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Kabul has fallen because of US hubris

2021 August 20
by Paul Vallely

The speed with which the Taliban overran Afghanistan and its capital clearly took president Joe Biden aback.  But he cannot have been surprised at the events themselves for there was a grim inevitability to the way the dominoes fell once the United States announced it was pulling its troops out of the country.

Empathy is one of the political trademarks of the new US president. But if it was on display in his words and actions this week it was distinctly one-sided. “How many more generations of Americans’ daughters and sons would you have me send to fight?” Mr Biden said on US television in his first public comments since the fall of Kabul.  But there was no sympathy for the Afghans who fell to their death while clinging to the outside of departing US aircraft – nor for the countless despairing fellow citizens left behind.

What has been nakedly exposed this week is that the unfolding of events has been more about America than Afghanistan.  The US troop withdrawal was tied to a narrative in domestic politics with a decree that it must be complete by the 20th anniversary of 9/11 rather than being timed to fit with favourable developments on the ground in Afghanistan. When things began to go wrong Mr Biden took to blaming the hapless Afghans.

America first intervened in Afghanistan under George Bush with little strategic thought about what to do after chasing al Qaeda – and its Taliban allies – out of the country. Much the same may be said of Donald Trump who in 2020 signed a “peace deal” with the Taliban in which he committed to a withdrawal date in return for tenuous promises that the Taliban would act responsibly. The fundamentalist insurgents simply bided their time and stubbornly dragged out the peace talks to no fruitful conclusion. Despite that Mr Biden has essentially continued the Trump strategy and then expressed surprise at the outcome.

 Analysis by the Washington Post suggests that the Pentagon fell victim to the conceit that it could build from scratch an enormous Afghan army and police force numbering 350,000 personnel modelled on the centralised command structures and complex bureaucracy of the US army. But there was a cultural incompatibility rooted in a failure to understand Afghan society, the complex nature of its factionalism, the power of its warlords and the structures of corruption associated with the various regional militias.

The generals repeatedly ignored the warnings of the US military trainers that it was impossible to impose American military structures when fewer than 5 per cent of Afghan recruits could read. “Some Afghans also had to learn their colors, or had to be taught how to count,” one despairing military trainer said. A quarter of the army deserted every year.

Small wonder, then, that this army melted away in the face of the pugilistic zeal of the Taliban. Individuals swiftly recalculated where their interests lay and capitulated without violence or switched sides as Taliban leaders used a combination of cash, threats and promises of leniency to speed their progress.

President Biden, in the face of this, tried to sound resolute. But his combination of ignorance, hubris and callous indifference has brought him to the first low point of his presidency.

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