Four months from now, the last 2,500 American troops will have left Afghanistan. The British, Australians, Canadians and other allies will be in the same boat, figuratively if not literally, having also sacrificed blood and treasure in the 20-year struggle first, to remove Kabul’s Taliban government, thereafter to sustain its successor regimes. Why has President Joe Biden lost patience, the West essentially thrown up its hands in despair? We should recall a significant conversation, during the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
“We want to be a benevolent and humble presence,” said US Gen David Petraeus, as US troops forged through teeming crowds to enter Baghdad. Washington Post reporter Rick Atkinson, embedded with Petraeus’s 101st Airborne Division, captured the scene in his book, “In the Company of Soldiers”:
A distinguished elderly man in a white robe emerged from the throng and identified himself as Abdul-Razzaq Kasbi, a teacher at the Saddam Secondary School. He spoke English with slow formality, enunciating each syllable…. ‘Mr General,’ he said to Petraeus, ‘we are afraid you will control us, as he has done.’ There was no need to specify who ‘he’ was….
‘No,’ Petraeus said, ‘we won’t.’…We will show you by our actions.”… He offered the teacher a brass division coin to seal the bargain, but Kasbi politely refused the token. ‘I can’t have anything of you unless I am sure you have come for the sake of our people. We want to live in peace. We don’t want to substitute one bad person for another bad person.’
Petraeus took the rejection gracefully…. ‘I understand the intellectual aversion to nation-building,’ Petraeus mused. ‘On the other hand, I don’t see how you avoid it.’
The failures in Afghanistan, as in Iraq, through the ensuing two decades have not been battlefield defeats. They have been caused, instead, by our inability to establish, within a timeframe acceptable to chronically impatient Western politicians and electorates, a sustainable local system of governance that also supports Western interests. Petraeus, smartest of modern American generals, understood from the moment he entered Baghdad at the head of his “Screaming Eagles” that an army cannot accomplish the re-ordering of a society. Nation-building is much more difficult than winning battles, and we are not very good at it.
Some American strategy gurus are at pains to argue that 21st century wars in far-flung places have nothing in common with Vietnam. As the author of a history of the latter struggle, I disagree. I see many parallels, as do distinguished
The first Vietnam message is that the Northerners won that war not
because they were communists, but mostly because they were Vietnamese. Almost everybody hates being bossed around by foreigners. Throughout the war years, Vietnamese knew that no representative of the Saigon government could leave his bed in the morning without asking his American paymasters which side to get out. A Southerner named Chau Phat said: “The communists could ceaselessly remind us how humiliating it was to be occupied.”
This is the same message that, for the past 20 years, the Taliban have been delivering to a thousand Afghan towns and villages. Responses from our side must be seen to be home-grown, not foreign.
Australian counterinsurgency specialist David Kilcullen has written that an insurgency “derives its morale, its physical strength, its freedom of action, and its will to act [from] its connectivity with the local population in a given area. Insurgents ride and manipulate a social wave of grievances, often legitimate.”
In Afghanistan it exasperates Westerners that many communities choose to seek domestic arbitration from Taliban courts dispensing extremist justice, rather than from those of the
On a visit to Kabul some years ago, I was invited to meet a government minister, who proved to be a bright young man, with imaginative ideas for his country. But he had spent most of his own life in West Coast America: I suspect that his English was better than his Pashto. Many prominent members of recent Afghan governments have kept a substantial part of their assets outside their country, against the contingency of being obliged to flee for their lives. They have thus — albeit with prudent realism — been less than wholly committed.
The operations of Western armies place a cripplingly heavy footprint upon primitive societies. Flying low in Blackhawks over both Iraq and Afghanistan, I have often speculated about how housewives beneath us must feel about Westerners, as dust storms whipped up by our rotors swept through their washing on clotheslines. I wrote in my Vietnam book that, even before considering the kinetic consequences of the military presence, “American decision-makers failed to realise the economic and cultural impact of a huge foreign army.
A Vietnamese secretary at USAID earned more than a South Vietnamese colonel. The US sought to conduct the sort of conflict that suited its armed forces, rather than the one it was stuck with, against a foe who set the lightest imaginable footprint.
All this has happened again in Iraq and Afghanistan. Who would want to serve the Kabul government, for a fraction of the pay available to those who work for foreigners? Only a tiny number of Westerners can communicate directly with local people. As a journalist accompanying a British patrol through an Afghan village, I do not think it was a figment of my imagination to discern hatred in the eyes of watchful local men. Western warriors in body armour and sunglasses look more like robots than humans.
I urged on a British army chief the need to make more soldiers Pashto-speakers. He responded that it would be unreasonable to interrupt men’s professional careers to learn a language that had no application outside Afghanistan.
Max Hastings is a Bloomberg columnist. He was previously a correspondent for the BBC and newspapers, editor in chief of the Daily Telegraph, and editor of the London Evening Standard. He is the author of 28 books, the most recent of which are “Vietnam: An Epic Tragedy” and “Chastise: The Dambusters Story 1943”