What lessons should the West learn from the defeat in Afghanistan?

In the spring of 1996, Owais Tohid, a well-known Pakistani journalist, travelled around Afghanistan speaking to Taliban fighters and commanders. The west didn’t understand them, they told him again and again. “Americans have the clocks,” a young Talib quoted Mullah Omar, “but we have the time.”

The United States and their Nato partners had technology and weapons, but the Taliban were fighting for their home. For all their sophistry, the west had no persistence. The west’s arrogance hasn’t changed much, no matter the case, they imagine that they can land their military might on top of a political terrain and forever transform it. But violence has never worked, not once, in all the United States’ misadventures – it didn’t work in Vietnam, Laos, Korea, Iraq, Syria, Libya or Afghanistan.

The Vietnamese believed the same thing during their war with the United States: as long as we persist, we win. Ho Chi Minh said, “You can kill 10 of my men for every one I kill of yours. But even at those odds, you will lose and I will win.” Persistence. The Vietnamese and the Taliban controlled time, and ultimately victory, because the idea of home will always be a stronger force than military might, technology or violence.

Occupiers can only have temporary power, eventually they have to leave. They have to go back somewhere. But men fighting for their home cannot be defeated. You give them no choice, they have to fight you. They have nowhere else to go, nowhere to retreat to.

This is a lesson the feverish colonisers of the west cannot seem to learn: the concept of home, not violence, is how wars are won. The west’s profound misunderstanding of Islam – and proud refusal to learn anything about it as they launched wars all over the Muslim world over the last two decades – coupled with this ignorance is what made defeat in Afghanistan inevitable.

Kabul’s fall to the Taliban is a horrific event, one that augurs more horrors to come. The United States betrayed the Afghans it protected, particularly women and girls, by promising them a Taliban-free future that it could never fulfill.

What is unfolding in Afghanistan is so tragic that it ought to represent the worst possible outcome. And yet, one alternative was worse still: continuing the US war effort. That would have meant sending more US service members to kill and be killed for the sole purpose of slowing the Afghan government’s defeat. Such a course would have hurt Americans without ultimately helping Afghans. For Joe Biden, it was unacceptable.

Biden made a correct and important decision to withdraw US ground troops, even though the immediate humanitarian impact has been even worse than anticipated. For most of the two-decade conflict, the United States fought an unnecessary war for an unachievable objective. It aimed to build a centralized, western-style state in a country that had no such thing, and it tried to make that state, despite being dependent on external support, somehow become independent. The swift collapse of the Afghan security forces confirms what the administration had concluded: no further amount of time or effort would have produced a substantially better result.

For Americans, a first step – essential to avoiding future disasters – is to come to terms with defeat instead of indulging the fantasy that somehow, in some way, an unwinnable war could have been won.

Since it invaded Afghanistan, the US has fueled corruption in Afghanistan through CIA and military deliveries of bags of cash to Afghan power brokers and a system of bribes to ensure US troops remained fed and supplied. Absurdly, the US government has spent billions paying the Taliban not to attack convoys supplying troops sent to fight the Taliban.

The vast majority of the $2.3tn the US government has spent or obligated for the war has gone not to Afghans – corrupt or otherwise – but to US military contractors (and those who bought US debt): a reported 80–90% of US outlays ended up back in the US as a “massive wealth transfer” from taxpayers to firms in the military industrial complex, which have seen their profits and stock prices skyrocket.

Beyond President Eisenhower’s worst nightmares, the military industrial complex has become defined by spiraling expenditures, fraud, and contracts lacking incentives to control costs. To keep the funding flow­ing, contractors have paid Washington, DC lobbyists millions and made millions more in campaign contributions to Congress members who have inflated military budgets beyond Cold War highs.

The military industrial complex has become a system of largely legalized corruption revolving around entrenched incentives to wage endless war for financial and political gain. If we don’t end this system and the corrupting belief that war is a legitimate and useful policy tool, the United States will keep fighting endless wars.

What we are seeing in Afghanistan is, or at least should be, the death certificate of nation-building and US-led democratization by the barrel of the gun. The idea that we could transform foreign societies to our liking was a dangerous illusion.

This is part of why denying the failure in Afghanistan was so important to Washington’s hawks. When the house of cards came tumbling down, America’s lack of capability and competence was made clear for all to see. This, in turn, puts under question the entire project of liberal hegemony.

Most American military interventions in the civil wars of other states end in defeat. And even when the interventions succeed in toppling a government, the ensuing nation-building project ends in catastrophe.

This was a predictable outcome of the misguided notion that American leadership means transforming the world in our own image. In this century, leading can no longer mean dominating.

Joe Biden was dealt a bad hand on Afghanistan. But instead of modifying the withdrawal timeline or ensuring close military-to-military coordination with the Afghan government, he saw Afghanistan as a nuisance to be done away with as soon as possible. After all, he had been complaining about American involvement since Barack Obama’s first term, when as vice-president he favored a near exclusive focus on counter-terrorism operations against al-Qaida.

It is little surprise, then, that Biden and his top aides seemed indifferent as the Taliban marched toward Kabul. This wasn’t their fight. Indifference is one thing. Cruelty is another. In his speech on Monday, Biden showed his trademark stubbornness, refusing to admit fault or responsibility. Moreover, he blamed Afghans for lacking the will to fight for their own future, despite over 60,000 Afghan military and security forces having perished in precisely that fight over 20 years.

It may be tempting to dismiss this as an unfortunate but understandable logistical failure. If only. Optics matter. Narratives matter. Is this how America treats its friends and allies when it grows tired of them? This is the question on minds of officials in foreign capitals everywhere. As Politico Europe reported, “Even those who cheered Biden’s election and believed he could ease the recent tensions in the transatlantic relationship said they regarded the withdrawal from Afghanistan as nothing short of a mistake of historic magnitude.” Even if this isn’t how European officials and others should interpret Biden’s nonchalance, they are perceiving it nonetheless. And perceptions – or misperceptions – have a way of creating new, darker realities.

In the weeks and months after 9/11, all sorts of justifications were proposed for the predetermined invasion of Afghanistan. One of the pretexts on offer was the Taliban’s treatment of women, which, before the American intervention, was indeed brutal and tyrannical. The neoconservative elite then in power used Afghan women’s suffering as a moral shield, claiming that feminists should back the invasion.

It was a cynical bit of PR, though it did succeed in persuading some American feminists to wave the flag. In practice, the neoconservatives largely ignored the feminist movement’s substantive concerns in Afghanistan, and actively worked against their goals domestically. Their commitment to women’s rights was always a matter of pretense, not principle.

Now, after the spectacular failure of the American occupation and the return of Taliban rule, feminists have become a convenient scapegoat for the invasion. Renewed feminist concerns about the Taliban’s violent oppression of women are being cast as imperialist, rather than humanitarian – a point of view that ignores the perspectives of Afghan women themselves, who have been vocal about their alarm. Meanwhile, the politicians who were actually responsible for the invasion have faced no accountability, or even had their reputations rehabilitated.

But where western feminists do bear responsibility is in their failure to comprehend Afghan women’s oppression as related to, though different from, their own. In discussions of the Taliban, western feminists tended to exoticize the group’s culturally specific forms of male supremacy (notably, the enforced burka) rather than emphasizing the connections between the Taliban’s logic of misogyny and that professed by women’s oppressors in the west, including those who perpetrated the 2001 invasion. If western feminists want to build a truly global feminist movement, they will need to approach their Afghan counterparts with solidarity, not paternalism.

Before westerners succumb once again to labeling rural Afghans regressive for indifference or support of the Taliban, we must acknowledge how disrespect for the sanctity of life across Afghanistan’s countryside helped generate this sentiment.

When analyzing the US and the Ghani administration’s failures and the Taliban’s success, it is critical that we understand rural Afghans’ victimhood at the hands of US and Nato forces. These forces maimed, tortured and killed rural Afghans, their limbs collected for sport. They went so far as to define innocent, teenage boys as “enemy combatants” to justify their crimes and falsify statistics.

But in addition to understanding the US and Nato forces’ war crimes, we must understand why capital and democratic processes rarely reached rural Afghans. This will allow us to understand why it was that they could so easily undermine the Ghani administration’s legitimacy.

Ghani did not represent Afghanistan – 923,592 Afghans, that’s 2.5% of the population, voted for him. Only 4.75% of the population felt engaged and/or safe enough to even vote in the last election.

Furthermore, Kabul and other Afghan cities are not representative of where Afghans live – 28 million of the total 38 million Afghans live in rural areas. The urban elite are not representative of Afghans – 80% of Afghans rely on rain-fed agriculture and cattle-grazing for their incomes.

Appalling levels of economic, social and political inequality persist between urban and rural Afghans. This inequality is a known fact; it only took the Taliban, in a manner similar to communists in the 1970s, to exploit it and overthrow Ghani’s administration. As we reflect on the war in Afghanistan, it’s crucial that we incorporate the urban-rural divide, which considers class, ethnicity and other socio-economic factors, into our understanding and assessment of the current state of Afghanistan – the Taliban already do.

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