We were doomed to fail in Afghanistan from the beginning of our involvement there. Relentless rebellion was inevitable and insurgency will always win the day. A piece of land can be occupied, but a people is another matter entirely. Insurgents, unlike their occupiers, identify with the land. And identity is allegiance.
A map of the tribes of Afghanistan looks like a patchwork quilt. The Afghan Constitution notes 14 ethnic groups by name and there are still others. Yes, citizens may carry a passport and there is a national flag but
make no mistake - their identity is not in the passport; the country is more a collection of tribes than a nation-state.
Speaking of flags, Afghanistan has gone through two dozen changes to its national flag, more than any other country in the world. A fair sign of a muddled and unstable national identity.
It’s easier for us in the West to deal with nation-states than to figure out a bunch of competing tribes with a very old and complex history. The latter is messy. We prefer to hold to the perception that Afghanistan (and the Middle East for that matter) and its people are homogenous and cohesive and also, sort of like us operationally, culturally, politically, morally and socially. Remember the confused disappointment at the apparent failure of the Arab Spring? Similarly, the western press lamented not being able to bring democracy to Afghanistan. But it’s not about democracy; it’s about identity.
Since the departure of U.S. troops, the Taliban have been encountering relatively little resistance. Although some local troops fight hard and are dying, even the Taliban has been surprised at how easy it was to step in and take over despite the well-equipped Afghan forces outnumbering them by a factor of four. To explain the failure of $800 million to support a viable Afghan security force able to counter the Taliban, some have pointed to corruption. Yes, corruption is rampant and education lacking in one of the world’s poorest countries. But despite bribes and threats, would Afghan soldiers fight bravely and with conviction if it were in support of a goal that closely aligned with their identity? Family ties, religious beliefs, shared heritage and tribal affiliation make up an identity. An identity simply cannot be forced on someone. And let’s face it, your average Afghan solider has far more in common with a member of the Taliban than he does with U.S. soldiers hailing from Milwaukee or San Francisco.
Your identity is linked to what you value in life. The value system of the peoples who live in Afghanistan is quite different from that of the West. In the West, value is placed on individualism; in the East, it’s related to one’s community. We in the West put the individual on a pedestal whereas in the East, it’s the tribe and the community that counts. In the West, we value personal freedom; the East values honor. And even when an American describes an honorable man he means that he does not lie or cheat and lives by a certain moral code. Honorable in the East has to do with people paying respect to an individual, that person’s power and his contribution to and stature in the community. In the West, we tend to admire financial and vocational success. In the East, status relates to one’s family and religious rectitude. All this informs allegiance. It determines what will bring people together and what they will fight for or, not.
Can you name one instance when an insurgency was successfully put down? From the British point of view, George Washington was an insurgent who resisted a strong occupying force. His band of insurgents did not/no longer identified with England as a ruling power. And look how that turned out. A war may be ‘won’ via huge military might, a place and people may be taken over, but then, resistance inevitably begins.
Absent an honest understanding and acceptance of how things work in Central Asia, intervention efforts however well intended will inevitably meet with failure. Maybe the next time we feel compelled to wage war against a country, we first take a careful, objective look at history and context. Then, we take into account how extremely difficult if not impossible it is to impose on a people a new culture/identity/value system - not in twenty years, not in two hundred.