There are a number of matters highlighted by recent authors that led to the downfall of the Afghan Republic. Chief amongst these was the failure of the US to accept the Taliban surrender in 2001 and integrate them into the political order, failures of Afghan leadership, corruption including both electoral fraud and financial corruption, ISAF civilian massacres, Taliban popularity combined with the perception that the new order was run by traitors (watan farosh), US lack of commitment to provide a long term commitment to Afghanistan of the kind that it did with South Korea, US impatience to quit Afghanistan emboldening the Taliban to remain in the fight till the US left, failure of the Afghan government to improve the economic lot of Afghans, failure to provide ongoing air support by ISAF to the ANA during 2021, removal of military contractors and Pakistani support for the Taliban or ‘perfidy’ as Maley and Shuja brand it, as well as an unrealistic Westernising social transformation agenda for Afghanistan.
We consider below some of these themes in the two books reviewed below.
The Ledger: Accounting for Failure in Afghanistan by David Kilcullen And Greg Mills ~ Hurst publishers (2021)
Sound comparisons are drawn between the earlier US invasion of Vietnam and the war the US waged in Afghanistan. De Gaulle warned the US president in 1962 that he risked being sucked deeper and deeper into Vietnam. The fall of Kabul is compared to fall of Saigon. Amongst the shambolic scenes from the US exit were the rich Westerners evacuating cats and dogs ahead of Afghans. Ghani, ever the gentleman, abandoned his special adviser Aziz Amin Ahmadzai at the helipad as he flew off to safety in Uzbekistan.
Afghanistan had a wartime economy bloated by US dollars. Afghan GDP was around 1-2 billion dollars, with government expenditure at 5 billion
Rather perversely the failure of the Bush administration was down to the failure to know their enemy:
“The Bush administration appeared not to appreciate that the Taliban constituted a significant part of Afghan society. Rumsfeld like many, misunderstood the Taliban as exporters of extremism, whereas they had, first and foremost, an internal nationalist agenda married to a vigilante law and order approach to the rule of law.”
The failure to make peace with the Taliban who offered surrender in 2001 with reintegration was a fatal mistake. By 2010 US-Taliban leverage was balanced whereas before it had been in favour of the US. However, the Karzai Government did not want to share the spoils with their opponents, wrongly believing in a military solution.
The US did not have a deep commitment to Afghanistan like it did with South Korea and was looking to cut and run: “the tendency of successive American administrations to signal their impatience and desire to leave resulted in a failure to find long term solutions. The Taliban calculus – to simply wait us out – might have changed if the West had signalled that it was in Afghanistan for the long haul, as it had been in Korea, Taliban leaders would have been more likely to commit to a political solution if faced with the prospect of a permanent military stalemate.”
By the end of the surge period in December 2014, in effect the end of the counter insurgency phase of the conflict and the beginning of security force assistance in support of Afghan forces, Western leaders began a concerted effort to negotiate with and accommodate the Taliban.
This accommodation was pursued at different levels, with some success for a time through reintegration of lower level ten-dollar-per-day Taliban fighters. However, the programme modelled on similar programmes in Iraq, based in turn on earlier versions from Vietnam, failed. Often indeed, Taliban fighters would re-integrate at the end of the autumn fighting season. They would enjoy warmth and income in the cities until spring when the fighting season returned and they rejoined the Taliban.
It was not possible to destroy the Taliban due to popular local support that they enjoyed. That could only be done by engaging with women, children and old people: “to defeat the Taliban we needed to get among the people, down where the enemy’s centre of gravity lay, and apply non-military tools such as reconciliation, reconstruction and rule of law rather than heavy firepower. But we were neither properly organised nor adequately equipped.”
A lesson from the Soviet years that should have dampened early exuberance was that winning tactical engagements was never a problem in Afghanistan, especially when airpower could be brought to bear. Holding ground was far harder, as America and its allies were to discover well before the Afghan collapse, when Afghan forces gradually withdrew from rural outposts, conceding them to the Taliban, just as they had done in Vietnam. This was a lesson, too, learnt by others in Afghanistan.
Afghan officials under ISAF as under the Soviets, were widely viewed as ‘country sellers’ while the failures of Afghan governance and inability to bring economic benefits to the Afghan people were seen as international failures. In both cases, public support for the presence of foreign troops was inversely proportional to civilian casualties. “Without addressing the political issues that caused the conflict, the US was just postponing the day when the whole enterprise would collapse like the Ponzi scheme it was.”
Corruption was fuelled by billions of dollars of misdirected aid, much of which corrupted not only the Afghans but the Westerners who were there to ‘help.’ Afghanistan had a wartime economy bloated by US dollars. Afghan GDP was around 1-2 billion dollars, with government expenditure at 5 billion.
“Fundamentally, the international community was attempting to change the poorest country in Asia by inserting into it money, troops, skills and training, and by modelling and building national institutions, much as they had tried to do in another era in South East Asia, and also failed.“
International aid was provided based on what donors believed was important, not what the people wanted. In Kandahar, people were concerned about high unemployment, inflation and an absence of stable electricity. However, the Canadians provided aid for irrigation, education and healthcare.
Unlike Najibullah who was characterised by many Soviets as intelligent, resourceful, tough and well-educated, Presidents Karzai and Ghani were routinely characterised by their allies as ‘weak’ and accommodating of corrupt practices in the interest of maintaining what was portrayed as a ‘false stability.’ Once Najibullah could not pay the militias after the fall of the USSR in 1991, his regime fell after four months.
The author cites four big issues at play that underpinned the Western failure in Afghanistan: “The first was the utter failure, over two decades, to address the issues of corruption and nepotism in the central government and institutional weakness at the provincial and district levels. The second concerns the pervasive negative impact of Western money (whether in the form of direct aid or indirect salaries in fuelling corruption and embedding dependency. The third is the unwillingness, or inability, to reflect reality back to Western capitals (reflecting the optimism bias among officials committed to the project). The routh is the unwillingness or inability to reflect reality back to Western capitals (reflecting the optimism bias among officials committed to the project.) The fourth is the flawed assumption that a western design based on Western values could be imposed on a culturally conservative population, thousands of miles away and against their will.”
The Decline and Fall of Republican Afghanistan by Ahmad Shuja Jamal and William Maley ~ Hurst Publishers (2023)
Maley and Shuja’s preface begins with comparing the Versailles treaty and the 20-year peace it bought Europe, culminating in the Nazi invasion of France, with the Taliban taking Kabul back after 20 years. The cliche of comparing Nazis with the Taliban is not a new one, most famously espoused by Khalid Hosseini in The Kite Runner, thereby creating the feel-good factor for Westerners in waging the ‘good war’.
The author’s comparison takes the Taliban educated in Pakistani madrassas, adding in other unnamed elements so that the Taliban appeared as a brutish street militia not unlike the brown-shirted German stormtroopers in 1930s Germany. Westerners like Maley really do like their Nazi comparisons, which this book is overly replete with. For the Westerner, Nazi Germany is evil whereas for the Aboriginal people of Australia it may well be the likes of Maley who usurped Australia and subjected the aborigines to genocide that are the Nazis.
It was the 1978 coup that was the ultimate trigger for virtually all the disasters that have befallen Afghanistan that date. This ignores the role of the earlier coup by Daoud, and in so doing effaces Daoud’s blame for the 1973 coup, in which Daoud using Communist army officers toppled the Afghan monarch Zahir Shah. This coup served as a dry run for the 1978 coup ushering in Communist rule.
Afghanistan’s wars since 1978 have destroyed the financial resources of the state which even in times of peace relied on aid as a rentier state to balance the book. Yet the author writes as though the Taliban were responsible for this economic state of affairs: “the Taliban had failed to develop more than a rudimentary system of public management and budgeting.” Well, the Taliban were clearly not in receipt of US largesse. The author continues, “the new leadership found itself heavily dependent upon international aid, not only for the purposes of establishing and sustaining state instrumentalities but also to fund developmental projects in various parts of the country.” This, too, was the Afghanistan that King Zahir Shah and his ambitious cousin President Daoud inhabited. If the bulk of state revenues are externally supplied, much more effort is likely to be put into keeping the donors happy than ensuring that the wishes of the locals are understood and respected.
The authors further write: “In 1995, a modicum of unified control was established over Kabul by a noted commander, Ahmad Shah Massoud.“ In contrast, according to the authors, the Taliban “was totalitarian and repressive […] they were not squeamish about massacring ethnic minorities , notably the 2,000 Hazaras killed in an atrocity in Mazar-e Sharif in August 1998.” But what of Massoud’s Afshar massacre of Hazaras in 1994? The author appears to paint a black-and-white picture of Afghanistan of villains and ‘noted‘ heroes. In truth Afghan history is in more nuanced shades of grey.
Whilst customary governance remained an important source of law for local communities, the new republic endangered the status quo, “All too often, customary governance was displaced by ineffective or corrupt or unresponsive administration.” The rule of law was ridden rough shod over when the Government chose to undermine accountability in 2007, with parliament passing a law giving blanket immunity for human rights abuses of the past.
The 2009 election with Karzai being re-elected was mired by large scale fraud with Karzai men stuffing ballot boxes with votes. In 2014 when Karzai not running, Ziaulhaq Amerkhel, chief electoral officer, plotted fraud in favour of Ashraf Ghani. Amerkhel was sacked but Ghani was said with the help of large-scale fraud to have defeated his rival Abdullah Abdullah. The US Secretary of State brokered a deal whereby Ghani became President and Abdullah CEO. Accordingly, people’s inclination to participate in such farces declined with a much lower turnout of 1,823,858 votes amounting to just 18.9% of registered voters in 2019.
The country changed radically during this period, and according to the authors, in notable respects, for the better: “Afghanistan was exposed to the forces of globalisation in a way that for the first time in the country’s history began to create a significant middle class.”
The US Agency for international development estimated that 50% of Taliban funding is skimmed from US military and development contracts as well as pay offs from US funded companies.
Karzai’s tragedy, in a way, was that as time went by, his undoubted skills became less and less relevant to solving Afghanistan’s problems, and his weakness became more and more relevant. His great strength was a genuine belief in the importance of inclusivity and bringing the country together, and this served him well during his term as Chairman of the interim and transitional administrations and his first term as elected president. But as time passed, he was confronted more and more with expectations that he would be a dynamic policy figure, and this simply took him beyond his comfort zone. It was one reason why the US lost confidence in him.
The Maley and Shuja book could do well without the infantile Nazi categorisations, and some more objectivity
“In significant ways, the Karzai presidency initiated the decline of the republic. His fluctuating attitudes towards the Taliban were particularly destructive. Increasingly during his second term, as his relations with the Americans soured, he referred to the Taliban as ‘angry brothers’ (rather than terrorists or Pakistan proxies) […] It can be argued that Karzai’s whitewashing of the Taliban provided a blueprint for the US’s subsequent disastrous diplomacy.”
Karzai, according to the authors, had a transactional approach to working with others, which allowed him to balance competing interests, but at the cost of the empowerment of networks in a neo-patrimonial system. In 2014, those interested in an alternative to Karzai saw the technocrat Ashraf Ghani as a figure to support. Unfortunately, like Karzai, he proved to have some of the skills required for effective leadership, but not others. One American observer noted that “Karzai is all politics and no policy; Ashraf is all policy and no politics.”
By 2014, when Karzai stood down, he was increasingly aware of how history would perceive him. Karzai simply did not want to be seen as a foreign imposed puppet like his fellow Durrani ruler Shah Shuja imposed upon the Afghans by Britain from 1839-42. Given Shuja’s dire modern reputation, it was understandable that Karzai had ambivalent views about and sent mixed messages about the Taliban. This is something Maley and his co-author Ahmad Shuja Jamal give little credence to.
Ghani is characterised as a rude man who took no enemies. He was prone to humiliating his ministers, most of whom did not have the backbone to stand up to him. Ghani hoarded power, and was a micro-manager – and so he had no interest in sharing power with Abdullah Abdullah. Rapid personnel turnover in the presidency staff followed, which meant Ghani and his ministers could not get a grasp on matters.
The final years of Ghani’s presidency were also a time when his unique skill-set of policymaking became less relevant. It was a time when diplomacy and politics, his areas of relative weakness, were most needed but least exercised.
The US at Doha negotiating with the Taliban undermined Ghani, since things changed quickly and policy positions were fluid. Nobody could be sure what the position was on Talib prisoners, the authority of the Afghan Government peace negotiating team or the position that the Afghan military should adopt. As the Taliban made rapid advances, Ghani failed to mobilise support by giving voice to the sentiments of the people who opposed the Taliban.
The US decided to reach a peace settlement with the Taliban at Doha that did not include the Afghan Government. From 2019, the US position was that intra-Afghan dialogue would come after the Taliban and US agreement. For this reason, the Taliban had little reason to compromise with the Republic. Indeed on 29 February 2020, the US signed its agreement with the Taliban, which did not provide for a ceasefire but did provide for a withdrawal of U.S. personnel and contractors. On 14 April 2021, Biden confirmed all troops would unconditionally withdraw from Afghanistan. The withdrawal of military contractors undermined the ability of the Afghan air force to function. The success of US negotiations with Taliban paved the way for the Taliban to send delegations to China, Pakistan and Uzbekistan. International support for the Republic diminished.
In 2021, according to the authors, during the evacuation of Afghans from Kabul, a suicide bomber at the perimeter wall of Kabul airport killed 13 US service personnel and at least 90 Afghans. The authors evade the uncomfortable fact that US troops opened fire on the surviving Afghans after the bomb blast, because they feared there may be a second bomber amongst the Afghans. Therefore, the majority of the deaths were reported by the BBC to have occurred as a result of US troops shooting unarmed civilians.
Pakistan’s “perfidy was one of the fundamental contributors to the decline and fall of Republican Afghanistan” – equally the failure to include the Taliban in the Bonn conference or for the US to accept their surrender and hunting down ordinary Talibs paved the way for the revival of the movement. What was fatal to republic was not forcefully addressing Pakistani support for Taliban. In his September 2021 testimony before Congress, the Chairman of US Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark A Milley cited never “effectively dealing with Pakistan” as a critical error.
Crimes by ISAF were worse received by Afghans than Talib war crimes: “The BBC exposed chilling evidence of British violations. This kind of behaviour was almost certainly the exception rather than the rule.”
Maley and Shuja have a very gentlemanly view of British atrocities in Afghanistan. The British military had very loose rules around killing Afghans: anyone with a spade, on a motorbike suspected of being a Talib lookout or spotter, could be murdered with impunity. Additionally British special forces on night raids acted like death squads, killing children and adults alike.
In early May 2021, the Taliban sent tribal elders in various provinces of Afghanistan with an offer to the Afghan army units in their areas. The message was simple: “The US has handed Afghanistan to the Taliban. The Taliban are offering you safe passage if you drop your weapons.” This message of amnesty resonated with soldiers in dozens of checkpoints, which fell to the Taliban overnight. Ghani simply failed to give soldiers a wartime narrative for which to fight. The other problem was of ghost soldiers. On paper, the ministry of defence believed there to be a fighting force of under 129,000. The reality was that after the exclusion of ghost soldiers, there were only 30,000-35,000 soldiers. There was no reason for these men to risk their lives in the face of an imminent Taliban victory.
In conclusion, both books have something to offer as detailed above. The Maley and Shuja book could do well without the infantile Nazi categorisations, and some more objectivity. Therefore. on balance Kilcullen draws the correct parallels with the Vietnam war and his work is a more impartial scholarly tome reviewing the failure of the social transformation agenda.
In the end, Ghani chose to flee Afghanistan rather than be strung up like Habibullah Kalakani (the son of a water carrier) was by Nadir Shah, and probably also evaded the similar fate of Najibullah, who was castrated and strung up by the Taliban on a traffic light outside the Presidential palace. Ghani clearly read the signals of Najibullah’s traffic light, and the message was a resounding “Go!”
Despite Ghani proclaiming he would not flee as Amanullah did from Habibullah Kalakani, he did just that. Ghani lacked the courage to stay the course, like his US allies. The USSR and USA both sought to socially transform Afghanistan and both those projects failed. The Soviet attempt at social transformation should have served as a warning to the USA’s equally flawed project. Ghani ended up in the UAE where another failed ‘leader’ Musharaf, recently ended his days.