When last I wrote on these pages, in May 2018, I closed with the following: “We should be prepared for history to repeat itself in South-Central Asia.”
Well. Here we are. It is September 2021. Precisely 20 years ago, in September 2001, the Taliban were in power in Afghanistan. In the immediate aftermath of far-away events, which occurred on the 11th of that month, they were offered a choice: Hand over bin Ladin, break with al-Qa’ida and deny them sanctuary – or pay the price.
It is often said that the US “invaded” Afghanistan after 9/11. It did not. One “invades” with armies. The so-called US invasion was conducted with a handful of special forces troops, a few CIA operatives, and, crucially, close air support. While US assistance was critical to the Taliban’s overthrow, Afghan opponents of the Taliban were the agents of their own liberation. That was in keeping with the overall US design.
In the guidance I provided to President George W. Bush at the time, formally approved by him on 23 September 2001, I stipulated that driving bin Ladin and the “Afghan Arabs” out of Afghanistan would be relatively easy. Indeed it was: They shortly relocated to the tribal areas of Pakistan. However, keeping them out of Afghanistan and permanently denying safe haven to international terrorists would be another thing entirely.
Unless the US were willing to colonize the country, I said, only Afghans themselves could form the responsible government able to do what the Taliban would not: Foreclose the re-formation of the uncontested terrorist haven which the Taliban had previously sponsored.
Such a government would be best organized through those motivated to overthrow the Taliban in the first place. Encouraging, supporting – indeed attempting to impose; forming such a government would be the American project of the next 20 years. That is the project which has failed.
As the last Soviet forces withdrew from Afghanistan in February 1989, Lt. Gen. Boris Gromov, their commander, asserted that “The troop withdrawal is not a defeat; it is the completion of an internationalist mission….”
In a reenactment of Gromov’s brave press conference of 32 years before, President Joe Biden has stood repeatedly before the world to claim, with similar implausibility, that the US has decided to withdraw its forces from Afghanistan not because it has failed in its mission, but because the effort it initially set out for itself has long been achieved.
Well, not quite: Indeed, not even close. He can try to claim victory by moving the goalposts forward, claiming we only meant to get bin Ladin and chase off al-Qa’ida, but it is transparently untrue, and it will not sell.
So, where did it all go wrong? Volumes have been written, and many more will follow to catalog the many mistakes, both American and Afghan, which produced the recent Taliban victory.
Failure to include the Taliban at the outset
The Taliban defeat in 2001 looked a great deal like the recent rout of the Ghani-led government, only in reverse. Even after suffering crushing military setbacks in the North, where they had little ethnic support, the Taliban could have fought on in the South. But once they concluded their position was hopeless, they simply melted away.
Mullah Omar would not accept a Karzai-led government, but he did not forbid others to do so from all accounts. Karzai was open to accommodation but could not risk opposition from the Americans. Some prominent Taliban figures would have joined the new dispensation, and a few tried – earning a vacation in Guantanamo for their efforts.
The reason? The US Secretary of Defense, by then the latter-day Viceroy of Afghanistan, would brook no compromise with the Taliban. Apart from Mullah Omar and Jalaluddin Haqqani, there was little love among the leading Talibs for bin Ladin or the Arabs. Might a policy of reconciliation, as is ironically being demanded of the Taliban, have made a difference? We will never know.
The centralizing Afghan constitution
The US essentially paid no attention to its cost while a new Afghan constitution was written. The orchestration of the process was left to Karzai, who succeeded in framing a document that concentrated ultimate executive and legislative power in Kabul.
The result was a centralized system seemingly designed to facilitate corruption on a grand scale, with appointments even at the district level meted out from Kabul as virtual licenses to steal with the ill-gotten proceeds shared back up the line. The vitiating effects of such a system, and the contempt for the government it encouraged, would be hard to understate.
Eclipse of the warlords
The other effect of a centralized, rather than a distributed allocation of power, was to gradually erode, over time, the power of regional strongmen. To the US military, that was just the point and the intent: Hadn’t it been the abuses and corruption of local warlords which led to the rise of the Taliban in the first place?
True, but whatever else one might say of these figures, most had authentic ethnic and tribal authority and knew how to maintain local support through patronage, tribal alliances, and otherwise.
They did not owe their power solely to the barrel of a gun. Corrupt? Yes, often in the way that traditional city politics was corrupt during much of US history.
As the US gradually encouraged and supported the construction of an unaccountable, centralized system divorced from the traditional sources of political power in Afghanistan, I was carping from the sidelines, suggesting instead that the US should use its power and influence to help Afghan warlords “be the best warlords they can be.”
I was not joking. This is Afghanistan, after all. All countries are capable of genuine progress over time. But trying to alter Afghanistan’s political culture overnight radically was a fool’s errand. As the Taliban gained irresistible momentum in recent months, many erstwhile warlords tried to re-assert themselves in their respective areas. It was too little and too late.
But as we contemplate another potential round of brutal Taliban misrule and its tacit sponsorship of regional terrorists, I would submit that the likes of the late Ahmed Wali Karzai, Isma’il Khan, Atta Mohamed Noor, Gul Agha Shirzai, and the late Abdul Raziq Achakzai, among many others, unlovely as many of them might be, are suddenly looking rather better than they might have before.
The dependent and unsustainable Afghan Army
As noted above, the US did not actually invade Afghanistan in 2001. After an incremental buildup of US forces in subsequent years, the invasion came in late 2009, in the form of President Obama’s ill-fated “surge,” when 100,000 American troops were joined by 50,000 more from NATO.
As US Marines were pushing back the Taliban in places like Helmand Province, they were told that Afghan forces would fill in behind them to hold what Americans had captured. That was an illusion.
Read more: The beginning of a new era in Afghanistan
The Afghan force eventually trained and equipped as a concomitant to the surge was highly problematic from the start. Beset by high casualty rates and even higher rates of desertion, many Afghan units were figurative revolving doors, struggling to recruit new troops fast enough to replace those who had vanished.
Too many of their officers were corrupt and negligent, pocketing the salaries of “ghost soldiers” and failing to support their forces in the field properly. It was an army fighting for an abstraction under leaders it could not trust.
Special Forces units, some 20,000 strong in the aggregate, were a different story: Well-trained, air-mobile, and well-led with excellent unit cohesion, they proved to be the backbone of the Army and would have provided an excellent means of reinforcing locally-based indigenous paramilitary units contending with the Taliban in their respective areas – if that had been the model.
Instead, and most damningly, the US military tried to create an Afghan Army, which was a miniature version of itself, without the national resource base, the culture, or the national political institutions to support it. Even maintaining such an Army would have required a huge share of Afghan GDP – not of the national budget, mind you, but of the nation’s total economic output.
In short, it was utterly unsustainable and completely dependent on its creator, not only for funding but for the intelligence, logistics, and air support such a force requires. When the US took away all those supports, the demise of the Afghan Army was fore-ordained. The Americans knew it.
At the time of the US withdrawal announcement in April 2021, the most optimistic estimates gave the Afghan Army 24 months to survive and more likely 18 months. In subsequent weeks, as district and provincial capitals fell, the predictions became direr.
The rapidity of the final collapse did come as a shock to most. But the President knew fully well what was likely to follow the US departure soon and withdrew anyway. It was his misfortune to be caught out before he could fairly getaway. In any case, by 2014, the surge having long passed and the US down to a relatively minimal force, the US knew that the war against the Taliban could not be won militarily.
The only hope was that if the military stalemate could be sustained long enough, and the Taliban convinced that the US would not abandon the fight, the insurgents might decide to reach a negotiated solution short of their maximalist goals.
US tired of paying the rent
Unless and until the Taliban abandoned its quest for a military victory, moreover, it meant that the primary US objective, unchanged from the start – to see a viable Afghan government in place, fully able to control its territory and willing to deny its use to international terrorists – was likewise unachievable. Instead, in simple counter-terrorism terms, it meant that rather
than having an uncontested terrorist safe haven as had existed under the Taliban, the best that the US could achieve, albeit at modest cost, was to ensure that any terrorist safe haven in Afghanistan would at least be a contested one. Furthermore, to maintain the platform in Afghanistan necessary for a small US force to fulfill that counter-terrorism mission, the US would need to sustain at least some level of support to the counterinsurgency campaign of the Afghan government.
Otherwise put, sustaining the war effort in Afghanistan was, for the US, like paying the rent. All that said, it must be acknowledged that while the war in Afghanistan was in stalemate, the stalemate was not static. Even before the Biden withdrawal announcement, the Taliban was making steady inroads, and the government’s position was gradually eroding.
Absent some change in the internal dynamics of the Taliban; they were probably destined to prevail eventually in any case. It is an unquestioned article of faith for Americans that all problems, no matter how complex or intractable, have a solution. If one fails to solve the problem, it is because one has erred in finding the solution. But some problems simply have no good solution, particularly if the solution depends on someone else.
In Afghanistan, the solution was always in Afghan hands. The Taliban does not command the support of a majority of Afghans. For those who have not wished to live under Taliban rule, it has ultimately been up to them to organize themselves to avoid it. Regional powers and the international community have had a stake in the outcome of that struggle for separate reasons of their own.
However, no matter the degree of outside interference, the struggle has ultimately been Afghanistan’s alone. It is possible that all of Afghanistan’s advancements of the last 20 years notwithstanding, and indeed perhaps because of them, the US and NATO have made Taliban ascendancy more, and not less likely.
It is possible that, at the current historical juncture, in a country as religiously conservative as Afghanistan, no one can effectively resist an ideologically motivated movement as self-confidently brutal and single-minded as the Taliban. But however we got here, we find ourselves again where we started in 2001.
Once again, the Taliban is in relative control of Afghanistan. Once again, the international community points out that there are international outlaws on Taliban-controlled territory, demanding they do something about it. And once again, the world awaits their answer; an answer based not on words but on actions.
Robert L. Grenier worked in the CIA for over twenty-seven years. He was CIA’s station chief in Pakistan (2000- 02) and later served as the CIA’s top counter-terrorism official (2004–06). He was Managing Director at Kroll, Inc. In 2009, he was appointed Chairman of ERG Partners, an independent financial and strategic advisory firm focusing on the security and intelligence sectors. Robert is a renowned expert on the Middle East, South Asia, and Counterterrorism and has written ’88 Days to Kandahar: A CIA Diary.’