Who Lost Afghanistan?

The postmortems are well underway.

U.S. Air Force/Staff Sgt. Evelyn Chavez

As Afghanistan falls, capital city by capital city, to the Taliban as the US withdraws its forces, analysts are scrambling to figure out how twenty years of massive American investment produced so little.

Thomas Gibbons-Neff, Fahim Abed and Sharif Hassan for the NYT (“The Afghan Military Was Built Over 20 Years. How Did It Collapse So Quickly?“):

This implosion comes despite the United States having poured more than $83 billion in weapons, equipment and training into the country’s security forces over two decades.

Building the Afghan security apparatus was one of the key parts of the Obama administration’s strategy as it sought to find a way to hand over security and leave nearly a decade ago. These efforts produced an army modeled in the image of the United States’ military, an Afghan institution that was supposed to outlast the American war.

But it will likely be gone before the United States is.

While the future of Afghanistan seems more and more uncertain, one thing is becoming exceedingly clear: The United States’ 20-year endeavor to rebuild Afghanistan’s military into a robust and independent fighting force has failed, and that failure is now playing out in real time as the country slips into Taliban control.

[…]

As positions collapsed, the complaint was almost always the same: There was no air support or they had run out of supplies and food.

But even before that, the systemic weaknesses of the Afghan security forces — which on paper numbered somewhere around 300,000 people, but in recent days have totaled around just one-sixth of that, according to U.S. officials — were apparent. These shortfalls can be traced to numerous issues that sprung from the West’s insistence on building a fully modern military with all the logistical and supply complexities one requires, and which has proved unsustainable without the United States and its NATO allies.

Soldiers and policemen have expressed ever-deeper resentment of the Afghan leadership. Officials often turned a blind eye to what was happening, knowing full well that the Afghan forces’ real manpower count was far lower than what was on the books, skewed by corruption and secrecy that they quietly accepted.

And when the Taliban started building momentum after the United States’ announcement of withdrawal, it only increased the belief that fighting in the security forces — fighting for President Ashraf Ghani’s government — wasn’t worth dying for. In interview after interview, soldiers and police officers described moments of despair and feelings of abandonment.

At the New Yorker, Jon Lee Anderson (“The Return of the Taliban“) observes,

In the wake of the horror of Al Qaeda’s attacks on the United States, most Americans polled believed that the country was doing the “right thing” in going to war in Afghanistan. That level of support didn’t last long, but the war on terror did, and so did the military expedition to Afghanistan, which stretched on inconclusively for two decades and now ends in ignominyDonald Trump set this fiasco in motion, by announcing his intention to pull out the remaining American troops in Afghanistan and begin negotiations with the Taliban. In February, 2020, an agreement was signed that promised to withdraw all U.S. military forces in return for, among other things, peace talks with the U.S.-backed Afghan government. The American troops were duly drawn down, but, instead of engaging in real discussions, the Taliban stepped up their attacks. In April, President Joe Biden announced his intention to carry on with the withdrawal, and pull out forces by September 11th. However much he says that he does “not regret” his decision, his Presidency will be held responsible for whatever happens in Afghanistan now, and the key words that will forever be associated with the long American sojourn there will include hubris, ignorance, inevitability, betrayal, and failure.

It’s too early to know how history will judge these events but it would be absurd to lay the blame on Biden, or even Trump. Writing for The Daily Beast, David Rothkoff argues “America’s Catastrophic Afghanistan Exit Has Many Fathers.” While I don’t agree with all of his analysis, he’s right. For my own part, President George W. Bush, who initiated the war, achieved its initial objectives, but then vastly expanded its remit without resourcing it for the remaining seven years of his administration surely deserves the lion’s share. And Obama, who cynically doubled down on it with a “Surge” while simultaneously declaring that the withdrawal would begin just a few months later, deserves almost as much. He got a lot of Americans killed—the vast majority who died in the conflict did so under his watch, not Bush’s—knowing damn well that it would be for naught. Trump was incompetent in his handling of the mess but that we needed to exit was of course right. As to Biden, I would have preferred a more planned withdrawal but the die was largely cast. And, as Rothkopf notes, the decision to back the Mujahadeen in 1979 also deserves mention.

At NYT, Steven Erlanger points out the obvious: “Afghanistan’s Unraveling May Strike Another Blow to U.S. Credibility.”

Afghanistan’s rapid unraveling is already raising grumblings about American credibility, compounding the wounds of the Trump years and reinforcing the idea that America’s backing for its allies is not unlimited.

The Taliban‘s lightning advance comes at a moment when many in Europe and Asia had hoped that President Biden would reestablish America’s firm presence in international affairs, especially as China and Russia angle to extend their influence. Now, America’s retreat is bound to sow doubts.

“When Biden says ‘America is back,’ many people will say, ‘Yes, America is back home,'” said François Heisbourg, a French defense analyst.

“Few will gang up on the U.S. for finally stopping a failed enterprise,” he said. “Most people would say it should have happened a long time ago.” But in the longer term, he added, “the notion that you cannot count on the Americans will strike deeper roots because of Afghanistan.”

Still, this is vastly overblown:

That hesitation will now be felt all the more strongly among countries in play in the world, like Taiwan, Ukraine, the Philippines and Indonesia, which can only please China and Russia, analysts suggest.

“What made the U.S. strong, powerful and rich was that from 1918 through 1991 and beyond, everybody knew we could depend on the U.S. to defend and stand up for the free world,” said Tom Tugendhat, chairman of the British Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee.

“The sudden withdrawal from Afghanistan after 20 years and so much investment in lives and effort will see allies and potential allies around the world wondering whether they have to decide between democracies and autocracies, and realize some democracies don’t have staying power anymore,” he added.

First, Afghanistan was never meaningly part of “the free world.” Second, this is hardly the first time that the US has abandoned a hopeless cause after years of investment. Third, if Ukraine is still confident the US has their back after six years of Russian incursion into their sovereignty, it’s extremely unlikely that the events in Afghanistan will shake that.

The key to me remains our duty to keep the faith with the interpreters and others who so closely hitched their wagons to the US cause. We simply have to evacuate and provide sanctuary to as many of them as we can.

This, though, strikes me as much more insightful:

In Afghanistan—and, for that matter, in Iraq, as well—the Americans did not merely not learn from the mistakes of others; they did not learn from their own mistakes, committed a generation earlier, in Vietnam.

The main errors were, first, to underestimate the adversaries and to presume that American technological superiority necessarily translated into mastery of the battlefield, and, second, to be culturally disdainful, rarely learning the languages or the customs of the local people. By the end of the first American decade in Afghanistan, it seemed evident that the Western counterinsurgency enterprise was doomed to fail, and not only because of the return of the Taliban in many rural parts of the country: the Americans and their nato allies closed themselves off from Afghans in large regional bases, from which they operated in smaller units out of combat outposts, and distrust reined between them and their putative Afghan comrades. “Green-on-blue attacks,” in which Afghan security forces opened fire on their American and European counterparts, became alarmingly frequent. The Taliban, meanwhile, grew inexorably stronger.

During a visit to the tense, embattled, eastern province of Khost, in the winter of 2010, a senior American military commander there, Lieutenant Colonel Stephen Lutsky, acknowledged to me the lack of trust with his Afghan counterparts, several of whom he suspected of working with the Taliban. “The cultural complexity of the environment is just so huge that it’s hard for us to understand it,” he said. “For Americans, it’s black or white—it’s either good guys or bad guys. For Afghans, it’s not. There are good Taliban and bad Taliban, and some of them are willing to do deals with each other. It’s just beyond us.”

[…]

Most of the Afghan men whom I met and who led battles against the Taliban two decades ago are now dead. Almost all were killed, in separate assassinations, as part of the Taliban’s plan to return to action. Their comeback has taken twenty years, but it is a classic example of a successful guerrilla war of attrition, and has involved all the usual elements of guerrilla strategy: a stealth campaign of hit-and-run military attacks, selective assassinations to demoralize their adversaries, and acts of terror that both weakened the government and created an atmosphere of abject compliance from local populations. A public campaign of hearts and minds followed, accompanied by decoy negotiations with the government and its allies in order to promote the idea that, as a force, the Taliban are not really extremist and are, in fact, open to dialogue, even to internal change. But the Taliban, by their very nature, are fundamentalists, believers in a strict Quranic credo.

The kicker:

The Taliban have rendered Afghanistan unworkable as a country; unworkable, that is, without them. And the truth is that they were never really beaten. They merely did what guerrillas do in order to survive: they melted away in the face of overwhelming force, regrouped and restored themselves to fighting strength, and returned to battle. Here they are.

FILED UNDER: *FEATURED, Afghanistan War, National Security
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Barry says:

    James, what did you expect President Obama to do?

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  2. Bnut says:

    My in-laws are normal Republicans (their words, not mine). One way I torture them is to take on a “comedic” far-right persona and be about as glib as possible. The other day I made to mention that I was sad that my 6 month old son won’t get to continue the family tradition of being deployed to Afghanistan and that it was selfish of Biden to deny him the chance at a TBI. They were quite offended and I couldn’t get them to express why.

    Anecdote aside, I’m willing to eviscerate any and all politicians who had even a passing hand in the quagmire of our GWOT fever dream. This was all inevitable the second we stayed in country longer than a month.

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  3. OzarkHillbilly says:

    However much he says that he does “not regret” his decision, his Presidency will be held responsible for whatever happens in Afghanistan now, and the key words that will forever be associated with the long American sojourn there will include hubris, ignorance, inevitability, betrayal, and failure.

    Yes, because in a mere 205 days he destroyed all that his predecessors had accomplished over the preceding 7038 days. That’s what I call efficiency.

    Pretty sure Joe knew this was going to happen. Also pretty sure he did not expect it to happen so fast, but he had to know the Afghan govt was not going to outlast his first term. So he said, “I’ll take the political hit because I don’t want a single other family to lose a child fighting a war we can not, will not win.”

    I just want to say, “Thank you, Joe.”

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  4. Michael Reynolds says:

    It’s not just black and white for the American military, or for supporters of the war, the anti-war side is no more nuanced or imaginative. Repeating what I’ve said for years:

    1) The US military is a sledgehammer, not a scalpel. Real good at blowing things up, only good at blowing things up, which is good because that’s really what we need them for.

    2) We suck at training third world troops. We are too sophisticated, too reliant on the ability to dial up a bombing run, too tech savvy, too everything for a dirt poor country. There was no universe in which poor, backward Afghanistan was going to fight wars the way we do.

    3) It wasn’t over-reliance on technology, our military tech allows us to hammer anyone, anywhere, any time for as long as we like, with virtually no risk to any American. That’s not what we did, that would be a retaliatory raid backed by further deterrence. We decided instead on occupation. Once that decision was made, defeat was inevitable because they live there, they aren’t going anywhere, and sooner or later we were.

    4) The anti-war forces in this country were useless because as always they never get past the vague, kumbaya thinking of stoned college kids. Their simple-mindedness and refusal to come to grips with dirty details means that when trouble starts they are immediately put on mute.

    But, that said, this defeat was baked in by the arrogance and stupidity of George W. Bush, Dick Cheney and Don Rumsfeld, the holy trinity of hubris.

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  5. There is going to be a lot of bellyaching about “credibility” in the coming days. While I agree that this is a bad moment for the US, as the policy failure here is pretty stark, but worrying about how it will affect perceptions going into the future sounds far too much like the neocon fantasies that brought us to this point in the first place. (I heard Wolfowitz on clip waring of this empowering terrorists worldwide, and I felt like it was 2002 all over again).

    I would note, too, even as I am hearing and reading Fall of Saigon comparisons, that the events Vietnam didn’t exactly lead to the US becoming a third-rate military power. While I am not a military historian, the US projected quite a lot of power globally from 1975 to the present.

    Indeed, the lessons we didn’t learn from Vietnam appear, as noted above, not to have been about the consequences of withdrawal.

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  6. Sleeping Dog says:

    @Barry:

    Obama could have ended US involvement after killing bin Laden. It was beyond evident that the fantasies of US military and policy makers, not to mention the neo-con and liberal interventionist fantasies about building democracies, were just that, fantasy.

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  7. Kathy says:

    The problem with thinking historically, is that one’s mind brings up Britain’s wars in Afghanistan int he XIX Century (part of the Great Game), and then jumps to Alexander’s campaigns into India and the subsequent Hellenistic Period, then wonders what the Persians did before then…

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  8. becca says:

    The Afghanistan Invasion was snake-bit from the get-go, wasn’t it? We lost our minds after 9/11. Reason took a powder. The war machine became a larger and larger part of the economy. That seems like some significant moral hazard potentiality. Hard to extricate. Coulda-shoulda-wouldas are all that’s left.

    In a better world (sigh) all the Afghanis who wanted to leave would be given safe passage and refuge. There would have been a plan for this scenario, one would think. And yet….

    There’s the old saw that poor planning on your end does not automatically constitute an emergency on my end turned on its head. Tragic.

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  9. Chip Daniels says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:
    I don’t understand the “credibility” argument.

    It essentially says that “Sure, the Americans will devote the blood of husbands sons and fathers and trillions of dollars of treasure, to a war on the other side of the globe for twenty years. But then they will leave, so we can’t rely upon them!!”

    What other nation has ever given more devotion to an ally?

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  10. rachel says:

    @Chip Daniels: Was Afghanistan our ally, tho?

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  11. Jim Brown 32 says:

    I thought JohnSF had a very good performance in the previous thread on this. We could have avoided the sexual enslavement and child rape of hundreds of thousands with a small high school sized contingent at Bagram.

    Im so sick of people talking about 20 years. We didn’t do anything in those 20 years but hunker down in a few areas as a insurance policy against what is happening now. Im sorry if people read the news and believed we were actually implementing a nation-building plan. No professional could look at our activities and believe that we were national building or training military/police forces to be self sustaining. We weren’t. We needed to give the public a sense that there was a solid end condition. When in fact, being there as a threat to the Taliban WAS the executed strategy.

    Afghanistan was never a DOD priority. We considered it a managed problem. Could we have solved it? Absolutely….lots of MAMs would have needed to die to inflict irrecoverable damage to the tribal warlord and child rape culture that pervades the country. Seccessive Presidents decided the carnage that would have covered the news networks wasn’t worth it.

    I only was involved with some planning for Afghanistan from a higher headquarters. I held my breath I never got tapped to deploy there because I wasnt about their pervasive culture of warlordism or child rape…my preference would been to eviscerate almost everything there and let them build it back from scratch under supervision.

    Everyone I know that was on the ground there was passionate about how we were helping…maybe not from a nation-building perspective but from real day to day lived experience.

    Also, the deaths arguments really doesn’t make sense from a warriors perspective. I know it seems like the caring position for civilians to take. Do they think we volunteer for this job never to have a shot to do it live? Waiting for an existential threat to America before having real world opportunities would make us like Maytag repairmen (and repairwomen) . Somedays I miss being deployed. Am I the majority…no but I do believe Im part of a sizeable faction that didn’t join for only the GI Bill and benefits. I came to appreciate the pursuit of excellence in the art of war. You need a fight to hone and test those skills.

    When I think of the Taliban and what an abortion of humanity they are…I would have loved to erase them and their adjacent supporters from the face of the earth. Its a strain of human culture that has devolved and needed rebooting. The University of CNN experts should think about all the young boys and girls currently being “seasoned” as they expound on their inch wide /inch deep knowledge of what the USA did there and how it was never going to work.

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  12. James Joyner says:

    @Barry:

    James, what did you expect President Obama to do?

    Lead. It was obvious by the time the Afghan Surge was proposed that it was too late. But he felt boxed in by McChrystal and feared GOP criticism, so he went with the worst possible option: double down on the mission but with half the requested troops while simultaneously announcing that we would begin a drawdown in less than two years. It was just incredibly cynical and got a lot of American troops killed. In the first three years alone, double what we’d lost under Bush.

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  13. grumpy realist says:

    So what should we have done? Continued to feed men and supplies into a corrupt “government” detested by its inhabitants?

    Afghanistan was always going to collapse. It’s just our stupidity that we thought we could make a modern government out of collection of people who had no interest in entering the 20th century. Ever heard of the term triage?

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  14. Teve says:

    @Jim Brown 32:

    lots of MAMs would have needed to die

    How does a Milwaukee Art Museum die? That doesn’t make any sense.

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  15. Jim Brown 32 says:

    And James you are full aware that win and lose in the context of a non-total war is the talk of amateurs.

    Who could make an enforced unconditional surrender in Afghanistan…the endstate of “victory”. Certainly not the Taliban. Taliban or not, Afghanistan will have belligerents that draw from tribal beefs. The majority of them have to be killed off to create space for a nationalist culture to take hold. DOD planned and Congress funded cutting a raggedy yard…not tear out and resod. We did what we were ordered to do.

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  16. Jim Brown 32 says:

    @Teve: Close…Montana Auto Mechanics Lol

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  17. James Joyner says:

    @Jim Brown 32: The title is an allusion to Cold War questions of losing China, Vietnam, etc. I have argued for a long time that part of our problem in Afghanistan is that we had no concrete idea of what the desired end state looked like and the biggest issue, as you note above, is that we were sure as hell not willing to resource what it took to get it.

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  18. Jim Brown 32 says:

    @James Joyner: This is disingenuous James, we pushed people out to tactical outposts from the cushy, relatively safe mega bases they were on. Contact was going to be made…casualties taken. McChrystals COIN strategy is a Special Operations concept, we don’t field enough SpecOps forces to execute a national wide COIN strategy….so you had Non Special Operations forces executing a doctrine they were never trained or designed for.

    Those are the things you tell the leader so that they can make informed decisions. POTUS is 50,000 ft above many of the details they’d need to know to make decisions. Its relatively easy for Staff to lead them in any direction they want…unless POTUS is a SME in that area and can smell bullshit. Obama is not a military man, nor was Bush…they dont know enough to know information is missing or incomplete in the decision briefs…they rely almost soley on personal trust of advisors…who may or may not be honest brokers

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  19. MarkedMan says:

    @Jim Brown 32: Dead right about the problematic framing of “Win or Lose”. We won the war. We still have no idea how to turn a third world theocracy into a functional rule-of-law democracy capable of defending itself.

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  20. OzarkHillbilly says:

    Why is Afghanistan falling to the Taliban so fast?

    In 2010 I wrote an article titled War on the Brink of Failure in the Armed Forces Journal that plainly stated, that “absent a major change in the status quo that currently dominates in Afghanistan, the US-led military effort there will fail … and despite our best effort to spin it otherwise, we will lose the war in Afghanistan.”

    Two years later, while still an active-duty army officer and after my second combat deployment to Afghanistan, I wrote a detailed report which revealed that things had gotten much worse. Senior ranking US military leaders, I revealed, had intentionally deceived the American public.

    “Despite overwhelming physical evidence of our failure to succeed on the military front,” I wrote, “senior US and [Nato] leaders inexplicably continue a steady stream of press releases and public statements that imply the exact opposite.” Without a change in strategy, I concluded, “the likelihood of the United States Armed Forces suffering an eventual defeat in Afghanistan is very high.”

    The Pentagon’s response to my argument that we were losing the war? Lt Gen Curtis Scaparrotti, commander of US troops in Afghanistan at the time, dismissed my views as “one person’s opinion,” and said he was confident in the military’s optimistic appraisal. “These [Afghan] soldiers will fight,” the general confidently said, “There is no question about that. They are going to be good enough as we build them to secure their country and to counter the insurgency.” Scaparrotti was far from the only one to deceive the American people, however.

    ……………………..

    In congressional testimony in January 2020, Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction (Sigar) John Sopko revealed his frustration in trying to get accurate information out of American officials. “There’s an odor of mendacity throughout the Afghanistan issue,” Sopko lamented. “The problem is there is a disincentive, really, to tell the truth. We have created an incentive to almost require people to lie.” Now 18 months later, Sopko’s agitation has become even more palpable.

    “You know, you really shouldn’t be surprised” by how fast the Afghan military is collapsing, Sopko said in congressional testimony in late July. For at least nine consecutive years, Sopko continued, the Sigar had been “highlighting problems with our train, advise and assist mission with the Afghan military.” Why did the American public not know about this weakness earlier?

    Because across the board, the military made it increasingly hard – and eventually impossible – for the public to find out. At the hearing Sopko explained:

    “Every time we went in, the US military changed the goal posts, and made it easier to show success. And then finally, when they couldn’t even do that, they classified the assessment tool … So, they knew how bad the Afghan military was. And if you had a clearance, you could find out, but the average American, the average taxpayer, the average congressman, the average person working in the embassy wouldn’t know how bad it was.”

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  21. Stormy Dragon says:

    Third, if Ukraine is still confident the US has their back after six years of Russian incursion into their sovereignty, it’s extremely unlikely that the events in Afghanistan will shake that.

    The issue is less whether Ukrainians have confidence in us and more whether we have confidence in Ukrainians. Which we do, because unlike the Afghans, Ukrainians have demonstrated a will to fight for their own country.

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  22. Barry says:

    @James Joyner: “Lead. ”

    When your solution to a bad problem is ‘lead’, you don’t really have a solution.

    Bush/Cheney f*cked the situation up;
    Obama continued it because he could not ‘lose’ the war;
    Trump said openly that the war was lost, and started a withdrawal;
    Biden completed it.

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  23. JohnSF says:

    @MarkedMan:
    Afghanistan was a “theocracy” for some 5 years only.
    Before the Russian occupation it was a relatively stable monarchy..

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  24. Lounsbury says:

    @Jim Brown 32:
    Your rendition rather illustrates the fact of Americans not really being in any way capable of engaging with Afghanistan and Afghan cultures (in the plural) in any way, not from a right nor from a left perspective. They are simply cultural untermenschen from either a Left or Right perspective. You lot get your jollies out of sneering about child-rape and other Afghan signs of being cultural untermenschen, but in the end that remains the source of your permanent failure.

    No amount of imagined engagement would have changed that.

    @James Joyner: Even if you had some clear vision, I have never seen Americans institutionally capable of grappling with – the Save the World messianic complex knitted into your society will never permit you to be utterly amorally cynical enough to succeed with a place like Afghanistan. Although even the Sovs found it a a bridge too far (perhaps w/o American intervention their sheer genocidal bloodymindedness might have succeeded – as like China with it’s Central Asian colony…. but the price is indeed genocide, and I am rather of the opinion it is really more to your credit that you are not willing to go there even if it means a passing imperial failure).

    In any case no one will particularly hold Afghanistan against the Americans given its well deserved reputation as the graveyard of empires. 20 years is rather enough to show a go at it.

    @MarkedMan: Of course you don’t but then you also are incapable of understanding Afghanistan as Afghanistan, not a ‘theocracy’ at all but a conservative tribal culture without – except by foreign overlays as a elecrons thin patina – any “cracy” at all in reality.

    All that pointless waste of resources…. I shall not forget the investment mission I did for the Americans in ’13 or so to look at some agriprocessing near the Uzbek border. Have to say one of the few times I rather found something frightening. My dear Afghan partner for the mission warned us off visiting something the Americans wanted us to see as he observed there were Taleban assassination squads operating…. and the US DoD handlers insisted not. I went with the Afghan partner. We gave the investment a miss even with the proposed subsidy.

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  25. JohnSF says:

    @Stormy Dragon:
    Since 2001 some 70,000 Afghan army and police have died in combat; compared to 2,372 American.

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  26. Lounsbury says:

    @JohnSF: Mmm stable is not the adjective I would use, but yes, monarchy although it really was a tribal monarchical system that started to go sideways when modernization was tried, and ended up getting overthrown for that. When the Sovs came in, it was your typical 70s era pseudo-democratic republic.

    Even the Taleban are not really a theocracy in any proper sense although they’re nicely medieval

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  27. gVOR08 says:

    I hated that Obama didn’t end our involvement in Afghanistan. Especially when he could have followed Nixon’s “secret plan” to end the war, which turned out to be to get reelected, then just quit. But I also realized that to do so would have been political suicide, not only for Obama but for any Democrat’s chances in 2016. Look at what the GOPs did with nothing, emails and Benghazi, and think what they’d have done to a Democrat, a Black Democrat, who pulled out of Afghanistan.

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  28. Modulo Myself says:

    The main errors were, first, to underestimate the adversaries and to presume that American technological superiority necessarily translated into mastery of the battlefield, and, second, to be culturally disdainful, rarely learning the languages or the customs of the local people.

    These aren’t errors. Thinking you are unbeatable is not an error. Thinking the people you are helping are trash is not an error. Americans have always sucked at promoting democracy, and the country never asks why. It’s always a few errors here or there, poor leadership, some Tom Clancy types saying of course we could have wiped them all out but we’re good guys not bad guys, and overall mystification about the ways of the world that doesn’t agree with a chart that a bunch of generals spent 48 million dollars to create.

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  29. Kathy says:

    Also thinking historically, the 9/11 attacks were more an act of war than a terrorist attack. Given Al Qaida was operating in Afghanistan, an armed response against the Taliban state was well warranted.

    This brings up two problems:

    1) Just because something it justified, doesn’t mean you have to do it.
    2) If you’re going to use military force on Afghanistan, how are you going to do that? What is the objective? What should be the objective? Can the objective be realized in a reasonable fashion? And many other questions along those lines.

    Hindsight and all, I can’t say what could have been done militarily. Surely “dismantle Al Qaida, capture the senior leadership, and hurt the Taliban enough so they won’t harbor terrorists again” sounds simple enough. How does that translate into a plan of action?

    We know one thing that didn’t work, and it also failed to work in Iraq. And in both cases, the implementation was far from reasonable from the pint of view of lives lost, the time it took, the effort and money expended, and the end results.

    So what happens next time?

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  30. Michael Cain says:

    @Jim Brown 32: If I recall a history lecture from a long time ago correctly, the only outsiders that tried resodding were the Mongols under one of the Khans. As I remember it, the only result after a century or so was some place names (that survive to today) and a bit of Mongol added to the tribal bloodlines.

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  31. JohnSF says:

    @Lounsbury:

    Afghanistan …. well deserved reputation as the graveyard of empires.

    Based on what?
    The failure of the Russian occupation and the defeat of a couple of British expeditionary force?

    I can think, off hand and just from memeory, of at least a dozen empires or other dominions that ruled Afghanistan without too much trouble.

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  32. HarvardLaw92 says:

    @becca:

    Agreed. Afghanistan has been an ungovernable mess not that far removed from the Middle Ages forever. It’s barely even a country / more a collection of tribal fiefdoms. Unless we were prepared to entertain and maintain essentially a permanent presence there, what is happening now was always going to happen. We weren’t changing a country; we were simply delaying the inevitable.

    Our mistake, like the Soviets before us, was ever going there in the first place.

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  33. JohnSF says:

    @rachel:
    There is no “Afghanistan” to be your ally.
    You had allies who lived, who still live, in the area on the map labelled Afghanistan.
    If you even begin to think of Afghanistan as some sort of nation state, you are making a massive category error.

    It this error of thinking of Afghanistan as a unitary country populated by an “Afghan people” that is one (among several) of the basic flaws of US policy in the region.

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  34. Sleeping Dog says:

    @Barry:

    Barry you’re ignoring the history of the Obama administration in order to absolve him from responsibility. Biden and others in the admin at the time of the surge decision advocated for withdrawal. Obama took, what he determined, as the politically safe path. @gVOR08: mentioned Nixon, but the president that Obama most resembles in his decisions on Afghanistan, is LBJ, who perpetrated the Vietnam war, long after he knew it was fruitless, for political purposes.

    I voted for Obama twice and would have been happy if I could have voted for him for a third and even fourth time, but he wasn’t a gilded, plaster saint, he made some sh#tty decisions for sh#tty political reasons and much of his Afghanistan actions fall into this category.

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  35. JohnSF says:

    @Lounsbury:
    Re pederastry and rape, this is certainly no figment of Jim Brown 32’s imagination, or an invention of cultural condescension.
    The “custom” of bacha bazi well known; and praticed by both Pushtuns and Tajiks at least.
    And was often the cause of considerable tension between Afghan Army and NATO units, according to several accounts I’ve heard.
    Ironically, a practice the Taliban (though not their “clan militia” allies) were strongly against.
    Hence the Talib preference for raping girls, rather than boys.

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  36. Lounsbury says:

    @JohnSF: For historically ignorant values of not too much trouble and compeletely ignorant values of “ruled” – pre centralized state eras….

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  37. Lounsbury says:

    @JohnSF: I evoked no figments of imagination. Afghan culture is what it is. Americans riding in to save them as their own imagined White Knights is your point of failure.

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  38. James Joyner says:

    @Jim Brown 32:

    Its relatively easy for Staff to lead them in any direction they want…unless POTUS is a SME in that area and can smell bullshit.

    Presidents pick their advisors. His first National Security Advisor, Jim Jones, was a former Marine Commandant and SACEUR. He kept Bob Gates on as SECDEF. He fired the existing Afghanistan commander, McKiernan, and replaced him with McChrystal. The decision is his and the blame is his.

    @Barry:

    Bush/Cheney f*cked the situation up; Obama continued it because he could not ‘lose’ the war;

    I understood the politics of the situation and acknowledged them at the time. But I must have written a dozen posts during the time he was deciding what to do saying what I’m saying now: whether the war aims were ever achievable, they weren’t by the time Obama took office. Again, that’s mostly Bush’s fault. But Obama campaigned for the job and doubled down on a bad bet, getting a whole lot more Americans killed in the process than Bush ever did.

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  39. JohnSF says:

    @Lounsbury:
    Well, pardon my historic ignorance.
    I am aware that, for instance, the Achamaenid satrapy system, was a rather decentralized one.

    Of course, we lack detailed historic information about who centralized, or otherwise, were the dominions of the Gandhars, or Bactrian Greeks, or Kushans, or Parthians…etc may have been.
    But it is a safe bet that most confined themsselves to formal submission, tribute payments, and possible war levies.

    But, considering my historical ignorance, perhaps you would oblige me.
    You referred to:

    (a) well deserved reputation as the graveyard of empires.

    Can you think of, lets say two, empires that found their graves their; or perhaps just a graveyard for a lot of soldiers in of imperial armies is what you intended?

    If so, fair enough.

    But no more so than, say, the plains of northern Europe. Or the peninsulas of the Mediterranean.
    Or most other places armies have fought.

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  40. dazedandconfused says:

    I don’t view Obama’s decision as cynical. He was informed we could set up an Afghan government in that amount of time. The one dissenting voice was Flynn’s report, which rightly pointed out the odds of success were un-good. A key precept of COIN is having a government worth supporting. Flynn had spent too much time there to believe that was possible in anything like the time and investment-frame the American public would support, anyway. Whatever flaws Flynn has in character he was right about that…but he was against the rock-star of that time, Petraeus. Describing the decision as cynical assumes Obama was convinced it wouldn’t work but did it anyway. I’ve seen no evidence that was the case. Wrong is not cynical, it’s just wrong.

    What “lost” the war was that there was no easy way to create a government which could rule all those different factions in Afghanistan, not for us. The only thing that spans those gaps in that society as it exists now is Islam, the “religion of law”, which is why so many of the governments formed by lines drawn on a map by others, largely ignoring or disregarding centuries-old ethnic and tribal lines, wind up going down that road.

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  41. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Bnut: “Fighting soldiers from the sky/fearless men who jump and die.” This is the part that has always bothered me about the song; it’s a celebration of working hard and striving to become…

    …cannon fodder. What’s wrong with this picture, folks?

    “War, huh, yeah/what is it good for/absolutely nothing”

    (And, yeah, I know that it’s sometimes necessary, like beginning in 1939, for example. Still, important to pick causes worth dying for because

    …it means destruction of innocent lives/War means tears to thousands of mothers’ eyes/When their sons go off to fight and lose their lives

    Showing the Taliban and al Qaeda “you can’t shove us” was not necessary. It certainly wasn’t worth dying sending other people’s kids to be killed for. And as we see now, it wasn’t even smart.)

    But maybe if we’d been willing to stay another 2o years, bombed the country flatter, killed off a generation of people on both sides… Nah, they’d still just be cannon fodder.

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  42. JohnSF says:

    @Lounsbury:

    Afghan culture is what it is.

    True. And “white knighting” is often a mistake.
    But there is still a big difference between customary pederasty (much as modern Westerners may dislike it) and pederastric rape.
    Afghans themselves often really resented such behavior by armed groups of various sorts and sides.

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  43. JohnSF says:

    @dazedandconfused:
    More often they go down the road of being ruled by a sufficiently determined minority, with a sufficiently armed force, who may, or may not, cloak themselves in the trappings of Islam.

    so many of the governments formed by lines drawn on a map by others, largely ignoring or disregarding centuries-old ethnic and tribal lines, wind up going down that road.

    For instance?

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  44. dazedandconfused says:

    @JohnSF:
    For instance “Afghanistan”.

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  45. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @OzarkHillbilly: Interesting article. I might disagree with one point the author made though: Anyone familiar with “Vietnamization”–civilian or military–should have been able to predict how bad it would be–even you and me, for example.

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  46. JohnSF says:

    @dazedandconfused:
    The Taliban always tried to propagandise themselves as entitled to rule due to their devotion to Islam.
    Many other inhabitants of Afghanistan, themselves generally more versed in Islam than I am, viewed them as having no right to such a status, and saw them primarily as an arm of Ghilzai Pushtun ethnic supremacism and a tool of Islamabad.
    I’m inclined to accept their judgement.

    But, aside from Afghanistan:

    …so many of the governments…

    Jog my memory.

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  47. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Kathy: We had an objective. Condi Rice even talked about it when she noted that the invasion of Afghanistan came about because Bush said “I’m tired of swatting at flies.” The objective was to put the “flies” of the world on notice. And we did.

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  48. dazedandconfused says:

    @JohnSF:

    Iraq, Syria. Hell, the whole map of the ME was laid out by Euro colonialists, as you are surely aware. “Afghanistan” was largely drawn because neither the Persians nor India wanted anything to do with it.

    Talibs aren’t true believers? We must agree to disagree on that point.

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  49. Andy says:

    While I don’t agree with all of his analysis, he’s right. For my own part, President George W. Bush, who initiated the war, achieved its initial objectives, but then vastly expanded its remit without resourcing it for the remaining seven years of his administration surely deserves the lion’s share.

    Bush deserves blame for the folly of nation-building. The “resource” argument was wrong then and is so obviously wrong now that I’m surprised you’re making this argument. The mistake was in thinking we could nation-build there. We couldn’t, and more “resources” early on would not have changed that, it would just have made the sunk costs deeper.

    The whole “Bush underresourced the Afghan war” was a bad argument back then, and has aged even worse. But the sad history is that Obama ran on that theme, which was an effective domestic political approach to contrast his foreign policy from Bush, but it was doomed from the beginning. Back in 2007-2008 I predicted in comments on this blog several times that Obama’s surge would fail, and I’m sorry to say that I was right. I’m angry I could do nothing to stop it as a tiny cog in the natsec machine. Colleagues died and a friend blew his brains out after years of struggling with his experiences during the “surge” in Helmand medevacing broken and dying US and British troops out of fire zones. All for fucking nothing.

    Shame.

    The key to me remains our duty to keep the faith with the interpreters and others who so closely hitched their wagons to the US cause. We simply have to evacuate and provide sanctuary to as many of them as we can.

    This is the thing that probably angers me the most. Getting visas for these people was a major issue back in the middle of the Obama administration if not earlier and nothing has changed. Many people and their families who risked their lives to help us are already dead waiting for us to fulfill our promises – the result of the neglectful malfeasance of every administration for the last two decades. The Taliban are, right now, executing anyone who helped Americans in the areas they’ve taken over.

    Shame.

    As Afghanistan falls, capital city by capital city, to the Taliban as the US withdraws its forces, analysts are scrambling to figure out how twenty years of massive American investment produced so little.

    I figured this out 15-16 years ago. It’s hard to remember exactly when as it’s been so long, but it was around the time of my 2005 Afghanistan deployment.

    It was obvious from polls that Joe and Jane average American figured this out at least five years ago. That “analysts” are “struggling” now doesn’t speak well for them – it just highlights their arrogant dishonesty.

    As the LtCol Paul Yingling famously wrote, way back in May 2007 (fourteen fucking years ago):

    As matters stand now, a private who loses a rifle suffers far greater consequences than a general who loses a war

    That is even more true today, although it doesn’t just apply to generals – it’s more applicable to our political class and the courtiers in the media, think tanks, and the Washington establishment who enabled this lie even after the truth finally became obvious to most people. They all deserve opprobrium which they are not, of course, going to receive.

    Shame.

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  50. Andy says:

    @Chip Daniels:

    I don’t understand the “credibility” argument.

    The “credibility” argument is floated in analyst/beltway/think tank circles whenever someone doesn’t agree with a policy. Anything that isn’t maximally interventionist is, according to this argument, a hit against America’s “credibility.” Of course it’s all bullshit.

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  51. Andy says:

    @James Joyner:

    But he felt boxed in by McChrystal and feared GOP criticism, so he went with the worst possible option: double down on the mission but with half the requested troops while simultaneously announcing that we would begin a drawdown in less than two years. It was just incredibly cynical and got a lot of American troops killed.

    He wasn’t boxed in. Escalating in Afghanistan was a central piece of his foreign policy platform and was also part of the official Democratic Party platform. The only question was how big of an escalation it would be. Obama’s problem was the sticker shock when the military laid out the resources required to attempt what he said wanted to do and what he campaigned on.

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  52. dazedandconfused says:

    @Kathy:

    Kathy,

    That OBL read his Talib hosts in on 911 is not something that one should assume. I suggest the Oral History of the Taliban as a starting point. There is a lot of other stuff out there, including OBL’s apology for what he had done to his hosts.

    A lot of effort has gone into implanting the notion that 9/11 was a collective act all Muslims. It was essential to justify the invasion of Iraq, after all. Today a lot of people assume the taliban was in on the plot. Heck of a lot of evidence to the contrary. Perhaps the key to understanding fundies is there are two main types: The ones that seek to wall the rest of the world out and the ones that seek to convert the rest of the world. The taliban is the former, AQ is the later.

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  53. Gustopher says:

    I would say that the Afghans lost Afghanistan, but I’m not sure there really are Afghans. There are Pashtuns, Hazaras, Tajiks…

    I think the right question might be “Who lost Pashtunia, Hazaratopia, Tajikopolis…?”

    Alternately, “Who found Afghanistan?” But there the answer is basically no one.

    Creating multi-ethnic parliamentary federated democracies out of nothing doesn’t really work. Might as well try pulling a rabbit out of a hat.

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  54. JohnSF says:

    @dazedandconfused:
    The Talibs are Believers, though their belief tends to the self-serving
    What others in Afghanistan dispute is whether that vaunted self-affirmation entitles them to rule over other Believers.
    And whether their fidelity to Islam is perhaps rather compromised by their adherence to pashtunwali

    Back to gevernments.
    Neither Iraq nor Syria are ruled by Islamist parties.
    Though Iraq has Islam as an official religion, it’s not a theocracy.

    The Alawite rulers of Syria are regarded by many Muslims as not Muslim at all; Iran officially regards them as such, but that’s politics, and everyone knows it.
    An Islamic theocracy it most definitely is not. See its civil warfare against both the Muslim Brotherhood and ISS.

    As to the frontiers between say Syria and Iraq, the precise lines were laid out by the Powers after the First World War; but the rough division between Syria in the west and Iraq/Mesopotamia in the west is ancient.

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  55. Andy says:

    The main errors were, first, to underestimate the adversaries and to presume that American technological superiority necessarily translated into mastery of the battlefield, and, second, to be culturally disdainful, rarely learning the languages or the customs of the local people.

    Erlanger is an idiot. That is simply wrong. We did master the battlefield. Every time the Taliban or their allies tried to mass, we slaughtered them. The reason they employed guerilla tactics is because of our battlefield mastery. The problem is that winning battles was not the means to achieve our stated goals.

    Secondly, we took the customs of the local people very seriously from the very beginning – that was one of the major reasons we went in with a small footprint using SOF and lots of firepower – because of Afghanistan’s reputation for xenophobia and hatred of foreigners. We were deliberately trying to avoid mistakes the Soviets made. 20 years later, no one seems to remember any of that.

    So those were not our errors. Our main error was attempting to use military force to achieve a political end that military force could not achieve. Our error was ignoring two legs of the Clausewitz trinity.

    Ok, I need to stop, or I will be commenting all day.

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  56. Kurtz says:

    @Lounsbury:

    Afghanistan and Afghan cultures (in the plural)

    The bolded part is what stuck in my mind as I read through these comments. It’s difficult to forge a nation-state out of a traditionally tribal society without some form of authoritarianism.

    Afghanistan specifically is a worst-case scenario for that geographically and ethnically. The tribes have deeply engrained cultures that developed in relative isolation because of the natural landscape.

    It’s squeezed between several distinct regions and its demographics reflect that. Pashtuns, the ethnicity considered Afghani, constitutes ~40% of the population. The next most populous group is Tajik, which is barely more than a quarter. Ethnic tensions exists between them.

    Not the ideal terrain or social landscape to serve as building blocks for a national identity.

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  57. Kurtz says:

    @dazedandconfused:

    The only thing that spans those gaps in that society as it exists now is Islam, the “religion of law”, which is why so many of the governments formed by lines drawn on a map by others, largely ignoring or disregarding centuries-old ethnic and tribal lines, wind up going down that road.

    The thing is, Pashtun tribes adhere to customs established in pre-Islamic times. That strong ethnocultural identity is easy to overlook from an outside perspective…

    Afghanistan is 90% Sunni, but it’s a mistake to see that as evidence of homogeneity in the practice of religion, much less social ties. As much as religion informs cultural practices, it goes the other way as well.

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  58. dazedandconfused says:

    @Kurtz:

    It’s definitely not black and white. Unless one is willing to accept greys there is no hope of comprehending this stuff. The mechanism is the same which allowed the Catholic Church to “rule” most of Europe in the medieval times. To take that to mean there were no other local authority, no other local traditions still in effect, especially when referring to isolated mountain tribes and villages, would be either ignorance or obtuse quibbling.

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  59. Jim Brown 32 says:

    @Lounsbury: Take your relativism elsewhere. War is what it is…if I destroy your child raping culture because I dont like it…C’est La Vie. If you are powerful enough to defend it…that too is life.

    We are all judges, by both what we condemn AND aprrove of.

    Antebellum South culture was what it was as well….most people think its a good thing that it WAS.

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  60. Michael Reynolds says:

    The notion that we had a choice of whether to respond militarily is an example of the lack of seriousness of anti-war people. If we had not responded militarily George W. Bush would have been dragged from the White House. It’s a non-starter, a fantasy. The minute the first plane his the tower that die was cast.

    We were always going to blow some shit up. The question was not whether, but how. We could have spent a fraction of what we spent, lost no Americans and ended up killing fewer locals by responding to an attack with a much bigger retaliatory attack. Cruise missiles cost pennies compared to stationing thousands of soldiers at the end of a supply line the Pakistanis could cut at their whim, and cruise missiles don’t have parents, spouses or children.

    Afghanistan’s pre-invasion GDP was in the mid single-digit billions. There was never the slightest chance they were going to maintain an 88 billion dollar American-trained army. And now who has all our excellent toys? The Taliban.

    Biden is right to bail as conclusively proven by the lightning speed collapse of ‘our’ Afghan army.

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  61. OzarkHillbilly says:

    Statement by President Joe Biden on Afghanistan
    August 14, 2021

    Over the past several days I have been in close contact with my national security team to give them direction on how to protect our interests and values as we end our military mission in Afghanistan.

    First, based on the recommendations of our diplomatic, military, and intelligence teams, I have authorized the deployment of approximately 5,000 US troops to make sure we can have an orderly and safe drawdown of US personnel and other allied personnel and an orderly and safe evacuation of Afghans who helped our troops during our mission and those at special risk from the Taliban advance.

    Second, I have ordered our armed forces and our intelligence community to ensure that we will maintain the capability and the vigilance to address future terrorist threats from Afghanistan.

    Third, I have directed the Secretary of State to support President Ghani and other Afghan leaders as they seek to prevent further bloodshed and pursue a political settlement. Secretary Blinken will also engage with key regional stakeholders.

    Fourth, we have conveyed to the Taliban representatives in Doha, via our Combatant Commander, that any action on their part on the ground in Afghanistan, that puts US personnel or our mission at risk there, will be met with a swift and strong US military response.

    Fifth, I have placed Ambassador Tracey Jacobson in charge of a whole of government effort to process, transport, and relocate Afghan special immigrant visa applicants and other Afghan allies. Our hearts go out to the brave Afghan men and women who are now at risk. We are working to evacuate thousands of those who helped our cause and their families.

    That is what we are going to do. Now let me be clear about how we got here.

    America went to Afghanistan 20 years ago to defeat the forces that attacked this country on September 11th. That mission resulted in the death of Osama Bin Laden over a decade ago and the degradation of al Qaeda. And yet, 10 years later, when I became President, a small number of US troops still remained on the ground, in harm’s way, with a looming deadline to withdraw them or go back to open combat.

    Over our country’s 20 years at war in Afghanistan, America has sent its finest young men and women, invested nearly $1 trillion dollars, trained over 300,000 Afghan soldiers and police, equipped them with state-of-the-art military equipment, and maintained their air force as part of the longest war in US history. One more year, or five more years, of US military presence would not have made a difference if the Afghan military cannot or will not hold its own country. And an endless American presence in the middle of another country’s civil conflict was not acceptable to me.

    When I came to office, I inherited a deal cut by my predecessor—which he invited the Taliban to discuss at Camp David on the eve of 9/11 of 2019—that left the Taliban in the strongest position militarily since 2001 and imposed a May 1, 2021 deadline on US forces. Shortly before he left office, he also drew US forces down to a bare minimum of 2,500. Therefore, when I became President, I faced a choice—follow through on the deal, with a brief extension to get our forces and our allies’ forces out safely, or ramp up our presence and send more American troops to fight once again in another country’s civil conflict. I was the fourth President to preside over an American troop presence in Afghanistan—two Republicans, two Democrats. I would not, and will not, pass this war onto a fifth.

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  62. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Michael Reynolds: The notion that we had a choice of whether to respond militarily is an example of the lack of seriousness of anti-war people.

    Funny, I take it as a sigh of just how serious people take war, you know, that whole “death of other people’s children”thing?

    If we had not responded militarily George W. Bush would have been dragged from the White House.

    No, but he might very well have not been re-elected. Let’s see, lose an election or spend billions of dollars and get thousands of people killed for no good reason? Hmmmm… That’s a really hard decision to make. What to do, what to do?

    It’s a non-starter, a fantasy. The minute the first plane his the tower that die was cast.

    This is true, but the fact that they can not imagine a different more sensible response is only reflective of how truly idiotic the American people are.

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  63. dazedandconfused says:

    @JohnSF:

    So the many civil wars in Syria and Iraq haven’t been drawn along sectarian lines? Those governments are very recent attempts to replace the role of Islam as the rule of law, which as been the case for about a dozen centuries previous. To use secular government as law instead. I think we can agree that isn’t working out real well, and the people are seeking order from Islam once again. Perhaps Saudi Arabia would be a better example.

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  64. Argon says:

    Republican should rejoice. We can spend our savings from not being at war on giving tax cuts to the wealthy. Just like we did when the cold war ended.

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  65. MarkedMan says:

    @Lounsbury: To be honest, I feel like this is the equivalent of gun nuts arguing I have no legitimacy in discussing mass shootings because I misused the term “hollow point”.

    The Western world has had success in occupying a country and turning them into allies when they were a nation of laws that had a string sense of heirarchy, legitimacy and procedure (Japan, Germany) and zero success anywhere else. That’s my point.

    But if we are being obnoxiously pedantic, then Afghanistan was most definitely a theocracy when we attacked.

    And the old “we just weren’t ruthless enough” is just utter BS. The Soviets proved that.

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  66. JohnSF says:

    @dazedandconfused:
    Of course sectarian, and ethnic, divisions play a part.
    That’s precisely why I refereed to the Alawites.

    On state ordering:
    There is no reason a constitutional state with a majority of believers should not be influenced by that in belief in the laws it makes.
    It has been the case often enough in Europe.
    Despite the traditional anti-clericalism of the Republican Liberals in e.g. France and Spain.
    Established churches were quite common.

    In the UK Anglican Bishops are members of the Upper House, the Lords Spiritual, and the Queen is formally Defender of the Faith. And diocesan episcopal appointments are subject to Prime Ministerial approval.
    There are other examples.

    However, what quite a lot of Muslims dispute is the right of a particular faction to annoint itself as the arbiters of Islam and the expense not only off the ummah but of the traditional authorities such as the Council of al-Azhar.
    A good many Muslims believe that democracy is fundamentally compatible with Islam.

    And no, Saudi Arabia would not be a better example.
    It was the dominant role of the al-Saud oin the ruling dyarchy that was one of the reasons for the ideology of al-Qaeda in the first place.
    Not to mention, again, that many Muslims regard the Wahhabi side of the partnership as a bunch of jumped up, obscurantist, sectarian neo-kharijite loons.

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  67. Teve says:

    @MarkedMan:

    MarkedMan says:
    Saturday, 14 August 2021 at 17:09
    @Lounsbury: To be honest, I feel like this is the equivalent of gun nuts arguing I have no legitimacy in discussing mass shootings because I misused the term “hollow point”.

    Just an amusing side note: many years ago, i once saw this go awry for the gun nut. It went down roughly like this:

    Person: That guy should never have been allowed to have an automatic pistol.

    Gun-nut: You idiot! It was a semi automatic, not an automatic, you don’t even know the basics about guns!

    Person: Actually I do, I was a firearms instructor in (some military branch) with the (complex unit designation) for (lotsa years) and a semi automatic is a type of automatic pistol, the other type being fully automatic. You’re confusing automatic with fully automatic because you don’t understand the correct terminology.

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  68. Michael Cain says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    And now who has all our excellent toys? The Taliban.

    I have no idea how accurate Wikipedia’s pages are on the subject, but the Afghan Army and Air Force’s heavy equipment appears to be largely 1960s and 1970s era Soviet gear even after all these years and money. I recall reading somewhere recently that the Afghan Air Force was trying to sign a contract with India for spare parts for all those old Soviet helicopters.

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  69. flat earth luddite says:

    I was raised by people who’d fought in WWI and WWII. To the extent I learned anything, my history classes were taught by people who’d bled throughout central Europe and the Pacific. My college years were spent listening to ARVN and US grunts (and a few Hmong, who were ready to kill all of the first two groups, IIRC) re-hashing the issues of that particular briar patch.

    And here we are 50 years later, playing the same off-key tunes on the same broken radio. And as I was reminded earlier, Sisyphus continues rolling the boulder…

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  70. Andy says:

    @MarkedMan:

    And the old “we just weren’t ruthless enough” is just utter BS. The Soviets proved that.

    Yep, that’s exactly right. And, while the Taliban doesn’t respect borders, we do, which means the Taliban had a safe haven in Pakistan, just as the Mujahadeen did against the Soviets. That’s a problem we’ve never been able to solve.

    Additionally, even without the added factor of Pakistan, the level of ruthlessness needed is the “Roman way” – something akin to what we did to Native American tribes – defeat their military forces, ethnically cleanse them from the land that you want, and then move your own people in and take literal control. That was never in the cards.

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  71. Michael Cain says:

    @flat earth luddite:

    My college years were spent listening to ARVN and US grunts (and a few Hmong, who were ready to kill all of the first two groups, IIRC) re-hashing the issues of that particular briar patch.

    I was in 9th grade in the spring of 1969 and we had a guy who had done a couple of tours in Vietnam speak in some class. What I remember most clearly was when he pointed at one of the short guys in the class, and the interaction was basically:

    “How tall are you?”
    “Five one.”
    “Everyone in your family short?”
    “Yes, sir.”
    “If they draft you, you run for Canada as fast as you can, because you’ve got ‘tunnel rat’ written all over you and the life expectancy is about three months.”

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  72. Teve says:

    I imagine the military doesn’t eagerly promote officers who say, “you know my whole responsibility for the last five years? It’s been a catastrophe, nothing I’ve done has amounted to a hill of beans, the whole strategy is nonsense, and we’re all applying coat after coat of lipstick to this rotting pig, what a mountain of squandered lives and money this clusterfuck has been.”

    That explains why generals have slung BS for years. Does that mean the military could have communicated better? Should politicians have been more skeptical? This was Vietnam 2.0 with fortunately fewer Americans lost, but is there any reason to believe Vietnam 3.0 isn’t a decade away?

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  73. gVOR08 says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    The notion that we had a choice of whether to respond militarily is an example of the lack of seriousness of anti-war people. If we had not responded militarily George W. Bush would have been dragged from the White House. It’s a non-starter, a fantasy. The minute the first plane his the tower that die was cast.

    Probably true. But, as you say, we had a choice as to how. You propose a massive retaliation, which would have fallen largely on the innocent. When we went in I assumed we’d do a large scale raid, kill or capture as many AQ as we could, destroy their camps, kill or capture bin Laden if we could, tell the Taliban government we’d do it again if necessary, and get out. Once we decided to stay, we could have focussed on Afghanistan instead of running off to invade Iraq for no good reason.

    (Did we actually decide to stay in Afghanistan or did W, as he apparently did with Iraq, just sort of slide into it?)

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  74. JohnSF says:

    @gVOR08:

    Did we actually decide to stay in Afghanistan

    nostra culpa

    I hate to say this, but it was Obama who “slid”.

    If anyone did.

    And arguably the UK decision to abandon Iraq as a lost cause and waste of blood, and to concentrate on Afghanistan, that prompted it.

    Maybe.

    It’s just all so bloody sad.

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  75. JohnSF says:

    @flat earth luddite:
    Almost every older male relative, and a good quantity of older male acquaintances of parents, or otherwise, was a veteran of of one war or another.
    Which was not at all unusual.

    My father (who was very seriously wounded):
    “Never believe anyone who tells you there’s any glory in war. It’s shit. It’s just sometimes it has to be done.”

    One grandfather to his dying day slept with the bed-covers over his head.
    Because in the trenches, it kept the rats off, and gave some protection against the poison gas.

    I once looked up his regiments record: the King’ Shropshire Light Infantry, on the Somme.
    He was unusual.
    He survived.

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  76. Michael Cain says:

    @gVOR08:

    You propose a massive retaliation, which would have fallen largely on the innocent.

    And would clearly be war crimes if it ever came before an international court.

    I have a standing bet that by June 1, 2039 any Pax Americana will be legally confined to the Western Hemisphere. No one is going to allow the land-based staging, or the overflights, elsewhere. On my bad days I expect that US military operations in the Western Hemisphere by that point will be blocking any egress across the (deepening) deserts along the Mexican border, or over the oceans. “Blocking” meaning a whole ton of people will either die by gunfire, or go into really large, really nasty, refugee camps.

    ReplyReply
  77. JohnSF says:

    @JohnSF:
    @flat earth luddite:

    “It’s shit.”

    At the age of 17 he was a air raid rescue volunteer in Coventry, my family’s home town, in 1941:
    “I remember one family we found. All dead. It struck me at the time, when the mortar dust came off, they all had red hair.”

    He only spoke of that night the once.
    That sentence has always stuck with me.

    Neither grandfather ever spoke openly of their experiences in the Great War, at all.

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  78. de stijl says:

    Hubris and pride.

    Sometimes there is no “good” solution.

    Bush, by occupation, foretold this outcome. There was no silver bullet. Wishing for one was folly.

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  79. Gavin says:

    There never was any chance of “building a nation.” At no time did even one Afghan citizen accept or welcome anything about the US. They took money, sure, but they never actually were willing to own any changes or components of a US-friendly country.

    The central hubris is the assumption that because the US has the biggest gun that therefore anyone anywhere gives a flying squirrel about some US secretary of state’s theories about life.

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    3
  80. JDM says:

    @Andy:
    “They all deserve opprobrium which they are not, of course, going to receive.”

    Opprobrium. I had to look that one up. Thanks for the new word.

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  81. de stijl says:

    A baked in result.

    We had nearly 20 years to spin up a competent Afghan force capable of self-defense despite many multiple billions of dollars worth of dedicated and sustained effort.

    All for nothing.

    If not now, when? The die was cast when Bush and company decided on quasi occupation back in 2003.

    Hubris and pride.

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  82. de stijl says:

    A week back I was trying to figure out when it is appropriate and right to break off a long term relationship.

    A long term relationship where neither party is happy and feels it does not get what it wants is doomed.

    Our relationship with Afghanistan was always doomed. We wanted different things from day one. We continued on for form’s sake. We continued to performatively to look like we were sustaining the relationship for the sake of the neighbors. It was fake.

    We were not committed. No matter what we said. Not committed and we both had a back door planned when we needed to bail.

    Geopolitics is a lot like personal relationships. You always negotiate an easy out with yourself until it gets stone serious.

    I can bail on this.

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  83. Lounsbury says:

    @Andy: One need not look to the Roman way, the Soviets executed a sort of cultural genocide in Central Asia under Stalin and broke them. But then it was Stalin. 1970s Sovs were not Stalin.

    Now of course were the USA willing to engage in genocidal war crimes on the scale of a world historical dictator like Stalin, well maybe some grotesquely perverted form of “victory” might have been within reach… but one rather doubts the contradiction between messianic American dreams of democratisation and touchy feely USAID interventions could in any way resolve successfully with such a Stalinesque demarche.

    ReplyReply
  84. Lounsbury says:

    @MarkedMan: It wasn’t a theocracy, the Taleban are and were tribal leaders. Not priests, nor any Islamic equivalent thereof (ex Shia in any case there are nothing more than preachers in Islam). They were and are simply a medieval tribalists. It really doesn’t help understand how they work to slap innaccurate European labels on them.

    As for the Sovs, the 79 experience doesn’t prove as they never went full out Stalin nor genocidal. The Stalinist model for conquering and utterly breaking Central Asia 20-30s doubtless would have worked, but the price is effectively genocide. Now if one wishes to step into the shoes of a world-historical genocidal dictator, marhaba. It is indeed the case if you were “ruthless enough” you could have “won” but at the price of making Stalin your model. That should be for any rational person of any kind of humanistic bent is reasonably too high a price.

    @JohnSF: My dear fellow, the yes superficial phrase “graveyard of empires” (phrases being of their nature being typically aphorisms) does not refer to the collapse of said Empire, as a moments reflexion might give you hint, but to fruitless – above all modern centralised state imperial demarches. Neither the Russian nor the British nor the Soviet collapsed due to Afghanistan, rather as graveyards of their soldiers in non-success… aphorisms you know.

    Indirect rule via tribal leaders being rather different than the modern centralised state. It is in my mind no accident the degeneration of the Emirate / Kingdom of Afghanistan corresponded with attempts to accelerate the development of a modern state.

    @dazedandconfused:
    No, your understanding of law and rule of law in the MENA region is without foundation. Relative to the main MENA region (leaving aside Iran)
    (1) only the Ibn Saud in theory use direct Sharia as their legal code.
    (2) all the law systems elsewhwere are in fact base on Code Civil (lensed through Egyptian interpretations of early 20th century) with really only Personal/Family law sections of the Code drawing on Islamic code, but here not really [particularly in taking the late 19th and early 20th century thinking of civil code they drew on originally] functionally different than Christian referants that formed the basis of civil code / Napoleonic code in the same areas.
    (3) The civil wars in Syria are sectarian but they’re not about Sharia law, they’re about group power. As really Lebanon.

    Saudi Arabia and the Ibn Saud – and really the Gulf more broadly is really not what the majority of the Arab world looks like in either law or practice.

    @Jim Brown 32: Your civil war as just that, your internal civil war. It is entirely and compeletely besides the point to an invasion of a country on the other side of the world. And as noted unless you are have decided to commit genocide in the name of helping the Poor Savages save them from their own horrid culture (an ironic decision at the least), it is entirely sterile to ride in as White Knights.

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  85. JohnSF says:

    @Gavin:

    They took money, sure, but they never actually were willing to own any changes or components of a US-friendly country.

    Since 2001 some 70,000 Afghan army and police have died in combat; compared to 2,372 American.
    Does dying count as “owning the changes”?
    If that doesn’t count, what would?

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  86. JohnSF says:

    @de stijl:
    Unfortunately for the people of Afghanistan, it is not quite so easy for them to “bail”

    Sara Wahedi:

    Today, everything has changed. My family is having discussions on what to pack, what to sell, what to leave behind, and what routes to take out of Kabul.

    I’ve felt ill all day, to the point that sleeping pills aren’t working. I’m terrified for all of us.

    India border closed – no visas

    You’re killing us.
    We aren’t a citation in your poli-sci books.

    Fatima from Malistan; Shukria, from Kandahar; Ziagul from Bamiyan; Rahima in Kabul.

    Muska Dastageer:

    But Afghans are fair game? Is this was
    @POTUS
    thinks of Afghan lives? Is the blood of our children worthless? And you think this has no bearing on the values he pretends to espouse domestically? Can a man tacitly allow a massacre outside but be genuinely benevolent at home?

    Everything we worked for, everything we believed in, is disappearing before our eyes.

    Yalda Hakim:

    Gut-wrenching listening to young women with hopes and dreams, weeping, begging, pleading. Betrayal is the one word they keep repeating

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  87. Andy says:

    @Lounsbury:

    I agree, at least to the extent of opposing the idea that what is missing from US strategy is more and indiscriminate violence. There was never any will for that.

    ReplyReply
  88. Andy says:

    @Lounsbury:

    I agree, at least to the extent of opposing the idea that what is missing from US strategy is more and indiscriminate violence. There was never any will for that.

    ReplyReply
  89. Michael Reynolds says:

    @OzarkHillbilly:
    Your maximalist position is certainly a valid one, but it’s a position that results in you, and people like you, having no influence at times of crisis. I prefer an approach geared to minimizing harm while achieving reasonable objectives.

    @gVOR08:
    The problem is that once we have troops in-country the whole mentality shifts, and we ‘can’t just give up,’ and ‘we can’t just abandon etc…’

    In some ways we’re still mentally trapped in the WW2 paradigm. We still think we’re occupying Japan and soon the Afghans will be making cars for us and introducing an exciting new cuisine. Some differences: Japan was an actual country not a randomly drawn line on a map. Also we had burned Japan to the ground, were prepared to keep right on doing that, and if Japan didn’t yield, the Soviets were going to get their licks in.

    The whole debacle is just terribly sad.

    ReplyReply
  90. Zachriel says:

    BRIGHTON
    That’ll do, Lawrence. Dreaming won’t get
    you to Damascus, sir, but discipline
    will. Look, sir, Great Britain is a small
    country; it’s much smaller than yours; a
    small population compared with some; it’s
    small but it’s great, and why?

    ALI
    Because it has guns!

    BRIGHTON
    Because it has discipline!

    FEISAL
    Because it has a navy; because of this,
    the English go where they please and
    strike where they please and this makes
    them great.

    LAWRENCE
    Right.

    BRIGHTON
    Mr Lawrence, that will do! Lieutenant
    Lawrence, sir, is not your military
    adviser.

    FEISAL
    But I would like to hear his opinion.

    BRIGHTON
    Damn it, Lawrence! Who do you take your
    orders from?

    SILIAM
    From Lord Feisal in Feisal’s tent.

    ALI
    Old fool! Why turn from him to him; they
    are master and man!

    LAWRENCE
    My lord, I think… I think your book is
    right. The desert is an ocean in which no
    oar is dipped and on this ocean the Bedu
    go where they please and strike where
    they please. This is the way the Bedu
    have always fought. You’re famed
    throughout the world for fighting in this
    way and this is the way you should fight
    now!

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JAo59kYYLCY&t=2578s

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  91. dazedandconfused says:

    @Lounsbury:
    My point is the people rally around Islam, whatever sect they happen to be or they have to be to survive. Strict adherence to a particular Sharia law is but a weft of that vast tapestry. That it is not universally adopted is immaterial.

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  92. dazedandconfused says:

    @JohnSF:

    Does that refute my point that the key to the Taliban’s power in Afghanistan is the nature of Islam as an over-arching foundation of law within that society? I fail to see how, if so.

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  93. JohnSF says:

    @dazedandconfused:
    You were talking about Islam in the Middle East, as I recall, when I asked who, other than Afghanistan, you had in mind as an Islamic state, in relation to:

    … Islam, the “religion of law”, which is why so many of the governments formed by lines drawn on a map by others … wind up going down that road.

    I’m saying actual Islamically organised states (as opposed to states with Muslim majority governments: different things) are very rare.

    And where they do exist don’t seem to due to externally imposed partitions; not that those partitions aren’t sometimes real. Though less significant than a lot of people seem to think.

    As to the Taliban.
    Again, they relentlessly claim to have a right to rule based on their sel-appointed status as arbiters of Islam.
    This claim gets a lot of support among the Ghilzai Pushtun, some support among other Pushtun, and virtually none among non-Pushtun, who tend to see the Talibs as hypocritical enforcers of a Ghilzai ascendancy, and as proxies for the domination of Pakistan.

    ReplyReply
  94. dazedandconfused says:

    @JohnSF:

    We were talking about Afghanistan, actually.

    ReplyReply
  95. JohnSF says:

    @dazedandconfused:

    We were talking about Afghanistan, actually.

    First you, in re. Islamic movements assuming power (unless I misunderstood you there?)

    …so many of the governments..

    I asked “which governments” and the “aside from Afghanistan.

    Iraq, Syria. Hell, the whole map of the ME was laid out by Euro colonialists

    So I think it’s reasonable to say YOU brought the Middle East into this discussion.

    ReplyReply
  96. dazedandconfused says:

    @JohnSF:

    Tangentially. Currently the leaders of Iraq, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan base their claims to power on Islam in one way or another. It’s something of a surprise to find anyone who would seriously dispute that.

    ReplyReply
  97. JohnSF says:

    @dazedandconfused:
    If you are going to go from Islamist movements like the Taliban (ignoring their Pushtun chauvinism for the time being) to including the Hashemites hereditary claims, you really are stretching the category a bit, in my opinion.

    And I think including either Iran or Saudi as products of European intervention is a bit dubious as well. The details of their borders in some cases, perhaps. But not the cultural core.

    When you are at this level of a general influence of Islam on Muslim majority states, it is both unsurprising and legitimated.
    Hence my comparison with Established Christianity and the role of explicitly Christian parties In Europe, to this day.

    Bu I see no reason to take the Taliban at their own estimation, when they assert a right to rule Afghanistan on the basis of self asserted religious authority, when other Afghans, other Muslims, say that claim is not legitimate.

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  98. dazedandconfused says:

    @JohnSF:
    It is for them. Rest assured the Taliban believe themselves legitimate. What scholars think, qualified or not, is not important or my point, which is how the Talibs rule functioned in the days prior to getting chased into Pakistan after 9/11.

    IMO the population will tolerate that kind of rule again. The question in my mind is if the current generation of Talibs will abide by Omar’s original concept or have become infected with wider jihadi ambitions.

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  99. de stijl says:

    @JohnSF:

    Dude. I did not appreciate you mis-appropriating my coda as if that was what the whole message conveyed.

    Did not appreciate that at all. That was pretty bullshit.

    ReplyReply

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