This week, the blame game continued as Afghanistan fell back to the Taliban.

The unexpected speed with which the Taliban has overcome the Afghan state has the international community playing the blame game. President Joe Biden has come under heavy criticism for the chaotic US withdrawal. Many advocates for withdrawing under president Trump have lambasted the style of the withdrawal. The world has witnessed a vision of ineptitude in recent weeks, and the turmoil at Kabul airport has cast into question Biden’s decision to hasten the withdrawal. In return, Biden has sought to characterise the Afghan army as a crew of cowards, unwilling to fight for their own country.

There is an excuse being made by all sides; an argument of inevitability. For the anti-war left, it means the intervention in Afghanistan was a purely colonial exploit, destined to fail from the start. For Biden, it means he had no choice but to withdraw chaotically from an innately chaotic war. A war he voted America into 20 years ago, I might add. Above all, the claim of inevitability — of an unwinnable war — excuses the generals, advisers, war contractors, and politicians, that rendered Afghanistan unwinnable.

We will never know with certainty whether a secular, peaceful nation could have been built in Afghanistan. It is perfectly possible, however, to identify the mistakes which made this objective unattainable. Biden, like everyone else involved in the Afghan war, has made mistakes. Yet his withdrawal is perhaps the most courageous act of a US president since Roosevelt’s New Deal. This article will endeavour to demonstrate that Afghanistan was not an unwinnable war, and highlight some of the key mistakes that made the scenes we are now watching on TV ‘inevitable’.

How Not to Build a Nation: The Overcentralised State

In 2001, the United States and its allies invaded Afghanistan. They did so to kill Bin Laden, and without any real understanding of Afghan society. In place of understanding, the Bush administration quickly developed a vision for what Afghanistan should look like in an idealised global system.  On the ground, the reality proved entirely incompatible with this objective.

Afghanistan has a long history of ceding power from the centre to individuals in the periphery. Governments that have tried to centralise power too quickly have generally been overthrown. This was the case for Amanullah Khan in the 1920s, and was demonstrated again by the Soviet-supported regime in the 1970s. Community councils are a key building block of Afghan society, and the ability of the central government to provide services has often been limited. This has deprived the Afghan state of the ability to build dependencies and engender local endearment.

As such, the Afghan state has usually failed to supersede the various ethnic, sectarian, and familial identities that are a source of alternative allegiance in Afghanistan. This did not stop the US coalition from attempting to build a heavily centralised state radiating from Kabul and Kandahar. This was done with the belief that it would create a more effective ally in the War on Terror. In reality, it robbed the Afghan government of legitimacy and garnered broad resentment from the patchwork of minority communities that make up Afghanistan.

How Not to Build a Nation: Ignoring the Alternatives

Ahmed Massoud — son of legendary mujahedeen and anti-Taliban warlord — has repeatedly emphasised this mistake. Speaking to TRT World last year, Ahmed argued that centralisation has prevented the political opposition from seeing themselves as part of Afghanistan. He stressed the need for decentralised governance, whereby elected officials are ‘answerable to people in provinces, cities and villages’. In recent days it is Ahmed who has raised the banner of resistance in Panjshir — the heartland of anti-Taliban resistance. Whilst his odds look slim, we may one day see the decentralised Afghanistan we should have seen ten years ago.

Government for Hire: Anointing the Corrupt

Whilst competent, combative, and imaginative individuals like Ahmed were generally sidelined by the Coalition, the corrupt and divisive rose to the top. Hamid Karzai was the first president of the new republic and enjoyed broad popularity in the West until his corruption became undeniable. Through the Afghan government of Karzai and his successor Ashraf Ghani, the US channelled more money — adjusted for inflation — than in the whole of the Marshall Plan. The latter rebuilt the entirety of post-war Europe. The former built a house of cards. Ghani’s recent flight from the country in a helicopter stuffed full of cash is a perfect metaphor for how the Afghan state was run.

Government for Hire: Institutionalised Corruption

The failure to tackle corrupt individuals early on meant that a culture of corruption permeated the Afghan state. Rather than democratising the country, key warlords were brought into the state apparatus to help fight the Taliban. Rather than the democratic system transforming these individuals into bureaucrats, the system was corroded by their presence within it. In some cases, non-existent ‘ghost soldiers’ would be put on the army payroll. Their cheques would then be collected by the commanding officer.

In these conditions, the Taliban’s message of moral puritanism resonated with considerable sections of Afghan society. As the grift and ineptitude became more apparent, increasing numbers of Afghan families began hedging their bets; sending one son to fight for the government, and one with the Taliban. This apathy helps to explain the collapse of the Afghan army. Afghanistan’s army of ghost soldiers meanwhile, may in part answer why this collapse happened so much faster than the US expected.

Military Mishaps: How Not to Use the Afghan Army

The Afghan troops that actually existed had learnt to fight with, and depend on, western forces. From the early days of the occupation, the focus was on building a conventional army in Afghanistan. This style of warfare was anathema to many Afghans; historically accustomed to the guerrilla tactics used by the Taliban to such effect. It was foolish to expect Afghan soldiers to continue fighting a conventional war without the western airpower and technical support that is integral to this way of fighting. In many instances, they didn’t even have medics.

What is more, Afghan troops were regularly deployed away from their home regions. US advisers argued that this would reduce the risk of Taliban infiltration. Once again, they projected a western conception of the nation-state onto Afghanistan as the ultimate unit of society. Away from their homes and families, Afghan troops felt little fealty to a vaguely defined Afghan state. Under sustained pressure this summer, they took their weapons and went home. The Taliban will likely face an insurgency of their own because of this. Fighting guerrilla-style, we may finally see the combat potential of these Afghan soldiers, unshackled from western tactics.

Military Mishaps: Another Time, Another Place

The fact that by the time it came to evacuate after 20 years, US forces still hadn’t secured the two-mile road from their embassy to the airport, typifies the operational ineptitude of the war in Afghanistan. Above all, however, it was the strategic failures that ultimately guaranteed defeat. Out of many, two are particularly salient; the forced redeployment to Iraq in 2003, and the refusal to deal with Pakistan.

In the two years that followed the invasion of Afghanistan, the Taliban were shattered. Some retreated to Pakistan, but many hid their weapons and returned to civilian life. With 100,000 western soldiers in the country, resistance was futile. This all changed with the 2003 invasion of Iraq. The redeployment of troops from Afghanistan was like reducing a course of antibiotics before the infection had gone. No longer up against the full might of US forces, the Taliban were able to learn how to fight them, and use their presence in the country to recruit new militants.

Intelligence is Relative: A Blind Eye to Pakistan

The troop withdrawal was coupled with a failure to tackle Pakistan. Before writing this article, I read back through some of the academic literature published in the early years of the war. It was striking to notice the regularity with which these papers cited stabilising Pakistan as a reason for removing the Taliban. As it turns out, the reverse was true. Pakistan, a nominal US ally, sheltered, funded, and armed the Taliban. Without Pakistan, their resurgence would not have been possible.

A stable Afghanistan endangered Pakistan’s policy of retreat and resist in the event of an Indian invasion. What is more, powerful elements within the Pakistani security state sympathised with the Taliban and al-Qaeda. It was no coincidence that when Bin Laden was finally found, he was down the street from one of Pakistan’s top military academies. Failure to sanction Pakistan early on, and to prosecute the ground war into Pakistan, effectively made the Taliban unbeatable. Under pressure, they could slip across the border, regroup, rearm, and then strike again.

The Emergence of an Unwinnable War

By about 2010, Afghanistan was indeed an unwinnable war. The next decade was a drawn-out decline to an inevitable defeat. Yet this was so because of a litany of errors made throughout the decade before. Joe Biden has been dealt a dud hand. Maybe he should have pulled out in winter when the roads — built by the US — were less traversable by the Taliban. Nevertheless, it is the US commanders, ex-world leaders, and Afghan politicians now lambasting him, who are to blame. Their lies, grift, and galling ineptitude have created the heart-breaking scenes that we are now witnessing. Thanks to them, Joe Biden might have just pulled the plug on a century of US hegemony. We will be showing footage of Kabul airport in fifty years. Many in the West won’t like why.

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