Leer en Español
America has been badly disgraced by the betrayal of Afghanistan. The capitulation before a band of barbarian evildoers, the abandonment of American citizens, Afghan allies, even trusted animals at the service of the United States, will haunt this great county. After toppling the very regime that now has toppled the United States in Afghanistan and 20 years of occupation, investment, and the loss of American, Afghan, and NATO allies’ lives, the question becomes, what went wrong? Here are the 5 biggest United States mistakes in Afghanistan.
1. Centralization of power
Afghanistan is still pretty much a premodern society. It is Hobbesian. Anthropologically tribal to this very day, it extends legitimacy to authoritative leadership that keeps it safe. It is comprehensively multiethnic, multicultural, and multilinguistic. Even though Afghans share in Islam a common religion, tribalism and its historical, ethnic, and cultural backgrounds mold the manner of its practice.
The United States sought to help build a free Afghan state where political power heavily gravitated towards the central government. Kabul, as important as it is, was the epicenter of control. This was not a good idea. In a premodern, tribal society with over 18 diverse ethnicities vastly scattered throughout different regions, a system with a greater distribution of political power along local governance lines, would have been more appropriate for Afghanistan.
2. The Taliban war on the Afghan government and America was geopolitical not local
The United States ignored basic political and military world history. In recent memory, it failed to apply the principles employed during the Cold War against Soviet communism. By treating radical Islam’s efforts to overthrow the imperfect, but legitimate, Afghan government as an isolated venture by the Taliban, America was grossly erring. The Taliban, a wholly-Pashtun ethnically composed terrorist group, are not representative of Afghan society. Measured against the other ethnic groups combined, they would be in the minority. Additionally, the Taliban is an import.
Pakistan made the Taliban. There are more Pashtuns in Pakistan than in Afghanistan, by at least a two-to-one margin. Pashtuns are Pakistan’s second-largest ethnic group. The Pakistani military invented, recruited, trained, and has financed the Taliban since the 1990s. It should not surprise anyone that Osama bin Laden was hiding out in Abbottabad, Pakistan before justice reached him. The Al-Qaeda leader’s secret compound was about a mile from Pakistan Military Academy in Kabul.
The relationship between Pakistan and the Taliban is intimately intertwined. Since the Pashtun Islamic fundamentalists began waging their war to regain power in Afghanistan, Pakistan has been the enabler, both financially and logistically. The focus of the United States and the Afghan government during the 20-year timeframe has concentrated exclusively on challenging the Taliban and other active Islamic terrorist groups. It has not confronted the main culprit, Pakistan.
Since 2009, according to the U.S. Embassy in Pakistan, America has given over $5 billion in civilian assistance and over $1 billion in emergency humanitarian response help to the world’s second-most populous Muslim country—Pakistan. The United States, during Pakistan’s 2019-2020 fiscal year, continued to be the principal donor of on-budget, grant-based assistance. How on earth can the United States tolerate the Pakistani regime facilitating the murder of American and Afghan soldiers and the intent to bring down (now accomplished) the legitimate state of Afghanistan?
The fact that the United States did not take up the issue directly with Pakistan over its support of the Taliban and other Islamic groups and their interference in the affairs of Afghanistan, is grossly negligent. China, which is Pakistan’s financier, should have also been confronted. The Taliban are mere pawns in a bigger geopolitical chess game. Why didn’t America take up this issue, head-on, with the real responsible parties: Pakistan and China?
3. The Afghan government should have been included in the 2020 “peace accords”
When the United States negotiated and signed the terms of withdrawing American troops from Afghanistan in 2020, it dealt exclusively with the Taliban. The government of Afghanistan was not a party to the negotiations or the signing of the agreement. This was callous and an insult to the very government America helped put in place. While the whole premise of negotiating “peace” with a bunch of radical thugs is abhorring and naïve, this big mistake by the Trump administration was only further heightened by the exclusion of the Afghan government. This perfunctory action only served to delegitimize and weaken the Afghan government.
4. Air support and Bagram Air Base needed
With the Vietnam experience as a reference, the United States should have mitigated conditions so that its troop withdrawal would not hinder the durability of the Afghan government. It should have provided air support to Afghan forces that were willing to challenge the Taliban takeover. As city upon city fell to the grizzly fundamentalists, a military undertaking by the Taliban which violated the “peace” agreement, the United States was within its right and capability to strike at the enemy and assist the ally.
Bagram Air Base should never have been abandoned until the very last American and Afghan collaborator left the country. All modern wars are won by who controls the skies. The United States had a monopoly in the use of airpower in Afghanistan. With the facility of highly technologically advanced weaponry, the Taliban could have been dealt with severe blows for violating the agreement and pursuing their totalitarian objectives. This would have served to embolden Afghanistan’s army into defending its country.
A continued, but limited, remaining American military presence would have helped our ally. The air power of the United States, by way of drones and air force bombings, if necessary, would have sent a message that America does not cut run and abandon a friend. The abandoning of Bagram Air Base, along with $85 billion in military goodies, was all the Taliban needed to know that Biden-Harris’ America was retreating at any cost.
5. An indignant retreat and a major betrayal
The Biden-Harris administration and the leadership of the Democratic Party are guilty of dereliction of duty. The substance of the retreat was dishonorable and will prove costly. Biden-Harris have betrayed all the fallen heroes of America’s, NATO’s, and Afghan armed forces, contractors, and national police officers. American citizens and Afghan allies have been forsaken. The unimaginable has occurred. The current military leadership, as well as the secretary of defense and of state, are all top contenders for legal processes. America is today run by seditionists and this will all bear a price.
Julio M Shiling, political scientist, writer, director of Patria de Martí and The Cuban American Voice, lecturer and media commentator. A native of Cuba, he currently lives in the United States. Twitter: @JulioMShiling // Julio es politólogo, escritor, director de Patria de Martí y The Cuban American Voice. Conferenciante y comentarista en los medios. Natural de Cuba, vive actualmente en EE UU.