It was 8 in the morning, and a month before the city of Kunduz fell to the Taliban, the sleeping Afghan sergeant stood on what he called the front line. An unspecified agreement protected both sides. There will be no shooting.
The Afghans had just fought with the Taliban and lost, a strange war in nature.
President Joe Biden and his advisers say the complete collapse of the Afghan military proves its ineptitude, confirming the US withdrawal. But the extraordinary thaw of government and military, and so far bloodless transfusions in most places, point to something more fundamental.
The Americans thought they were fighting a war against the Taliban, not a war their Afghan allies were fighting. It ruined America’s war from the very beginning, like other such neo-colonial exploits.
Recent history shows that, despite temptations, it is foolish for Western powers to wage war in other people’s lands. Domestic extremists, though seemingly unmatched in money, technology, weapons, air power and more, are often better motivated, have a constant stream of new recruits and often find sustenance from across the border.
Outside forces are waging a war in the form of the visitors – the occupiers – and their former allies who actually live there, something completely different. In Afghanistan, it was not good versus evil, as the Americans saw it, but neighbor against neighbor.
When it comes to guerrilla warfare, former communist president Mao Zedong once described the relationship that must exist between people and soldiers. “The former can be compared to water,” he wrote, “the latter is the fish that lives in it.”
And when it came to Afghanistan, Americans were fish out of water. Just like Russians in the 1980s. Just like Americans were in Vietnam in the 1960s. And as the French were in Algeria in the 1950s. and the Portuguese during their futile attempts to keep their African colonies in the 60s and 70s. and the Israelis during their occupation of southern Lebanon in the 80s.
Every time the intervening power in all these places announced that domestic extremism had been definitively defeated or that a corner had been turned, smoldering embers sparked new conflicts.
The Americans thought they had defeated the Taliban by the end of 2001. They were no longer a concern. But the result was actually far more ambiguous.
“Most had essentially melted, and we weren’t sure where they went,” Brigg wrote. General Stanley McChrystal, as quoted by historian Carter Malkasian in a new book, “The American War in Afghanistan.”
In fact, the Taliban were never actually beaten. Many were killed by the Americans, but the rest simply went into the mountains and villages or across the border to Pakistan, which has supported the movement since its inception.
By 2006, they had restructured enough to launch a major offensive. The story’s ending played out in the grim and premeditated American humiliation that unfolded over the past week – the anointing of American military losses.
The historian of Portugal’s misadventures in Africa, Patrick Chabal, wrote 20 years ago, “In the long run all colonial wars are lost, just as the Americans were largely embroiled in Afghanistan.
The superpower’s two decades of entanglement and eventual defeat was even more surprising in the sense that the decades before the millennium were replete with talk of Vietnam’s supposed “lessons”.
“It killed 55,000 people, injured 303,000, was worth $150 billion,” Mansfield told a radio interviewer, the key figure propounded by former Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield. was, was unnecessary; It was not related to our security or vital interest. It was just a misadventure in a part of the world that we should have kept our noses out of.”
Not long ago, at the beginning of the “accident” in 1961, President John F. Kennedy was warned of Vietnam by no less than Charles de Gaulle. “I predict that you will sink step by step into a bottomless military and political quagmire, no matter how much you spend in men and money,” French President de Gaulle later told Kennedy.
The American ignored him. In words that foreshadowed both Vietnamese and Afghan defeats, de Gaulle warned Kennedy, “Even if you find local leaders who are willing to listen to you in their own interests, the people Wouldn’t agree to it and really don’t want you.”
By 1968, American generals argued that the North Vietnamese had been “whipped,” as one put it. The problem was, the enemy refused to admit that it was defeated and went on to fight, as foreign policy analysts James Chase and David Fromkin observed in the mid-1980s. Meanwhile, the South Vietnamese ally of the Americans was corrupt and enjoyed little popular support.
The same unholy trinity of realities – a proud general, an unshakable enemy, a weak ally – could be seen at all points during the American engagement in Afghanistan.
Kennedy should have listened to de Gaulle. French presidents, then and later, unlike their American counterparts, did not trust generals and, despite being France’s leading military hero, did not listen to their condemnation.
He was then evicting France from eight years of brutal colonial war in Algeria against the fervent wishes of its top officials and European settlers there, who wanted to maintain more than a century-old colonial rule. His generals argued, well, that the internal Algerian guerrilla resistance had been largely broken.
But de Gaulle had the wisdom to see that the battle was not over.
Large-scale insurgents on the borders of Algeria called the “Army of the Frontiers”, later the Army of the National Liberation, or ALN, which became today’s ANP, or National People’s Army, are still the dominant element in Algerian political life.
“What inspired de Gaulle was that he still had an army on the frontiers,” said Benjamin Stora, the leading historian of Franco-Algerian relations. “So the situation was frozen, militarily. De Gaulle argued, if we maintain the status quo, we lose a lot.” He pulled out the French in a decision that still torments them.
The ALN chief, later Algeria’s most important post-independence leader, Houri Boumedien, embodied strains in the Algerian Revolution – the dominating strains – that would be familiar to Taliban watchers: religion and nationalism. Islamists later turned against him over socialism. But the widespread public mourning at Baumedien’s funeral in 1978 was real.
Boumedienne’s hold on people descended from his humble origins and his steadfastness against the loathsome French occupiers. Those elements help explain the Taliban’s nearly uninterrupted incursion into Afghan territory in the weeks and months leading up to last week’s final victory.
The United States thought it was helping Afghans fight the Taliban, the embodiment of evil
n, running mates of international terrorism. That was American Optic and American War.
But the Afghans, many of them, were not fighting that war. The Taliban are from their towns and villages. Afghanistan, especially in its urban centres, could change in 20 years of US occupation. But the laws the Taliban promoted – repressive policies against women – were not so different, if at all different, from the old customs in many of these rural villages, especially in the Pashtun south.