Building Foreign Militaries and Learning the Right Lessons from Afghanistan | Opinion
When the United States began withdrawing its remaining troops from Afghanistan earlier this summer, it was not hard to imagine the Taliban ultimately prevailing in the civil war that has wracked the country for almost two decades now. Well before the American withdrawal was announced, the Taliban had been making significant gains. While outgunned in many respects, the Taliban benefited from the fact that the Afghan regime was utterly dependent on an outside benefactor.
Still, the rapidity with which Kabul has fallen remains stunning. And it is now clear that key decision-makers in Washington did not anticipate the quick collapse of the Afghan National Security Forces, which on paper numbered 300,000 and had received years of training and billions of dollars in aid. Tragically, thousands of Afghans who worked closely with the United States and its allies during the war remain trapped in the country, with their fate unclear.
In turn, the rapid collapse of the Afghan regime has given the domestic debate on the war a hard edge, with commentators of all stripes rushing to assign blame for the ugly ending. That debate is certain to continue for some time. Exiting a losing war is never pretty. A primary focus, we argue, should be on explaining why Afghan forces melted away so quickly. Understanding this collapse should help the United States understand one of the daunting challenges of state-building: standing up an effective allied military that can fight without U.S. help.
Why did the Afghan military lack the will to fight? What can we learn from this tragic collapse? One of us has written a book, Endurance and War, on why some militaries fight hard when facing defeat, while others collapse. This work explains that when trying to build cohesive armed forces, governments can take three approaches. First, they can create professional military organizations that focus on war-fighting and are shielded from domestic political disputes, like class or ethnic cleavages—the preferred method of the United States. Good training and trust in officers create cohesive fighting units in these circumstances. Second, governments can motivate their armed forces with a combination of coercion and illiberal ideologies, like nationalism and communism. These forces kept the Red Army intact in World War II. Third, they can do both, which is rare but occurred in both Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan.