In Afghanistan, the signs of our failure were everywhere

Paul Wells: How is it that the West did things so terribly wrong?

So Joe Biden announced that the last American troops would be leaving Afghanistan, and before they could finish leaving, the entire country had fallen into the hands of a resurgent Taliban. Some people said that Biden was wrong to end the deployment. Some said that Americans, and the rest of us, were wrong to be there in the first place. But it is easy to remember why the last doomed war in Afghanistan started in 2001, and it is very difficult to find an easy way out after that.

My first trip to Afghanistan was in late 2007. It was a “thought leaders tour”. Half a dozen people from the NATO countries (an Italian journalist, an Estonian expert thinker, a Dutch military analyst, etc.) spent a week in Kabul and Kandahar as guests of the military alliance. In theory, we would see what was happening, or what our escorts and protectors, mostly British, Canadian and American, would show us. Then we would go home and lead opinion, somehow.

We flew from Brussels to Dubai and then to Kabul. After dinner in Dubai, the retired British military officer and the guy from the US-funded think tank started working on their op-ed “What We Saw in Afghanistan” for the Financial times. Neither of them had seen anything in Afghanistan yet. Something in the place always seemed to encourage more to speak than to listen.

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NATO’s International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) had spent 2006 moving into southern Afghanistan, with Canada assuming a leadership role in Kandahar province. The Taliban, who appeared on the ropes, fell back. So did the surprisingly diverse array of other Afghans and visitors from nearby countries who saw an advantage in killing NATO members: warlords, crime bosses, cross-faction grudge bearers and more. Canadian soldiers would say that the shots and improvised bombs came from “Military Forces of the Opposition”, to grasp the notion that it was not necessary to pass an ideological purity test to be a deadly threat. Coalition deaths in 2006 were three times higher than in 2004 and would triple again in 2010.

Most of the members of my small group had visited Afghanistan a couple of years earlier, when the country was quieter. It was hard for them to understand that things had gotten worse. Some complained about having to wear bulletproof vests. Others wished they could walk around downtown Kabul without “babysitters.” On the way from the airport, we had driven around a crater that marked the spot where an armored vehicle like ours had been thrown upward by a homemade bomb. But some of my fellow travelers weren’t in the mood to add two and two.

To be fair, any attempt to do the math led to increasingly disappointing results. Afghanistan was a disaster on a scale beyond comprehension. A desperately poor country whose median age is under 20 has been occupied by successive waves of outsiders for longer than most Afghans have ever lived. Millions of Afghans had learned rational lessons from watching armies come and go: Loyalties must change because circumstances would. The money or influence should be used as long as it is available because neither would last.

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The 37-member Western coalition constantly told itself that its tens of thousands of soldiers and officials were there just to help the Afghan government. It was a transparent fiction, beginning with the notion of an “Afghan government.” We walk into a cabinet minister’s office and there’s a US Army officer, huge and in desert camouflage, standing in the background, saying nothing after introducing himself. “I am the minister’s advisor,” said the soldier. Had the human and strategic stakes not been so high, the result would have seemed like an epic satire of government inefficiency, the novel that crowned Franz Kafka’s career never ended.

From 2001 to 2005, under a United Nations mandate, five Western countries had been tasked with reforming the central institutions in Afghanistan. The British were supposed to shut down the opium and heroin trade. The Americans tried to build an autonomous Afghan army. The Italians would make the courts run smoothly. The Japanese would disarm the irregular militias. The Germans would train the police. By 2007, none of these tasks had been accomplished. Countries not listed as potential customers in a file assumed their help was not needed. The leading countries were suspicious of foreign aid. The Americans decided that the Germans had done a terrible job training the police, so they tried to take over; meanwhile, Afghan police, unable to sleep overnight in reinforced military bases, were being massacred, dozens every week. Many used police checkpoints to shake drivers at gunpoint; the trade became so lucrative that checkpoint assignments were traded on a black market. You could get rich or die; you might as well try doing at least a little of each.

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The judges made less money, sat in well-lit rooms and decided whether to send the battle-hardened warlords to prisons so crowded they had to release as many prisoners as they would admit. Sometimes, when they left, the prisoners called the judge who sent them and said: “I’m coming out and I know where you are.”

Then there was the army: rebellious, ill-equipped, their families would likely remain targets for years in ways NATO soldiers could hardly imagine. They were supposed to become progressively more independent, but if combat conditions got too savage, they could always call for NATO reinforcements or an air strike. “We trained them to depend on us. For years, ”a retired army officer told me in August, after the fall of Kabul.

I returned to Afghanistan twice, in 2008 and 2010. I met a lot of good people who worked hard against overwhelming absurdity. In 2008, Canadians announced that they had started to try “white situational awareness”, which meant that they had finally started, after seven years, to try to understand as many Afghans who were obviously not trying to understand. kill them. Maybe they were starting a little late.

MORE: Canada’s Failure in Afghanistan

All those tens of thousands of people were there because planes flew into skyscrapers in 2001, sparking such anger and fear that, for months afterward, “Let’s not send soldiers to Afghanistan” was not a sustainable position in a democracy. Once they were there, when should they go home? When were the Taliban defeated but not destroyed? Or the following year? Or the following year?

Stephen Harper amazed me by bringing Canadian soldiers home in 2011. The last of the Germans and Italians came home this summer, the last of the Americans very soon. Until next time, I’m tempted to say. They say that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. I’ve been on that road, circling the cool crater.

This article appears in print in the October 2021 issue of Maclean’s magazine with the headline: “Traveling the road to hell in Afghanistan.” Subscribe to the monthly print magazine here.

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