Many people were shocked at how quickly the Taliban took over the government of Afghanistan once the United States drew down its forces and prepared to pull out and end our 20-year occupation of that country. The occupation came at a high price: 2,400 of our soldiers were killed, more than 24,000 were wounded and an estimated $2 trillion of our taxpayers’ dollars were spent.
As we departed, we left the Afghan government with a 350,000-man army, modern weaponry and a large well-trained air force. Most intelligence assessments said the government forces could easily put down the Taliban. (There were skeptics, but apparently their voices did not get to the decision-makers.)
The decision to pull out of Afghanistan was not controversial. Democrats and Republicans agreed this “forever war” had to end, and most were confident we had been successful in bringing democracy and western values to this Muslim country where women were uneducated and repressed.
But now there are tens of thousands of desperate people fleeing to the airport in Kabul, pleading to be evacuated — people who worked for or supported the U.S. occupation, as well as several thousand stranded U.S. citizens.
This optic is terrible for the U.S., especially since we abandoned the Kurds two years ago after they had been instrumental in defeating ISIS in Syria. Those fighting authoritarian governments in places like Cuba, Belorussia, Ukraine, Taiwan and South Korea must be re-evaluating their faith in U.S. support.
What went wrong? The consensus seems to be that the soldiers of the notoriously corrupt Afghan government were unwilling to lay down their lives for western ideals. But Mikhail Gorbachev, the last premier of the Soviet Union, recently suggested to the Russian press that the U.S. occupation was doomed from the start. He has some knowledge of the situation there because he oversaw the withdrawal of Russian troops from Afghanistan in the late 1980s and the subsequent collapse of the Soviet Union. “Like many other similar projects, at its heart lay the exaggeration of a threat and poorly defined geopolitical ideas,’” he said. “To that were added unrealistic attempts to democratize a society made up of many tribes. They [the US] should have admitted failure earlier. The important thing now is to draw the lessons from what happened and make sure that similar mistakes are not repeated.”
So, what lessons do we learn from Afghanistan? Here are some of my suggestions.
Lesson 1: Democracy works best in homogeneous countries (examples: post-war Germany and Japan). It does not work well in heterogeneous or tribal nations like Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan and the former Yugoslavia. (Note: removing an autocrat to bring democracy to a heterogeneous country is more likely to produce bombings in the marketplace as factions try to kill each other than dancing in the streets to celebrate the opportunity to vote).
Lesson 2. All Muslims are not the same. There is a nasty civil war going on in much of the Islamic world between Sunni Muslims and Shia Muslims. Iran is a Shia nation while Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States, and much of Pakistan are Sunni. The rule that applies in this situation is “the enemy of my enemy is my friend, and the friend of my enemy is my enemy.” It is important to understand this rule when one is trying to pick loyal allies.
Lesson 3: Know the difference between your friends and enemies: the Taliban and Al Qaeda are not the same. After the Russians pulled out of Afghanistan in 1989, the country was torn apart by fighting among its many warlords, particularly those who controlled the lucrative poppy fields in the north. (Poppies are used to make opium that is then smuggled into European markets.) In 1994, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan’s ISI (Inter-Service Intelligence) created the Taliban, which was an alliance of fundamentalist Sunni Muslims, to overthrow the warlords and restore order in the country. The Taliban imposes strict sharia law. It banned the cultivation of poppies for opium throughout the areas under its control.
While the Taliban was primarily made up of native Afghanis, Al Qaeda’s Mujahidin were mostly foreigners. Al Qaeda was created in 1986, when Saudi Arabia, the Pakistan ISI and the CIA-funded Osama bin Laden recruited jihadists (“holy warriors”) from around the world to fight the Russians in Afghanistan. It was assumed that once the Russians were defeated, Al Qaeda’s mission would end. But Bin Laden had a different goal and Afghanistan was just the first step. He returned to Saudi Arabia, where many considered him a hero. He began using Al Qaeda to recruit Mujahideen to fight in other regions with significant Sunni Muslim populations, such as Bosnia, Kosovo, Chechnya and Dagestan in Russia, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Somalia and parts of northern Africa.
Bin Laden was expelled from Saudi Arabia, so he moved temporarily to Somalia. After 9/11, he wound up back in Afghanistan where U.S. intelligence located him at a training camp for foreign Mujahideen. The U.S. government demanded that the Taliban arrest bin Laden and turn him over to be put on trial. The Taliban sought guidance from senior mullahs, who determined that sharia law did not allow them to turn over someone who had come to them seeking sanctuary. This is similar to the situation of someone seeking sanctuary in a Catholic church or an embassy.
Lesson 4: If you want a job done right, do it yourself. We knew where Bin Laden was and we desperately wanted to get our hands on him, but we did not want to send in our own soldiers to capture him. Instead, we bombed Afghanistan for several months while arming the Northern Alliance (those guys with the poppy fields) to overthrow the Taliban. At one point, we had found Bin Laden and thought we had him trapped, so we sent in the Northern Alliance to capture him, but they let bin Laden slip through their fingers. When we finally found him again, he was in Pakistan in a compound less than a mile from the ISI Military Academy. This time we didn’t worry about crossing an international border and sent our Navy Seals in to do the job.
Lesson 5: Remember your objectives. Why were we in Afghanistan? To get Bin Laden and protect the U.S. from future terrorist attacks like 9/11. But Al Qaeda and ISIS could launch terrorist attacks from anywhere in the world. We remained in Afghanistan in the belief that we could bring democracy and western ideals to that country. But perhaps what we were exporting was bureaucratic inefficiency and special interests. A primary rule of bureaucracy is to never fix a problem, because if you do, you will lose your government funding. (Look at the money our government has poured into the war on drugs, only to see the problem get worse each year.) Did anyone in Afghanistan not know that the government was corrupt and that pouring more money into the country was not making it less corrupt?
Afghanistan is a tragedy in many respects. But is it our job to reshape the world according to our beliefs and ideals? We have a much bigger task in unifying our own nation and living up to our beliefs and ideals. Let us be a beacon of hope and freedom to the oppressed in other nations: not an oppressor of their beliefs and culture.AfghanistanAfghanistan