Why Kabul Fell Without a Shot | Ciaran Brass
At this juncture, the quantitative specifics are known to almost everyone – $2 trillion spent in US tax dollars, 20 years of a ubiquitous American military presence, and a pledge by the UK government to resettle 20,000 refugees (note: this number is in all likelihood negotiable upwards if the words of our ostensibly hard-line Home Secretary are to be believed). One of the most interesting aspects, however, is why the beleaguered capital of Kabul, home to a network of nation-building NGOs and omnipresent liberal internationalist operatives, failed to offer more robust resistance against the Taliban. There was to be no tragic, ill-fated “last stand” by Afghan national forces in defence of their democratic state built on Western ideals and largesse – indeed, after President Ashraf Ghani fled the country, security personnel conducted a tour of the presidential palace for incoming Taliban militants.
Broadly speaking, the reasons behind the swift acquiescence of Afghanistan’s military and security forces can be analysed through two different categories. The first category consists of material reasons, which are manifold.
Although Afghan army and police forces numbered around 350,000 to the Taliban’s 80,000-strong militia, the state institutions are plagued by the corruption, supply issues, and barefaced fraud that sadly typifies many developing countries with access to a foreign aid spigot. In Kandahar, Afghanistan’s second-largest city, police forces had gone without a salary for six to nine months prior to the Taliban takeover.
Severe resource issues also afflicted national forces – a complete lack of food, water, and munitions precipitated the fall of the Kunduz province. Another telling anecdote involves front-line combatants being given a box of spoilt potatoes as an entire week’s worth of food rations.
Furthermore, viable alternatives to challenging the Taliban along ancient ethnic lines have evaporated in recent weeks. The majority of Taliban militants are Pashtun, a group that constitutes the largest ethnic plurality in Afghanistan. The first week of August, Taliban forces overwhelmed the provincial capital of Sheberghan, the base of operations for Uzbek warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum.
A week later came the fall of Herat and subsequent surrender of Ismail Khan, a well-known Tajik militia commander who fought the Taliban throughout the 1990s. The Taliban’s victories over two long-time rivals in swift succession dealt a severe blow to the material conditions of resistance within the country, alongside a deleterious psychological effect to the remaining military and security forces.
In spite of these circumstances, President Ashraf Ghani assured his citizens that state forces would mount a final stand at Kabul. As was widely reported, Mr. Ghani then proceeded to abscond the country with four cars and a helicopter’s worth of cash.
At this point, it is relevant to note that Mr. Ghani’s administration was essentially installed by Western technocrats and ostensible international relations experts. Lauded as one of the world’s foremost “public intellectuals” by an array of respectable current affairs and foreign policy publications, Mr. Ghani required the intervention of the United States to create a “unity government” after the 2014 presidential elections were rocked by allegations of fraud. Two years later, following an extensive audit brokered by the United Nations, 850,000 of the 7 million ballots were invalidated.
It is for these reasons, perhaps, that Afghan military and security forces did not feel indebted to stage a fight on the streets of Kabul to preserve the Ghani government. In spite of being trumpeted as the first “democratic transfer of power” in Afghanistan’s history, Mr. Ghani’s administration was wildly unpopular, marked by massive corruption, and arguably as despised as the Taliban by Afghan citizens. Nonetheless, its undignified dissolution is a bitter pill for the foreign policy intelligentsia – their handpicked successor, a former author of a book on failed states, has now fled the country with as much loot as he could carry.
The questions surrounding Mr. Ghani’s governance and legitimacy are also linked with the second category of analysis concerning the lack of resistance in Kabul – the ideological misalignment between the international state builders and the desires of Afghan citizens. The simple truth was that Afghan forces were fighting for a government which did not uphold the traditions, ideals, and beliefs held by the majority of citizens.
In a recent essay, Michael Anton correctly assesses that the critical failure of the West was “that the democratization of Afghanistan was both necessary – practically and morally – and possible.” Warning signs emerged from the very beginning of the state-building process. An attempt to remove the word “Islamic” from Afghanistan’s 2004 Constitution was ignored by loya jirga chairman Sibghatullah Mujaddedi, who declared that “people who suggest such things are infidels.” Mr. Mujaddedi, a leader of Afghanistan’s Sufi community, was ostensibly a moderate.
In fairness to Mr. Mujaddedi, this appears to be an honest expression of the will of the Afghan people – a survey conducted in 2017 indicates that 99 per cent of the population supports sharia law as the official legal code of the country. This, however, remains an inconvenient reality for international state builders and global elites, who have desired for the better part of two decades to suppress the will of Afghan citizens.
The 2004 Constitution also failed to fully address the prevailing ethnic tensions within Afghanistan, and did nothing to reconcile the Pashtun population with the Tajik-dominated Northern Alliance. A report issued from the World Bank warned that “even within central government, current political divisions and rivalries render impossible any meaningful consensus.” This oversight aided in calcifying ethnic-based patrimony, nepotism, and rent-seeking within the parliamentary system.
Furthermore, in order to consolidate power within the country, American and Western forces were forced to align themselves with the most unsavoury elements of Afghan society. This included strategic partnerships with elderly warlords who practiced bacha bazi, a specific type of pederasty autochthonic to Afghanistan. When rank-and-file soldiers witnessed the sexual abuse of young boys at the hands of these perverts, they were instructed by higher-ups to ignore it. As this tacit acceptance of ritualised sexual abuse by Western forces appears unforgivable to those of us thousands of miles away, it surely contributed to delegitimising the Western-installed government in the eyes of the Afghan populace.
On the complete opposite end of the spectrum lies attempts to implement the most quixotic, top-down aspects of radical liberalism. The 2004 Constitution mandated that 27 per cent of representatives in the lower house of parliament must be occupied by women – this percentage is higher than the current number of female politicians in the lower houses of democracies such as the United States, Uruguay, and Japan.
In further acts of hubris, the US government reportedly spent $787 million on gender programs in Afghanistan. The prevailing wisdom from delusional Western policymakers seemed to be that, if they only produced enough gender studies graduates, Kabul would be transformed into Copenhagen. Former Secretary of State John Kerry also insisted that women must comprise a substantial part of armed and security forces. In 2010, NATO set a target for women to constitute 10 per cent of Afghan defence and security forces – in 2019, this number was 1.6 per cent.
To the impartial bystander, US and NATO-backed state builders were attempting to implement a government that was not fit for purpose by any conceivable metric, and indeed sought to spit in the face of Afghan cultural norms and traditions at every turn. Nonetheless, they persisted.
“Shall we their fond pageant see?
Lord, what fools these mortals be!”
Towards the end of Adam Curtis’ excellent documentary Bitter Lake, there is a scene involving Western cultural teachers instructing a group of Afghan women on the artistic merits of a urinal exhibit by avant-garde artist Marcel Duchamp. As the scene continues, the women alternatingly appear shocked, bemused, and disgusted. It is possible that the majority of Afghan citizens regarded the Western-installed government with the same bewilderment and distaste. Under those reasons, the surrender of Kabul without any meaningful struggle becomes an inevitability.