The fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban over the weekend shocked the planet by the seeming efficiency and rapidity with which it was executed.
From a military analyst standpoint, credit goes to where credit is due. I tip my hat and offer my respectful congratulations to the planners of the Taliban campaign. It was brilliant in strategy and perfect in execution. The Taliban pulled off a spectacular victory against the United States and its allies. No question about it.
Like other military analysts I chatted with this past weekend, I was particularly impressed by their strategic use of ancient tools of statecraft and warfare. The method of minimizing potential combat losses by compromising the leadership of the enemy through coercion, bribery, and corruption was brilliant. It explains why city after city fell with little to no resistance in the month of August 2021.
These are classic elements of campaign strategy right out of Sun Tzu and Machiavelli. The kind of stuff we citizens of the First World would only expect to encounter in a Hollywood screenplay.
But clearly, to the practitioners of warfare whose experience of history goes back to fighting Philip of Macedonia, such gambits on the chessboard are very real-world options.
I once taught a class on asymmetric warfare at one of the US war colleges. I pointed out that the way you win against the United States was to take advantage of the fact that the US is a young, impetuous, and naïve culture that still has a lot to learn about how the world really works.
We are innocents in a world where the cultural histories of those we look down upon in our hubris quietly sneer at our smugness because their timelines to learn the tradecraft of survival span timelines on biblical scales.
We also think like a bunch of peasants. It’s because we are. We are a country of ordinary people. We place a great deal of value on each other’s lives and viewpoints, despite the fact we do not agree with each other about the details. Even our leaders are selected from among ourselves.
It is almost impossible for us to imagine that ordinary people like us don’t matter in the eyes of those who would rule. It’s anathema to us that, in many parts of the world, the common man is just something to be stepped on while an empire tramples through and salts the earth.
We cherish these ideals. We tend to think of everyone as having the same values as we do. So idealistic. So naive.
Strength Is Weakness
In asymmetric warfare, you take those virtues and exploit them as blind spots and weaknesses. And you do it in a way that maximizes the chances that we never see it coming until it’s too late.
The Taliban, who have seen countless invaders trampling across their land riding everything from camels and elephants to tanks and helicopter gunships, actually do know tricks of the trade. Tricks we can’t even bring ourselves to think about because they are taboos. They are unethical. They are inhumane. We choose not to look into those dark holes. And we are surprised when we discover the blindness that we have imposed on ourselves. That we have created sanctuary for our enemies to operate within the blind spots in our minds with impunity.
The harsh and impolitic way to say it is, “We are but children trying to do adult things.” We make blunders a craftsman with more experience would know not to make.
Loose lips do sink ships. In our case, the loud-mouthed Ugly American version of it.
In Afghanistan, the United States naively telegraphed our intentions to our enemies. As we prided ourselves on “debating openly,” we didn’t realize we were telling the Taliban what they needed to defeat us.
We told the Taliban we were leaving. We told them the exact schedule when each of our strong points would be abandoned. With no effort to need to spy, which they did also, we literally gave them the blueprints, timetables, and routes for them to optimize their campaign.
Far more important a blunder, we also told the Afghan government the same blueprint of the coming battle information. Honestly, they aren’t dummies either. The information we told them contained within it the message they were being abandoned and that they were going to lose.
This, in turn, caused exactly the kind of crisis of morale that would make Afghan leadership compute the calculus of war and decide it was time to make a better deal for themselves.
Thus, the seeds were planted for Afghanistan’s government and military leaders to sell out the ordinary people of their country.
In analytical parlance, we, the USA, created the susceptibility and vulnerability conditions for our downfall. The groundwork for debacle was set.
We began to draw down in May of 2021. We told the world that the entire NATO force would withdraw its 9,000 soldiers — 2,500 of them Americans.
Game on. Sensing a very real opening, the Taliban initiated attacks against Afghan government forces in Helmand province.
In June, we abandoned the coalition air base in Kandahar, creating the first real breakdown in airpower’s ability to control the situation in 20 years.
Seizing that opening, the Taliban took the town of Panjwai, the birthplace of the Taliban movement.
Taking advantage of increased safe access to roads, the Taliban began to spread. They followed the road east toward Kabul and threatened the city of Ghazni.
Emboldened, they also activated combat in the north, capturing territory along the border with Turkmenistan.
In July, we abandoned Bagram airbase; the very core of our airpower strategy to maintain dominance over the country with so few US and NATO ground troops. We collapsed the umbrella leaving the ordinary people of Afghanistan totally unprotected; although that’s not the lie we told ourselves when we asked the mirrors on our walls, who’s the fairest of them all?
The Taliban exploited this hubris and captured the key border town of Islam Qala, which is on the Iranian border between the Afghan city of Herat and the Iranian city of Mashhad.
That got my attention. I hadn’t thought about Mashhad since the days of the Iran-Iraq war when Saddam Hussein was still in power. Mashhad was the eastern town where Iran deployed its Air Force in order to get their airplanes out of combat radius range of the Iraqi Air Force’s MiGs. Ah, nostalgia.
The Taliban also took control of the town of Spin Boldak, just to the south of Kandahar, on the border with Pakistan. This chokes a strategically vital trade route through which the US was bringing in supplies to Afghanistan; a particularly good move in case things came to an extended siege.
The control of the periphery is complete. The next phase to capture the cities begins.
The Afghan military still outnumbered the Taliban 300,000 to 80,000. Direct combat would be costly. The government’s ground forces were better trained and equipped. Some means needed to be found to negate that advantage.
The Taliban initiated an asymmetric attack against their enemy. They used money to bribe disheartened officials to strategically surrender the provincial capitals of the country.
Let me be clear here. This is a perfectly acceptable aspect of warcraft that has been around for a very long time. We do it in our own clandestine operations, even if we do not condone it for above-the-table activities. So does everyone else. The Taliban used it very efficiently. They converted fortresses into open cities they could waltz into unopposed.
The US has been defeated this way before. Cuban leader Fidel Castro paid off Bautista’s commanders to even the odds for his takeover of that county. It worked. We got bamboozled. So the saying goes, “Once fooled shame on you, twice fooled shame on me.”
Where would the Taliban get the money for such bribes was the question that I got all weekend from my Cold War-loving friends that don’t like the Chinese or Russians. My answer was simple. These people grow poppies. It’s a cash crop. Old bills with no RFID strips, non-consecutive.
In early August, the first city betrayed to fall without a fight was the city of Zaranj, the capital of Nimroz province.
From there, more cities fell like dominoes. The smaller northern cities of Kunduz, Aibak, Farah, Sheberghan, Sar-e-Pul, Taloqan, Faizabad, and others at first.
The Blitzkrieg speed asymmetric strategy now firmly cemented, the Taliban moved on to the large cities taking Ghazni, Kandahar, Herat, and Laskar Gah on August 12. The next day on August 13, they captured Asadabad and Gardez along with Mazar-i-Sharif, leaving Kabul isolated.
By August 15, Kabul was in the hands of the Taliban. All the preparations and plans of the US “Coalition of the Willing” lay in ruins. The hopes of the ordinary people in Afghanistan ended.
Beginning of Another Epilogue
In hindsight, it is now clear that one of the harsh questions we will need to ask ourselves is why we never anticipated this.
We will also have to ask whether, near the end game, whether Afghan government leadership was really rallying troops to prepare to fight; or were they telling stories to obfuscate the fact that they too were getting ready to run away?
And finally, how will that affect how we interact with future conflicts in the world, militarily and diplomatically?
That’s for another time.
For now, the scoreboard reads, Goat Herders 1 – Woke Peasants 0.
Personal Note: This one will be the subject of military academy studies forever. It’s up there with the Trojan Horse ploy. To the Taliban, very well played indeed.