An opening move in the U.S. military high command’s campaign to deflect blame for the 20-year-long American debacle in Afghanistan has come with a Sunday article by General H.R. McMaster and Bradley Bowman in the Wall Street Journal, “In Afghanistan, the Tragic Toll of Washington Delusion.”
The delusions have indeed been real, and now cruelly exposed. As amply documented by the reports of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) John F. Sopko, and the The Afghanistan Papers by Washington Post journalist Craig Whitlock, the deceptions are largely the work of McMaster himself and his military colleagues.
The first question to ask though is why General McMaster thinks he has the right to say anything at all on the subject of Afghanistan? In the 1980s, the Afghan Mujahedin fighting against the Afghan communist government and its Soviet backers were equipped by the West with sophisticated equipment including Stinger missiles that cleared the Soviet air force from the skies. The Taliban have had no heavy weapons at all, a budget a tiny fraction enjoyed by the Afghan state, let alone the United States, and numbers that have also been much smaller than those (on paper at least) of the Afghan security forces. Yet the Taliban have won, by sheer resilience, better strategy, and superior public appeal.
American generals have led America to unnecessary defeat in Afghanistan; and defeated generals should have the elementary decency to keep their mouths shut. This is all the more so because many of the military mistakes in Afghanistan have directly echoed those of the Vietnam War, from which American generals failed to learn.
This was especially true of their approach to their local allies. Washington funded the Afghan army to the tune of tens of billions of dollars, trained it, and provided it with armor, heavy artillery, and airpower — yet while the Communist state survived for three years after the Soviet withdrawal, America’s Afghan state collapsed in a fortnight.
If this has come as such a shattering surprise, then it is largely because — as reported by SIGAR — generals like McMaster systematically misinformed multiple administrations, Congress, and the American people about the real state of the Afghan forces that they had created and shaped. In particular, they did their utmost to downplay the theft of U.S. aid and equipment by Afghan generals and officials — something that has been critical to the demoralization and easy surrender of their soldiers.
The most important question Americans need to ask in the wake of the fall of Kabul is therefore how they were lied to so systematically over so many years, and what it is about the US system that allowed these lies to pass with too little challenge. This is a problem for the USA that casts into the shade the “blame game” over President Biden’s decision to withdraw from Afghanistan. If it can be honestly and thoroughly examined, there may be some chance of it not happening again.
Perhaps the most terrifying thing of all about this is that it has happened before. The name of Craig Whitlock’s reports for the Washington Post, and forthcoming book, “The Afghanistan Papers” recalls “The Pentagon Papers” leaked by Department of Defense official Daniel Ellsberg during the Vietnam War. In both cases, internal U.S. governments revealed that senior officials and soldiers knew perfectly well that the picture of the war, and of America’s ally, being given to the public, Congress, and the media was substantially false. The “Afghanistan Papers” quote General Douglas Lute, Deputy National Security Adviser for Iraq and Afghanistan from 2007 to 2013:
“We stated that our goal is to establish a ‘flourishing market economy’. I thought we should have specified a flourishing drug trade – this is the only part of the market that is working.”
“It was impossible to create good metrics. We tried using troop numbers trained, violence levels, control of territory, and none of it painted an accurate picture. The metrics were always manipulated for the duration of the war…For example, attacks are getting worse? ‘That’s because there are more targets for them to fire at, so more attacks are a false indicator of instability.’ Then, three months later, attacks are still getting worse? ‘It’s because the Taliban are getting desperate, so it’s actually an indicator that we’re winning.’ ”
The Afghanistan Papers, like the SIGAR reports (another of which is to be issued this week), focus above all on misinformation about the weakness and corruption of the Afghan government and armed forces, and the theft, misuse and waste of U.S. assistance. There are, however, two other areas where propaganda, as swallowed by too much of the mainstream media, was so far from reality that it deserves special attention.
The first of these were the real workings of Afghan democracy, which were disguised with pious and meaningless phrases about “the people of Afghanistan’s quest for peace and stability and freedom and democracy,” and sentimental articles about Afghans queuing to vote that never asked whether they had been told for whom to vote, and who the winning candidates were.
In recent weeks, articles about “defending democracy in Afghanistan” have ignored the fact that parliamentary elections in Afghanistan had been indefinitely postponed, and that in the Afghan presidential elections of 2019 only 20 percent of the electorate voted, the losing candidate refused to accept the result, and no independent report by observers was ever published.
The second is the way the Taliban benefited from the Afghan government’s lack of legitimacy, while generating mass support of its own. This is now completely obvious, but for 20 years was mostly simply ignored, in favor of endless articles about them as mere “creations of Pakistan,” and as a “Saudi-influenced” group that is essentially alien to “Afghan traditions.” Thus one part of the McMaster and Bowman oped reads as follows:
“In areas they conquer, the Taliban conduct mass executions and assassinate journalists and anyone else who might oppose their perverted theocratic dictatorship. The Taliban force women to “marry” terrorists, who rape them, force them to wear the burqa and otherwise strip them of rights they have enjoyed for nearly two decades.”
It is true that the Taliban have committed egregious human rights violations, but ultimately central to the mass surrenders of the past fortnight has been that the rank and file of Afghan troops trusted Taliban promises not to take revenge on them, and to let them go home in peace; and they could do so because that was the Taliban strategy in most areas during their rise in the 1990s; and also the Mujahedin approach to Communist garrisons that surrendered in 1992. Only some specific units have been killed — ones which (like General Raziq’s border troops in Kandahar) had themselves gained an open reputation for taking no Taliban prisoners.
The second sentence of McMaster and Bowman’s paragraph conflates the Taliban and ISIS (called in Afghanistan Daesh), when these forces are in fact bitter enemies. In fact, while the Taliban in power were cruelly oppressive to middle class and educated women, and severely limited their rights, in the Afghan countryside one reason why they gained such support was precisely because they ended the savage attacks on and exploitation of women conducted by the Mujahedin warlord forces whom we brought back to power in 2001. Once again, if the Taliban have faced very limited opposition from the mass of the population across much of Afghanistan — without which they could not possibly have survived and won in the way that they have — it is because far from being a new and alien force, they reflected core Afghan conservative traditions in parts of the country — traditions alien and obnoxious to our own, but tragically, not an anathema to large parts of the Afghan rural population.
In dealing with the Taliban, the U.S. government and military commanders like General McMaster forgot that most crucial of military maxims, “know your enemy.” This self-deceit reflected in turn the fact that for 20 years the great majority of U.S. and allied staff officers and officials never bothered seriously to study Afghan history or culture.
In particular, leading experts on Afghanistan who wrote analyses questioning the Western official line, like Antonio Giustozzi, were too often ignored and excluded. Officials and soldiers who did develop such expertise, like the U.S. political officer Carter Malkasian and British Captain Mike Martin, or the British came too late to make a difference (and in Martin’s case, faced a determined attempt by the British Ministry of Defence to censor his book on Helmand).
This too recalls a famous comment by Ellsberg, that when Washington sent an army to South Vietnam in 1965, there was not a single middle ranking U.S. official who could have passed a freshman exam on Vietnam. As Leslie H. Gelb (author of The Irony of Vietnam: The System Worked, about the errors of analysis that led the USA into Vietnam) wrote comparing the wars in Vietnam and Iraq,
“[B]ecause we’d never learned that darn lesson about believing our way into these wars, we went into Afghanistan and we went into Iraq… You know, we get involved in these wars and we don’t know a damn thing about those countries, the culture, the history, the politics, people on top and even down below. And, my heavens, these are not wars like World War II and World War I, where you have battalions fighting battalions. These are wars that depend on knowledge of who the people are, with the culture is like. And we jumped into them without knowing. That’s the damned essential message of the Pentagon Papers.”
Just as the realities of the Afghan state were disguised by bromides about democracy, so the realities of the Taliban were obscured by cliches about “terrorists” and “fanatics.” This was odd, since the Taliban stemmed from parts of the same Mujahedin whom we supported against the Soviets and Communists in the 1980s, and whom Western intelligence officers and journalists (including myself, as a journalist for The Times of London) had got to know very well.
As revealed in interviews like those organized by Graeme Smith of the Toronto Globe and Mail, ordinary Taliban members were fighting for very much the same reasons (patriotism, religion, and revenge) as those for which their fathers had fought against the Soviet occupiers and their local Communist allies.
This it seems could simply not be admitted by most Western observers. In his magisterial book on the Soviet war in Afghanistan, Afgantsy, Sir Rodric Braithwaite recounts how any suggestion that the United States might learn from the Soviet experience was simply dismissed with contempt by American officials. I myself encountered this attitude in Afghanistan in early 2002 when I warned American officials against the use of the term “postwar,” pointing out that the USSR had also occupied Afghanistan in a fortnight in December-January 1979-80 — but that had certainly not meant an end to conflict. The response was a mixture of incomprehension and indifference.
That was a time when America appeared to be victorious; but it has been said that failure is a better teacher than success, and it is greatly hoped that the US establishment will learn lessons from its failure in Afghanistan — lessons not about Afghanistan, but about itself.