The lives lost in Afghanistan demand an accounting from our national leadership. Every counterinsurgency is a battle for the loyalty of the people. Our leaders did not insist on an Afghan government, services or a military worthy of the people’s loyalty. We failed in Afghanistan because we did not support an option better than the Taliban. We now see the sobering consequences of that choice.
In 2011, I volunteered to serve in the governance section of the International Military Headquarters, because Afghanistan was turning into a new Vietnam War. The U.S. was again backing a predatory government that did not serve the people. I hoped to help the Afghan people develop ground-level governance that made sense to them.
What I found was an Afghan government that was uninterested in the people’s needs or priorities. We supported the Hamid Karzai regime because we thought it looked as a government should, with a powerful “unitary executive” and authority centralized in Kabul. But Afghanistan has no history of a strong central government, nor protections against greed by public officials.
How could the government in Kabul be worse for the Afghan people than the Taliban? The Afghan government routinely extorted bribes and failed to provide basic services. Corruption at every level was rampant. After two decades of abuse and neglect by their government, the people were ready to embrace any alternative — even one as loathsome as the Taliban.
I recall one embassy governance meeting. First, the State Department boasted of its anti-corruption court, which had no cases because the Karzai administration refused to refer them. Then other embassy teams discussed courthouses they had built, though few had judges. Finally, the development agency USAID described efforts to train and support local Afghans in conflict resolution strategies that could be used outside of the formal justice system. This was the only program showing positive results for the Afghan people, but it received little attention because it didn’t lead directly to strengthening our corrupt allies in the Afghan government.
At the heart of our failures was unwillingness to accept the necessity of building local capacity with small projects offering real value to the Afghan people, who would then support the government that provided them. We preferred meeting with people who talked like us and shared our belief in hierarchical governance, not the people actually doing the work in the communities. And, as in Vietnam, we refused to acknowledge when our choices failed the people.
The restrictions on American support also became obstacles. In 2011, if the Taliban attacked a U.S. troop outpost, we could send another platoon out to defend it — a response that cost lives, injuries and $40 million a year. What we could not do was provide the nearby communities with small-scale water, power and sewer services — costing $1 million a year — to encourage people to be more invested in our presence and a sustainable future.
The military task in a counterinsurgency is to protect the people from violence. We focused on fielding the most Afghan soldiers and police as quickly as possible, but not as effectively as possible. Shortcuts in training failed to provide sustainable logistics and turned a blind eye toward corruption in their leadership.
While I served, we piloted a cell phone banking system to pay troops directly; otherwise, much of their pay would be stolen by their officers. We churned out Afghan trainees in 16 weeks — about the same time spent on a U.S. trainee – but, unlike U.S. soldiers, the Afghans lacked basic literacy and numeracy. In a region where tribal affiliation was primary, they did not even have a shared identity as Afghans. We put quantity of trainees over quality and appropriateness of training, and we reaped what we sowed when Afghan military members deserted en masse.
What’s next for Afghanistan? No government will have the loyalty of the Afghan people until it becomes responsive to their needs, instead of its own interests. I doubt the diverse Afghan people will long tolerate a Taliban regime, either. Maybe a confederal government will arise from the ashes. But in the meantime, the reality may be bloodier as the country devolves from a civil war with “sides” to a more general state of anarchy.
As in Vietnam, our leaders believed that Afghanistan could be remade only in our image, not according to the vision of its own people. The lesson we should take from it is this: We should never again put our troops in harm’s way to support a government that its own people do not believe in.
Rep. Marty Wilde is a member of the Oregon Legislature and a colonel in the Air National Guard. The views expressed herein are his own and not necessarily those of the Department of Defense or the Department of the Air Force.