The Counterfeit COIN of the American Occupation

As of 31 August 2021 AD/22 Muharram 1443, America’s long war in Afghanistan is over. I wrote about this yesterday. And I wrote, back in March 2020, in favor of us leaving. Most Americans thought it was time for us to get out, as well. Just not in the humiliating way that the Biden Administration did it–leaving massive amounts of functional military equipment for the Taliban to use or sell and, even worse, abandoning hundreds of Americans as well as military service dogs to the tender mercies of militant fundamentalist Muslims.

But as I said in yesterday’s article, “the US never had much hope of winning in Afghanistan.” Just a fool’s hope. Why?

Because we keep viewing Islamic fundamentalism, and its oft-attendant violence, as some sort of aberration that most people in majority-Muslim countries abhor–when in fact groups like the Taliban are insurgents against the Western-dominated world order and strict Islam is, for them, not only a way of life but a vehicle for throwing off infidel shackles.

At least it wasn’t this bad for our final troops. (“The Last Stand of the 44th Foot….,” from Wikipedia, public domain.)

Drawing on the final chapter of my latest book (The COIN of the Islamic Realm: Insurgencies & the Ottoman Empire, 1416-1916), let me point out what we needed to do to beat the Taliban insurgency there–but didn’t. As well as observe what they did successfully on the other side

In order for insurgents to come out on top, they must

  1. Delegitimize the target government and erode its domestic support
  2. Hang onto safe havens
  3. Obtain some measure of external support
  4. Degrade external support for the government.

The government, or occupying power, needs to

  1. Address the insurgency’s root causes
  2. Box insurgents into limited geographical areas
  3. Emphasize insurgents’ brutality
  4. Eliminate or expose insurgents’ reliance on any charismatic leader(s)
  5. Cut off foreign support for the insurgency
  6. Keep its own foreign support coming
  7. Incorporate some aspects of the insurgency’s agenda into governing.

The Taliban had no problem doing the first three of the insurgent priorities, and eventually pulled off the fourth one–at least in terms of help from the USA, the Kabul government’s foreign sugar daddy.

The US/ANG did have limited success, mainly with numbers 2 and 3. But even there, the Taliban always controlled large parts of rural Afghanistan. In fact, it could be argued that by the end it was American and/or Afghan government forces, holed up in Kabul and a few other major cities, that had been boxed in. Regarding the third point, the Taliban learned the value of good PR and cut down on their viciousness–at least in the last year, in order to facilitate American withdrawal (“see, we have abandoned rooftop parties for gays!”). But the most charismatic leader, Mullah Muhammad Omar–who, indeed, was considered the founder of the Taliban–died in his bed (of tuberculosis) in 2013, not at the receiving end of a US drone strike. Pakistan and Iran never ceased their financial and material support for the Taliban. During 2020 Kabul, at US instigation, even had meetings with the Taliban in efforts to throw them a few governing bones. But the insurgents didn’t want bones–they wanted the whole skeleton. And, most importantly, the arrogant American occupiers–blinded by their post-Enlightenment secularism, and the assumption that the people of Afghanistan wanted a government empowered by that ideology–never had a prayer of addressing the root cause(s) of the Taliban insurgency: Afghanistan’s people are more enamored of shariah law than any other on Earth.

From Pew, “The World’s Muslims: Unity and Diversity,” August 9, 2012.

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