Afghanistan: How did they think it would end? – Gwynne Dyer

US flag lowered as Americans leave their Afghanistan base.

Gwynne DyerWestern armies lose no matter how big and well-equipped they are because the insurgents are fighting on home ground. – Gwynne Dyer

I will never kneel before such a destructive force (as the Taliban),” declared Ashraf Ghani, the soon-to-be ex-president of Afghanistan. “We will either sit knee-to-knee for real negotiations at the table, or break their knees on the battlefield.” Good luck with that, Ashraf.

General Sami Sadat, still commander of Helmand province as I write this (although perhaps not by the time you read it), was equally confident, but warned that the safety of the world is at stake: “This will increase the hope for small extremist groups to mobilise in the cities of Europe and America, and will have a devastating effect on global security.”

And how did it all come to this? Ashraf Ghani pointed out that it is obviously America’s fault. “The reason for our current situation is that the (US decision to withdraw) was taken abruptly,” he told parliament on Monday.

Well, fair enough. US forces have been in Afghanistan for a bare twenty years and the treacherous cowards are already quitting. Donald Trump signed a treaty with the Taliban eighteen months ago promising that all US troops would leave Afghanistan by the 1st of May this year. Short notice indeed.

I’m tempted to go back into the archives and find similar brave declarations of imminent victory by South Vietnamese generals (followed by similar predictions of global disaster if they are abandoned) in the final weeks before the helicopters started plucking Americans from the US embassy roof in Saigon in 1975. But it’s a nice day and I can’t be bothered.

President Ghani, General Sadat, and all their friends are reading from the same old script, just 46 years later, and once that final scene has played out in Kabul they’ll go and live in the United States. (Don’t worry. They’ve saved up enough money.) The only real surprise here is how thoroughly Western armed forces managed to forget their own history.

I’m not talking about the old history, when three invasions of Afghanistan at the height of British imperial power (1839-42; 1878-80; 1919) all failed to achieve their objectives.

I’m not even talking about the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in 1979-89 when the United States helped the Taliban and similar Islamist groups to do to the Russians exactly what the Taliban have now done to the Americans themselves.

The problem there was that Americans did not see Russians as Western, although viewed from a low orbit they are virtually identical. US generals, therefore, believed that some essential difference between the two armies protected American troops from the fate of the Russians.

Never mind all that. The really unpardonable mistake was forgetting all the lessons Western armies had learned from a dozen lost guerrilla wars in former colonies between 1954 and 1975.

France in Algeria and Indochina, Britain in Kenya, Cyprus and Aden, Portugal in Angola and Mozambique, the proxy wars in Rhodesia and South-West Africa (as they were then known), and the United States again in Indochina. All the wars were lost, and yet the defeated imperial powers didn’t  lose anything except face.

Western armies really did learn the lessons of those defeats. As a young man in the 1970s I taught military history and strategy in the Canadian Forces Staff College and then at Britain’s Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst. The doctrine I taught was a) Western armies always lose guerrilla wars in the ‘Third World’, and b) it never really matters.

The Western armies lose no matter how big and well-equipped they are because the insurgents are fighting on home ground. They can’t quit and go home because they already are home. Your side can always quit and go home, and sooner or later your own public will demand that they do. So, you are bound to lose eventually, even if you win all the battles.

But losing doesn’t matter, because the insurgents are always first and foremost nationalists. They may have picked up bits of some grand ideology to make them feel that ‘history’ is on their side—Marxism or Islamism or whatever—but all they want is for you to go home so they can run their own show. They won’t actually follow you home.

By 1975 this hard-earned wisdom was the official doctrine in almost every army in the Western world, but military generations are short. A typical military career is only 25 years, so by 2001 nobody remembered it. Their successors had to start learning it again the hard way. Maybe by now, they have. – The Pioneer, 6 August 2021

Flag of Afghanistan

Everybody in the Afghan national army knows that the war is lost

Five times in the past two weeks, government soldiers in Badakhshan and Takhar provinces in northern Afghanistan have fled across the border into Tajikistan after clashes with Taliban militants. They didn’t lose the firefights, and they’re not cowards; 1,600 trained soldiers – over 100 a day – just fled abroad to avoid further combat. Nobody wants to be the last man to die in a lost war. Everybody in the Afghan national army already knows that the war is lost. So, the U.S. intelligence reports predicting that Ashraf Ghani’s puppet government (the term is not too harsh) could fall within six to twelve months of a U.S. troop withdrawal are too optimistic. The last German, Italian and British troops left Afghanistan last week, and the last US troops are leaving right now, apart from some 650 soldiers to guard the American embassy and the airport. (Always hold the airport, because people lined up on the embassy roof waiting for the last helicopter out is a bad look.) But Kabul may fall in a lot less than six months. The Taliban already hold at least half the country. The army is just melting away, and the air force will be grounded within weeks once the foreign technical support goes home.

The mujahideen group that became the Taliban spent ten years fighting the Russian occupation, then seven years fighting the local regime and rival mujahideen groups; then five years in power; and then another twenty years fighting the US occupation. Unsurprisingly, they have learned a few things in that time. Most importantly, they have expanded their membership and influence among the non-Pashtun groups: the northern provinces that are now falling to them so fast are the areas they never controlled during their last time in power.

Then there will be a period of vengeance-taking in which ‘traitors’ who worked for the Americans or other NATO countries will be hunted down and killed. Women will be driven out of the work force, girls’ schools will be closed, music will be banned, and men will be beaten for not wearing beards. The Taliban’s extreme version of Islam will reign unchallenged. The notion that Afghanistan will become a major terrorist base again once the Taliban regain power is based on the foolish belief that it was an important base for terrorist activity the first time around. Terrorists don’t actually need ‘bases’; the essence of the enterprise is to be invisible until you strike, and the weapons you need are neither large nor hard to obtain. Most of the 9/11 hijackers got some ‘training’ in Osama bin Laden’s camp, but they were Arabs, not Afghans, and how much training do you need to hijack an airplane? Well, OK, four of them needed flight training, but they did that in the United States. Bin Laden was only in Afghanistan because American pressure got him expelled from his previous ‘base’ in Sudan. The Taliban leader, Mullah Omar, let him set up in Kandahar because the two men had become close friends when working in the 1980s in the American-backed jihad against the Russians in Afghanistan.

But did Bin Laden tell Omar about his plan to kill thousands of Americans by hijacking commercial aircraft? The first principle of all secret work is ‘need to know’, and Omar didn’t need to know. Indeed, he might have objected if he did know, because he would have realised that Afghanistan would get invaded if the 9/11 attack went ahead. Afghanistan wasn’t a ‘major terrorist base’ in the past, and it probably won’t become one in the future. And if it does, so what? At least then you’ll know where they are. – The Pioneer, 21 July 2021

› Gwynne Dyer is an historian and independent journalist based in London. He has published several books and has had his articles widely syndicated for many years.

Taliban fighter with flag.

People on vehicles, holding Taliban flags, gather near the Friendship Gate crossing point in the Pakistan-Afghanistan border town of Chaman, Pakistan on July 14, 2021.