Daniel Greenfield, a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the Freedom Center, is an investigative journalist and writer focusing on the radical Left and Islamic terrorism.
“Afghanistan’s collapse: Did US intelligence get it wrong?” ABC News asks. “Afghanistan Is Your Fault,” barks Tom Nichols at The Atlantic. “Why Afghan Forces So Quickly Laid Down Their Arms,” Politico ponders.
The one thing that the Taliban’s conquest of Afghanistan is good for is more media hot takes.
Afghanistan didn’t fall because it never existed. The Afghan army laid down its arms because it also never existed. And not just because many of the 300,000 soldiers were imaginary. Its Pashtun members surrendered to their fellow Taliban Pashtuns, or fled to Iran or Uzbekistan, depending on their tribal or religious affiliations which, unlike Afghanistan, are very real.
The Afghan army was there because we spent $90 billion on it. Much like Afghanistan with its president, its constitution, and its elections existed because we spent a fortune on it. When we left, the president fled, the army collapsed, and Afghanistan: The Musical closed in Kabul.
Afghanistan isn’t a country. It’s a stone age Brigadoon of quarreling tribes, ethnic groups, Islamic denominations, and warlords manned by young men with old Russian and American rifles. Unlike the fiction of a democratic Afghanistan, that is something they will die for.
And in the coming years you will see some of those same soldiers who laid down their guns fighting and dying for tribes and warlords, even fighting the Taliban, in the real endless war.
The forever war isn’t something we invented after 9/11: Afghanistan has always been at war.
Americans are impressed that the Taliban held out for 20 years. They shouldn’t be.
There’s no time in Afghanistan. Two decades of war are horrifyingly incomprehensible to Americans. To Afghans, it’s the way things have always been. We stepped into a place that has been a war zone for centuries, took sides, supplied weapons, and then left as everyone knew we would. The British and the Russians came and went. After us, the Chinese will come and go.
And the forever war will go on endlessly.
Before us, the Russians wanted the Afghans to pretend to be Communists. We wanted them to pretend that they were Democrats. But the Afghans aren’t ‘Afghans’, they’re Pashtuns, Uzbeks, Balochs, Hazaras, Sunni and Shiite Muslims, everything else is just a temporary costume.
The Taliban, another Pashtun bid to seize power, will be met with resistance, not by the proponents of a free and democratic Afghanistan, but by rival tribes and warlords.
We’ll probably end up funding some of them. And maybe this time we won’t be stupid enough to ask them to hold elections or any of the other nation-building nonsense from Foggy Bottom.
Our Afghanistan campaign after September 11 was fast, clever, and ruthless. The men who conducted it understood the society. They worked together with warlords to crush the Taliban. Their goal was a quick and dirty victory that would make an example out of the Taliban.
Our allies were anyone whose current factional interests in the endless power struggle aligned with ours. As the years went on, some of our allies became enemies, and some enemies became allies. The Taliban were the bad guys, but just like in Syria, so was everyone else. There were plenty of innocents caught in the crossfire, but innocents have no power.
The average Afghan rural villager doesn’t think of being a citizen of some country called Afghanistan. He cares little for elections and his elders confuse Americans with the Russians and sometimes even the British. The elites in Kabul are happy to dress up their power grabs in presidential titles and constitutions that no one else in the country cares about. USAID pays girls in Kabul to play at feminism and college graduates to talk about international relations.
None of it mattered a damn in the vast majority of the country as we are now finding out.
But, Afghanistan didn’t become a complete disaster for us. Until Obama.
American forces peaked at 25,000 under Bush. Obama quadrupled them to 100,000. That’s the year more American soldiers were wounded than during the entire Bush administration.
1,200 Americans died during Obama’s Afghanistan surge, not just because he quadrupled the number of soldiers, but because the military was told to stop trying to defeat the Taliban.
Our soldiers became community organizers with guns who were told not to fight.
No hearts and minds were won. But cemeteries filled up with boys from Texas and West Virginia who weren’t allowed to shoot back because Obama wanted to win Muslim hearts and minds.
The military brass who embraced Obama’s strategy buried and crippled a generation of young men. Countless men and women came home wounded inside. They overdosed or killed themselves.
The surge receded. The military brass pulled back to secure the cities while the Taliban secured the rural areas that we spent so many lives on. All they had to do was wait for us to leave.
The speed with which the Taliban took the country only seems magical to CNN viewers.
The country was theirs for the taking. The Taliban fought few battles. The various warlords and leaders began switching sides when Biden announced his withdrawal to join the winning team. That’s the Islamic team backed by Pakistan, China, Turkey who are the big boys still standing.
But that doesn’t mean that they won’t switch sides next month or next year.
The hated government in Kabul was backed by our money and our air power. We’re out, so are they. But the locals will hate the Taliban too. And as the Chinese come in to set up mines, run roads, and offend the locals, they’ll find out what we, the British, and the Russians learned.
Afghanistan doesn’t belong to anyone. It’s its own forever war of quarreling tribes.
The forever war will continue whether or not we’re there. But we’ll probably be there in one form or another. We never really understood Afghanistan or Iraq. And so we can’t escape them.
Al Qaeda and ISIS will operate out of Afghanistan. So will countless other Jihadi fighters.
Americans didn’t invent the forever war. It’s been going on in the Islamic parts of the world for over a thousand years. It’s unfashionable and politically incorrect to mention it. That’s why the media carefully describes the Taliban as “religious students” without naming the religion. It’ll refer to Sunni and Shiite infighting in Iraq while leaving off the “Islam” part of the group.
We came to defeat the Jihadists behind September 11 and we stayed behind to reform Afghanistan. But what were we reforming it from? We couldn’t name the problem.
And when you can’t name a problem, you never come up with a solution.
Having failed to fix Afghanistan, the process is now underway to bring as many Afghans as possible to America. The old plan to bring 100,000 “interpreters” and their family members has been vastly expanded to make any Afghan who did any work for American organizations, from aid groups to the media, eligible to come to America. By the time they’re done, we may end up with a million Afghan refugees in America. Some of them will become Islamic terrorists.
The final act of fighting terrorism is bringing the terrorists to America to create more terror.
The real tragedy of Afghanistan isn’t just that we lost so many of our best and brightest in the dust, it’s that we learned nothing from the experience. Nothing except to blame ourselves.
We didn’t fail Afghanistan. Nor did we lose Afghanistan. It was never ours or anyone’s.
Afghanistan wasn’t our forever war. It’s the forever war of the warlords and tribesmen who will keep on fighting it until the water dries up, the cattle die, and they all move to Fremont where 25,000 Afghans already live. Our mistake was not recognizing what Afghanistan was.
Americans like to believe that everyone is like us. It’s an easy trap to fall into. Wherever we go, the people speak English, listen to our music, and wear Nike shirts. They have opinions about our presidents and want to know how easy it is to move to Fremont. And we cheerfully supply them with more Nike shirts, bad music, worse movies, and try to persuade them to create a United States of Iraq or a United States of Afghanistan. Then when it doesn’t work out, they move to Fremont, Minnesota, or New York City, run for Congress, and tell us they hate us.
If we learn anything from Afghanistan, from Iraq, and from September 11, let it be this.
There have to be boundaries, physical and conceptual borders, between us and the rest of the world. American exceptionalism can’t be a narcissistic belief that everyone ought to be like us. If everyone could become us, there would be nothing exceptional about us. Our exceptionalism is that the rest of the world isn’t like us and never will be. And that if we want to protect ourselves, we have to stop trying to define the world or allowing the rest of the world to redefine America.
We could have won in Afghanistan, swiftly and decisively, and left, if we hadn’t been seduced into believing that Afghanistan could be America and that Afghans deserved to be Americans.
Victories became defeats and cemeteries filled with the dead because we lost sight of the truth about Afghanistan and about ourselves. The more we think about Afghanistan or any place in terms of ourselves, the less we see it for what it is. And that can be a deadly illusion.
Americans have spent the last century trying to turn the world into America. Let’s spend this century making America what it was always intended to be: a refuge from the rest of the world.
We won’t win wars anymore because we can no longer remember what we’re fighting for. Unable to draw boundaries between the enemy and ourselves, between our nation and the world, we’ve lost touch with the fundamental purpose and even the concept of what a war is.
To win a war, we have to remember what we’re fighting for. Ourselves.
The Afghans understand that concept. Perhaps they understand it too well. But it’s time we learned it too. If we can’t go to war for ourselves, not for democracy, human rights, or so that Afghan girls can go to school, then we will lose soldiers, lose wars, and lose our nation.
All wars are endless and forever when you don’t understand what it takes to win.