The Pashtun tribes are always engaged in private or public war. Every man is a warrior, a politician and a theologian Every large house is a real feudal fortress….Every family cultivates its vendetta; every clan, its feud….Nothing is ever forgotten and very few debts are left unpaid.Winston Churchill
Last weekend, something extraordinary happened: the Taliban, a Pashtun tribal force that the United States military and its allies in Afghanistan’s Northern Alliance (composed of members from the Pashtun rival tribes of the Tajik, Uzbek, and Hazara Afghan tribes) ousted from power in an historic invasion of Afghanistan following the 9/11 attacks, returned to power.
No one in Washington was prepared for the speed of the Taliban’s advance, in part, because everyone in America assumed that the Afghan National Army (ANA), the force that the United States spent $88 billion and 20 years equipping and training, could hold the Taliban forces back until the Americans could leave the country.
The war in Afghanistan cost us almost $2 trillion (which went to defense contractors, which explains why the seven wealthiest counties in the United States today ring Washington, D.C., fyi).
The US intelligence community’s assumptions about the Taliban advance were wrong.
Please add this to the growing list of IC failures, from Bay of Pigs to Cuban Missile Crisis; from the fall of the Berlin Wall to 9/11; from WMD in Iraq to former President Donald Trump being a Russian spy.
Since the Biden Administration began its pullout of Afghanistan, chaos has reigned throughout Afghanistan’s capital of Kabul and on the tarmac of the Karzai International Airport, the only exit port left to the Americans in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan.
Many Americans in Afghanistan have been unable to get into the airport, let alone through Taliban-controlled roads into and throughout Kabul. The American evacuation from Afghanistan has, thus far, been a failure; an avoidable debacle had certain decisions been made by US leaders in Washington (notably, President Joe Biden and his national security team, all of whom share the blame for this slow-rolling disaster).
After it was clear to the world that the United States was caught unawares by the Taliban advance into Kabul; when it became obvious that the Americans might not be able to exfiltrate their people (and certainly not their advanced tactical equipment), President Biden took to the airwaves to defiantly defend his decision to flee for the exits in Afghanistan.
He went further than that, too: Biden and his advisers publicly blamed the ANA for its failure to defend the territorial gains the US-led Coalition had made against the Taliban in Afghanistan for the last 20 years. The ANA essentially threw their advanced American weapons down on the ground before the advancing Taliban and went running for the hills.
Certainly, this was an epic embarrassment for the Americans, who had spent so long and so much money training and equipping the ANA. But, to blame the Afghans for this embarrassment is obscene. Fact is, the failure of the ANA was the result of the collapse of the US military’s position in Afghanistan.
What Was the ANA For?
Consider the following: the ANA was a modern military built along Western traditions and according to American standards. Yet, Afghanistan is a land divided by multiple ethno-religious tribes; it is perennially stuck in the seventh century whose territory is cut into pieces by mountainous terrain and a stunning lack of infrastructure (even after copious American investment there).
There are two predominant languages spoken in Afghanistan (Pashto and Dari) but there are also multiple other languages spoken by the people of Afghanistan. Each tribe has its own distinct subculture, too.
Whereas the Americans, with their centralized military that enjoys global dominance, are conditioned to fight with advanced technology in high-intensity, short-duration conflicts anywhere in the world, the Afghan history of warfare is continual and relegated to the mountainous wilds of Afghanistan.
This kind of fighting usually involves a hodgepodge of groups fighting at their own tempo in territories that are close to their tribal homes. What’s more, the tribes tend to fight over blood feuds—ancient and historical—and religion. Warfare in the Afghan tradition is much more akin to the Hatfield-McCoy fight in the American West rather than the disciplined warfare of the Axis vs. Allies.
Thus, the American attempt to create in Afghanistan a modern military based on Western concepts was as doomed to fail as the wider American project to transform Afghanistan into Arizona.
The ANA Special Forces
And while the general ANA failed, there is a cadre of skilled Afghan fighters in the ANA Special Forces. The reasons for their purported competence are twofold: US Special Forces warfare is much closer to the traditional style of Afghan warfare which prizes mobility and speed, as well as light armaments, and, because they are “Special” Forces, they are fewer in number.
In reality, those who are extraordinary or “special” in life tend to be fewer in number than those who are less-than-special. So, the logic makes sense that the ANA’s Special Forces would be the most competent fighters in the ANA.
Let’s not forget, however, that many of America’s own Special Forces operators have been highly critical of the vaunted Afghan Special Forces.
Here’s what John Black, a retired former US Army Green Beret with more than 20 years of experience had to say about his colleagues in the Afghan Special Forces last year in the pages of SOFREP, a Special Forces online journal:
So, for billions of dollars and 20 years of lip service paid to the Afghan National Army’s capacity, it is likely that the US government both overstated and misunderstood the real capabilities the ANA could field.
After all, according to Black, he had never seen an Afghan National Army fighter jet providing air cover for forces fighting on the ground and there was such a pervasive amount of betrayal–the infamous Green-on-Blue attacks that have defined the last decade in Afghanistan–that “requently, only the ANASF Commander knows beforehand where the ANASF will operate. This leads to very vague planning by the ANASF, while U.S. SF teams go through a very detailed and deliberate planning process.”
Dependency and corruption came to define the US-backed forces and government of Afghanistan. And while we can blame those who became dependent and corrupt, we must first blame the conditions that allowed for that dependency and corruption…and that is squarely on the Americans and their international allies.
Not Your Father’s Cannon Fodder
Despite its name, “Afghan National Army,” the force was not an independent fighting force–nor did it represent the majority of Afghan people. It was, from the start, an appendage of the United States military. Therefore, the moment the Americans pulled out a significant number of its own fighting forces and capabilities from Afghanistan, the men who comprised the ANA quickly recognized that they would be little more than cannon fodder against the more potent and powerful Pashtun-speaking Taliban.
The ANA forces quit and went home, learning to live to fight another day.
And while the ANA collapsed, there is strong evidence to support that the players who had dominated the political scene before the US invaded Afghanistan are taking to the battlefield again. It would not surprise me in the least if many of the ANA’s members, upon returning to their home villages, take up arms again and resume their fight against the Taliban…using tactics and weapons that they are traditionally more comfortable with, rather than the ones the Americans gave them.
Had the Americans not made certain, completely avoidable, bad decisions in the last year, notably abandoning Bagram Air Base in the middle of the night, the ANA might have been able to put up a better fight against the invading Taliban. Bagram was a key strategic center of operations for both the Americans and their ANA allies in the country. It was a symbol of strength for the ANA and a sign of the unity between the US military and the ANA.
Its abandonment in the dead of night signaled the ANA that the Americans were not only exiting the country but leaving their ANA allies to be killed by the marauding Taliban. ANA forces were conditioned to operate under the protective shield of America’s awesome AirPower; they fought often not only alongside the Americans, but under the leadership of rugged American officers at the tactical level.
No Mama, No Papa
The knowledge that the Americans were always around-the-corner likely also gave the ANA forces a morale booster when in combat that allowed them to take greater risks to achieve whatever victories they could against the Taliban.
This also holds true for the corrupt kleptocracy that the Americans had been supporting in Kabul since the fall of the Taliban’s rule of the capital in 2001. President Ashraf Ghani and his top ministers fled the country last weekend as the Taliban took Kabul. He was criticized.
But context is key.
Just as the ANA effectively surrendered only after the fall of Bagram, Ghani only fled after the various warlords of Afghanistan upon whom Ghani was depending to preserve his regime’s rule, did what Afghan warlords stuck between two opposing forces in Afghanistan have always done: they switched sides to the side they believed was more powerful.
In this case, with the powerful Americans fleeing and leaving the Ghani regime holding the proverbial bag, the Pashtun-speaking Taliban appeared to be the stronger tribe and so they made their calculations accordingly.
After that occurred, Ghani, no fool, fled.
Mr. Biden and his advisers are wrong in blaming the Afghans for this International tragedy. It also represents how Mr. Biden, a man who spent his entire career in foreign policy decision-making, going back to his decades on the Senate Foreign Intelligence Committee, got most of those decisions wrong.
While the Americans had to get out of Afghanistan, the way in which the Yanks did it was the most damaging thing they could have done to the forces and people they’d spent so much money and time building up since 2001. The ANA was a force that was designed to rely on overall American military power to conduct their operations.
With that power gone (pulled out even before the American civilians were), the ANA could not sustain itself. No one seems to understand this in the media or our intelligence services. That ignorance is yet another example for why the United States should stop trying to nation-build; it’s a sign that Washington cannot control events in a foreign land with alien values and practices.
As Washington bails out of its failed social experiment in Afghanistan and looks farther south to Africa, let them be dissuaded from replicating these failed experiences there. Tribal cultures cannot be “reformed” into democratic, post-modern ones that reflect the values and standards of Western societies. They have their own culture and society; their own way of war.
Should the United States find itself at war again in a tribal society, like that of Afghanistan, let us kill and maim those who have wronged us—stacking the skulls of our enemies high into the sky as a warning of what would happen to those who dared challenge us from there again—and then return home. Rebuilding such lands by fashioning them into Western societies will not work. We are, after all, a republic, not an empire.
Americans should be angry at their leaders, from George W. Bush to Joe Biden, for having gotten them into this precarious position. The Afghan National Army never had a chance of fighting on its own…because, by design, it wasn’t really meant to.
Now that the Americans are leaving and the Taliban have resumed their control over the country (or, at least the mostly Pashtun parts), the other tribes will galvanize and resume fighting according to the traditional Afghan ways, as though the Americans were never there–just as they did after Alexander the Great’s empire faded, the Mongols left, the British were chased out, and the Soviets collapsed.
More headstones for the Graveyard of Empires. The ANA was a doomed experiment. But don’t blame the Afghans for this. Blame the Americans who thought they could remake one of the oldest, most unchanged societies in human existence into a gender-studies-loving, post-modern, liberal democracy in 20 years. You can’t buy that kind of hubris.
Be sure to purchase your copy of Brandon J. Weichert’s book, “WINNING SPACE: HOW AMERICA REMAINS A SUPERPOWER” today!