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“This Has Been a Hopeless Endeavor for Many, Many Years”

Joe Biden speaking at a presidential lectern
U.S. President Joe Biden speaks about the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan from the East Room of the White House on Monday. Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images

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How did Afghanistan fall so quickly, and so completely? Afghans have not maintained their security forces. President Ashraf Ghani has fled the country. The Taliban have taken over, and did so in less than four months. Slate War Stories columnist Fred Kaplan says that, without the Americans there to prop them up, the Afghan forces simply did what they had to do. Now, hope is in short supply for the tens of thousands of Afghans who worked for U.S. and NATO forces and were promised visas and a life abroad—many of them are stuck behind Taliban roadblocks. Officials at the U.S. Embassy were spending their remaining hours in Kabul burning documents that would identify allied Afghans, but Kaplan says the Taliban can still find them. However, U.S. President Joe Biden said the U.S. would move in the coming days to help transport Afghans with visas. To take stock of the situation after 20 years of U.S. military occupation, I spoke with Kaplan on Tuesday’s episode of What Next. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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Mary Wilson: Let’s talk about how we got here. We could go back two decades, but let’s remember February 2020, when a deal was struck between the U.S. and the Taliban for U.S. withdrawal, brokered by the Trump administration.

Fred Kaplan: Trump is now saying, If I were still president, there would have been conditions attached to this withdrawal. Well, no. The deal he went with, it had two deals. One was that the Taliban would not cooperate with al-Qaida or any other groups that threatened the United States. So far, nothing they’ve done has involved al-Qaida or anything like it. The second was that the Taliban would engage in intra-Afghan negotiations. Well, what does that mean? There is no time applied to this. It wasn’t like, “You will do this before taking over Kabul.” There is nothing in there that said you will not advance upon Kabul or any other city until we’re out of there or for another year or two. There is no such term. So the Taliban are still in compliance with the February 2020 agreement.

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Could the Biden administration have revisited that deal?

That’s an interesting question, because under the Trump deal, we were supposed to be completely out by May 1. Biden said that with the logistics, we were not going to be able to get out of there by then, so let’s say Sept. 11. The Taliban had no problems with that. But one thing Biden said is possibly true: that if he didn’t pull out all the troops in accordance with this deal, the Taliban would start fighting us again. American people don’t generally recognize that not a single American has been killed in Afghanistan since that February 2020 deal was signed. Zero. If Biden had come along and said, “Well, screw this deal, I know I’m not part of it, we’re keeping 2,000 troops in Afghanistan for the duration,” it’s possible that the Taliban would have started fighting again. It’s also possible they might not have. The point is, the proposition was never tested. Biden was looking to get out of Afghanistan as soon as possible, and the poorly, hastily negotiated Trump accord gave him an excuse for not delaying.

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In April of this year, Biden announced he would withdraw the remaining U.S. troops from Afghanistan. There were about 3,500 U.S. troops, and contractors would be coming with them. The drawdown begins in earnest in May, and so does the advance of the Taliban. They started in the rural areas, and then by July, people were starting to sound the alarm that this is going a lot faster than anybody anticipated. The Afghan forces are falling like dominoes. So the question became, why are they so weak?

You know, what was propping up the Afghan Army wasn’t just American troops, since American troops hadn’t really been engaged in direct combat for quite a while. What was propping Afghan forces up were things like close air support, logistics, intelligence helicopters that were able to transport Afghan troops from one very isolated part of the country to another. One problem here—and we have a tendency to do this—is that we built up the Afghan Army in the image of the U.S. military to make it dependent on all that logistics and close air support and intelligence and so forth. It enhanced the Afghan Army’s power greatly, but it also made it forever dependent on the U.S. Once that network of combat support and supplies and maintenance left, that was it. Even an American combat unit would not have had much ability to keep fighting without that network of support behind it. That plus the fact that the army hated the Taliban, but it never have never had much fealty toward the Afghan government, which remained corrupt, which didn’t give it enough food or water, much less guns and ammunition. So the soldiers said, This thing is going down the tubes and I don’t want to die here for something I don’t particularly believe in. Military experts and retired officers whom I was talking with all along thought that once we pulled out like this, it was just a matter of time, and not much time.

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I’m thinking of the stories I’ve read over the past week of Afghan forces waiting for rations and getting a box of slimy potatoes. And you’ve got reports of Afghan security force equipment winding up in the hands of the Taliban, who are using vehicles that still have Afghan insignias on them.

That had been going on for quite a long time. For years, maybe a decade. I mean, it’s a little dangerous to focus so much on what’s happened in the past couple of weeks. This has been a pretty hopeless endeavor for many, many years, arguably from the very beginning. The very fact we were fighting an insurgency that, when they were coming under attack, could just take safe haven in neighboring Pakistan—that alone really made the odds almost absurdly small that we were ever going to succeed here.

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In some ways, it’s even more delusional because there were generals like David Petraeus pushing for a counterinsurgency, for a nation-building kind of thing—but we don’t know how to do this outside of the image of ourselves. We had almost nobody over there who spoke the language, much less understood the history or the culture or anything. It was textbook from A to Z on how to do something like this incorrectly.

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What the Taliban takeover looks like to me is local Afghans knowing how to survive invasions: You figure out which big dog is leaving and you make nice with the next alpha dog in line. Afghans have been doing that for decades.

Listen, there were reports that even at this late date, a lot of Afghan farmers thought the U.S. people who were there were Russians. They never quite processed that the Russians had left a long time ago. But you know, to them, there’s no difference. Americans, Russians, they’re all outsiders.

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And of course, the Soviets left in ’89.

Yeah, maybe even before some of these when these farmers were little kids. But it almost doesn’t matter from their perspective. There is no difference. Both groups of outsiders came in and said, “We’re going to make a better future for you.” The Soviets said, We’re going to clue you in on the glories of international socialism. We came in and said, We’re going to clue you in to the to the glories of freedom, democracy, and modernity. It was all nonsense to them, and it had nothing to do with anything about their everyday lives.

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