“The soul of [an] Army cannot be breathed into the army by a foreign military power or a local foreign military power. ”Any investigation into why the American venture in Afghanistan ended in dismal failure should begin with this compelling observation by retired Lieutenant General Karl Eikenberry, who is all US – Commanded armed forces in Afghanistan and subsequently served as US ambassador to Kabul. “Only the Afghans,” emphasized Eikenberry, “can give their army a soul and an identity.”
Most Americans today are not used to viewing armies as soulful institutions. A citizenry unaccustomed to military service tends to view armies as bureaucratic, hierarchical, and heartless – a huge corporate corporation designed to kill and destroy. While Americans reflexively lent large funds to support the armed forces, they have, by and large, lost all appreciation for what drives them. We assure, but do not necessarily understand.
So while Americans today “support the troops” they have little understanding of the mix of qualities that gives an army fighting spirit. For the common man who is concerned with the pressing challenges of everyday life, this topic understandably no longer has any special meaning.
But for a young political movement, the soul of the army may well embody the soul of the nation itself. The two are closely related. This certainly describes the role the Continental Army played during the American Revolution.
The sweeping saga of George Washington’s besieged troops crossing the Delaware to surprise the Hessians in Trenton or hibernating in Valley Forge may not make Americans’ hearts beat faster than they used to. But the survival of the American republic depended on the survival of the continents of Washington. Just by staying in the field – by refusing to submit despite serial defeats by the red coats – they kept the cause of independence alive.
Whatever the Continentals lacked in numbers and equipment, Washington’s troops had a heart and its army had a soul.
Despite the welcome help from abroad from Lafayette, Kosciusko and Von Steuben, the soul of the armed forces of the young republic was at home. Even the arrival of very important French forces in 1779 did not create the spirit that animated the Continentals, but only complemented it.
To say that Afghanistan never found Washington after the fall of the Taliban in the fall of 2001 is an understatement. More specifically, a costly effort by the United States and its allies to build effective Afghan security forces has produced indifferent results at best.
The United States provided the Afghan armed forces with mountains of weapons and equipment – much of it in the hands of the Taliban. And our efforts have undoubtedly given our budding protégés at least a minimum of field and tactical skills. The fact that ordinary Afghan soldiers salute, march, fire rifles and provide first aid is not the issue. That they lacked the motivation to defend their country at the moment of greatest danger is.
The events of the past few weeks make it unmistakably clear that the efforts of the US military and its coalition partners to unwind in the ranks of the Afghan security forces have been far from successful.
In contrast, as painful as it may be, Taliban fighters have shown great soul. Their commitment to the goals they have fought for over the past two decades – driving out foreign occupiers and enforcing their version of Islamic values - has been clear and relentless. As a result, despite their inferiority in equipment and (likely) numbers, the Taliban were able to prevail with remarkable ease in withdrawing US forces.
There is a lesson here that the United States should have learned, and probably should have learned decades ago. Creating an army of non-Americans to advance US policy goals is a daunting undertaking.
That is what the 2001/21 war in Afghanistan was all about. After the Taliban was overthrown (but neither defeated nor destroyed) in the fall of 2001, the United States embarked on a nation-building exercise aimed at creating a new Afghanistan based on values cherished by most Americans, such as the Women’s rights – based, but not necessarily used by most Afghans.
Washington policymakers have never dispatched enough American soldiers to accomplish this ambitious goal. Indeed, we can doubt whether a sufficient number existed.
The unsavory decision by disgruntled US civil and military officials to leave the entire task to the Afghan forces was arguably inevitable. If General Eikenberry is right – and I suspect he is right – so was the bottom line.