An Afghanistan catastrophe, Part 1 (of 2)

It is tempting for UK political figures unfamiliar with the wars in Afghanistan, to view recent events as a ‘surprise loss for the West’ that is ‘all the fault of President Biden’. Neither is true. I will attempt a summary.

The war was ‘lost’ many years ago. Talebs and other insurgents controlled a majority of the country after the first five years. By the end of 2009 ICOS (Western-funded) reported that the Talebs had a controlling presence in 97% of the country, and had de facto control of Districts representing almost two thirds of territory.

Certainly when I first arrived in 2008 the Talebs controlled the road from central Kabul and the Compound to the airport, requiring a dangerous circuitous route. Driving to Jalalabad or Kandahar, there were Taleb road blocks, some taking ‘fees’. The game was already over. Why?

The foundational reason is that after the tragedy of 9/11 US foreign policy became de-facto military-led.

Anti-terror wars became the ‘core material’ of the USA’s ever-expanding and competing military and security institutions, without budget constraints. The original stated aim of apprehending Al Qaeda leaders responsible for 9/11, thought to be hiding in the Southern Afghan deserts, unwisely morphed into a lucrative ‘tabula rasa’ occupation. In the US there was unbearable political pressure to show ‘muscle’ to a domestic audience after 9/11.

However, military institutions are not adept at ‘nation building’; such works require expert civilian oversight with military support, not military oversight. Another consequence was that the military and civilian efforts were absurdly fragmented, with stiff competition for being credited with ‘military successes’. In the US rush for ‘success’, the entire population became the enemy, and almost all civilian deaths became ‘successful anti-terror operations’, even the well-documented bombings of weddings & funerals.

There was the OEF/OFS campaign, and ISAF/RSM forces (also responsible for nation building and aid & development), plus UK, German and other forces. There were numerous semi-covert US groups, including via SOCOM and its dozens of independent units under JSOC, SOCJC, ASOC, and MFSOC. Each set of institutions had different military aims and engagement doctrines; which appeared to change regularly .. a fatal flaw. It was often reported that experienced UK forces would negotiate an ‘accommodation’ with a village chief, only for a US unit under OEF/OFS or elsewhere unknowingly to bomb the village shortly after.

Most ‘Western’ development efforts ran in parallel to Afghan governmental efforts, creating dependence and wasting resources. Development degenerated and included a vast cash hand out system for Districts (helpful for opium production). But locals reported that the Districts were useless and corrupt, and if they wanted mediation of disputes or help with irrigation they would go to the Taleb office.

The Provinces got relatively nothing, since centralisation suited the corrupt warlords and druglords that formally ran the state, and the foreigner kleptocracy. This was catastrophic, especially economically. In Afghanistan the major towns skirt the periphery and are more connected with populations across the border than with each other. After all, in winter many inter-city routes are impassable.

The role of Pakistan was key.

The US and UK backed mujahideen fighters in the 1980s against the Soviets, mostly via Pakistan. After the long withdrawal of the Soviets 1989-1992 there was fighting among different factions. The Talebs (‘students’) mostly Pashtuns, dominated.

But Afghanistan borders a part of Pakistan which is outwith the Pakistan constitution; literally lawless, and the border is open. Old mujahideen bases and mountain escape routes stayed open.

Further, Talebs and others had good practice from the Soviet occupation days, which came in useful after 2002, whereas foreign forces once again were in unfamiliar territory.

With such a military and political landscape, the prospects for success in the occupation were not favourable from the start. Building a house on weak foundations is always unwise.

* Paul Reynolds works with multilateral organisations as an independent adviser on international relations, economics, and senior governance.

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • James Fowler 23rd Aug '21 - 8:40pm

    Very fair analysis and I look forward to part two.

  • It is as Paul’s title suggests a catastrophe. It is hard to fathom that with the post-war experience of the USA with overseas engagements. that such a situation could be allowed to develop,
    General MacArthur was able to carry out the reconstruction of Japanese Civil society within five years of Japan’s surrender. In 1960, he was decorated by the Japanese government with the Grand Cordon of the Order of the Rising Sun with Paulownia Flowers, the highest Japanese order which may be conferred on an individual who is not a head of state. In his statement upon receiving the honor, MacArthur said:

    “No honor I have ever received moves me more deeply than this one. Perhaps this is because I can recall no parallel in the history of the world where a great nation recently at war has so distinguished its former enemy commander. What makes it even more poignant is my own firm disbelief in the usefulness of military occupations with their corresponding displacement of civil control.”
    In the early 1960s, MacArthur warned both JFK and Lyndon Johnson against becoming embroiled in Vietnam and to “Never fight a land war in Asia.” He told congress “once war is forced upon us, there is no other alternative than to apply every available means to bring it to a swift end. War’s very object is victory, not prolonged indecision. In war there is no substitute for victory.” That is a dictum that does not appear to have been pursued since WW2.
    As Paul writes, the military “are not adept at ‘nation building’; such works require expert civilian oversight with military support, not military oversight.”

  • Paul Fisher 24th Aug '21 - 2:37pm

    The voice of experience and reason amidst a cacaphony of bilge and fake news. Eleswhere the CONE* is the only voice heard.

    CONE = Committee OF None Experts.

    ps …and just how does LibDem Foreign Policy meet this challenge?

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