The Afghanistan Papers, by Craig Whitlock; and Freedom, by Sebastian Junger

Summary: Why, long ago, the West lost again in Afghanistan.

On 18 August 2021, as the Taliban retook Kabul and the US prepared for full withdrawal from Afghanistan, Conservative MP and Afghanistan veteran Tom Tugendhat made a powerful and moving speech condemning the US “abandonment” of that country. Tugendhat suggested that the West had not shown sufficient patience to prevail in the conflict.

Tugendhat’s words, spoken in the context of the emerging vista of the Taliban’s renewed misogynistic rule in Afghanistan, struck a deep chord and drew considerable praise. Revisiting it in the context of The Afghanistan Papers, Craig Whitlock’s book based on the Washington Post’s reporting of successive US governments’ assessment of the war, suggests that Tugendhat’s speech was deeply mistaken.

The US went into Afghanistan to destroy Al Qaeda. Before this had been achieved it had also invaded Iraq. Whitlock details how this distracted military thinking and resources from the primary mission of killing or capturing bin Laden who was able to escape into Pakistan.

However, the hubris gained from the relatively quick overthrow of the Taliban led to the US deciding to set itself the goal of creating a liberal democracy in that country. That they decided on this goal was a testament not only to a remarkable arrogance, but also to the depth of their ignorance of Afghanistan. Donald Rumsfeld was not alone in plaintively asking the question “Who are the bad guys?”

In many American minds the Taliban were fellow travellers with Al Qaeda and so “the enemy”. However, while they had given Al Qaeda sanctuary and shared an Islamist outlook with them, the Taliban were a particularly Afghan phenomenon, a product of the diverse ethnic and tribal rivalries that have plagued this part of central Asia for centuries. They were disinterested in world revolution and so could have been co-opted by the US if the US had bothered to learn.

Instead, the US allied with a different bunch of murderous warlords and corrupt local politicians and started shovelling cash at them, and lead and high explosives at ordinary Afghan people. Three presidents, Junior Bush, Obama and Trump, kept this up, all effectively lying to the American people that things were going well while blundering from one misconceived approach to another.

For example, at one point under Bush, the US decided that the Taliban were being funded by the opium trade and decided to eradicate it by paying farmers to stop growing opium. This of course boosted opium production as farmers rushed to ensure they could claim the available cash. The US also got into bulldozing the poppy fields, but their Afghan allies made sure that this policy only applied to their rivals consequently ensuring little actual effect on opium production. However, those who were disadvantaged by the crop destruction were thereafter predisposed to allying with the Taliban who had actually banned the opium trade as un-Islamic when in power.

The Afghanistan Papers describes an ineffectual war fought for an institutionally corrupt and ineffectual government. The messy nature of the fighting which often sowed support for the Taliban by the “collateral damage” of horrendous civilian casualties, was described in memorable detail by Sebastian Junger in his book, War, an account of a period he spent embedded with one US army outpost in Afghanistan. Freedom is something of a sequel to that book. Ostensibly it is an account of a trek with some unnamed friends, some of them Afghanistan veterans, along the railway lines of the east coast of the United States. But really the book is a mediation on why the US was doomed to lose in Afghanistan. Drawing on sources as varied as the 1916 Irish rebellion, the Pacquiao-Mayweather title fight in 2015, and the Apache’s campaign in the US South-West, Junger explains why poor, weak opponents can so consistently defeat wealthier, more powerful foes.

Whitlock quotes a source saying, “Foreigners read The Kite Runner on the plane and think they are experts on Afghanistan.” I have never thought myself an expert on Afghanistan and left the place perhaps more confused about it than when I first arrived. But then I was only engineering water supplies, not trying to construct a new society. But the awful ignorance of Nato soldiers and policy makers described in the Afghanistan Papers seems one of the few constants in the past 20 years of war.

Perhaps Tom Tugendhat has read more stuff and is the man with the strategic genius to articulate the winning formula that has evaded every other military and political leader in Nato for the past 20 years.

The evidence instead suggests that defeat in Afghanistan was inevitable once the US embarked upon its hubristic goal of nation-building. So, while the final withdrawal of US forces could perhaps have been handled better, Joe Biden deserves respect for the moral courage he has shown in facing up to this stark truth.

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