking. Or, more accurately, the inertia made it so that asking was academic: the project lumbered on irrespective of any answers. In Afghanistan, like in Vietnam, no war college study was ever able to plot a course for victory. Still, we persisted in sending waves upon waves of soldiers to defuse IEDs in the same spots, for nearly a generation.

But the most basic lesson is that freedom cannot be given, only taken. Take the chains off slaves, and they will be slaves until they make their own way.

The best outcome for everyone would be for Afghanistan’s endless war suffering to end as soon as possible. We are paying over 90% of Afghanistan’s bills (which we promise will continue). But more of the same will help them no more than the first 2 trillion dollars we have already sunk. We will have to borrow the money from China, our likely adversary of the future, to do it. We are the most indebted nation in world history, and about a quarter of that was spent on the Global War on Terror. We have a lot of decisions to make on how we can both pay back the debt, and grow the economy well enough to sustain it. A Taliban victory would let us declare defeat and be rid of the burden.

The enemy that whipped us was the Afghan culture itself (plus the American cultural tendency of making useless infernos of Other People’s Money). This was the very same culture that saw off Alexander the Great, the very same way, two and a half thousand years ago.

Eugene Darden Nicholas

About Eugene Darden Nicholas

Eugene Darden (Ed) Nicholas is from Flushing Queens, where he grew up sheltered from the hard world, learning the true things after graduating college and becoming a paramedic in Harlem. School continues to inform and entertain in all its true, Shakespearean glory. It's a lot of fun, really. In that career, dozens of people walk the earth now who would not be otherwise. (The number depends on how literally or figuratively you choose to add). He added a beloved wife to his little family, which is healthy. He is also well blessed in friends and colleagues.


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