Afghanistan is Dead — It’s Time To Defend Kabul
Kabul fell to the Taliban on August 15th — however, the arguments I lay out below for an international force deployed to safeguard Kabul remain viable.
The Taliban has never governed Afghanistan and is itself divided into local groups — that’s part of the reason it survived to defeat the United States.
An international force needs to join the 6,000 American and allied forces now in Kabul to safeguard civilians and allow any who wish to evacuate to do so.
The scenes coming out of Kabul International Airport today are heartwrenching. There is no excuse for America or the international community to abandon the people of Afghanistan like this.
All who wish to leave must be resettled in a third country. Any who want to reach the Kabul or the airport must be allowed — the Taliban can’t be allowed to simply capture millions of people who reject their rule.
There is no reason to believe the region won’t devolve into a worse round of violence in the near future. Until the Taliban proves it can govern, the world has a responsibility to protect Kabul.
The biggest mistake almost everyone makes about Afghanistan is thinking the country actually exists.
It hasn’t for decades — and definitely doesn’t anymore. Here’s the present situation in the country, almost 20 years after the United States invaded the place back when I was in high school:
Truth is, the borders you see on any map are completely made up. A figment of the imaginations of colonial administrators operating over 100 years ago.
Some borders make sense and have stuck around for centuries or more. They work because most people and governments more or less respect them, not because the arbitrary line on the ground truly matters except in a court of law.
Control over territory is never absolute — the United States can’t even completely secure its border with Mexico, after all, or root out domestic terrorists. And Afghanistan, like most other Central Asian countries, has incredibly porous borders.
The official boundaries of Central Asia, as in Africa, often cut across ethnic and linguistic lines in extremely damaging ways.
The Taliban has survived and even thrived despite 20 years of continuous American and NATO military operations because its fighters can slip back and forth between Afghanistan and Pakistan as needed.
Theirs is a movement rooted in the Pashtun ethnic group which lives in both Afghanistan and Pakistan. People in this part of the world tend to have extended kin relations that span borders, so they are used to moving back and forth across the international boundary.
All borders are difficult to secure because they require constant surveillance, which may be easier now but is still expensive. The United States-Canada border is probably even easier to illegally cross than America’s southern border if you’re willing to do a spot of hiking through rugged country.
The single biggest mistake the United States and NATO made over the past 20 years was trying to preserve Afghanistan in its current form.
Afghanistan hasn’t truly been a country since the Soviets invaded in the early 1980s. Sometimes, when a thing gets broken, you can’t piece it back together no matter how hard you try.
Two generations of kids have grown up being called by the rest of the world Afghan or Afghani despite the total lack of any kind of national unity. Poverty, violence — this is the only Afghanistan many have ever known.
Most of the Afghan people — like the majority of people across the world — probably never travel too far from their home town. That’s their world, the focus of their lives, all they can afford to care about.
This is why so many are willing to fight for or at least tolerate the Taliban at this point, even in former anti-Taliban strongholds. Everyone in the region is exhausted by forty years of constant war —many don’t care who rules anymore, they just want the killing to end.
The USA and NATO tried for too long to prop up a warlord state ruled from Kabul. The Afghan National Government is utterly corrupt and inept — which is why its soldiers are laying down their arms and President Ghani is turning to militias and brutal warlords for support as Kabul is slowly isolated.
Biden’s abrupt and poorly executed withdrawal has totally shattered the morale of the Afghan government and army. It represents another rank betrayal by the United States of America that America’s allies around the world won’t soon forget.
It is absolutely disgusting that he is blaming the people of Afghanistan for not fighting hard enough. But it should come as no surprise — America’s leaders pull this kind of move all the time.
The people of North Korea, South Vietnam, the Kurds of Iraq and Syria, now Afghanistan — the United States pretty much always betrays its allies when the going gets tough. That will forever be its sad legacy abroad, not the victory over fascism my grandparents fought for.
It is obscene that after twenty years of failing to build a functioning democracy or defeat insurgents armed with rifles and homemade bombs the United States government led by Joe Biden is blaming the people of Afghanistan for not fighting harder against the Taliban.
Who taught them how to fight? Who told them they would have support? Who left those poor soldiers to the mercy of their inept leaders?
This tragedy was avoidable. To prevent a greater one, it is time to completely reboot the way we think about Afghanistan and Central Asia.
Afghanistan the country is dead. The region is fated to become a set of loosely-linked city states ruled by no one.
The Taliban, like most insurgent organizations, is loosely organized and lacks a powerful central command structure. Its leaders are locally-focused and opportunistic.
After Kabul falls — which could happen before the end of this year and given the way things are going will almost definitely occur by the end of 2022 — within a few years the Taliban will fragment.
Some will return to Pakistan to intensify the longstanding anti-government campaign along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. Others will turn on rivals to secure their own position. Those truly into the whole Islamic fundamentalist nation thing will aggressively control the lives of women and children.
Turning a loose-knit alliance of fighting groups into a functioning nation is very, very difficult. The US and NATO tried and failed, and it will be close to impossible as an international pariah.
If the Taliban takes Kabul, expect that within a few years both Afghanistan and Pakistan will be mired in violence as fighters seeking employment flow south. The Pakistani government, already fragile, might well collapse causing the country to fragment.
Pakistan, remember, has a nuclear arsenal and is also locked in a standoff with India over the status of Kashmir. At a time when fundamentalist Hindus in India are raging against Muslims on a regular basis.
Not a good combination.
Ignoring Afghanistan and walking away is simply not a viable option.
Now to be clear, the Taliban will not be defeated in a military sense any time soon. And there is no point in trying to roll back their gains given the cost in civilian lives that would certainly entail.
But it is absolutely vital that the international community come together to make sure Kabul and the highways linking it to Pakistan do not fall.
A democratic Afghanistan has probably always been a pipe dream. The fighting has gone on too long, the feuds run too deep, to glue it back together with Kabul running the show.
But a democratic, stable, and safe Kabul region is doable — if the international community will finally get it together and act.
Not likely, I’m guessing, given how badly the world is failing on Covid. But the threat of the Taliban coming to possess nuclear weapons in four or five years might prompt them the world’s powers to action.
To save Kabul, a capable and fully equipped multi-national military force must be deployed there for three years — no more, no less.
The European Union, China, Russia, and United States must each commit one combat brigade sized formation of around 5,000 combat soldiers, one support brigade with as many to handle non-combat work, and a full squadron of armed drones for fire support.
These four brigades need to deploy in a ring around Kabul — China to the east, Russia to the north, Europe to the west, America to the south. They will form a mighty bulwark blocking any Taliban attempt to seize the capitol or cut off the highway leading to the Khyber Pass near Jalalabad.
The Taliban and United States have both violated the terms of the agreement made under the Trump administration, so a new one is required.
It will be founded on a simple proposition: Afghanistan is dead, Kabul is a free city-state, and the Taliban are free to form a government to rule the rest — if they can manage it.
Once secure, Kabul can be reforged as a stable democratic city-state in the mold of Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain, or Oman. The international military presence will allow a new Kabul defense force to be trained to professional standards, with each brigade training a competent locally recruited force to take over all defense responsibilities over the next three years.
The reason the Afghan National Army has failed — save for its brave commando forces, which are being criminally used up by the government’s idiotic attempt to hold off the Taliban everywhere at once — is that there is no Afghan national identity to rally around.
America spent 20 years trying to build one, all the while failing to understand the internal dynamics of Afghan society and trying to impose a western model of government on a country that barely exists.
So once America bailed out of Bagram, the Afghanistan it had propped up instantly collapsed. It’s over — done. People exhausted by chronic violence will almost always embrace any promise of long-term stability no matter who offers it or the conditions.
The Taliban is not in truth all that popular and will probably trigger uprisings against its oppressive rule in the coming years — and therein lies the one hope for rebirth Afghanistan has left.
The international community — or even just the EU and China acting jointly — has to secure Kabul as a refuge for all the people of Afghanistan who choose to flee Taliban rule in the coming months.
Kabul must be defended — then made the site of massive targeted investments in basic infrastructure.
The truth about Afghanistan is that most people remain poor, the government is brazenly corrupt and in bed with brutal warlords, and this is a situation both America and NATO tolerated because they always had ulterior motives for being in Afghanistan.
Now that it is too costly to prop their pet government up anymore, they’re cutting and running, abandoning 30 million people to the Taliban.
Around six million people, possibly a whole lot more live in and around Kabul. Millions more may flee there soon. And this represents an opportunity that cannot be wasted.
In it lies the best hope of everyone living in that war-blighted land.
If the Taliban takes Kabul, sooner or later Afghanistan inevitably disintegrates into a series of warlord states unless it gets direct backing from an external patron like China.
This collapse will trigger waves of refugees fleeing into all its neighbors’ territory — and if violence has not already broken out in Pakistan it soon will.
If Afghanistan disintegrates, it’s a safe bet that Pakistan does too in a few years. That will send India into turmoil, possibly Iran as well given its long border with both Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Nobody should want that to happen. But America is letting it happen because Biden wants to pretend all is candy and dreamland because he got one bipartisan bill through the senate.
The best solution the world has is to make Kabul into a modern, prosperous, independent city again — as it was in ancient times.
Turn it into the Singapore of Central Asia, a free city where human rights are guaranteed because the international community is funding development and demands they be.
When the rest of Afghanistan disintegrates, Kabul will stand strong. If and when rebellions against Taliban rule begin in places like Kunduz and Mazar-i-Sharif, Kabul can recognize and directly support the rebels, helping them break free one region at a time.
Then, they can discuss how to form a federation.
In the long run, Afghanistan can only exist as a kind of confederation without a powerful central ruling body.
It will have to be something akin to the United Arab Emirates to integrate the southern parts of the country that will always be supportive of many of the ideals of the Taliban.
To achieve this requires following the following over-arching plan of operations:
- An international military force enters Kabul and secures the region around it with the support of local allies, including the remnants of the national government.
- It commits to staying for three years before withdrawing and handing over defense responsibilities to a new and well-equipped Kabul-focused defense force built up from the Afghan Commandos
- Massive international investment flows in to build businesses and infrastructure — solar panels, green manufacturing, the kinds of things that can make Kabul economically self-sustaining
- A new decentralized democratic government is empowered to evade the chronic corruption pervading the Afghan national government, supported directly by the United Nations
- Any Taliban attempts to build up military forces near the secure region are decisively defeated. Once oppressed groups begin to rebel, they can be supported until their territory is clear of Taliban
- A new secure, independent region is established, replicating the process until the territory of Afghanistan is split into a series of largely-independent city states. These may then confederate peacefully
This has to happen because ignoring Afghanistan is not an option. If the world does, it will pay the price — probably by the end of the decade.
After the Soviets left Afghanistan in the late 1980s and the Americans stopped funding the local jihadists to fight their Cold War foe, Osama Bin Laden was able to build Al Qaeda into a force capable of shaking the world’s most powerful superpower to its very foundations.
In a way, America’s ongoing self-immolation is an accidental side effect of walking away from Afghanistan.
This time, the rest of the world stands at risk of what may next emerge from the deserts of Central Asia.
It is in everyone’s best interest that a multinational military force deploy to Kabul before it is isolated. As with the pandemic, this is one of those genies you don’t want to let get too far from its bottle, thinking you can respond in time to whatever blowback there is.
Don’t make that mistake. Correct the mistakes of the past. Intervene to save Kabul now.