Once again, we see how militias and armed groups can easily overtake what is supposed to be an American-trained national military. What happened in Afghanistan was nearly a repetition of what happened in Mosul, Iraq in 2014, soldiers running away in the face of Toyota Tacomas, carrying lightly armed militias, relegating the defensive duties to other armed militias, Kurdish and otherwise. Interestingly, this is also what happened in Afghanistan in two different episodes in 1996 and 1992. Why does this keep happening?
This picture can get more interesting if we add to it Syria, where a national army failed to defend its own regime, leaving the task largely to Iranian-backed Lebanese, Syrian, and Iraqi militias. The situation becomes the clearest in Lebanon, where the national military itself acts only as a militia among many and is at risk of breaking down to sectarian militias as it happened before in the Lebanese Civil War. Back then, the French, American, and Italian troops failed to put back together what was tearing apart.
The problem may lie in the fact that a militia is indeed a militia of a group, but the national military is hardly a military of a nation, particularly if it lacks a national ethos. Nothing seems solid in the nations in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, and Afghanistan except for national symbols, flags, anthems, songs, and the sentimental decorum; none of which truly convince the different groups that the nation state represents their own interests. The national militaries fail, not because of a military problem, but because of the problem of the nation-state itself, a national ideal that is obviously not able to win over the loyalties of the groups. This makes Afghanistan a place where grand theories and political programs would benefit from showing some humility. Neither Soviet Communism, neither American liberalism nor even Islamic jihadism can fix such profound problems.
Americans always like to think they are in control, that they can fix things, and they lack the humility necessary to understand what they can and cannot achieve. This lack of humility also translates into a lack of vision and imagination, when looking towards the future. In his speech following the first horrifying images of the American withdrawal, President Biden bemoaned, and he is right to do so, the fact that we trained and equipped 300,000 soldiers. “We paid them salaries,” he said.
This is precisely the problem, mistaking salaries for patriotism. American technocrats with their liberalist theories forgot that it takes way more than a salary and modern consumer goods to convince someone to love their country to the extent of sacrificing their lives for it. This is not at all meant to minimize the sacrifice of the approximately 60,000 Afghan soldiers who lost their lives in Operation Enduring Freedom, however, at the end of the day the call of the Islamist defeated the call of a modern nation state.
It takes an altruistic conviction and an over-riding belief in the cause of a homeland to be able to fight with the very real possibility of never returning to your family. Can America give that to Afghans or to Iraqis? Isn’t the term “nationalist” pejorative now in the US? Isn’t the love for one’s country caricatured as bigotry and prejudice in many “enlightened” circles of the West? Can America give that to Afghan and Iraqi soldiers in a dose strong enough so they may not flee in the face of backward terrorists wearing sandals? In Arabic, we say, that one who lacks something cannot give it to others.
The profound irony remains that Afghans and Iraqis need what America now wants to hate: nationalism.
But to assume that the questions that Afghanistan and Iraq pose don’t go beyond the problem of nation-building would be very short-sighted, and indeed will serve as a rich reservoir of political analysis and more technocratic theorizing. When the Soviet withdrew from Afghanistan, the country became the Islamist asylum that inevitably produced 9/11 and it is right to wonder what other catastrophes we should anticipate now. There are seven points that need immediate consideration in the aftermath of this national debacle:
And finally, these points don’t even begin to address the possible risk of a new Al Qaeda like formation that settles in the country and wreaks new havoc in the Western hemisphere. The Taliban may be averse to such a possibility currently, but that does not prevent its materialization in the future.
These seven difficult yet immediate concerns should animate all strategic and tactical thinking about Afghanistan. To believe that Afghanistan is merely liminal is to miss the lessons of the last half-century. Moreover, these issues don’t begin to address the implications of the recent events for the Middle East.
It is becoming abundantly clear we are standing at an uncertain juncture. What will come out of it remains in the domain of speculation. But unless we cast out our isolationist delusions, formulate and imagine new bold strategies, we are going to be at the mercy of unforeseen events. The American foreign policy establishment needs a radical transformation in how it sees the role of the US in world affairs and needs to readjust its visions and alliances according to the realm of actual possibilities and not mere theories. An eruption of a new wave of Islamist-inspired turmoil could prove to be detrimental to the Middle East as well as to the Western hemisphere.
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