HARPER: ANATOL LIEVEN HAS IT PARTLY RIGHT

Anatol Lieven has written a useful piece in Politico which tells some of the story of how Taliban was able to so quickly take over most of Afghanistan territory with only a limited amount of fighting. While it does not dig deep enough into the underlying culture of the Graveyard of Empires, it does afford a picture unknown to most Western observers and one that has been almost totally ignored by the recent hysteria in the MSM.

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Opinion | Why Afghan Forces So Quickly Laid Down Their Arms
Opposing Afghan factions have long negotiated arrangements to stop fighting — something the U.S. either failed to understand or chose to ignore.

Opinion by ANATOL LIEVEN

08/16/2021

In the winter of 1989, as a journalist for the Times of London, I accompanied a group of mujahedeen fighters in Afghanistan’s Ghazni province. At one point, a fortified military post became visible on the other side of a valley. As we got closer, the flag flying above it also became visible — the flag of the Afghan Communist state, which the mujahedeen were fighting to overthrow.

“Isn’t that a government post?” I asked my interpreter. “Yes,” he replied. “Can’t they see us?” I asked. “Yes,” he replied. “Shouldn’t we hide?” I squeaked. “No, no, don’t worry,” he replied reassuringly. “We have an arrangement.”

I remembered this episode three years later, when the Communist state eventually fell to the mujahedeen; six years later, as the Taliban swept across much of Afghanistan; and again this week, as the country collapses in the face of another Taliban assault. Such “arrangements” — in which opposing factions agree not to fight, or even to trade soldiers in exchange for safe passage — are critical to understanding why the Afghan army today has collapsed so quickly (and, for the most part, without violence). The same was true when the Communist state collapsed in 1992, and the practice persisted in many places as the Taliban advanced later in the 1990s.

Images of Taliban in Afghanistan 1990’s

Taliban fighters huddle in a frontline shelter during a lull in fighting south of Kabul, March 22, 1995. | Craig Fujii/AP Photo

This dense web of relationships and negotiated arrangements between forces on opposite sides is often opaque to outsiders. Over the past 20 years, U.S. military and intelligence services have generally either not understood or chosen to ignore this dynamic as they sought to paint an optimistic picture of American efforts to build a strong, loyal Afghan army. Hence the Biden administration’s expectation that there would be what during the Vietnam War was called a “decent interval” between U.S. departure and the state’s collapse.

While the coming months and years will reveal what the U.S. government did and didn’t know about the state of Afghan security forces prior to U.S. withdrawal, the speed of the collapse was predictable. That the U.S. government could not foresee — or, perhaps, refused to admit — that beleaguered Afghan forces would continue a long-standing practice of cutting deals with the Taliban illustrates precisely the same naivete with which America has prosecuted the Afghanistan war for years.

The central feature of the past several weeks in Afghanistan has not been fighting. It has been negotiations between the Taliban and Afghan forces, sometimes brokered by local elders. On Sunday, the Washington Post reported “a breathtaking series of negotiated surrenders by government forces” that resulted from more than a year of deal-making between the Taliban and rural leaders.

Taliban fighters sit on a vehicle along the street in Jalalabad province on Aug. 15, 2021. | AFP via Getty Images

In Afghanistan, kinship and tribal connections often take precedence over formal political loyalties, or at least create neutral spaces where people from opposite sides can meet and talk. Over the years, I have spoken with tribal leaders from the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region who have regularly presided over meetings of tribal notables, including commanders on opposite sides.

One of the key things discussed at such meetings is business, and the business very often involves heroin. When I was traveling in Afghanistan in the late 1980s, it was an open secret that local mujahedeen groups and government units had deals to share the local heroin trade. By all accounts, the same has held between Taliban and government forces since 2001.

The power of kinship led to a common arrangement whereby extended families have protected themselves by sending one son to fight with the government army or police (for pay) and another son to fight with the Taliban. This has been a strategy in many civil wars, for example, among English noble families in the 15th-century Wars of the Roses. It means that at a given point, one of the sons can desert and return home without fearing persecution by the winning side.

These arrangements also serve practical purposes. It is often not possible for guerrilla forces to hold any significant number of prisoners of war. Small numbers might be held for ransom, but most ordinary soldiers are let go, enlisted in the guerrillas’ own ranks or killed.

Thus, as in medieval Europe, Afghanistan has a tradition to which the Taliban have adhered closely — and which helps explain the speed of their success. The Taliban will summon an enemy garrison to surrender, either at once or after the first assaults. If it does so, the men can either join the besiegers or return home with their personal weapons. To kill them would be seen as shameful. On the other hand, a garrison that fought it out could expect no quarter, a very strong incentive to surrender in good time.

The Soviet-backed Afghan state survived for three years after the Soviet withdrawal, and in fact outlasted the USSR itself — a telling commentary on the comparative decrepitude of the “state” that the United States and its partners have attempted to create since 2001. During my travels with the mujahedeen, I was present at a hard-fought battle at Jalalabad in March 1989, in the immediate wake of the Soviet withdrawal, when Afghan government forces beat off a massive mujahedeen assault.

But after the USSR collapsed and Soviet aid ended in December 1991, there was very little fighting. Government commanders, starting with Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum (who since 2001 has been on the American side, illustrating the fluidity of Afghan allegiances), either took their men over to the mujahedeen, fled or went home — and were allowed to do so by the victors. Kabul was captured intact by the mujahedeen in 1992, as it is being captured by the Taliban now. In the later 1990s, while in some areas the Taliban faced strong resistance, elsewhere enemy garrisons also surrendered without a fight and in many cases joined the Taliban.

Deals between Afghan and Taliban forces during the U.S. war have been detailed in works like War Comes to Garmser by Carter Malkasian and An Intimate War by British soldier Mike Martin. A report by the Afghanistan Analysts Network describes such an agreement in Pakhtia province in 2018:

“Haji Ali Baz, a local tribal elder, told AAN that it was agreed that the government’s presence would be limited to the district centre, and neither side would venture into the areas controlled by the other. This agreement resulted in all of the government security posts outside the district centre being dismantled. In the words of Haji Ali Baz, this led to the end of the fighting, which had ‘caused a lot of trouble for the people.’”

Most recently, as described in the Washington Post Sunday, after the Biden administration declared in April that U.S. forces were withdrawing, “the capitulations began to snowball.”

Afghan society has been described to me as a “permanent conversation.” Alliances shift, and people, families and tribes make rational calculations based on the risk they face. This is not to suggest that Afghans who made such decisions are to blame for doing what they felt to be in their self-interest. The point is that America’s commanders and officials either completely failed to understand these aspects of Afghan reality or failed to report them honestly to U.S. administrations, Congress and the general public.

We can draw a clear line between this lack of understanding and the horrible degree of surprise at the events of the past several days. America didn’t predict this sudden collapse, but it could have and should have — an unfortunately fitting coda to a war effort that has been undermined from the start by a failure to study Afghan realities.

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13 Responses to HARPER: ANATOL LIEVEN HAS IT PARTLY RIGHT

  1. Pat Lang says:

    Lieven is a political scientist at Georgetown University. He approaches this subject from a position of unbelief in Islam and a reliance on kinship and lineage relationships. He ignores the content of men’s souls. The true phenomenon is illustrated by the picture of the talib confronting the old man and demanding that he do his duty to God.

    • English Outsider says:

      I hope he gets his facts right, Colonel. I’ve just recommended Lieven’s potted history of Afghanistan that LeaNder found recently.

      I went looking for his other work. “He ignores the content of men’s souls.” When I read that I realised what I had found missing in him.

  2. Sam says:

    The Taliban spokesman got a question about freedom of speech and he said the question should be asked to US companies like Facebook who claim to promote it while still censoring

    https://twitter.com/mliammccollum/status/1427658106054406149?s=21

    Love this. Pointing out the hypocrisy of the “rules-based order”.

  3. Barbara Ann says:

    Harper

    I have been trying, without success, to discover the subject matter of the painting behind the Taliban, which I understand is in the Presidential Palace in Kabul. The closest I’ve come is a suggestion that the stooping figure is Ahmad Khan Abdali aka Ahmad Shah Durrani, the founder of the Durrani empire which spanned the whole of modern day Afghanistan. The painting may depict his coronation. I see from his wiki that one of his descendants was killed by the British at the Battle of Maiwand in the second Anglo-Afghan war.

    This image is striking. I guess the suit is a representative of the Ghani government. He is clearly at easy with his brothers – a perfect illustration of Lieven’s main point. Replace the AK’s &M16’s with swords and the Talibs in the foreground would blend in very well with the figures depicted in the painting. The fit would not simply be visual either. Lose the smartphones and I expect the Talibs would be right at home in the world of their great great great great great great great great great grandfathers.

  4. Bobo says:

    Looking at the picture of the Taliban guards, their leader and translator points out some interesting items of data one would not expect of a Taliban soldier.
    1. They all have relatively new watches.
    2. All have haircuts that are well trimmed.
    3. Fingernails are trimmed and quite clean.
    4. Fingers are positioned properly on their weapons.
    5. Eyes are focused in a determined manner.
    6. Right hands are well cleaned without normal soiling.
    Shave off the beards, change into a suit and they could be working for the secret service.
    The background painting is exquisite in detail.

  5. Alex says:

    So American “intelligence” is not really intel, it is bias. As a Vietnam vet I can say when I went in ’68 I believed just about everything my government said about the war. We all did. After about a month of mortar fire and heat exhaustion, coupled with piss poor attitudes of fellow Marines and officers, I started to wonder what the fuck they expected out of this war because as far as I could tell they really had no intention of winning and everybody was just counting the days until your time was up. So our intel services don’t seem to be able to discover the truth when it is obvious, or maybe our intel is run by a corporate machine bent on making millions for Wall Street.

  6. Sam says:

    Anyone stlll discussing whether Orwell or Huxley sheds more light on the present moment, and still ignoring Kipling?

    As it will be in the future, it was at the birth of Man—
    There are only four things certain since Social Progress began:—
    That the Dog returns to his Vomit and the Sow returns to her Mire,
    And the burnt Fool’s bandaged finger goes wabbling back to the Fire…
    And that after this is accomplished,
    And the brave new world begins
    When all men are paid for existing and no man must pay for his sins,
    As surely as Water will wet us, as surely as Fire will burn,
    The Gods of the Copybook Headings with terror and slaughter return!

    https://twitter.com/thesimonevans/status/1427642924456685589?s=21

    Here’s my September 2001 essay on lessons to be learned from “The Man Who Would Be King:”

    – The US can easily drive the Taliban from Kabul as punishment.

    – But sticking around to nation-build is a fool’s errand.

    https://www.upi.com/Archives/2001/09/26/Afghan-insights-Man-Who-Would-Be-King/9401001476800/

    The hubris of Bush/Cheney and the general lack of education of the bureaucracy on history got us on the wrong path. Then it became a self-licking ice-cream cone. Steve Sailer’s essay from September 2001, using the parable of John Houston’s Man Who Would Be King, brilliantly played by Sean Connery and Michael Caine came to the right conclusion. But of course voices like his were ridiculed by the DC cognoscenti in the wake of 9/11.

    • Barbara Ann says:

      A rediscovery of Kipling is one of the small positives coming out of this debacle. I think a copy of Arithmetic on the Frontier ought to be on permanent, prominent display on the wall in the Pentagon, and in Congress for that matter.

      The Gods of the Copybook Headings is a brilliant polemic that was inspired by the progressivist thinking in post WWI England. It is both a good and very bad sign that this poem is starting to find wider recognition.

      • LeaNder says:

        We all appreciated David Habakkuk’s presence.

        Ok, I did. Your love of Kipling started way earlier?

      • English Outsider says:

        Barbara Ann – He’s a strange one, Kipling. Alien to me to an extent. Not solid and grounded as is that true apostle of true gods, Johnson. Beside that massive solidity Kipling seems too surface, too frivolous almost.

        He can write. How he can write! He has that precious gift of flow. You can take one of his finest short stories, “The Maltese Cat”, and dismiss it as overwrought anthropomorphic fantasy. Or you can recognise it as a jewel of construction in itself irrespective of content.

        An Australian friend once said to me “You bloody English. All you care about is style.” And it’s true that for many, for me for a long time, the sheer bedazzling competence of Kipling’s writing conceals the fact that he’s all over the place.

        That’s a consequence of his genius. He’s a blotting paper writer. He soaks up the ambience and puts us in it. So one moment he’s the Sahib justly administering the people without the law. Head prefect stuff. The next, he’s in an Indian hut showing us the other side of the coin. Give him a push and he’d be a freedom fighter against the very Raj he’s admiring.

        He’s similarly wayward in his political views. What is “The Captains and the Kings depart” but a prophetic epitaph for empire, and that written barely twenty years after that empire was formalised? But at the same time he’s eagerly entering into the world of Imperial Preference and the White Man’s Burden, those attempts to make something more of empire than merely a machine for looting.

        The poem you cited recently shows him aware of the corruption and incompetence that lay behind the war in which his son was killed. But in “Mary Postgate” he’s writing some of the darkest hate pieces one could find.

        So yes, he’s all over the place but for all that there’s more to being drawn to him than recognition of that technique. He’s not like Evelyn Waugh, again a fully competent writer but ultimately despicable and of little account. At the centre of all the waywardness there is something true and you identify it.

        And as you say, it’s both a good and a very bad sign that a wider recognition of this is emerging. We too today, who also instinctively reject the progressivist fantasy, are similarly all over the place. We have not found our true gods, as Kipling never did, but flounder this way and that, as did he, seeking something more than mere rejection of the false gods that currently rule our lives.

        • Barbara Ann says:

          EO

          I hope you were able to quote that most brilliant of your compatriots to your Australian friend: “In matters of grave importance, style, not sincerity is the vital thing”.

          “The Captains and the Kings depart” is from Recessional which is a warning that Britain’s extraordinary military might has the power to corrupt. The poem is a entreaty that she continue to be divinely blessed with righteousness of purpose. Twenty years later in The Gods of the Copybook Headings Kipling laments that Britain is indeed losing her way, but in a different way; by forgetting the very values that made her great. The Empire is decaying ideologically. Sound familiar? I would argue that it is one of the most solid works on the dangers of adopting progressive values ever written.

          I do not profess to be a Kipling expert, but I see his ability to write equally well of the Sahib and of the Indian in the hut as evidence of something so very much lacking today; empathy. Gunga Din, for instance, screams empathy from the rooftops. Is it possible you mistake this for frivolity and “all over the place”?

          By today’s standards Kipling is held to be a jingoist, imperialist and pretty much every other kind of ist the revisionists can invent to cleanse the historical record of white privilege and other such woke inventions. Kipling clearly believed in the fundamental goodness of his society’s values and the mission to bring civilization to the poor benighted heathens of the earth – in his day via the vehicle of the British Empire. He also recognized the need to occasionally slaughter the natives who were determined to resist the forces of civilization. But humility is clearly on display in his evident love for the regular grunt who job it was to do the slaughtering. And there is no exceptionalism, viz. the healthy respect for the enemy evident in Fuzzy-Wuzzy. These attitudes remind you of anyone?

          Col. Lang somewhere describes a Vietnamese view of French vs US intervention in SE Asia, it may have been here or in Tattoo. The individual says the French treated the indigenous like children, but beloved children. The Americans’ attitude he described as wanting to turn the Vietnamese into replicas of themselves. Kipling’s colonial attitude is clearly of the former sort. It is fashionable to condemn colonialism in its entirety, but for me Kipling is an exemplar of purity of motivation. It is a shame such subtleties are lost in the headlong rush by the wokeists to purify our intellectual fluids.

          Progressivism is destroying America and it is all too obvious where this leads. More fundamental values grounded in reality will reassert themselves. I do not think Kipling is being metaphorical in his description of the inevitable result.

  7. ISL says:

    Very unconvincing. From the point of the mostly ghost army of anyone in the ANA (believed in by the US to the tune of hundreds of billions of dollars) faced with no air cover, no good transport disrupted logistical lines (Taliban had largely interrupted them while the US was in control) and given the proven corruption of our top man in Kabul, the wise choice is obvious . . .

    That switching sides is an Afghan tradition, just explains why the ANA switched sides rather than surrender (though it has a long tradition of repeat deserting).

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