First thought is that the US spent 20 years and \$2 trillion trying to build a democracy in a half-literate country of goatherders that disintegrated within 20 days.
Think what you could have done with that (dependent on your preferences).
- “Green New Deal”.
- Free college.
- 335 ship Navy.
- Mars base.
This adventure must have set some kind of anti-ROI record. Just a singularly total waste of time, money, and energy (if relatively light on blood compared to other conflicts).
Ironically, the USSR’s creation lasted three years. Despite the mujahedeen receiving much more in the way of foreign support, Najibullah’s government managed to independently mount multi-division offensives against the jihadists after the Soviet withdrawal and survived for a bit more than three years, when Soviet aid dried up. In contrast, it appears that the Americans were simply uninterested in building an actual army that could operate independently without their oversight. These are some interesting remarks on this from a former Afghan major on Brown Pundits. Even the South Vietnamese regime lasted for two years. (Has American nation-building capacity declined? Though of course Afghanistan and Vietnam aren’t really at all comparable).
The US failure in this respect is all the more total in that, at least according to the most comprehensive poll on the matter, most Afghans did not actually sympathize with the Taliban. The percentage of Afghans who said they sympathized with the Taliban in 2019 was just 13%, shrinking to 8% in Kabul. Even amongst ethnic Pashtuns, this percentage was just 21%. If this poll is accurate, it would imply the Taliban had less popular support than Islamic State in its heartlands of Al Raqqa. (Incidentally, the fact that many Western commenters believe that Taliban support was broad-based is a testament to Taliban PR). And yet, even so, the Taliban went through the ANA like a hot knife through butter, strolling from town to town in their sandals, firing their rifles from the hip without aiming, like you can see in combat videos from Sub-Saharan Africa. It seems that normie Afghans are not Islamist enough to want the Taliban, but nor are they motivated enough to stick their necks out for a highly corrupt government that few saw as “theirs” and which confirmed their intuitions by fleeing to Dubai as the Taliban closed in. Individually, it was not the incorrect decision, even though it collectively doomed them to an outcome that a majority probably saw as suboptimal.
Finally, it’s certainly a major PR defeat for the US, and some of the most regressively kneejerk anti-American elements, running the gamut from domestic Islamist interlopers crowing over the “defeat of colonialism and imperialism” to their newfound groyper allies slavering over putting women in cages and banning vaccines, are certainly savoring the moment. However, I would imagine Biden has good reasons for going through with the withdrawal. It gets rid of a major strategic liability and money sink, especially at a time when the US needs to devote more and more resources to keeping ahead of China. I would guess that in many cases, even the supposed benefits of staying in Afghanistan might have been overstated. For instance, some have touted it as a “live fire” training base. But the soldiers there operate in conditions of total air and EW supremacy, which will not be forthcoming in a military clash with a real peer competitor. Consequently, the “lessons” that the US military has been learning from Afghanistan may be dubious and even counter-productive in a serious conflict.
At the end of the day, if 20 years wasn’t enough time to stabilize the situation, probably 30 wouldn’t have been enough either. It is good not to succumb to sunk costs fallacy. Certainly the withdrawal might have been better managed. Gifting a newfangled Islamist regimes with tons of advanced weaponry doesn’t strike me as an excellent idea (though, happily, the Taliban Air Force will be barely any more adept at using them than ANA). Perhaps the strategy should have been to hold on to core areas; for instance, if ANA had been concentrated around especially anti-Taliban Kabul and the north, as opposed to being spread out all over the country, then it could have held at least those territories. But those are speculative counterfactuals. At the end of the day, perhaps Biden looked at Trump’s experience, and decided that a sharp and quick withdrawal was only way to avoid it being sabotaged by Pentagon bureaucrats.
Conversely, the conventional wisdom is that this is a minor “win” for China, which has been sending out feelers to the Taliban for months; on July 28, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi met with Taliban commander Abdul Ghani Baradar, who is to imminently become Afghanistan’s new President. Probably Chinese investment into infrastructure and mining will be sufficient enticement to make the Taliban honor their commitment not to support Uyghur separatists in response to China’s reciprocal and long-standing policy of not meddling in the governance of other countries. But there’s no way to be sure. Russia is now put into the awkward position of having to negotiate with an organization which its official news media, by law, has to remind its readers/viewers is “banned in the Russian Federation” while at the same time having to respond to inane and recurring American claims that it paid that same Taliban to kill American soldiers; allegations that I now half expect to resurface in force to explain away the humiliation of the past three weeks. Since the current Taliban as I understand is in significant part a confederation of regional warlords, and the Tajik north feels like breaking away again – for instance, on account of resurgent Pashtun nationalism – this could create a refugee crisis that overspills into Tajikistan and from Tajikistan into Russia itself (non-ethnic Russian immigration from Central Asia is dominated by Tajiks). And will the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan continue to recognize Crimea, as Hamid Karzai did? So many questions! The Taliban’s triumph in Afghanistan will also be discomfiting, if not catastrophic, for Iran. During its previous lease on power, the two nearly came to blows in 1998 when the Taliban killed Iranian diplomats and journalists in the northern city of Mazar-i Sharif (the date is marked as “Journalist’s Day” in Iran). As with Tajikistan/Russia, there might also be a flood of Hazara refugees into Iran if the Taliban overreaches.
In fact, the only clear winners and losers, respectively, would appear to be Pakistan and India, respectively. India’s project to build a logistics route through Afghanistan down to the Iranian port of Chabahar is now dead in the water.