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What caused Afghan forces to collapse

The collapse of the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) surprised American officials. The US intelligence community had earlier assured American decision-makers that Afghan forces could hold their own for months against the Taliban. President Joe Biden and his inner-circle sought to deflect blame for Afghanistan’s collapse onto a supposed ANSF refusal to fight. President Joe Biden, for example, declared, “It is wrong to order American troops to step up when Afghanistan’s own armed forces would not.”

While it is not true that the ANSF did not fight—more than 45,000 Afghan soldiers and police died fighting Taliban—the Afghan army’s collapse is indisputable. Rather than simply blame Afghans for the failure, American officials should instead reflect on why its military training programs consistently fail. After all, the United States spent 82.9 billion dollars on the ANSF and over 25 billion dollars on the Iraqi military over the past 20 years with little to show for its efforts. In total, the amount of money the United States has wasted on these training programs exceeds the entire gross domestic product of Ethiopia. What went wrong?

Culture Matters

When seeking to rebuild a military from scratch, the Pentagon too often assumes it has a tabula rasa. It will never have such luxury, however, because culture always colors the canvas. In his 1996 doctoral dissertation, reprised most recently in the 2019 book Arab Armies in the Sand, military historian Kenneth Pollack asked why Arab armies have fared so poorly in the post-World War II world. He finds, “patterns of behavior derived from the dominant Arab culture are probably the most important of a range of factors that contributed to poor Arab performances in combat.” Three years later, Norvell De Atkine, a retired US Army colonel who spent much of his career working with Arab militaries, explored “Why Arabs Lose Wars.” He posited that over-centralization, discouragement of initiative, inflexibility, and a culture that prioritized rote memorization all contributed to the poor performance of Arab militaries. He also noted class and shame could impact training. To ask a question of a trainee officer without ensuring he first knew the answer might lead that officer to believe he has purposely been set up for public humiliation, De Atkine explained.

Afghanistan is not Arab but its culture shares more with Arab society than with the West.  Cultural misunderstandings sow distrust. At American boot camps, drill sergeants break down enlistees to rebuild them stronger. The course language present at Camp Lejeune or Fort Jackson backfires when transposed into a shame-based culture. In a worst-case scenario, an Afghan trainee who believes himself humiliated might kill his instructor, or any American within reach. This was not the main reason for “green-on-blue” violence but it contributed.

Cultural missteps, even when innocent, have consequences. American instructors who sought to instill an American model on to their Afghan subjects often received just a few hours’ training in Islamic theology and perhaps sat through a quick brief about the Pashtunwali, the Pashtun social code. Gaffes followed. For an instructor to interrupt or delay prayers, for example, was to imply that the instructor believed himself more important than God, something that delegitimized the American in the eyes of the indigenous soldier.

Americans, of course, expected loyalty from the ANSF forces they trained. A generation of US military trainers believed official rhetoric about US commitment to Afghanistan. Afghans, however, were always more cynical. They understood that no power has ever stayed in Afghanistan for long. This led Afghan families to hedge their bets: it was not uncommon for a patriarch to direct one son to join the ANSF and another the Taliban, less out of ideological affinity to either and more for the interests of the family so that they might have a way to de-conflict with either side. The frequency of American rotations only reinforced the idea that Americans had neither staying power nor skin in the game.

Differences in an understanding of the historical framework affected both behavior and misunderstandings. For Americans, ancient history begins a decade ago, but Afghans have a longer collective memory. When the late Taliban founder Mullah Omar, for example, would refer to Mohammad Shah Khan, every Afghan would understand that both were Hotaki Ghilzai and the analogy Mullah Omar was drawing between the slaughter of the British army in 1841 and his own efforts against the US and NATO forces more than 160 years later.

Framework Matters

As great a problem as culture, however, was framework. US military leaders sought to reconstruct both the Afghan and Iraq militaries in the US image. This was not simply arrogance: the US envisioned its role evolving from fighting to cooperation with indigenous forces to a more behind-the-scenes train-and-assist mission and so wanted interoperability. The complexity of the design, however, was problematic: The United States dominated intelligence and air assets as well as medical and logistical support. In effect, the Pentagon created a foundation upon which the Afghans could fight, never recognizing that the whim of a Washington politician might undermine the basis upon which it designed the military to fight.

Neither Iraq nor Afghanistan needed an army modeled on a NATO partner because neither country any longer sought to protect itself from an invasion by a hostile power set on territorial conquest. With few exceptions—the Malayan Emergency being the primary example—formal armies do not counter insurgencies well. What Iraqis and Afghans needed was the flexibility to counter insurgents, militias, and the Taliban on their own terms. Whereas Leahy vetting might sound good in the halls of Congress, it does not translate well when facing adversaries who do not care about long-established laws of war or the human rights conventions enshrined in international law. This does not mean that the United States should turn a blind eye to human rights abuses, but rather that a conversation is overdue about whether insisting on certain human rights standards might throw out the baby with the bathwater should it lead to victories by groups like the Islamic State or Taliban.

The Zero Defects Curse

From World War II through the Vietnam War, the culture of “zero defects” grew prominent within the US military. Superficially, the idea was good: US military leaders would accept nothing less than perfect. In reality, zero defects was a disaster. Rather than openly acknowledge reality and flaws, the intolerance to bad news incentivized every officer to exaggerate success or cover up failure. Superiors would negatively assess any officer who reported honestly, when they compared his file to those who gamed the zero defects culture.

In Iraq, for example, both Gen. David Petraeus, whom President Obama appointed to head the CIA, and Gen. Martin Dempsey, who rose to chair the Joint Chiefs of Staff, presided over training programs. They cultivated relationships with journalists and exaggerated their success. Embellishment paid off; both pocketed promotions before the emptiness of their self-assessment became apparent. Unless and until Washington prioritizes honesty over self-promotion, such expensive failures will repeat.

It would be wrong, however, simply to scapegoat key generals. Washington has a broader problem with metrics. Across the US government, there is a tendency to equate money with effectiveness. Politicians assume a 1 billion dollars program is ten times as effective as a 100 million dollars program. In reality, this is fantasy: a wooden shack is far more stable than a mansion if built on sand. In the context of Iraq and Afghanistan, less is more as large sums exacerbate dysfunctional corruption.

The United States has ended its presence in Afghanistan and its engagement in Iraq may not last much longer. Few in Washington care for self-assessment. The Pentagon conducts only limited after-action reports, while the State Department neglects them entirely. It would be easy for the bureaucracy to simply close the file and swear never again. This would be a mistake, however. The crisis no one saw coming during the campaign has defined the legacy of every president since Jimmy Carter. America may be in a period of retrenchment, but its enemies may not care. Unless the United States commits to understand the reason for its multi-billion training failures, it will be guaranteed to repeat them.

So too might partners like Turkey. Whereas Afghans have historically had special affinity for Turkey, it has been nearly a century since Zahir Shah turned to Atatürk to help construct a modern Afghan army. That structure collapsed against the backdrop of the Soviet invasion and civil war. While Turkish officials might highlight religious solidarity and avoid some of the cultural gaffes their American partners made, it will be harder to paper over the broader problems with rhetoric of solidarity alone.

Michael Rubin
Michael Rubin

Michael Rubin is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, where he specializes in Iran, Turkey, and the broader Middle East.

A former Pentagon official, Dr. Rubin has lived in post-revolution Iran, Yemen, and both pre- and postwar Iraq. He also spent time with the Taliban before 9/11. For more than a decade, he taught classes at sea about the Horn of Africa and Middle East conflicts, culture, and terrorism, to deployed US Navy and Marine units.

Foreword There have been numerous significant developments for TPQ since 2022. Our recent rebranding as Transatlantic Policy Quarterly not only reflects our expanded focus on international issues with broad implications for European and American politics, but also incorporates a new vision for the future. Our most recent issues focused on various aspects of the broader challenges and...