One adage of warfare is that when a clearly weaker actor fights a clearly stronger actor to a standstill, then the weaker actor has won the contest. This is particularly so for asymmetric, irregular warfare where one side has the advantage of disproportionate force but the other side has time and willpower in its favour. So long as the weaker actor can remain steadfast over time when resisting the superior force, then not only will stalemate be achieved but eventual victory for the weaker actor is more likely. Where the weaker actor is fighting on home territory against a foreign force, the probability of its eventually prevailing are significantly improved. For the stronger actor fighting on foreign soil, the longer the conflict is drawn out, the more likely that it will be defeated, especially if domestic support at home (political and social) for the fight wanes over time. If the foreign power is simultaneously fighting another major land war (or wars), then its chances of victory in any of them are significantly reduced. Instead, such “forever wars” become deaths by a thousand cuts for the militarily stronger foreign power.
The Vietminh/Vietcong provide a good example of this. They resisted colonial and post-colonial French and US-led Western forces for more than two decades and eventually achieved independence, then fought off Chinese aggression to consolidate their hold over what is now the Republic of Vietnam. Like the VC, the Taliban have no Air Force, have no Navy, and what sophisticated ground warfare equipment they employ (which is not much), they captured from foreign forces or were clandestinely supplied by anti-Western states such as China and Russia. They used cross-border allies to good effect in getting supplies through (Iran and Pakistan in particular but not exclusively), and used guerrilla, hit and run tactics to extend the occupiers territorially until individual units or outposts could be surrounded and overrun by highly mobile and locally massed Taliban forces using surprise and local knowledge to their advantage.
The Taliban are, in a nutshell, a resilient, extremely determined, ruthless, cunning and resourceful adversary who fights on its home turf against foreigners and foreign-backed locals who (in the case of the former) do not understand them and who (in both cases) do not have the will to continue fight without an end in sight. For the Taliban it is Allah’s will that they fight and die for him, so there is no time horizon on or particular end point to their struggle against infidels. In effect, we may not like their medieval ideology, but we must recognise their will to impose it at all costs.
That brings up another maxim of warfare: The actor who prevails is the one that is willing to suffer the most losses and continue fighting. The Taliban have shown their mettle in this regard. To that we can add the historical observation that unlike secular (say, Maoist or Marxist-Leninist) guerrilla groups, religiously-inspired irregular warfare actors are seldom fully defeated, but instead ebb and flow like the tide depending on the political and social conditions of the day and the strength of countervailing forces.
That is because of the nature of their respective ideologies. Religion is a pervasive, deeply imbued primordial cultural organizing principle that, if driven underground, continues to reaffirm commonly shared traditional social values even in modern secular societies. In contrast, secularist ideologies, particularly anti-capitalist ideologies, start as minority belief systems that run contrary and seek to undermine the traditional or “proper” way of things. That makes it more difficult for them to clandestinely sustain themselves. Religious irregular warfare actors seek to reaffirm what traditionally is and has been; secular irregular warfare actors seek to overthrow and replace what is and was. Depending on the relative depth of religious belief in a given society, the former has a much better prospect of long-term success than the latter when it comes to asymmetric conflict.
Because of their lack of ideological support in most societies, secular irregular warfare actors either win or lose, the first via protracted irregular conflict culminated by conventional military victory and the latter via short intensive kinetic campaigns waged by overwhelmingly superior military actors. Faced with unfavourable warfare conditions, religious irregular warfare actors use society’s ideological depth as a subterranean means to avoid definitive kinetic and political outcomes and instead sink into the fabric of society and pursue guerrilla warfare as a form of counter-hegemonic struggle (often using terrorist tactics). Secular irregular warfare actors also attempt to do this, but their lack of ideological depth in society exposes them to relatively quick detection and elimination. Conversely, the deeper the religious culture into which religious irregular warfare actors can dive, the more likely that they will resurface as an intact fighting force once the stronger opponent has left the battlefield. That has now happened in Afghanistan.
The price paid by the Taliban during this conflict has been enormous. They have been killed in astronomical numbers by land, air and sea. A generation and more of their leadership cadres have been decimated. They lost control of cities and then rural areas, in some cases fleeing across borders in order to avoid complete annihilation. And yet, after two decades on non-stop warfare and the inter-generational destruction of scores of fighting cadres, they have regained control of Afghanistan now that the US and its ISAF partners have left the country.
In contrast, after twenty years of foreign-led military and civilian capacity building and billions of dollars spent on infrastructure in pursuit of national unification, the ISAF/UN-backed Afghan central government’s control throughout the country collapsed with astonishing speed. In the space of two months once the foreign forces withdrawal was announced, the Taliban gained control over the majority of Afghan territory. Kabul has fallen and the foreign-backed president Ghani has fled (along with millions in cash), leaving his subordinates and foreign patron remnants to fend for themselves. Taliban patrol the capital’s streets and assassins lurk in and around the Kabul “Green Zone” where foreigners and local elites lived and worked, selectively murdering journalists, pilots, teachers and other skilled labourers seen as associated with the occupiers or opposed to Taliban rule. The spectre of a genocidal, gendered bloodbath is a real possibility and there is a mass refugee migration underway from Afghanistan into neighbouring countries, especially from non-Pashtun, non-Sunni regions. Over a quarter million people have fled their homelands in the last two months alone, and the international airport in Kabul is a scene of chaos as thousands seek airlift rescue. It is not a stretch to draw parallels with the fall of Saigon, especially after seeing scenes of Chinook helicopters evacuating people from the rooftop of the US embassy.
Even more so than the failed experiment in post-Saddam Iraq, the US-led push to democratise and secularise Afghan politics and society has fallen hard on the double swords of corruption and traditional culture. The Western-backed governments that have held power once the Taliban were overthrown in 2002 have been little more than kleptocratic distribution wheels for the favoured and connected. Modernization in the form of aid programs to foment the likes of female education, road building, health and sanitation facilities, reticulated sewage systems, electrical power grids etc. have not only been a source of corruption but have been accepted without producing the cultural shifts that were assumed by Western patrons to be the logical and inevitable end result of such efforts. As a former US military officer noted with reference to the locals, “they will smile and gladly accept our help during the day, and then they will sneak back and kill us at night.”
In other words, the physical infrastructure of the country may have been modernised, but by and large the societal value structure was not.
The hard fact is that the seeds of the latest Western defeat in Afghanistan were sown the moment the nation-building project in that country began. Had the US and its allies defeated the Taliban and then left Afghanistan to sort itself out along traditional ethno-religious and tribal lines (say, by allowing warlords and tribal militias to contest local authority with central government advocates), the process of national reunification or reorganisation would have been violent but in all likelihood shorter and more durable when it came to the distribution of and balance of power between local and central authorities. As a Pentagon colleague of mine said when surveying the wreckages of US military intervention there and in Iraq, “we should have declared victory and gone home after the bad guys were defeated, then left (them) to it.”
Instead, the US-led ISAF coalition attempted to impose “democracy” on a country with extremely limited historical or practical experience with that concept. The project was therefore bound to be a failure in form (procedure) and substance (outcomes), both of which were manipulated to serve the ends of local elites. To put it in more general terms: attempting to impose modern and post-modern Western-style political forms, social norms and cultural mores on populations dominated by pre-modern (authoritarian) social hierarchies was akin to trying to get a fish to ride the proverbial bicycle.
The irony is that the notion of “nation-building” was a bastardisation of the counterinsurgency (COIN) axiom about psychological operations, where the point is to win the “hearts and minds” of a disputed population via provision of security, health care and other amenities of civilisation in order to gain their acceptance and trust while diminishing that given to the insurgent enemy. The original COIN focus was on very localised populations for relatively short periods of time, not entire countries for long periods of time, and involved using local grievances against domestic insurgents in order to gain information that allowed for their detection and elimination as part of what came to be known as the “inkblot” strategy of incremental taking and holding of enemy social space. In other words, it was one aspect of an irregular warfare strategy used against insurgents and was not an end of itself.
This was all known before the nation-building exercise began, not only by counter-insurgency specialists in military communities, but by anthropologists and sociologists who study places like Iraq and Afghanistan and their respective sub-cultures. It was/is also known by political scientists (aka “transitologists”) who study regime change from authoritarianism to democracy and vice versa–in short, it is hard to impose from the outside unfamiliar and often unwelcome types of governance on tradition-bound and/or pre-modern societies even if improvements to material standards of living are part of the package. The reasons are many but the conclusion is clear: external imposition of foreign social norms and political structures, no matter how well-wrapped in developmental assistance, is most likely to fail.
All of this accumulated wisdom was ignored in Western capitals (including Wellington) when the macro-level dimensions of the ISAF mission were operationalised. Instead, intelligence and military organisations attempted to use social scientists to develop micro-level conceptual maps of the “human terrain” on which the military and civilian capacity-building campaigns were undertaken. Although they enjoyed some tactical success, at a strategic level these efforts ultimately failed and proved to be a harbinger of things to come.
Never has that phrase “graveyard of Empires” been spelled out in so much lost blood and treasure. But beyond the waste of Western efforts to construct a unified country in territory that is home to more than one nation, or the brutal toll taken on innocent Afghan civilians looking to live in whatever peace might come to them, what exactly has been lost? Is the impending calamity of a Taliban takeover as described by Western media and politicians really likely to come true?
As it turns out, after I started writing this post I got a call from my friend Jon Stephenson, the war correspondent and investigative reporter. Jon probably knows as much as anybody in NZ about that country, and it was fortuitous that he got in touch while I was thinking about what is written above. What follows is my distillation of some pertinent parts of our conversation.
The Taliban are not monolithic. They have moderate and militant factions and political and military wings. They exert more control and influence in the rural, less modernised countryside than they do in cities, especially the capital Kabul. The political leadership in Doha is more moderate than the military leadership on the ground in Afghanistan, and its degree of control over military commanders is comparatively looser than, say, that of the political leaders of Hezbollah or Hamas. The Taliban have been relatively well-received in Pashtun/Sunni dominant regions such as their birthplace, Kandahar Province, but have encountered local resistance in non-Pashtun/Shiia regions such as Bamiyan Province. In other words, their degree of support and control in areas outside of Kabul is uneven and at times contested by local warlords and militias. As for Kabul, the issue is pretty stark. The Taliban can infiltrate, surround, isolate and attempt to choke the capital into complete surrender in the face of significant armed resistance from foreign military forces and what is left of Afghan security units linked to them, or the capital can keep supply lifelines going by air and (perhaps, but unlikely) secure land corridors until a negotiated settlement is reached. Western military help will be needed to stave off or forestall a Taliban takeover of Kabul but if that is forthcoming (and it appears to be) a peaceful handover of power or power-sharing compromise may be possible.
In any event issues of national governance may prove problematic for the Taliban. After all, what they will have to do even if complete military victory is achieved is to build a State out of the ruins of the current one. They will need to provide public goods and services, organise a (Sharia) legal system, re-create a public bureaucracy that includes everything from health and education administration to border (immigration and customs) controls and transportation regulations, civil aviation rules, document issuance and certification, etc. For that they will need bureaucrats and other skilled labor, many of whom are fleeing the country as I write. They will need an institutional edifice–actually buildings with people and communications apparatuses in them– in order to discharge their nation-wide public service functions beyond those involved in local repression. Hence, although they may be adept at fighting and some may be willing to return to the Medieval Era when it comes to organising Afghan society, it is more likely that the Taliban will have to compromise on the extent to which Afghanistan will return to the Dark Ages and what aspects of modernity it can live with. The question is therefore how much will the Taliban be willing and able to compromise, and on what subjects and policy areas?
This is all the more true because other foreign actors, the PRC, Russia, India and Iran in particular, have their sights on mineral-rich Afghanistan as a geopolitical buffer and/or investment opportunity. Pakistan, as always, will be a major player in Afghanistan’s future because it would prefer to see Afghanistan weak and internally divided rather than unified and strong (if for no other reason than the latter encouraging cross-border irredentist sentiment in Pakistan). Islamicist groups in bordering countries and further afield may be emboldened by the Taliban’s success and seek to emulate them while looking for their support. That is bound to be of concern to the leaders of the above-mentioned countries as well as the other geographically contiguous “‘Stans,” all of which have indigenous Islamicist groups to contend with.
Getting these foreign interlocutors to invest diplomatically and economically means that the Taliban must offer self-binding assurances and guarantees and assume contractual obligations of various sorts, negotiated by people competent enough to engage with sophisticated foreign counterparts and legitimately representative enough to ensure that any deals they make or promises made are binding. That is by no means assured at this point because if one thing is certain is that Afghans are generally disposed to look at any foreign presence with suspicion and distrust. That includes non-Western foreigners as well as those from the West, who in any event will have to confront the compounded obstacles posed by corruption and traditional values.
At a minimum, besides the need to operate domestically-focused public bureaucracies, the Taliban will need a diplomatic corps capable of dealing with foreign entities. Those must include people competent to engage with aid agencies given the inevitable requests for reconstruction assistance as well as those responsible for interacting with various potential military and diplomatic partners. That requires significant levels of education and experience, which given the brain drain now underway in Afghanistan means that the Taliban cannot afford to go full Pol Pot on the country and kill all infidel locals off and in fact will likely have to employ foreign nationals in any event in order to operate their public sector, to say nothing of staffing the private interests that may establish a presence in the country.
This is not entirely unusual–Singapore would collapse in less than a week if “ang mohs” (Europeans) were withdrawn from upper and middle management ranks in all bureaucratic sectors of the Little Red Dot–but the retrograde cultural dispositions of at least some of the Taliban leadership may make that difficult to achieve and will require internecine settlements between moderate and militant Taliban factions in what may well turn out to be the “old fashioned” Afghan way of resolving conflicts. The larger point is that the world does not end with a Taliban takeover, they cannot survive as a regime governing a nation-state if they kill and repress everyone who is not an adherent of their ideology, they therefore need to know how to play nicely with a range of interlocutors, foreign and domestic, all of which means they need to get their house in order before they present a cohesive if not inclusive face to Afghan society as well as the global community.
Twenty years of foreign occupation has changed Afghan society, at least in the urban and suburban areas where Western influence and development projects were the most heavily felt. Just as the degree of religious density in a society facilitates the subterranean presence of religious irregular warfare actors, the degree to which that social fabric is imbued by new conceptions of the proper cultural order makes more difficult a return to the original Taliban past, especially when the return involves material and social deprivation for all or some of society’s component parts–say, for example, women, who are now an integral and vital part of Afghan public services.
In parallel, the Taliban of today are not exact replicas of their fathers. The intergenerational passage mentioned earlier with regard to warfare extends to how the contemporary Taliban differ in their view of how to rule post-occupation Afghanistan. As Jon Stephenson mentioned with regards to the situation in general, it is hard to predict what will happen but things have certainly changed for the Taliban when it comes to governing in coalition or alone. The society that they will now inherit is not the society that they left behind when the foreigners arrived to remove them.
In a signal of its defeat, the US has asked the Taliban not to attack its embassy in Kabul and warns that it will use aid assistance as leverage against future Taliban provocations or transgressions once it office. Both scenarios may come to pass but the truth is that the the Taliban will be looking for new international partners rather than redraw contracts with those who backed the deposed regime. For those Afghans who placed their bets on supporting the US and ISAF and worked with and for them, the moment is indeed uncertain and tragic. Like the Kurds, Iraqis and Vietnamese before them, many of those who sided with the US will lose their lives and livelihoods in the months to come. Others may find refuge in ISAF coalition member countries, including New Zealand. But the hard reality is that siding with a foreign occupier was always a fraught proposition based on significant inter-temporal (current and future) risk, and for many that dark future has arrived. What is puzzling is that even in the face of such foreboding prospects, many non-Taliban Afghans have chosen to surrender (in the case of security forces) or flee (in the case of civilians) rather than fight.
What this means is that indeed, there is a tragedy at play in the return of the Taliban. But it may not be the calamity that many in the West think that it will be because the circumstances surrounding the return mitigates against rather than in favour of wanton destruction and mass blood-letting. The Taliban need to demonstrate that they can rule over a society that is in significant ways different than the one they governed two decades ago, and they need to engage with an international community that also is different than the one that blamed them for harbouring al-Qaeda. The Taliban themselves are different in many ways, as are the foreign interests willing to engage with them on economic and diplomatic matters. Their domestic threat environment now includes co-religionists in the form of al-Qaeda and Daesh, to which can be added splinter groups from adjoining countries and local warlords and militias with foreign ties. It will not be easy for them to re-impose the status quo ante 2002 even if that is their unified desire (which it does not appear to be judging from the political leadership’s statements).
This is the basis for a glimmer of hope in the Afghanistan regime transition now underway. If not born of compromise, Taliban rule will likely be different out of necessity. It is important that the international community do all that is possible to ensure that the political necessity of the moment becomes long-term governance fact not only for the good of the Afghan people but in order to pay the fair price of making amends for what ultimately is the result of Western neo-imperialist hubris.
Postscript: What was heard from above. https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2021/08/what-i-learned-while-eavesdropping-on-the-taliban/619807/