For years, U.S. officials used a shorthand phrase to describe America’s mission in Afghanistan. It always bothered me: We are there to train the Afghan army to fight for their own government.
That turned out to be shorthand for everything that was wrong with our mission — the idea that Afghans didn’t know how to fight and just one more course in counterinsurgency would do the trick. Really? Thinking you need to train Afghans how to fight is like thinking you need to train Pacific Islanders how to fish. Afghan men know how to fight. They’ve been fighting one another, the British, the Soviets or the Americans for a long, long time.
It was never about the way our Afghan allies fought. It was always about their will to fight for the corrupt pro-American, pro-Western governments we helped stand up in Kabul. And from the beginning, the smaller Taliban forces — which no superpower was training — had the stronger will, as well as the advantage of being seen as fighting for the tenets of Afghan nationalism: independence from the foreigner and the preservation of fundamentalist Islam as the basis of religion, culture, law and politics. In oft-occupied countries like Afghanistan, many people will actually prefer their own people as rulers (however awful) over foreigners (however well intentioned).
“We learn again from Afghanistan that although America can stop bad things from happening abroad, it cannot make good things happen. That has to come from within a country,” said Michael Mandelbaum, a U.S. foreign policy expert and the author of “Mission Failure: America and the World in the Post-Cold War Era.”
All of which leads to a fundamental and painful question: Was the U.S. mission there a total failure? Here I’d invoke one of my ironclad rules about covering the Middle East: When big events happen, always distinguish between the morning after and the morning after the morning after. Everything really important happens the morning after the morning after — when the full weight of history and the merciless balances of power assert themselves.
And so it will be in Afghanistan — for both the Taliban and President Joe Biden.
Let’s start with the Taliban. Today, they are having a great morning-after celebration. They are telling themselves they defeated yet another superpower.
But will the Taliban simply resume where they left off 20 years ago — harboring al-Qaida, zealously imposing their puritanical Islam and subjugating and abusing women and girls? Will the Taliban go into the business of trying to attack U.S. and European targets on their soil?
I don’t know. I do know they just inherited responsibility for all of Afghanistan. They will soon face huge pressure to deliver order and jobs for Afghans. And that will require foreign aid and investment from countries that America has a lot of influence with — Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and the European Union nations.
And with the United States gone, the Taliban will also have to navigate their survival while swimming alone with some real sharks — Pakistan, India, China, Russia and Iran. They might want to keep the White House phone number on speed dial.
“The post-2001 Taliban have proved to be a learning, more political organization that is more open to the influence of external factors,” said Thomas Ruttig in a paper for the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, according to The Washington Post.
We’ll see. The early signs — all sorts of Taliban abuses — are not promising. But we need to watch how, and if, they fully establish control. The Taliban’s main beef with America is that we were in their country. Let’s see what happens when we’re gone.
And let’s also remember: When the United States invaded Afghanistan in 2001, iPhones, Facebook and Twitter didn’t even exist. Flash forward to today: Afghanistan is not only much more connected to the world, but it’s connected internally as well. It will not be nearly as easy for the Taliban to hide their abuses from the world or from fellow Afghans.
In 2001, virtually no one in Afghanistan owned a mobile phone. Today more than 70% of Afghans do, and many of them have Internet-enabled smartphones. While there is nothing inherently liberalizing about owning a phone, according to a 2017 study by Internews, Afghanistan’s social media “is already propagating change as it has become a platform for denouncing cases of corruption and injustice, bringing attention to causes that have not yet been addressed on traditional media and seemingly letting any social media user voice a public opinion.’’ Maybe the Taliban will just shut it all down. And maybe they won’t be able to.
At the same time, a July 7 report in Time magazine on Afghanistan noted: “When U.S.-backed forces ousted the Taliban from power, in 2001, there were almost no girls in school across the country. Today, there are millions, and tens of thousands of women attending university, studying everything from medicine to miniature painting.’’
Maybe on the morning after the morning after, the Taliban will just order them all back under burqas and shut their schoolrooms. But maybe they will also encounter pushback from wives and daughters that they’ve never encountered before — precisely because of the social, educational and technological seeds of change planted by the United States over the last 20 years. I don’t know.
And what if all of the most educated Afghans try to emigrate — including civil servants, plumbers, electricians, computer repair experts and car mechanics — and the morning after the morning after, the country is left with a bunch of barely literate Taliban thugs to run the place? What will they do then? Especially since this is a much more environmentally stressed Afghanistan than the one the Taliban ruled 20 years ago? According to a report published last year from National Geographic, “Afghanistan is one of the most vulnerable countries in the world to climate change, and one of the least equipped to handle what’s to come” — including drought, flood, avalanches, landslides, extreme weather and mass displacement.
As for the Biden team, it is hard to imagine a worse morning after for it in Kabul. Its failure to create a proper security perimeter and transition process, in which Afghans who risked their lives to work with us these past two decades could be assured of a safe removal to America — not to mention an orderly exit for foreign diplomats, human rights activists and aid workers — is appalling and inexplicable.
But ultimately, the Biden team will be judged by how it handles the morning after the morning after. Biden made a claim — one that was shared by the Trump team — that America would be more secure and better able to deal with any terrorist threats if we were out of Afghanistan than if we stayed embedded there, with all the costs of people, energy and focus. He again suggested as much in his address to the nation Monday afternoon.
The Biden team essentially said that the old way of trying to secure America from Middle East terrorists through occupation and nation building doesn’t work and that there is a better way. It needs to tell us what that way is and prove it out the morning after the morning after.
We’re at the start of one of the biggest geopolitical challenges the modern world has ever faced. Because there’s now a whole slew of countries — Libya, Lebanon, Yemen, Afghanistan, Somalia — that have evicted the colonial great powers that once controlled them (and who brought both order and disorder) but have now also manifestly failed at governing themselves. What to do?
When the French president, Emmanuel Macron, visited Lebanon in July 2020, he was presented on his arrival with a petition signed by some 50,000 Lebanese calling for France to take control of Lebanon because of the Lebanese government’s “total inability to secure and manage the country.”
I doubt that is the last such petition we will see.
For the last 20 years, America tried to defend itself from terrorism emanating from Afghanistan by trying to nurture it to stability and prosperity through the promotion of gender pluralism, religious pluralism, education pluralism, media pluralism and, ultimately, political pluralism.
That theory was not wrong. We are entering an unprecedented era in human history, two simultaneous and hugely challenging climate changes at once: one in the climate of technology and one in the climate of the climate. Without such pluralism, neither Afghanistan nor any of these other failing states (or America, but that’s for another column) will be able to adapt to the 21st century.
But the theory relied on there being enough Afghans willing to sign on for more such pluralism. Many were. But too many were not. So Biden determined that we needed to stop this effort, leave Afghanistan and readjust our defense strategy. I pray that he is right. But he will be judged by what happens the morning after the morning after.