The first draft of this article was originally written as a reply to a friend who asked me my thoughts on the fall of Kabul. I was encouraged to send it up as an op-ed, but scoffed. I refined the draft and later circulated it to close friends and family, as well as under a different pseudonym in a different anonymous place. Again, I was told to send it up, and so I did.
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I spent several years in Afghanistan as an active duty military member and later as a contractor providing various services to the US Government. I have actually not been following the news in Afghanistan overmuch except to see a few minutes a week that it is going more or less exactly as I expected it to go. My opinion on the matter is not welcome in most circles, and has seen me accused in turns of callousness, imperialism, barbarism, and blindness inflicted by narrow thinking.
What I am about to say, I don't say to boast. I say it out of sadness, because I was not really that important of a person in the big machine: My opinion has been formed by having more personal and constructive contact with Afghans all over their country than any other American I know. My opinion is backed by a better understanding of Afghan history and culture for the last 100 years than people who were supposed to be formulating our strategic plans and goals. I did the very best job I could because I cared about doing what I thought we were there to do. I quit the war when I realized that the whole thing had become institutionalized, abstracted, and abdicated to bloated and ineffectual middle management to a shocking and revolting degree.
My opinion very frankly on current events is that there is literally nothing that could have prevented the fall of the puppet government in Afghanistan. One of the most common talking points circulating of late is that we should have waited just a little longer, perhaps until the end of the fighting season, to finalize our withdrawal. To this I say "No." Waiting another fighting season would have done absolutely nothing except put a few more dollars in the pockets of the corrupt and give more time for military forces to plan which bandit group to defect to. I would also be willing to bet that the withdrawal was actually extremely orderly and well planned, but that many on the Afghan side either didn't believe it would actually happen this time, or in the case of individuals in various positions of power, knew that there was more for them to gain personally in the chaos afterwards.
There has been a serious issue with the international media's portrayal of the withdrawal. To wit: they haven't been talking to anyone credible, just whoever was accessible under the shrinking umbrella of American security. For months the news has been littered with interviews with locals angry that the money spout from the local base is being turned off; minor government officials who are butthurt they didn't get a bigger slice of the loot; and random expatriates who haven't lived there in decades. The real movers and shakers in Afghanistan have been quietly preparing for this moment for well, since we invaded. They've been quietly building personal wealth and power during a foreign occupation in preparation for the inevitable withdrawal. That's just how things go in Afghanistan, and I know, because I fucking saw it happening with my own eyes. I watched program dollars disappear into the pockets, desk drawers, ornately furnished offices, and privately retained security forces of anyone with a government title or an American connection.
For 20 years the US has been propping up a government that is doggedly corrupt and also disliked by the majority of people that nominally fall under their governance. In the entire history of the geographical area we currently call Afghanistan, there has never really been a time where the central government - whether it was a king, a president, or a mullah - held much sway outside the immediate seats of power or the direct occupation of the central military forces.
There was an opportunity to change this and to usher in an era of modern national governance. Was.
We failed to build anything foundational and instead threw trillions of dollars into stopgap programs that ended up being leaned on year after year after year like fixtures, all the while subsidizing naked theft and incompetence in exchange for empty public statements and a willingness to comply with military demands. We squandered one year at a time, one staff rotation at a time, one TDY at a time for long enough that people who weren't even born when the war started ended up fighting in it as adults. Meanwhile, the DoD and other government agencies rushed to make sure that the right people got leadership positions in the warzone to make sure that nobody got left out when it was time for career advancement, even when it meant creating make-work positions and churning policymaking positions every 6 or 12 months like clockwork.
Unfortunately, I think the bottom line is that the Afghan people themselves are going to have to figure this one out. Our occupation was smothering and distracting from social and political developments that need to happen under the motive power of the Afghans. I do not think it is a coincidence that those developments have been smothered with intense meddling, because my opinion is that what the Afghan people will end up with (eventually) is not what America or many of their NATO partners would prefer to happen. The Afghans don't want an American-style democracy just like the Vietnamese didn't, and that is unpalatable or even unbelievable to many, many outsiders.
They're going to have to duke this one out, find their own voices, and come to an agreement with themselves. It's what should have been allowed to happen ten minutes after the Taliban were burned out of the country 20 years ago, and certainly what should have happened with the first election. Instead, we installed a cooperative playboy (Hamid Karzai) and propped up a manufactured regime which included at the time of its fall (right now) war criminals, infamous and hated warlords, and profiteering double agents all of whom have been slinking around and power brokering since the Soviet and post-Soviet eras.
Speaking of the Soviet and post-Soviet era, how is anyone surprised that the central military abandoned the puppet regime of an exiting superpower? Historically speaking, in Afghanistan, it does not pay long term to be the remnant clinging to power in the shadow of the behemoth that just cut you loose. This is basic stuff here, and well within living memory, let alone a weekend read through the most basic primer of contemporary Afghan history. There are plenty of fighting Afghans who absolutely don't want the return of the Taliban or their bullshit, and the reason the Taliban is so easily marching to apparent victory is that power is reconsolidating in regional and local groups all over the country. The ANA and other national security forces are folding and evaporating in front of the Taliban because they don't give a shit about the puppet government - not because they don't have something worth fighting for, and not because they have no plans to resist.
There have been some good seeds scattered about. Modernized (relatively speaking) infrastructure and international engagement for 20 years have certainly given many Afghans things that they won't tolerate the loss of, and while the Taliban may be making large military gains now, understand that it's very unlikely that they will suddenly return to full power and instantly re-introduce their previous regime. They, too, will fall victim to the same issues that every central regime has faced, and this time they will not only be competing as they were before with other, slightly weaker regional warlords, but also with a populace that is far more educated and cognizant of the outside world than they ruled over 20 years ago. Their current moderate presentation and claims of amnesty for all are very likely only going to last as long as there are foreign occupiers. The Taliban have been playing a waiting game for at least a decade now, and they are experienced and patient enough to not spoil it now by forcing the occupiers to make a U-turn in defense of human tragedy. They know that once we are gone, it will be much more difficult for us to justify coming back.
Americans are desperate to either avoid comparing Afghanistan to Vietnam, or desperate to make it a mirror. Even more people are desperate to throw in their opinion on what they have been shown in the last few months. I think all of that desperation comes from people who should have been paying attention to the war while it was happening, when there was still a chance to demand answers and solutions from our elected leadership that were based on more than the moral vacuum of the status quo.
Once again, an American occupation under false pretenses has only delayed and intensified a (perhaps inevitable) civil war. And now that America has spent 20 years with a big, fat, shortsighted and incompetent thumb on the scales, we leave the Afghan people to fight a conflict that has been made even uglier by the injection of massive amounts of military hardware, training, and experience for all involved, as well as 20 more years of living grudges and personal grievances to infect the next generations of Afghan civil discourse.
If you pray, pray for the Afghans.