American soldiers would often show up at villages in rural areas of Afghanistan to win the ‘hearts and minds’ of the locals only to learn that they not only don’t understand what America is, but aren’t even aware that they’re living in a country called Afghanistan.
And don’t especially care.
Afghanistan is an imaginary country. Much like Iraq and Syria. These places have history, but the idea of a country is an external concept embraced by local elites who want centralized authority, but resisted by locals in rural areas.
The real Afghanistan is a collection of different ethnic groups and Islamic denominations, where tribe matters far more than nationality.
We “won” Afghanistan by backing an anti-Taliban tribal coalition. The strategy, much like the Sunni Awakening in Iraq, paid off because we provided air and military support to a viable tribal opposition.
The clean and effective victory was then ruined by trying to “modernize” and “democratize” Afghanistan.
We plowed billions into building a modern Afghan army. Just like the effort to build a modern Iraqi army, it was doomed.
The Afghans couldn’t be trusted to fight alongside us or even alongside each other. The only kind of viable military force in a tribal society consists of people who trust each other fighting together using traditional raiding tactics.
The Afghan army collapsed in the face of the Taliban for the same reason that the Iraqi army collapsed in the face of ISIS.
We were trying to get people who don’t think like us or live like us to fight like us.
That was never going to work.
A modern Afghanistan was worse than a client state. It was a Potemkin village of State Department and USAID workers funding female rock bands and American officers trying to get Afghans to act like they’re in a modern western army. All that led to was Afghans feeling insulted and trying to kill Americans.
Afghanistan was a strange dream that Americans had. The Afghans never shared that dream. The moment we announced that we were leaving, the soldiers we had dressed up, abandoned ship. Every Afghan we had spent a fortune paying to participate in our production of a modern Afghanistan fled. The show was over, the paying crowd was leaving, and the Taliban smoothly took over everything.
Everyone except us understood that was going to happen.
The old Brits or Frenchmen who had lived through this same phenomenon in the fifties could have told us about it, but we wouldn’t have listened.
And we still don’t understand.
A tribal opposition to the Taliban will likely emerge. And we will likely fund them. That opposition may succeed in dividing the country. The warlords in the Taliban coalition and the opposition coalition will move back and forth as they did during our part of the Afghanistan war.
It’s become fashionable to call Afghanistan an “endless war”. But it’s not our endless war. It’s the endless war of the tribes, clans and families that make up much of the Muslim world. We didn’t begin the “endless war” in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria or anywhere else.
It was foolish of us to believe that we could end it.