It was 8 a.m. and the sleepy Afghan sergeant stood at what he called the front line, one month before the city of Kunduz fell to the Taliban. An unspoken agreement protected both sides. There would be no shooting.
That was the nature of the strange war the Afghans just fought, and lost, with the Taliban.
President Biden and his advisers say the Afghan military’s total collapse proved its unworthiness, vindicating the American pullout. But the extraordinary melting away of government and army, and the bloodless transition in most places so far, point to something more fundamental.
The war the Americans thought they were fighting against the Taliban was not the war their Afghan allies were fighting. That made the American war, like other such neocolonialist adventures, most likely doomed from the start.
Recent history shows it is foolish for Western powers to fight wars in other people’s lands, despite the temptations. 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.
Outside powers are fighting one war as visitors — occupiers — and their erstwhile allies who actually live there, something entirely different. In Afghanistan, it was not good versus evil, as the Americans saw it, but neighbor against neighbor.
When it comes to guerrilla war, Mao once described the relationship that should exist between a people and troops. “The former may be likened to water,” he wrote, “the latter to the fish who inhabit it.”
And when it came to Afghanistan, the Americans were a fish out of water. Just as the Russians had been in the 1980s. Just as the Americans were in Vietnam in the 1960s. And as the French were in Algeria in the 1950s. And the Portuguese during their futile attempts to keep their African colonies in the ’60s and ’70s. And the Israelis during their occupation of southern Lebanon in the ’80s.
Each time the intervening power in all these places announced that the homegrown insurgency had been definitively beaten, or that a corner had been turned, smoldering embers led to new conflagrations.
The Americans thought they had defeated the Taliban by the end of 2001. They were no longer a concern. But the result was actually far more ambiguous.
“Most had essentially melted away, and we weren’t sure where they’d gone,” wrote Brig. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, as quoted by the historian Carter Malkasian in a new book, “The American War in Afghanistan.”
In fact, the Taliban were never actually beaten. Many had been killed by the Americans, but the rest simply faded into the mountains and villages, or across the border into Pakistan, which has succored the movement since its inception.
By 2006, they had reconstituted sufficiently to launch a major offensive. The end of the story played out in the grim and foreordained American humiliation that unfolded over the past week — the consecration of the U.S. military loss.
“In the long run all colonial wars are lost,” the historian of Portugal’s misadventures in Africa, Patrick Chabal, wrote 20 years ago, just as the Americans were becoming fatally embroiled in Afghanistan.
The superpower’s two-decade entanglement and ultimate defeat was all the more surprising in that the America of the decades preceding the millennium had been suffused with talk of the supposed “lessons” of Vietnam.
The dominant one was enunciated by the former majority leader of the Senate, Mike Mansfield, in the late 1970s: “The cost was 55,000 dead, 303,000 wounded, $150 billion,” Mansfield told a radio interviewer. “It was unnecessary, uncalled-for, it wasn’t tied to our security or a vital interest. It was just a misadventure in a part of the world which we should have kept our nose out of.”
Long before, at the very beginning of the “misadventure,” in 1961, President John F. Kennedy had been warned off Vietnam by no less an authority than Charles de Gaulle. “I predict that you will sink step by step into a bottomless military and political quagmire, however much you spend in men and money,” de Gaulle, the French president, later recalled telling Kennedy.
The American ignored him. In words that foreshadowed both the Vietnam and Afghan debacles, de Gaulle warned Kennedy: “Even if you find local leaders who in their own interests are prepared to obey you, the people will not agree to it, and indeed do not want you.”
By 1968, American generals were arguing that the North Vietnamese had been “whipped,” as one put it. The problem was, the enemy refused to recognize that it had been defeated, and went right on fighting, as the foreign policy analysts James Chace and David Fromkin observed in the mid-1980s. The Americans’ South Vietnamese ally, meanwhile, was corrupt and had little popular support.
The same unholy trinity of realities — boastful generals, an unbowed enemy, a feeble ally — could have been observed at all points during the U.S. engagement in Afghanistan.
Kennedy should have listened to de Gaulle. The French president, unlike his American counterparts then and later, distrusted the generals and would not listen to their blandishments, despite being France’s premier military hero.
He was at that moment extricating France from a brutal eight-year colonial war in Algeria, against the fervent wishes of his top officers and the European settlers there who wanted to maintain the more than century-old colonial rule. His generals argued, rightly, that the interior Algerian guerrilla resistance had been largely smashed.
But de Gaulle had the wisdom to see that the fight was not over.
Massed at Algeria’s borders was what the insurgents called the “army of the frontiers,” later the Army of National Liberation, or A.L.N., which became today’s A.N.P., or National People’s Army, still the dominant element in Algerian political life.
“What motivated de Gaulle was they still had an army on the frontiers,” said Benjamin Stora, the leading historian of the Franco-Algerian relationship. “So the situation was frozen, militarily. De Gaulle’s reasoning was, if we maintain the status quo, we lose a lot.” He pulled the French out in a decision that still torments them.
The A.L.N. chief, later Algeria’s most important post-independence leader, Houari Boumediène, incarnated strains in the Algerian revolution — dominating strains — that will be familiar to Taliban watchers: religion and nationalism. The Islamists later turned against him over socialism. But the mass outpouring of popular grief at Boumediène’s funeral in 1978 was genuine.
Understand the Taliban Takeover in Afghanistan
Who are the Taliban? The Taliban arose in 1994 amid the turmoil that came after the withdrawal of Soviet forces from Afghanistan in 1989. They used brutal public punishments, including floggings, amputations and mass executions, to enforce their rules. Here’s more on their origin story and their record as rulers.
Boumediène’s hold on the people emanated from his own humble origins and his tenacity against the hated French occupier. Those elements help explain the Taliban’s virtually seamless infiltration across Afghan territory in the weeks and months preceding this week’s final victory.
The United States thought it was helping Afghans fight an avatar of evil, the Taliban, the running mate of international terrorism. That was the American optic and the American war.
But the Afghans, many of them, were not fighting that war. The Taliban are from their towns and villages. Afghanistan, particularly in its urban centers, may have changed over 20 years of American occupation. But the laws the Taliban promoted — repressive policies toward women — were not so different, if they differed at all, from immemorial customs in many of these rural villages, particularly in the Pashtun south.
“There is resistance to girls’ education in many rural communities in Afghanistan,” a Human Rights Watch report noted soberly last year. And outside provincial capitals, even in the north, it is rare to see women not wearing the burqa.
This is why for years the Taliban have been dispensing justice, often brutally, in the areas they have controlled, with the acquiescence — even the acceptance — of the local populations. Disputes over property and cases of petty crime are adjudicated expeditiously, sometimes by religious scholars — and these courts have a reputation for “incorruptibility” compared with the former government’s rotten system, Human Rights Watch wrote.
It is a system focused on punishment, often harsh. And despite the Taliban’s protestations this week of forgiveness for those who served the now defunct Afghan administration, they have not shown anything like tolerance in the past. The group’s system of clandestine prisons, housing large numbers of soldiers and government workers, inspired fear in local populations all over Afghanistan.
The Taliban leader, Mullah Abdul Gani Baradar, was reported to have received an enthusiastic welcome when he returned this week to the southern city of Kandahar, the birthplace of the Taliban. That should be another element of reflection for the superpower which, 20 years ago, felt it had no choice but to respond with its military to the crimes of Sept. 11.
For Mr. Malkasian, the historian who was himself a former adviser to America’s top commander in Afghanistan, there is a lesson from the experience, but it is not necessarily that America should have stayed away.
“If you have to go in, go in with the understanding that you can’t wholly succeed,” he said in an interview. “Don’t go in thinking, you’re going to solve it, or fix it.”