This past Monday, December 8, 2014 the US officially ended its combat mission in Afghanistan. It was a good sign, which could have been better if all of our troops were scheduled to leave that country this month. This was a mission that was run, as most of our combat operations are, without any concrete strategy or pursuit of viable strategic goals. There never seemed to be an understanding that combat operations led by the US military and the effects of our massive presence there strategically negated any tactical success we had in the field.
To start with, our assault and destruction of Al-Qaeda was fully justified by the attacks of Sept 11, 2001. Taliban less so, but they did provide sanctuary to Al-Qaeda and therefore deserved what they got. However, once the initial mission was accomplished, we should have never stayed. The people of Afghanistan have to figure out how to run their own country without us guiding them like children. As US foreign policy apparatus frequently forgets, the local elites can govern when they choose to do so. They did so prior to 1980s and can do so again. They do not in Afghanistan because they know they could get our money and troops to support their failed state for nothing. While in return they could remain corrupt and enrich themselves.
Therefore it was no surprise that the Taliban was able to rebuild itself. The great failure of our strategy in Afghanistan was not to realize of why this was happening. In our “Star Wars” like foreign policy the reason for Taliban resurgence was ignored. They were just there because they were bad. Our policy apparatus was unable to discern that the Taliban were there because of Afghan government corruption and inherent cultural divide between Pashtuns and Tajiks. Without this basic understanding we just kept pouring resources into tactical military actions without actually addressing the root of the problem. In addition our presence in the Pashtun heavy south only inflamed the Pashtuns further as we were perceived as invaders in this Muslim land.
With regards to Taliban rebuilding our decision makers also ignored the fact that the Taliban did so without massive military aid and support. Yet we continue to provide such support to Afghan security forces. How is it that the same people can be so inventive when part of Taliban, and so dependent on others with our support? We wouldn’t be pouring so much money into Afghanistan if we could see and understand this paradox. The answer is simple, it is because we took on responsibility for their country instead of making them responsible for it. People will act based on expectations others have of them. If you expect little, that is excatly how they will act. If Taliban can rebuild itself without massive foreign aid, so can the Afghan army. They just have to have the will to do so.
Another unfortunate part of our involvement there was that the military effort was allowed to go on without the requirement for the Afghan government to clean itself up. This in itself would have been a Herculean task. However, without a somewhat clean Afghan government that could provide for a just resolution of local disputes, our military efforts were in vain. We don’t seem to understand that a person’s basic need is for justice, not schools. The predatory Afghan government corruption produced such negative response, that it negated any schools we built or social services we provided.
There is no doubt that the countryside in the Pashtun south will fall under Taliban control, because the people there want it so. Despite our pronouncement to the contrary the Afghan security force, made up mostly of non-Pashtuns, will not be able to control that territory, except possibly for the major cities. Which is exactly what can be expected to happen when military operations are carried out without regard to the political causes of the conflict. The Pashtun-Tajik issues were never fully resolved, and possibly never could be without the break up of Afghanistan.
Given the Pashtun nature of the Taliban and the traditional Pashtun domination of Afghanistan it is hard to see how a functional Afghan state can be established. The current elites in Kabul are interested in lining their pockets with government money, rather than actual governance. The 10,800 American troops left there will not be able to accomplish much beyond the current situation. The military solution was simply never there despite all the PowerPoint slides at the commanding General’s briefings. It would be refreshing to see a true after action report on why we failed to accomplish what was our stated goal. However much like Iraq involvement this self-reflection is unlikely to happen.