Power changes hands in Afghanistan

The US is out, the Taliban is back, and the population bears the suffering.

By Jen Overbeck in world events

August 1, 2021

Kabul has fallen back into the hands of the Taliban. It appears that anyone who’s been paying attention (not me, I confess) is not surprised. The NY Times provides a helpful analysis of the rapid collapse of the Afghan government after the US withdrawal; despite 20 years of fighting, training, and spending, America’s investment in building an independent Afghanistan has yielded nothing but a Taliban now armed and equipped with all we provided.

I know little about the realities on the ground in Afghanistan. But what’s emerging–as is so often true, we learn far too late what many have known for a long time–sounds like a predictable story of power dynamics.

Dynamic 1: The US operated in a naked-power frame.

Any takeover grounded in military force is, by definition, using naked power. From the earliest days of the US invasion in 2001, the goal was to oust the Taliban and deny Al Qaeda a base of operations. The Bush administration would clearly have liked to disengage after these expulsive steps; it wanted quick action, not nation building. The US military has overwhelming strength in arms, equipment, and personnel. With 12 of its 20 years of occupation spent under Republican presidents who wanted to believe that coercive force was the best tactic, the military never transcended its combat orientation. The only way to win would have been to continue throwing more money, more arms, more people into Afghanistan–as, indeed, many generals wanted. To monitor pockets of insurgency, to outbid bribes from enemy forces, to make opposition so costly and painful it must be abandoned…these necessary elements of a naked-power strategy would have required much more than the US was willing to commit. Without a shift from naked to traditional power, the US could not hope to create lasting change.

Dynamic 2: Afghan forces never developed into respected partners; they always remained dependent and disdained.

The nominal strategy for nation-building and legitimacy was to build an Afghan government and military structure that could receive newly-purged lands and build a homegrown system. But stories about training Afghan soldiers suggest that the trainees were never approached as capable, autonomous actors developing into full partners. Rather, at best they were disparaged and criticized as lazy and unmotivated. At worst, they were regarded with deep suspicion, especially when training was punctuated by incidents of terrorist violence by trainees.

This dynamic leaves the US military as the only party with agency, and the Afghans as passive followers. Instead of wrangling with difficult issues (What cause do I serve? What does loyalty mean? How do we best secure the long-term future of our nation?), they were stuck following orders. This low-power role would have caused them to focus more on how to do things (probably while reducing effort) rather than why those things must be done. Without a long-term vision and commitment to a greater-than-self outcome, and without the feeling of agency in wanting and achieving that outcome, the Afghan military could never fully take over for the Americans.

Dynamic 3: The US backed self-dealers motivated hedonically, rather than public servants motivated to strengthen the nation.

The Afghan police forces were corrupt. The first post-invasion Afghan president was corrupt. The nation’s key actors and operations were corrupt.

Some of my emerging research examines the proposition that self-dealing, coercive power can be effective in the short term, but is very hard to sustain–and will typically fall–in the long term. Consider how long figures such as Saddam Hussein and Moammar Khaddafi held on to power, living in palaces and amassing wealth while crushing all opposition. When they fell, they fell suddenly. Afghanistan’s leaders and security apparatus may never have enjoyed the ascendancy that these two did, but again we see self-dealing power fall suddenly.

Leaders who are motivated by the pleasures of power are looking for the simplest, smoothest path to those pleasures. They are not prepared to endure sacrifice to achieve something greater than themselves.

Leaders who are motivated by the pursuit of an ideal, on the other hand, know that power will bring difficulty. It will be uncomfortable. It will require sacrifice. They are ready for these challenges–they can see the greatness, the joy, in making progress toward that ideal. These leaders are needed in places like Afghanistan. But the US didn’t make sure to back this kind of leader.

Dynamic 4: Everyone confused strength with power.

A US Army unit can come into a village with overwhelming armed force; the villagers behave politely (out of fear or strategy) and, when the army leaves, go right back to what they were doing before. A man seeking influence can hold himself out as an expert advisor on how to take over a nation, but not have the ability to create actual change on the ground.

It’s easy to confuse strength with power. Yelling looks like power. Being large and imposing. Showing absolute confidence, talking a lot, bowling over other people. Insulting and belittling others. Dare I say, holding rallies where you talk up how tough you are, and creating policies that harm those more vulnerable than yourself. Many people look at these things and think, “Aha! Someone powerful! I need him on my side!” (Of course, it’s usually a “him”; also, stay tuned for some thoughts about Andrew Cuomo.)

Afghanistan is full of warlords and corruption. The US, coming in as invaders and occupiers, faced the difficult task of deciding whom to back. It looked at the available candidates and chose ones who looked tough. These were not the ones best suited to rebuild a nation, to recast a culture, to achieve a new kind of greatness.

And when their backers pulled out, and the Taliban rolled in, it showed. This was not the job they signed up for. They folded.