However slick, however glib, however metronomic, governments do need effective public relations teams. As the video below shows, the Taliban’s image management could do with a bit of polishing.
A newsreader for Afghan TV reads a script about the collapse of Ghani government and declares that the Islamic Emirate is urging the Afghan people not to be afraid. Behind him stand two grim and shifty-eyed Taliban soldiers with rifles. It’s not reassuring.
In fact, the message to women, Hazaras, Shias, collaborators – and everyone else is: be afraid; be very afraid.
They are brutal and poorly armed. They treat women as inferior beings. They don’t respect LGBTQI+ rights. They don’t display their preferred pronouns on their Twitter pages. Yet these are the guys who defeated the richest, strongest, best-equipped nation on earth. Why? This is the question that screams out for an answer. Because it’s not the first time. A decade in Vietnam. Eight years in Iraq. Twenty years in Afghanistan. All ending in humiliation.
There are as many explanations as there are pundits. All of them have something useful to say.
- Danielle Pletka, of the American Enterprise Institute, writing in the Wall Street Journal, attributed it to bad leadership under Obama, Trump and Biden.
- Philip Elliott, an expert on American wars, told Time magazine that “The U.S. military—and maybe arguably American society—much prefers planning for these classic, conventional wars, like World War II” – not long drawn-out insurgencies.
- Adam Nossiter, a New York Times journalist, said that the US had failed to learn the lessons of Vietnam about colonial wars. “Homegrown insurgencies, though seemingly outmatched in money, technology, arms, air power and the rest, are often better motivated, have a constant stream of new recruits, and often draw sustenance from just over the border.”
- Fareed Zakaria, in the Washington Post, quotes a Taliban scholar: “The Taliban fight for belief, for janat (heaven) and ghazi (killing infidels). … The army and police fight for money.”
- And Henry Kissinger, of course, thought that there could have been a diplomatic solution: “A creative diplomacy might have distilled common measures for overcoming terrorism in Afghanistan.”
But the pundits are better at analysing why the US has lost the war than why it failed at “nation building”. I’d say that, despite an abundance of good intentions, it failed because of a fatal infatuation with technology and efficiency. This is illustrated by two recent events.
The first is a heart-warming story from the Beltway. Zach Van Meter, a private equity investor from Florida, saw that orphans could be rescued from Kabul. He pulled together a network of recently-unemployed Afghan diplomats, Gulf military, former commandos, wealthy donors and retired generals. Working day and night, they managed to extricate 5000 Afghans in two weeks – the most successful private rescue effort.
Van Meter’s team showed how good intentions confirm the righteousness of efficiency and technology. The rescue was a marvel of Yankee genius for planning, organisation, and deal-making – all managed on mobile phones from a conference room at the Willard InterContinental hotel in Washington DC. It’s a feel-good story of generosity and idealism that could have been scripted by Hollywood – and probably will be.
The other event happened in Kabul. After suicide bombers from ISIS Khorasan killed 13 American soldiers at the airport, along with some 170 Afghan civilians, Joe Biden promised from the White House, “We will not forgive, we will not forget. We will hunt you down and make you pay.”
And so they did, in two efficient drone strikes. The first killed one or two members of Islamic State Khorasan with a specially designed R9X missile, a Ninja bomb. Rather than being packed with explosives, it shreds its victims with a halo of six blades. “We know of zero civilian casualties,” said a US Major-General after the incident, stressing how careful the Army was to avoid killing innocent people.
The next time, they were careful, too, but, you know, stuff happens. Zemari Ahmadi, a worker for an American NGO, was targeted by a drone as he arrived home. His children rushed out to meet him. Both were killed along with two other adults and six children. Pentagon officials said that the ensuing explosion suggested that Ahmadi’s car had been loaded with explosives. They had the best of intentions and were very sorry about those dead children.
Private enterprise saving 5000 Afghans from the Taliban and the collateral damage of the drone strike are two sides of the same coin – the coin with which Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan have all been paid. It’s the folly of thinking that a combination of good intentions and great technology will enable nation-building.
Nobody could possibly be so naive? Think again. Back in 2010 General Stanley McChrystal, the top US general in Afghanistan, told the New York Times, “We’ve got a government in a box, ready to roll in.” As Graham Greene wrote in his 1955 novel The Quiet American about Vietnam, “God save us always, from the innocent and the good.” Cynical, to be sure, but on the money.
The problem is that American politicians and bureaucrats are operating with a faulty anthropology, a blinkered view of human nature. They believe that personal autonomy and a higher standard of living represent the ultimate human goals. On the domestic front they watch with pride as government policies shred families with the same ease as the Ninja Bomb and they preside over a society which is becoming ever more isolated and atomised.
The transcendent aspirations offered by religion, even Islam, are a mystery to them, while they promote LGBTQI+ rights with all the fervour of a religion.
At home they try to solve poverty with welfare instead of strengthening marriages – and it has been no more successful than the war in Afghanistan. It’s no wonder that they spent US$1 trillion in their efforts to “nation-build” and have nothing to show for it. To paraphrase the Islamic scholar: the Taliban fight with faith; the Americans fight with money. When you put it that way, it was always going to be no contest.