Suddenly, the provincial capitals of Afghanistan are falling like bowling pins to the Taliban.
As of yesterday, the New York Times reported, only four major cities remained in the hands of the Afghan government. One of them was Kabul, the capital. Two of them were besieged.
Which means, of course, “the government” is not really a government at all.
Kandahar, long the centre of Canadian military activity in the country, had either fallen or was about to fall. “The insurgents appear to be nearing a complete military takeover,” the Times reported.
Last week the White House was signalling that whatever happens, the United States’ 20-year war in Afghanistan is over. This week, it was preparing to send 3,000 soldiers back to evacuate diplomats and other remaining American citizens. They won’t be sticking around. Canada will mount its own evacuation, under cover of the U.S. Air Force.
American officials are pleading with the Taliban to allow the U.S. Embassy to continue to operate.
So this is not a setback. It is a rout.
I don’t know if they teach the rules of imperial hubris along with Carl von Clausewitz‘s famous rules of war at the Royal Military College of Canada, Sandhurst and West Point, but if they don’t, they really should. Here are two:
- The first day of an invasion is always the best one
- The poorer the country you invade, the harder it is to subdue
As long as Canada is an eager supporter of the United States’ imperial project — ready, aye, ready! — we would do well to keep these rules in mind.
They never seem to learn in the imperial centre that sometimes in war, weakness is strength. That is to say, it’s easier to tame an advanced society once you have invaded it, than subsistence farmers.
Military academies do study how powerful armies can try to subdue people when they have nothing to lose but their lives. A better question for them, though, would be: Can such efforts ever succeed?
It should come as no surprise that the Taliban is handing us our asses in Afghanistan, after all our wasted blood and treasure. The subsistence farmers of Afghanistan may be poor, but as America’s armed forces, and those of their NATO allies like Canada, have learned the hard way, they are resourceful, brave and patient.
And for all they lack in supersonic bombers and lurking silent drones, the Pashtun resistance — for that is what the Taliban always really was, their obvious religious devotion notwithstanding — clearly knows a thing or two about politics as well, both domestic and international.
Both kinds of politics are behind the swift takeover of Afghanistan’s provincial capitals now, when the Taliban and the West both know their subjection of much of the country is inevitable within weeks or months anyway.
The process may be bloodier, but a swift and comprehensive victory might spare the future Taliban government the prospect of a protracted civil war with the non-Pashtun regions of the country, encouraged by mischievous foreign powers.
A quick victory also sends a message at home and abroad that the foreign invader is finished, and the Taliban, as the force that kept the flame of resistance alive for three times as long as World War II, is the rightful inheritor of government.
So once again our American ally is being taught that all the billions and trillions it spends on war cannot guarantee victory against a weak enemy unless your war aim is annihilation, genocide. And that is not a victory worth winning if the victorious nation hopes to escape damnation.
Some may try, but it’s impossible for any Western nation that fought in Afghanistan to paint this as a victory. It is a defeat. All participants, including Canada, share in it.
Well, at least Canada got out of that mess in time to save some of our dignity, and for that, at least some credit must go to Stephen Harper.
Even the Soviets had a better exit after their humiliation in Afghanistan than our American allies now face.
On Feb. 15, 1989, the final column of Soviet armoured personnel carriers rolled across the Afghanistan-Soviet Friendship Bridge into the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic with banners flying. Gen. Boris Gromov, commander of the Red Army’s 40th Combined Arms Army, crossed the bridge on foot behind his men, the last Russian to leave Afghanistan.
As for the mighty U.S. armed forces, they slipped out of Kandahar a few days ago in the dark of night.
One assumes they hope their final departure from Kabul hours or days from now will be much the same, although they now risk more embarrassing scenes of geopolitical déjà vu, helicopters on rooftops with refugees hanging from the struts, as happened in Ho Chi Minh City, the former Saigon, in April 1975.
American historian and former U.S. Army colonel Andrew Bacevich, in his recently published After the Apocalypse, America’s Role in a World Transformed, described the aftermaths of the American defeat in Vietnam and the Russian defeat in Afghanistan.
“The Americans were humiliated in Vietnam by one ragtag peasant army and the Russians were humiliated in Afghanistan by another,” the Times summarized in a recent book review. “And in both cases the effect on national self-confidence was grievous.
“The Afghan adventure destroyed the morale of the Red Army before precipitating the collapse of the Soviet Union,” the reviewer noted.
As for the United States, it survived that fate in 1975, and will probably survive its humiliation at the hands of the Taliban. But it will be harder for the divided States of 2021 to shake off defeat as it did in Vietnam, when the country regrouped and found new strategies to pursue its imperial plans.
It’s not impossible, though, that a repeat could send the colossus next door down the dusty road to dissolution already travelled by the Soviets.
For those of you who scoff, remember that the collapse of the Soviet Union appeared inconceivable in 1976, as the United States brushed off the dust of Vietnam. Yet it was gone in 15 years.
What are the lessons for Canada?
George Washington’s farewell address to the American people in 1796 contained some good advice that might be repurposed for Canadian politicians contemplating sending our soldiers off in support of the next American adventure: avoid foreign entanglements.
Does anyone still believe we were made safer or more secure by our role in this expensive misadventure? Of course not.
Does anyone with a memory for bumper stickers still imagine that if we hadn’t been fighting there, we would have had to fight the same foe here? Also no.
So if we cannot avoid the temptation to meddle, at least we should remember that the arc of history favours the final victory of insurgencies, no matter how weak they seem, so it’s prudent always to have a coherent exit strategy as your army enjoys that heady first day of an invasion.
David Climenhaga, author of the Alberta Diary blog, is a journalist, author, journalism teacher, poet and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions at The Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald.