Afghanistan is a Lesson in Humility

Howard W. French
In October 1983, during a visit to New York City from West Africa, where I had recently begun a career as a foreign correspondent, I stood in my uncle’s kitchen and took in the evening news over a drink before dinner.
The main story that night was the visit by then-President Ronald Reagan’s secretary of defense, Caspar Weinberger, to Pakistan. Weinberger traveled to that country’s border with Afghanistan and there, at the Khyber Pass, vowed that U.S. support for Afghan insurgents would bring down the Soviet-backed government in power in Kabul at the time.
“I want you to know that you are not alone,” he told an assemblage of Afghan refugees. “You will have our continuing support until you regain the freedom that is rightfully yours.”
Weinberger’s words are long forgotten now, but after the events of the past week in Afghanistan, few will believe similar Amer-ican promises in the future.
During Weinberger’s trip, Pakistan’s then-Presid-ent Zia ul-Haq had told an American reporter what he presumably also told the visiting American defense secretary. “In my opinion, United States direct military involvement [in Afghanis-tan], with or without the help of Pakistan, would not be the right answer.”
Washington would have done well to heed this advice then, as well 18 years later, when it invaded Afghanistan in order to overthrow a government led by the Taliban, in the wake of the attacks of 9/11.
Later that same year, with no prior experience in that part of the world, I was hurriedly sent by my editor at the New York Times from Japan, where I was then based, to the same borderland area of Pakistan visited by Weinberger. It was an assignment that almost had the air of a suicide mission. I was to travel to the forbidding Tribal Area in northwestern Pakistan that abuts Afghanistan, where even the writ of the Pakistani government scarcely applied, on the presumption that Osama bin Laden was hiding there. “Poke around and see what you can find out about him there,” the editor had urged me.
I didn’t have a helicopter, like Weinberger, but I made it all the way to the border by car and was able to peer out across the desolate plains of Afghanistan just as he had. Also unlike the former U.S. secretary of defense, I managed to meet with local people and at least get a limited sense of their lives and ordinary concerns.
“We are a religious people, and we know how to sacrifice lives for religion,” a local imam in the town of Miran Shah told me. “We will never allow the Americans to damage our religious ethics.”
This is not a column of professed expertise about Afghanistan, which is suddenly abundant everywhere one turns in the wake of this week’s events. Rather, it is a commentary based on the varied and widespread experiences of someone simply trying to make sense of a complicated and difficult world, and an ode to a virtue that could have spared those involved in the years that followed in Afghanistan a lot of tragedy and exhaustion: humility.
To begin with, as we all know now, Osama bin Laden was not found at Tora Bora, the mountain redoubt just inside the Afghan border where Americans had assumed he was when they attacked in December 2001. Nor did the cave complex where he was believed to be hiding turn out to be a sophisticated, fortified citadel, replete with a hydroelectric power plant, hotel and hospital. This “base” turned out, instead, to be nothing more than a handful of barely improved natural caves that may have hosted a few scores of fighters.
The end always comes quickly when moral hazard has been piled so high, and so it was in Afghanistan.
There is a dispute as to whether bin Laden had been there at all around the time of the U.S. offensive. One thing is certain: Years later, when he was discovered and killed in in Abbotabad. Therein lies a difficult lesson about remembering that putative friends and even outright allies always have a mixture of different and sometimes conflicting interests. Of this, Zia ul-Haq, who died in a suspicious plane crash in 1988, had long ago reminded us.
Indeed, Pakistan’s interests in Afghanistan never lined up very well with those of the United States, even though Washington relied on its “ally” in order to pursue the war in Afghanistan over the next 20 years. In terms of regional affairs, Islamabad is always thinking about its eternal rival, India, and from that perspective, having fervent Islamists either controlling the state or contending for power next door in Afghanistan has always held strategic appeal. This was especially true for Pakistan. No matter how hard the United States worked to bludgeon or asphyxiate the Taliban, final victory in this pursuit was never realistic so long as Pakistan clung to its own regional interests, as perceived not in Washington, but in Islamabad. And the ascension of China as a powerful and economically rich friend of Islamabad meant that Washington’s leverage over Pakistan, never sufficient to begin with, has dwindled steadily.
I could talk about attending international donors’ conferences for Afghanistan, like the one I covered in Tokyo in 2002, where the United States pledged $300 million, and other allies quickly fell in with aid of their own. The numbers seem derisory now, after the tens of billions of dollars spent to “stand up” Afghan governments and security forces in the years since. Already back then, my impression of Hamid Karzai, the newly, Western-installed president of Afghanistan, was of a vain, supercilious and almost certainly deeply corrupt man. With his finely tailored capes and carefully trimmed beard, he droned on in dulcet tones about the moral imperative about helping his devastated country to rebuild. Meanwhile, his brother was already his reputed bagman, siphoning off whatever he could into bulging personal coffers.
Much has been made of the failure of the Afghan army to stop or even slow the Taliban’s rapid advances in recent days and weeks. It is true that the announcement of a date certain for American withdrawal from the country, first by former President Donald Trump and then again by his successor, Joe Biden, must have had a severe impact on fighting morale in the army that Washington and its allies had spent so lavishly to create and strengthen over 20 years.
But the narrative about the Afghans being unwilling to fight is wrong. During their two decades of combat in cooperation with the United States, Afghan security forces lost 60,000 men, an order of magnitude greater than the death toll among allied Western forces. And unlike American soldiers, many of them were blown to bits driving about in unarmored vehicles. This failure was never principally about the recruits who threw in the towel at the first sign of a fight from the Taliban, despite having been lavishly equipped by the Pentagon and others. It was about the rottenness of Afghan elites, and their utter disconnectedness from the lives of ordinary people in Afghanistan.
This is a problem seen almost everywhere the West has sought to prop up regimes first and foremost—no matter what Western leaders declare publicly about human rights and other lofty virtues—to shield the West itself from perceived dangers of one kind or another. This is the case in many parts of Africa, where rent-seeking elites happily cash the checks of Western governments in places like Mali, Mozambique and elsewhere to combat violent fundamentalism or forestall emigration to the West. Moral hazard accumulates as the job of those in government becomes more and more about maintaining their privilege, rank and opportunities for graft. The ordinary men and women who must put their lives on the line to fight the declared menace of radical Islam look at those who pamper themselves in office and ask themselves, “Why should I die for this lot of thieves?”
I had seen this at another time and in a somewhat different context earlier in my career, four years prior to my borderland visit to Pakistan. I was in Kinshasa, Zaire—now the Democratic Republic of Congo—during the final days in power of America’s erstwhile ally, the dictator Mobutu Sese Seko. For years, Mobutu had taken money and security assistance from whoever would grant it in order to create and train supposedly elite combat units in order to fight off insurgents backed by neighboring states and members of the Soviet bloc. When the forces of one rebel leader—Laurent Kabila, who was mostly backed by Rwanda—marched across the huge country and surrounded the capital, Zaire’s army utterly melted away rather than fight. I was in the empty streets of Kinshasa that morning with my colleague Ofeibea Quist Arcton, as Kabila’s forces, heavily consisting of child soldiers, marched into the city. Hours earlier, the two of us had made it to the airport to witness Mobutu’s flight from the city and eventual exile.
The end always comes quickly when moral hazard has been piled so high, and so it was in Afghanistan. Remarkably, it doesn’t seem to have occurred to Ashraf Ghani, the country’s Western-backed and now deposed president, to try to rally his lavishly equipped army to stave off the Taliban in a national speech until Saturday. This followed day after day of provincial capitals falling to the insurgents. And then, on Sunday, it was he who, like Mobutu, had jetted off secretly to safety.
There is one final lesson here, and it is the biggest one of all. Old-fashioned imperialism, where faraway powers can prop up client states and help them gin up legitimacy through budgetary largesse and military training, has been in its death agonies for years. In the end, Afghanistan is going to have to be ruled by Afghans, and not according to the preferences of others, be they the bygone Soviets or Westerners. It almost certainly will not be pretty, and indeed may be painful, most of all perhaps for the women and girls of the country. But the old models don’t work anymore, if they ever did, and there is simply no avoiding this fact.
You can follow him on Twitter at @hofrench.