Tuesday, August 31, 2021

A Tale of Two Cultures - the US Debacle in Afghanistan. د دوه کلتورونو کیسه - په افغانستان کې د متحده ایالاتو ماتې

Afghan Taliban at the presidential palace in Kabul, Aug 15, 2021
What happened in Afghanistan? The government and security forces’ rapid collapse this month and the images of hundreds of thousands of Afghans seeking to flee Taliban rule raise key questions.  How did a terrorist organization deposed by US forces in October 2001 return to power?  How did the US spend 2 decades in Afghanistan, fight a war which cost countless Afghan and US lives, and spend trillions of dollars to have little or nothing to show for its security and nation-building efforts? 

 The US debacle in Afghanistan is a result of an enormous disconnect which, at its core, is cultural in nature.  The concept of culture is key to understanding what occurred over the past 2 decades of US involvement in the country.  Two cultures require examination.  One is a Washington, DC-Beltway culture, namely an American-centric view of the world, that was prevented the US from achieving a successful outcome in Afghanistan. The other is Afghan culture which was never fully grasped by four American administrations, from George W. Bush through Joe Biden.  


The American-centric culture was based on a lack of knowledge of Afghan society and lack of clarity on the US mission in Afghanistan.  It was rooted in a path dependent and top-down model of dealing with non-Western countries and infused with a heavy dose of hubris and arrogance.  

Few American decision-makers knew anything about Afghanistan, let alone the county’s main languages, Pashto and Dari, a Persian dialect.  

While the US framed Afghanistan through the lens of terrorism and the ability of superior military force – the new technology of “shock and awe” – to defeat it, Afghan’s viewed their society and personal lives though a very different frame.  They sought an end to thirty years of civil strife, persistent instability and economic hardship and no predictable future.  Western=style democracy and a strong central government were not their priorities.  Even if they had wanted to, traditional structures if tribalism, confessionalism, ethnicity and patriarchy structured much of their (male) behavior.  Reducing foreign interference from Pakistan, their most powerful neighbor, weighed heavily on their minds as well.   


Afghans trying to reach Kabul International Airport
These two cultures were never reconciled, nor could they be, given the contours of American “top-down” policy and unwillingness to listen to and learn from the very people the US purported to be helping.  Cultural blindness set the US on the course which ended this month with its withdrawal from Afghanistan.  

 Following communism’s collapse, US foreign policymakers coalesced around the notion of a “Pax Americana.”  This view of US global hegemony was reinforced by the idea of the “end of history,” the Washington Consensus, and a neoliberal approach to governance, based on the assertion that free markets and a “night watchman state” would surely produce prosperous democracies throughout the world.  Post-communist US foreign policy also contained a residue of Cold War era “modernization theory” of the 1950s and 1960s where the US tried to convince former colonial countries that adopting a capitalist road of development would lead to greater success than following the competing Soviet model. 


Historical background 

It is truly remarkable that the media has completely neglected what led to US involvement inAfghanistan in the first place.  When the Soviets invaded the country in 1979 to prop up an allied communist regime, Afghan warlords mobilized to fight the invaders.  Many radical Islamists flocked to Afghanistan to join the struggle against the “apostate and atheist invaders.” 


Sensing an opportunity to deal a blow to the US’ Cold War enemy, the CIA began training Afghan forces during the early 1980s to defeat the Soviets.  By all accounts, the US’ providing surface-to-air missiles to Afghan forces in 1985 turned the tide because Soviet helicopter gunships could no longer control the skies.  Even without US military assistance, the Soviets were unable to control any significant part of the country. A decrepit road system prevented tanks and trucks from pursuing their military objectives.  Often while passing through narrow valleys, Soviet forces encountered major attacks which led to mounting causalities as the war progressed. 


Because the USSR could not win in Afghanistan, and would have withdrawn its forces in any event, especially after the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1990, the US made a foolish decision to support Afghan warlords and provide military training to radical Islamists.  Among those the US trained were Afghan youth who later helped establish the Taliban in 1992.  Indeed, some of the Arab fighters – the so-called “Arab Afghans” - who received US training were subsequently involved in the 1993 attempt to blow up the World Trade Center.  Among the Arabs drawn to Afghanistan was Osama bin Laden and Abu Muscab al-Zarqawi, the brutal terrorist who fought the US in Iraq after 2003 through his organization, al-Qacida in Iraq (AQI) 


After the Soviets withdrew in 1979, local warlords turned on each other, engaging in a civil war which led to a collapse of the Afghan economy and the deaths of thousands of Afghan civilians. Formed in 1992 to curtail the mayhem, the Taliban (Pashto for “students”) fought the warlords, finally seizing control of the country in 1996. Welcomed at first for reviving the economy through ending the fractious civil strife which had plagued the country, the Taliban imposed an exceptionally brutal rule which soon was rejected by large swaths of Afghan society. 


Following the September 11 attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the US attacked Afghanistan in October 2001 when the Taliban refused to hand over Osama bin Ladin, the head of al-Qacida which organized the terrorist attacks who resided in Afghanistan.  Quickly defeated, Taliban rule collapsed.  Here is where the second problem developed.  In December 2001, the Taliban offered to negotiate a surrender with the United States.  However, Donald Rumsfeld, Secretary of Defense, quickly rejected the offer, dismissing the Taliban as a spent force.  

Nonnan Asks - 'What if'? on War in Afghanistan 


In early 2002, the neo-conservatives who populated George W. Bush’s foreign policy staff began planning the assault on Iraq and toppling Saddam Husayn’s regime.  US troops were withdrawn from Afghanistan as plans for the 2003 Iraq invasion were put in motion.  Once the invasion was underway, American military and diplomatic personnel began focusing on Iraq, both due the challenges of the new mission and because Iraq was viewed as a better route to personnel advancement.  As one analyst put it, Iraq took central stage and Afghanistan was left to the “B Team.”  


Meanwhile, the Taliban moved across the border to Pakistan where they began to reorganize, with help from Pakistan’s powerful Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI).  Rather than pressure the Pakistani government, a US ally supposedly committed to fighting terrorism, to reign in its support for the Taliban redux, the Bush administration ignored the group’s reorganization efforts, focusing instead on Iraq. 


The US failed to realize that Pakistan wanted a state in Afghanistan controlled by the Pashtun, the country’s largest ethnic group, which comprises almost 50% of the population.  Because Pakistan’s Khyber Pashtunkwa provinces in the Northwest (formally known as the North-West Tribal Provinces) is populated by Pashtuns who have called for greater autonomy from Pakistan or even an independent country, the ISI and Pakistan government have responded by arguing that they are helping to create a Pashtun state in neighboring Afghanistan.  Further, by having a friendly regime in power in Kabul, one dominated by Pashtuns, the Pakistani military and political establishment has felt the country obtains greater strategic depth to the West in face of the threat from India.  

Flawed nation-building and governance  

In December 2001, the US installed Hamid Karzai, a member of a powerful Pashtun tribe, as the new Afghan president.  The US choose Karzai over the country’s former king, Muhammad Zaher Shah, who had ruled a peaceful Afghanistan from 1933 until 1973 when he was overthrown by his cousin, Muhammad Dauod Khan, while he was abroad in Italy.  Zaher Shah returned in 2002 indicating that he was ready to assume the office of head of state, even if not as monarch.  He headed a traditional tribal council, the Loya Jirga (Pashto for “grand assembly”), which, due to his favorable reputation among all Afghan tribes and ethnic groups, wanted him to play a key role in post-Taliban-Afghanistan.

2002 Loya Jirga which chose Hamid Karzai as president
The US failed to consider Zaher Shah’s importance as a national leader who enjoyed widespread popular support.  Even if he would only serve in a transitional role due to his age, Afghans felt he could bring the country’s different ethnic and religious groups together as he had done during his previous reign as king. By ignoring the wishes of the Loya Jirga, of which more than half wanted Zaher Shah to become head of state, the Bush administration sent a message to Afghanistan’s leaders that the US would make its own decisions, in which they would not play a decision-making role.   

Mohammed Zaher Shah, Afghanistan monarch, 1933-1973
An unidentified former State Department official told government interviewers in 2015: "Our policy was to create a strong central government which was idiotic because Afghanistan does not have a history of strong central government.  The timeframe for creating a strong central government is 100 years, which we didn't have."

THE AFGHANISTAN PAPERS A secret history of the war: At War with the Truth

Karzai turned out to be an unfortunate choice.  Although a notable from a very powerful Pashtun tribe, Karzai viewed his new office as a means to both promote his political power and line his family’s pockets.  He quickly filled the Afghan government with relatives and clients and failed to use the opportunity to promote an inclusive form of governance. The Afghan president and his clique used the influx of large amounts of US funds to enrich themselves.  Indeed, his cousin, a former Taliban commander, controlled a large drug syndicate.  Over time, Karzai et al came to be referred to by US officials as “VICE” (Vertically Integrated Criminal Enterprise). 


By 2014, US officials were fed up with the massive corruption which pervaded the Karzai government.  When they tried to remove one of his assistants, Karzai raised such protests, that US officials decided to drop all efforts to reign in the criminality pervading his administration.  The key issue here was that the US had no idea how to establish a national governing structure for Afghanistan.  The fact that the country was highly decentralized and ethnically diverse meant that the unitary presidential system the US developed was bound to fail. That the central government stole development funds and failed to provide Afghans with necessary services undermined the US imposed governance structure still further.  


No effort was made by Karzai to reach out to local power brokers, especially tribal elders, to develop an acceptable national form of governance.  After he was re-elected in 2004, he eliminated many non-Pashtuns from ministerial positions.  The Afghan government established by the US was largely a creature of Kabul and few other large urban areas.  When services were provided by the government, they were often sub-standard and invariably required a bribe.  

The 2004 elections were themselves a source of national and international contention.  Karzai claimed to have received just over 50% of the vote.  However. All the members of the Electoral Committee had been appointed by him.  Even though the US, reacting to countless international assertions of voting irregularities, including ballot stuffing, it forced Karzai to conduct a recount. Unsurprisingly, he still prevailed in the final vote count. 


In 2014, Karzai was finally replaced by a new president, Dr. Ashraf Ghani.  I participated in a study group in Middle East politics which included Ghani while he was completing his Ph.D. in economics at Columbia University.  After he received his degree, Ghani developed a successful career working for the World Bank.  I found Ghani to be very intelligent, eloquent and affable.  However, he too turned out to be a poor choice as Afghanistan’s president. 


Women parliamentarians in the Afghan National Parliament 
Ghani was not a hands-on executive.  Unlike Karzai, he did not meet with provincial notables and “pressed the flesh,” he surrounded himself with Western educated technocrats.  Ghani preferred reading the books owned by former king Zaher Shah in the presidential palace such as the poetry of Rumi.  The disconnect between his administration and what was happening on the ground in Afghanistan was evident on August 15th.  The day the Taliban entered Kabul with no opposition, Ghani had scheduled a meeting with his ministers to discuss digitizing the Afghan economy.  It wasn’t until Taliban fighters had arrived at the presidential palace, that his aids whisked him away in helicopters to fly to neighboring Uzbekistan, and then on to his villa in the UAE.

President Ashraf Ghani meeting with Joe Biden, June 2021
The security forces 

The Afghan Army was organized according to an American model which was inappropriate for Afghanistan.  The army’s centralized structure did not reflect the ethnic diversity and decentralized character of Afghan society.  The lack of a strong and legitimate central government and the continued power of powerful, local tribal leaders and warlords undermine the effectiveness of the national army. 


Had the US allowed greater Afghan input in establishing a new army after the defeat of the Taliban in 2001, it would have been more successful in defending the country against the terrorist group.  A command structure which included officers representing all ethnic and regional tribal confederations would have created a local “buy in.”  It would not have been an army which looked like the US military, but it would have been more effective.   


With a unified command located in Kabul overseen by an ineffective central government, the US created Afghan military and security services which suffered from weak leadership from the start and thus were doomed to not be able to stand up once the US and NATO forces withdrew from Afghanistan.  This organization of the Afghan security forces is a prime example of ignorance of Afghan culture and the failure to listen to Afghans in reconstructing their country after Taliban rule ended in 2001. 


Once US and NATO forces ended combat operations in 2014, the Obama administration decided to draw down American forces but use air power against the Taliban instead.  Bombing and drone attacks were ramped up.  They caused many civilian causalities.  The anger of Afghans in rural areas who had family members killed or wounded made then more susceptible to Taliban propaganda and recruitment. 


By this year, the Taliban controlled more than a third of the country and were contesting many other areas as well.  The claim that the Afghan military failed to fight the Taliban is an insult to the national army.  More than 70,000 members of the Afghan national army and police were killed in fighting the Taliban, 20 times the number of US soldiers.  However, the key to preventing the Taliban to seize large cities and provincial capitals was US air support. 


Once the Trump administration signed a deal with the Taliban to withdraw US troops on May 1, 2021, contractors who had provided key technical support to keep Afghan helicopters and fighter aircraft in the air began to leave the country.  Once the US Air Force shut down operations at the main Bagram Air Base, north of Kabul, the Afghan Army lacked critical air support in attacking large Taliban fighter formations on the ground.  With lack of backup from the air, the army and security forces decided that they had no other option than to put down their weapons and surrender.  Sadly, some national army troops who surrendered were summarily executed by the Taliban.

Pervasive corruption 

If the structure of governance and the military the US tried to build after 2001 failed in its objectives, an even more pernicious failure was the massive corruption which entangled the American enterprise in Afghanistan.  Billions of dollars in US aid was squandered, with much of it falling into the hands of the Taliban.  To deliver goods to military bases throughout the country, the US military had to pay bribes to warlords and the Taliban along the delivery routes.  Failure to do so led to attacks. 


Already by 2006, the military consensus was that the US had lost the war in Afghanistan.  Afghan recruits, many of whom were very young – 15-16 years of age - were not conditioned for military service.  Many maintained ties to Taliban in the provinces from which they came. While the US did train an elite special forces division, the conscript army was undisciplined, with many soldiers reporting for duty and then leaving their posts and returning home to work or visit family. 


As the military situation deteriorated, US military and government officials continued to paint a rosy picture of developments in Afghanistan.  Reports documenting development of the national education system, the expansion of education and employment opportunities for Afghan women, and the spread of civil society organizations were touted as “progress.” 


The problem with these reports, many emanating from USAID, was that they either embellished positive development in the country or were outright lies.  As the war progressed, the US military began to pressure USAID and other government agencies to produce statistics which demonstrated benefits of the American mission in Afghanistan.  Thus, the supposed economic and social development occurring in Afghanistan was an illusion, fostered by the military and various administrations to sustain American support for the war. 

Much has been made of the US effort to expand educational opportunities in Afghanistan especially for women and girls who were denied access to it under the first Taliban regime. In urban areas, many women became entrepreneurs.  Before the Taliban takeover, the Afghan Women's Chamber of Commerce had 57,000 members.  While there was considerable progress in building civil society in Kabul and other large cities, rural areas were a different story all together.

One of Afghanistan's non-functioning schools
For example, USAID boasted about considerable progress in the education sector.  However, it depended for its assessment on the Afghan Ministry of Education.  In 2011, a study of the ministry's data found over 1100 "ghost schools" which either didn't exist or weren;t functioning.  This accounted 1 in 12 of all Afghan schools.  When efforts were made to establish schools in rural areas, such as that by an American marine who raised $250,000 to build one for the children near his military base, corruption interceded to prevent the project from moving forward.
Ghost Students, Ghost Teachers, Ghost Schools

Meanwhile, the Taliban kept expanding control of rural areas until over a third of the country was in their hands, with much additional area contested.  The continued calm in large cities and provincial capitals provided a false sense of security because the areas surrounding urban areas were in many instances dominated by the Taliban who taxed supplies entering them.  


The end 

Former Trump National Security Advisor, Gen. H.R. McMaster, a highly respected veteran of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, called the deal the Trump administration signed with the Taliban to withdraw US forces a “travesty.” As he noted, Our secretary of state signed a surrender agreement with the Taliban,” 

Trump's Deal with the Taliban Draws Fire From his Allies 

The Trump administration dealt directly with the Taliban, cutting the Ashraf Ghani's national government out of the negotiations. This Trump administration negotiating process told Afghans, including the security forces, that the Taliban were the main political actors and would rule the country in the future.  The US also agreed to force the Afghan government, against its will, to release 5000 Taliban prisoners, many of whom participated in the assaults on provincial capitals during this month.

McMaster says Trump's Taliban Deal is Munich-like Appeasement 


Meanwhile, Trump advisor, Stephen Miller, one of the architects of the administration’s “Muslim ban,” worked to slow the Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) process to a crawl.  Many Afghans, who were caught in the rush to leave the country after the Taliban seized Kabul on August 15th, could have already had the opportunity to travel to the US if the Trump administration hadn’t placed excessive bureaucratic hurdles in their way.  This is not to disagree that the SIV process was always fraught with administrative backlogs and inefficiency, but that the Trump administration made the situation much worse. 

Afghanistan’s uncertain future 

While the Taliban are celebrating the withdrawal of the final US troops, Afghanistan faces a future fraught with serious challenges for the new rulers.  An extensive drought threatens crops and food production and is increasing poverty throughout the country.  The central bank lacks financial reserves and the country’s currency has lost most of its value.  Inflation is rampant.  The Taliban lack the professional cadres to administer government ministries and provide social services. 


The Taliban has never been a unified political movement.  It suffers from a variety of cleavages. The political wing, led by Abdul Ghani Baradar, wants to put a more “moderate” face on the Taliban.  The Taliban’s political leadership realizes the precarious economic situation facing the country which, before the Taliban victory, depended on 75% of its budget derived from foreign aid.  In 1996, only 3 countries recognized the Taliban – Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Pakistan – but few seem ready to offer recognition, and hence legitimacy, to the new regime today. 


The military wing, which has already carried out atrocities, including executions, torture and sex slavery, by forcing young women to “marry” Taliban fighters, wants to impose a more repressive form of rule on Afghanistan.  Some segments of the military wing control parts of the country where opium is grown, despite the drought, and thus have access to massive amounts of funds from the country’s illicit drug trade.  Afghanistan drug production, the source of 80% of the world’s opium and heroin, is almost completely controlled by the Taliban. 

Profits and poppy: Afghanistan's illegal drug trade a boon for Taliban


Another cleavage pits various tribal groupings within the Taliban against one another, as well as divisions between the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban.  In the latter case, Pakistan’s Haqqani network represents a powerful and radical wing of the movement.  Indeed, the Haqqani network, located in Pakistan, was designated a Foreign Terorrist Organization by the US in 2012.

Threatened by ISIS, The Afghan Taliban May Crack Up


Other ethnic groups, such as the Uzbeks, Tajiks and Hazzara Shica minority, don’t trust the Taliban to represent their political, social and economic interests.  Already, an uprising led by Uzbek and Tajik Afghans has begun in the rugged terrain of the northern Panjshir region, the last province not under Taliban control. Panjshir is the birth-place of Ahmad Shah Massoud, Afghanistan’s national hero, who was assassinated two days before 9/11 by the Haqqani terrorist network. Massoud fought against the Soviets and Taliban in the 1980s and 1990s.  Now his son, Ahmad Massoud, who has revitalized his father’s Northern Alliance, is leading the anti-Taliban insurgency. 

Afghan Dispatches: a Revolt against the Taliban?

US-Taliban relations moving forward

The Biden administration was unable to evacuate all Afghans who worked with the US and NATO forces in Afghanistan, nor the many members of NGOs and civil society organizations who face threats from Taliban rule.  Laser focus must be placed on assisting those Afghans at risk to leave the country.  Because the US has frozen $9.4 billion of Afghan assets, this aid must be used to force the Taliban leadership to live up to  its promise to allow anyone who seeks to leave safe passage to do so.  

Given the dire economic and climate induced problems facing Afghanistan, it is doubtful that it will become any more of a base for terrorist groups than it was before the Taliban takeover.  Indeed, the Taliban face a threat from the ISIS-Khorisan Province terrorist organization which attacked Kabul Airport on August 26th, killing 13 US soldiers and 200 Afghan civilians. 

In Afghanistan's new reality, China and Russia now have concerns they both need to face.  Increasing instability in Afghanistan under Taliban rule will pose new threats not only for the country itself, but the wider Central Asia region.  US withdrawal from Afghanistan is not a zero-sum game with the US the sole loser and its major adversaries, China and Russia, the winners.

After Withdrawal: How China, Turkey, and Russia Will Respond to the Taliban