The Final Collapse of Bush’s Nation-Building: Kunduz falls to Taliban

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

On Monday, the Taliban swept into the provincial capital of Kunduz, taking it in half a day from a large and well-equipped Afghan National Army force. Tuesday’s riposte had only mixed success, with the ANA saying it had taken back the (no-empty) prison. An attempt to take back the airport failed, and when the Taliban captured an ANA tank, the US Air Force had to intervene to take it out lest it be used to drive an ANA rout.

Those who want the US to go into Syria in a big way should just consider what the Kunduz events mean. Fourteen years after the US went into Afghanistan, it still has not been able to stand up a successful army to which it could hope to turn the country over. How many orphans do the hawks want to adopt?

During the Athens summer Olympics of 2004, the Bush administration ran advertisements boasting that it had liberated 50 million people. It meant 25 million each in Iraq and Afghanistan. Most people in the world, according to opinion polls, thought Bush had occupied 50 million people.

The administration described what it was doing as “nation-building.” There was some infrastructural spending. Many schools were apparently painted. Some restoration of electricity grids were undertaken, though both countries remain chronically short of electricity and local engineers and electricians could not keep up the American equipment. There was no big push to train administrators, found factories and hospitals, etc. of the sort that even a 19th state such as Meiji Japan undertook. A lot of contractors made billions and took it back to Fairfax county, Virginia.

One of the areas where a genuine attempt at nation-building was made was the rebuilding of the Iraqi and Afghan armed forces. A lot of training was offered and a lot of men were put on the payroll. A lot of weaponry was provided or sold. Some of the subcontractors doing the training weren’t very good. For two years, one of them did not train Afghan soldiers to use the sights on the M1 rifles. Sergeants were puzzled as to why their accuracy never improved.

In June of 2014, the US-built Iraqi army collapsed before a relatively small Daesh (ISIS, ISIL) assault on Mosul.

On Monday, the US-built Afghan National Army collapsed around the northern city of Kunduz before a Taliban assault.

Given the collapse in the first half of the 1970s of the US-built Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN), I’d say the US is 0 for 3 in nation-building via army building.

After the Vietnam war it became apparent that a fair number of ARVN officers (by no means most) were not ultimately very loyal to the American-backed south, and some turned at key moments to the Communists as the true Vietnamese nationalists. This story points to a key problem in having an imperial power do “nation-building.” Nations are about nationalism, not about loyalty to foreign emperors. Under conditions of occupation or even of neo-imperial dominance, it is hard to create a national army. The American public is congenitally unable to see itself as an occupying power when it takes over other countries, and when the occupation is over tends to forget it ever happened. Locals are neither so myopic nor so forgetful.

Just imagine if two hundred years from now the US became weak and was occupied by another country. And those foreigners called for volunteers from Kentucky to join a new US Army to be formed and trained by the foreign country’s officers. Do you think patriotic people from Kentucky would happily join up? Or might they either go into guerrilla war against the foreign occupiers, or join the new “national” army and try to undermine it?

The issue of loyalty arises in Kunduz. It is the capital of the province with the same name. About a third of the population of that province is Pushtun, which is the ethnic base of the Taliban. But given a majority of Tajiks and other ethnicities up there loyal to the Kabul national unity government of President Ashraf Ghani, the government should have been able to hold the capital of this province.

The Taliban rushed into the city, burning down the police station, releasing prisoners from the main jail, and raiding government weapons depots. In other words, the US taxpayer has yet again unwillingly transferred billions of dollars worth of sophisticated weaponry to a group they deem terrorists.

The independent-minded newspaper “Hasht-i Sobh” said that the city of Konduz was well defended, with a sufficient armed force, and that its fall suggested treason on the part of some officials. That is, it is alleging that some of those people running Konduz were either secretly sympathetic to the Taliban or perhaps so afraid the fundamentalists would win in the end that they capitulated to get good terms from the conquerors.

The Afghan government, defensive about its failure (which I saw coming last summer) is blaming foreign powers and their agents (presumably Pakistan and its Inter-Services Intelligence, which had long backed the Taliban).

Ruz-nameh-i Afghanistan (Afghanistan Daily), however, rejected this excuse, saying that a foreign intelligence agency could not have pulled off the takeover of a whole city like that, without Afghan agents on the inside.

So, no nation-building then. The US response to the return of the Taliban will likely be to insist on keeping 10,000 men in Afghanistan, virtually forever. But that move sets up the paradox that it makes Ashraf Ghani look like an American puppet, and encourages even more young Afghan men to join the Taliban.


Related video:

Wall Street Journal: “Taliban Seize Control of Afghan Stronghold, Kunduz”

18 Responses

  1. For what it’s worth, America has successfully invaded and occupied some countries since the 1970s: Panama, Haiti, Grenada, and Kosovo (NATO didn’t invade the former, but bombed and occupied it, though). While some might say we won those wars simply because those nations are smaller than Iraq,Afghanistan, and Vietnam, a major reason why predominately American forces were able to win these wars was because these countries had borders, and thus supply lines, that were easy to control. This, along with small land areas and relatively small populations allowed the military to occupy while facing minimal opposition. As Juan stated one or two months ago, ISIS will be severely crippled once the Kurds/Turks are able to secure the group’s norther border. I doubt the Taliban would be as powerful as they are today if Pakistan cared enough to stop the Taliban/Al Qaeda and their arms from pouring though their border.
    If America was able to seal off South Vietnam from the North, along with Cambodia and Laos, America could have won the war, considering how ineffective communist fighters were in Malaysia were (despite Britain, like America, destroying the countryside with Agent Orange and Napalm) and (eventually) South Korea (a tyrannical dictatorship, for the most part, until 1987). Of course, the only reason why Mao was never able to take over Taiwan was due to a 100 mile wide moat.

  2. Given the persistent chaos many Afghans may now feel their best interests lie in the Taliban taking over. At least they would know where they are. It isn’t as if 12 years of US occupation has brought them peace or stability. What kind of ‘solution’ must it seem to them when the US response to the Taliban in their city of Kanduz is to bomb the place flat. They probably long for the day the US and other NATO forces just go away and leave them alone. As for local forces armed and trained by an occupier deserting to their own in the heat of battle, the Romans were contending with that in Gaul two thousand some odd years ago.

  3. I suppose it won’t take long for the GOP to proclaim that “Obama lost Kunduz”. Then US domestic political considerations will be the guide for what to do next in Afghanistan. Of course, politically benign airstrikes will probably ramp up – blowing things up from safe altitudes, any time, anywhere, is what we do best.

    “But that move sets up the paradox that it makes Ashraf Ghani look like an American puppet, and encourages even more young Afghan men to join the Taliban.” And somehow these young men will get the training to be soldiers enough to beat the US trained army. Does that sound right?

  4. At the height of our involvement in Afghanistan the military admitted to spending $8 billion a month to wage war against a third world country that posed no threat to our security. At one hearing a general admitted getting fuel to the interior of Afghanistan cost $400 a gallon, or between $15,000 to $20,000 to fill up one Humvee. It adds up.

    I highly recommend you watch…. Is This What Winning Looks Like. The video covers everything from corruption, poorly trained Afghans and the closely guarded secret of child molestation by Afghan troops.

    I hope lessons will be learned from this disaster but the GOP A and B team candidates still seem obsessed with involving our troops in the Syrian war as if Afghanistan never happened.

    link to

  5. Juan: Funny you would mention the ARVN. As a Vietnam Veteran I never thought to compare them to the current situation, but you are right in more than you think. Our insistence on a large army stripped villages of the adult men necessary to maintain control, leaving the teenage boys to run rampant; we called these thieving youth “cowboys.” This decision changed the social structure. Interpreters were a problem as well. My cousin was an interpreter, but we had far too few, needing to recruit locals. Of course, communists volunteered by the droves, providing needed intelligence on movements, something I know personally as ours we arrested and carted away. (Our Air Force was “amazed” how the NVA knew in advance of planned air strikes.) I was on Firebase Sabre when we turned it over to the ARVN, and watched as an ARVN officer was slapping his men in the face while screaming in French. Meanwhile, the locals were stripping the firebase of the defenses we built to sell on the black market. The ARVN felt no connection to the highly corrupt government. We always joked that the South Vietnamese flag was red and yellow, stating the South was also red or yellow; we had respect for the NVA, but viewed the ARVN as cowards. We really are seeing these same factors in Afghanistan in particular.

  6. The ‘winning hearts-and-minds’ component of counter-insurgency/nation building requires a ‘good guys vs bad guys’ dynamic that is usually not available to the US military.

    Terrorist religious extremists are good candidates for the bad guy role, but given that US soldiers, notwithstanding their good intentions, tend to be armed ambassadors for a foreign policy which is in the interests of the global 1%, it’s highly unlikely that the locals will perceive them as good guys.

  7. Juan: Thanks for an insightful commentary on imperial nation building. But it’s worth mentioning that “imperial” meddling has been going on for a VERY long time. Geoffrey Wawro’s book “Quicksand” describes this history in sufficient detail to make anyone’s blood boil. It would appear that each US (and British) generation is completely forgetful of history, and each generation needs to learn the same lessons over and over and over…..

  8. Can the taxpayers sue these companies to get their money back for not receiving what was advertised and paid for? Judge Judy would excoriate these guys.

  9. It’s hard for me to believe that the Pentagon is embarrassed about these kinds of failures. It seems this perpetual state of armed conflict is exactly what they want and they continually create the conditions to make that happen.

  10. The U.S. must now re-establish “nation-building” here within the United States.

    • Highways and roadways are in serious need of repairs and upgrades.
    • Bridges and overpasses are in terrible shape and only receive repair when in a stage of imminent collapse.
    • Our existing rail system is straight out of the 1950s. Horrific failures are now commonplace.
    • Safe and efficient high-speed rail is in a state of perpetual planning.
    • The power distribution systems are inefficient and fail with pathetic regularity.
    • Major seawall and coastal improvements are badly needed due to the acceleration of manmade climate destruction.
    • There are hundreds of thousands (perhaps millions?) of fossil-fuel industry oversights spewing poisons into the atmosphere and the waters, continuously.
    • Precious waters are disappearing to pump more poison from deep within the planet crust or to cool inefficient mid-20th Century heat sources. Safe tap water is in serious jeopardy.

    The private sector alone DID NOT make our country great. The combination of government planning and action, regulation and enforcement in a balance of power and authority with the private sector made our country what it used to be. That balance is GONE!

    Restoring a proven balance is essential. The current imbalance, having been propagandized into existence by a corporate-controlled media and a slow-motion takeover of our government by elements from within the MIC, has pushed our once great country into a sorry state of disrepair. A state so bad it has to be continuously clouded by distraction and unnecessary divisiveness.

    Our Congress has been invaded by toadies, idiots and those of malevolent intent. Bear in mind Congress controls all budgets and spending by law. The MIC (and related) by far receives the vast majority of funding and has for the past half century. We have funded a ridiculous string of useless, pointless, resource gobbling failed wars under the guise of protecting U.S. interests in far-flung places. These STUPID wars have killed and displaced many, many millions of innocent people and FOR WHAT?!

    Time to re-invest in our country. The MIC/fossil fuel industry, Big Pharma and corporate medicine have looted all of US for long enough.

    We need to focus our attention and resources on We The People and not Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Israel or some other place which must learn to manage their own affairs without U.S. support, interference or intervention.

    Or WE are completely f^çk&d in more ways than one.

  11. On Monday, the Taliban swept into the provincial capital of Kunduz, taking it in half a day from a large and well-equipped Afghan National Army force.

    And what did that “well-equipped Afghan National Army force” cost US taxpayers?

  12. Temptation is to bomb under the ‘responsibility to protect’ eg Libya. Say you didnt succumb.

  13. The phenomenon of arming one side to have it lose the arms to the other side occurred in China before 1949. Vietnam was a reprise followed by Afghanistan, Iraq…… The US criminal war against Vietnamese liberation may have, in fact, contributed to nation-building…. quite unintendedly. cheers.

  14. The final collapse? This seems a bit hyperbolic, like saying tearing down the Saddam statue was the end of that war. Kunduz will likely be re-taken; and then we will have to see what happens then. Thus far, it does not appear to be a dam breaking moment and I have not seen reports of massive desertions or defections. What does appear apparent, is that this war is not ending soon, and that is certainly a tragedy, and a failure of sorts.

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