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America’s ‘Lessons Learned’ exercise tells why Afghans couldn’t be defeated

The recently published papers on the American war in Afghanistan are astonishing in their clarity, but the reasons that the papers cite for the failure of Washington’s Afghanistan policy over the last two decades are already familiar to Afghanistan watchers.

The globalized world continues to globalize at an astonishing pace. Therefore, lies and fabrications no longer have a chance to supress the truth. They can only delay the emergence of the truth.

The Washington Post interviews were conducted as part of a Federal ‘Lessons Learned’ project to examine the failures of the US authorities in the conflict. Collected by the Office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (Sigar), whose main task is to eliminate corruption and inefficiency in the US war effort, the more than 2,000 pages of notes reflect the opinion of top US military officers and diplomats, aid workers, Afghan officials and others who played a direct role in the war.

Besides, the “Lessons Learned” papers, the Post also obtained hundreds of memos written by Donald Rumsfeld, who served as Defence Secretary under US President George W. Bush.

What are the main reasons for the failure to achieve the goal? One is the arrogance with which the US went into Afghanistan (and into Iraq before and also into Libya) thinking of applying the old Roman saying ‘veni, vidi vici’ – we come, we see and we conquer, without any knowledge about the society, the culture and the language of the people they were waging war against.

“We were devoid of a fundamental understanding of Afghanistan — we didn’t know what we were doing,” said Lt Gen Douglas Lute, the White House’s Afghan war Czar during the Bush and Obama years, in one of the interviews.

Afghan society, as much as the Iraqi and Libyan societies, is tribal. Tribal societies have a very different cohesion, value system and power structure from modern Western societies. The Pashtuns, who form about 60 per cent of the Afghan population, are known to be the largest existing tribal society with an age-old way of life that had made the British Indian army perish in the 19thcentury. They defeated the Russian army– a much tougher army than the American- in the 1980s.

Secondly, the soldiers, officers and most of the civilian workers on the ground not only didn’t know anything about the society they were dealing with but they also did not respect the culture of the population. The arrogance that has been shown towards the way of life of the Afghans had made it impossible to ‘win their hearts and minds’.

Thirdly, American commanders struggled to define who they were fighting.

“They thought I was going to come to them with a map to show them where the good guys and bad guys live,” said an unnamed former adviser to an US Army Special Forces team.

Did they wage a twenty-year war to get OBL only? Then they should have left in 2011. Did they go to defeat the Taliban? Well, if any lessons were learned from Vietnam, it would have been easy to see why it is not possible to fight a guerrilla force that has the support of the local population, that can melt away and re-surface at will and that is fighting to defend its soil from foreign occupation.

Another problem is the arrogance (and naivety) to imagine that money can buy minds and heal all wounds. This has not only multiplied the cost of war for the US but has promoted corruption in Afghan society in a previously unknown dimension. It has installed corruption in the Establishment.

“By 2006, the Afghan government led by President Hamid Karzai had self-organised into a kleptocracy,” said US Army Colonel Christopher Kolenda. A US top diplomat in Kabul, Ryan Crocker, said: “Our biggest single project, sadly and inadvertently, of course, may have been the development of mass corruption.”

The interviews also reveal how the US flooded Afghanistan with more aid than the local establishment could manage. An unnamed USAID executive said 90 per cent of what they spent was overkill: “We were given money, told to spend it and we did, without reason.”

It flooded the troops and civilian workers with unprecedented amounts of alcohol and prime food. Elections observers for the Presidential Election in 2004 reported that for the garrison in Gardez every week a plane full of frozen food would arrive and the freezers were unable to take the load. So good food had to be thrown out in order to make room for a new delivery.

Another failure is the manipulation of the political system. The idea to implant a tribal society with democracy has naturally failed and so has the imposition of a US-friendly and US-dependent government in Kabul.

The so-called elections of Hamid Karzai in 2004 and Ashraf Ghani in 2014 and the latest disaster in September 2019 (the ‘election’s’ results are unknown until today) show that the very idea of election is not there in the Afghan tradition. In order to explain it to the people it should have been a free and fair process. But from the very beginning the elections were manipulated with the help of different US organizations to achieve a desired result. These manipulations may have taken away the trust of the Afghans in this method of choosing a government.

A disaster of a different kind, but closely related, is the condition of the Afghan security forces. While fighting wars for money is very much common among Americans, it has been a ‘no-go zone’ for the Afghans. That is why the unpaid Taliban are winning. They fight for a cause. American-paid Afghan soldiers are running away because they have no cause apart from the money. In effect they are mercenaries.

Describing Afghan security forces as incompetent, no US military trainer expressed confidence that they can fend off, much less defeat, the Taliban on their own. Special Forces teams called Afghan police “the bottom of the barrel in the country that is already at the bottom of the barrel.” Another officer estimated a third of them were either drug addicts or they were the Taliban.

The last but not the least failure, is the attempt to ‘modernize’ Afghan women. Introducing or even imposing Western values with regard to the role of women in the family and society with military support is doomed to failure. It is creating turmoil in Afghan society. Like the Western political system Western values are alien to Afghans and if at all they may want to adopt parts of the Western culture, they have to do it step-by step but and without foreign military pressure.

The revealed papers – though only supporting what has been visible all along - have already created an uproar in the Congress and one can only hope that this new insight will speed up US withdrawal from Afghanistan so that the Afghans can pick up the pieces of their destroyed society, infrastructure, environment and try to reconcile. Only then peace in Afghanistan will have a chance.

Ikram Sehgal & Dr. Bettina Robotka

(Ikram Sehgal is a defence and security analyst while Dr Bettina Robotka is formerly of Department of South Asian Studies, Humboldt University, Berlin).