Why Was There So Little Resistance When Afghanistan Collapsed?


John McLaughlin

John McLaughlin is the former deputy director of the CIA. He writes a regular column on OZY called “Global Eye: Foreign Affairs Through an Intelligence Lens,” and teaches at the Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS).

Among the many questions in the aftermath of the Taliban’s victory in Afghanistan, two stand out: How and why did the Afghan security forces collapse so quickly and will the U.S. withdrawal lead to a resurgence of terrorism there?

On the first question, many commentators have expressed astonishment that years of training by U.S. and allied forces, along with the provision of advanced and costly military equipment, did not create a force able to resist the Taliban resurgence. This is a fundamental misunderstanding of the dynamics of war. My views on this were forged in a very different conflict, Vietnam, where I served in the U.S. Army during 1968, the bloodiest year of that war.

I took away the view that in war, training, sophisticated equipment and personal courage are not enough to ensure effective combat performance. In the end, it is all very personal and is about whether you are ready to risk your life to defeat the enemy. You come to that readiness through some combination of four means: strong identification with a cause you support and respect (usually embodied in a government you trust), gifted military leadership you trust that shares those values and inspires you to overcome fear, a government that can compel you to serve with the threat of sanctions and a conviction that you must destroy the adversary to save yourself. When most of those are not present simultaneously, as they seldom were for many South Vietnamese soldiers, the level of bravery, fine training and equipment become close to irrelevant.

Without hard data, I suspect that this was also the situation for many Afghan soldiers, which I say with no intention of questioning their personal courage. To be sure, other factors were also at work. U.S. air support, on which they became vitally dependent, had begun to disappear. And not to be underestimated is these forces’ ability to simply change into civilian clothes and fade away, which is something nearly impossible in tightly structured western armies with long traditions of enforcing such violations of military commitments. I have not served with Afghan units, but I would not be surprised if there was weak identification with national leadership, limited trust in many military commanders and widespread awareness of corruption — always the breeding ground for cynicism in military units.

On the issue of whether terrorists will again take root in a Taliban-governed Afghanistan, it’s virtually certain that the threat from Afghan soil will increase beyond what it has been in the years of U.S. military presence. There has been much discussion of whether to believe or dismiss Taliban claims that they will not again ally with al-Qaida or like-minded groups. But whether there is some formal or informal agreement between the Taliban and al-Qaida or the Islamic State is almost irrelevant. The more important point is that many stretches of this mountainous country will be either ungoverned or un-monitored in the way they constantly were during the period of heavy U.S. presence. That, combined with the lengthy porous border with Pakistan’s least governed regions will give extremists a large field in which to train, plan and plot.

That situation adds to a broader problem conditioning the terrorist threat globally: the fact that there is now more ungoverned — or less tightly controlled — space in the region and in Africa than there was on 9/11. Back then, Afghanistan was wide open for al-Qaida, but there had not yet been a civil war in Syria, an insurgency and its still-unsettled aftermath in Iraq, a revolution in Libya followed by a civil war. All of these opened up space for terrorists that they still use. Egypt and Tunisia, for example, were still tightly controlled by dictators with horrible human rights records enforced by security services that, however despicable their policies, had firmer control of their streets and territory generally. And sub-Saharan Africa had not yet seen the rise of groups such as Boko Haram, al-Shabab, and various Islamic State affiliates.

Does this mean an increased threat to the U.S. homeland? Probably not in the short-term, because of the damage we’ve inflicted on many of these groups and because of the much more effective defenses we’ve erected against penetration of America since 9/11. But over the longer term, we must assume they will work hard to get through such defenses. Charting the surprises terrorists have sprung on us leaves me always humble in estimating the threat they pose. I’m thinking of plots that went awry or were disrupted, but just barely — the 2006 plot to blow up airliners heading over the Atlantic from the U.K., the 2009 “underwear bomber” who almost blew up a plane over Detroit, the 2010 Times Square bomber thwarted by a street seller, the detected plan to place bombs in printer cartridges on transport aircraft. For now, though, what’s most immediately called for is heightened security at U.S. and allied facilities in the region and in Europe.

At this point, Afghanistan is the most fluid situation facing U.S. national security. Our understanding of it and estimates of the future are certain to evolve rapidly. So, the best bottom line right now has to be simply: stay tuned.

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