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At the start of July the US president Joe Biden told a press conference “there’s going to be no circumstance where you see people being lifted off the roof of an embassy of the United States from Afghanistan”.
The same day Boris Johnson told the Commons the Taliban “will be aware that there is no military path to victory”.
But after Islamic militants took over much of the country in recent days, leading to chaotic scenes of diplomatic evacuation in the capital Kabul, questions are being asked about why Western predictions about what would happen when their last remaining forces pulled out have been proved so wrong.
Speaking to PoliticsHome, academics and armed forces veterans say that although hundreds of thousands of local soldiers were taught the hard skills of how to take on insurgents, there was a failure by the UK and US armies to instil the “esprit de corps”, which may have prevented the Afghan army from folding up in the face of Taliban attack, and the lack of a government they believed was worth fighting for.
Major logistical problems, losing the battle of ideologies and bad intelligence are also being blamed for contributing to a swift collapse that has taken politicians, military advisers and foreign policy experts all by surprise.
A former British military officer said: “For years and years we were supposed to be training the Afghan National Army so that they could provide security of the nation and then we could leave.
“We obviously turned up with our training manuals and ideas, ranging between practical lessons on how to shoot a gun etc, to the more sophisticated ‘instilling the spirit to fight’.
“By many accounts that second bit, which is pretty much the only important bit – which the vast majority of our own training is basically about, all that marching up and down the square and the regimental system, and the Queen – it’s all about really really getting into someone’s very being and way of thinking so no matter the skill or equipment you’ll find a way to fight, and never consider running away with a white flag. That bit, it doesn’t sound like it ever worked.
“It’s actually bold and arrogant to consider you might be able to fabricate it. It’s easy to teach them how to fire a gun, but how do you teach them to stand and fight?
“To believe they will win or ideally just stick around even if they think they might lose? To stay on that defensive position when the Taliban Hiluxes come rolling up to your compound.”
Dr Andrew Bell, visiting research fellow at the UCL Centre on US Politics and Assistant Professor at Indiana University, also believed that UK and US forces had been unable to create a robust resistance to the Taliban in the Afghan army.
“The thing that people in the United States who wanted to leave didn’t take into account was what that meant on a personal and emotional level for the people who are left defending Afghanistan,” he explained.
“On paper of course it looks like they should have been able to hold their own for quite some time, but what that doesn’t take into account is what’s inside people’s minds and their hearts.
“That just shows again we haven’t understood Afghanistan for the 20 years that we were there, and shows up to the very last day, the last moment, we still don’t understand Afghanistan.”
Dr Bell, who also served as an active duty and reserve officer in the US Air Force in Iraq and Afghanistan, said structural issues affected the ability of Western forces to lead behind a force capable of repelling insurgents.
“The Afghan commandos and special forces are so good, and throughout my time there they had such a strong reputation for being effective and being committed to the fight,” he said.
“But the fact that they weren’t able to be implemented effectively by the national government, they can only do so much.
“They’re an example where those skills and ‘esprit de corps’ were trained into the men but overall the government was not able to capture that.
“In order to be an effective governing force you have to implement that and without it we see how quickly it can crumble.”
Defending his decision to withdraw all US troops from Afghanistan, Biden said last night the developments of the past week “reinforce that ending US military involvement in Afghanistan now was the right decision”.
In an address to the nation he added: “American troops cannot and should not be fighting in a war and dying in a war that Afghan forces are not willing to fight for themselves.”
But Todd Burkhardt, a retired US Army Lieutenant Colonel, who helped train Afghan army commandos, said part of the blame lies in failing to set up a logistical framework to support soldiers who are left to take on the Taliban.
“The United States and the Brits and other coalition forces did a really nice job of developing soldiers and honing war-fighting skills, but I think we fundamentally lacked the ability to help design a logistical maintenance and resupply system across Afghanistan,” Burkhardt told PoliticsHome.
“Trying to implement our own, which is incredibly complex and uses ‘just in time’ logistics in a region that is full of fiefdoms and tribalism, where the infrastructure is not there, hasn’t worked.
“The ability for a government to resupply and reequip soldiers with just normal things like uniforms, boots, equipment or parts for a vehicle, has failed.”
He said this helped “lead to the disintegration of the military” in Afghanistan, citing the psychological effect of feeling unsupported by central government in the face of retribution against their families by the Taliban.
“I think they have this moment of having to pick a side, and do I stay in a place where I’m not being adequately supplied, and I feel like my government doesn’t care about me,” he added.
“You can see how some of these outposts decide it’s not worth it.”
Dr Burkhardt said the Taliban has done a really good job with what he calls “information operations” and painting a narrative in the hinterland of Afghanistan that the government in Kabul is not worth fighting for, which helped “cripple the psyche of the army”.
“When I was in Afghanistan and we were training commandos and special forces, when those soldiers were completed with their training they’d have an opportunity to go home on leave, but they couldn’t wear their uniforms home because it could be very well be the case that Al Qaeda, or Haqqani, or Taliban would kill their family,” he explained.
“The country is not the same as the UK or the United States, I’m retired now but I’m incredibly proud of having served my country for almost three decades, and I can’t imagine living in a country where if I leave the base, or if I’m not on the operation, I have to hide what I do for a living because I could be potentially killed and my family murdered.”
Dr Jonathan Monten, associate professor in political science and director of the International Public Policy Programme at UCL, agrees.
“The reason why foreign-led nation building is just an inherently difficult enterprise, is because a foreign government like the United States can’t want it more than Afghans themselves do,” Monten said.
“When that’s the case, when there’s that asymmetry and gap in loyalty or legitimacy amongst the public and military forces themselves, then no amount of outside money in the world can can create that.”
He said after the initial military US victory in 2001, the basic conditions in Afghanistan were “not conducive to nation building”, as it was very poor, ethnically divided, with a long history of military government.
“Basically the cases we have where foreign-led nation building has succeeded, are cases like Germany after World War Two, or Japan after World War Two – countries that were already modern industrialised economies that were being rehabilitated.
“Afghanistan and Iraq and Libya, those countries just don’t look like that, they don’t have the building blocks of modern democratic government.”
Monten believed despite optimistic intelligence reports and confident predictions to the contrary from Western leaders, the fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban “was on the cards for a long time”, suggesting the country had declined as a strategic priority in recent years, so that rather than re-building all that was being done was “just enough not to lose”.
“Whenever the United States chose to withdraw, that was the moment that you could start the clock on the Afghan government would fall”, Monten added.
“The US provided this floor that kind of guaranteed that the government would not collapse below a certain level. Once that floor was removed, then you see what we saw the last few days.”
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