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.

In Afghanistan, the United States attempted the first approach: building a professional military. Sadly, two structural factors doomed this plan from the start. Foremost, U.S. efforts had to get soldiers to focus on war-fighting. This meant overcoming the cleavages that divide Afghan society, convincing different recruits that loyalty to their fellow comrades in arms, and the nation, trumped inherited ethnic loyalties. It also required rooting out corruption, a crucial element for instilling trust between officers and enlisted personnel.

Even before the U.S. withdrawal, reports indicated that cleavages and corruption had undermined these training efforts. The Afghan armed forces bore a disturbing resemblance to the South Vietnamese military in 1975.

Afghan people climb atop a plane
Afghan people climb atop a plane as they wait at the Kabul airport in Kabul on August 16, 2021. WAKIL KOHSAR/AFP via Getty Images

"The fact that the ANDSF [Afghan National Defense and Security Forces] could not fight on their own should not have been a surprise to anyone," said John Sopko, head of the Office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction. Afghan units melted away rather than resist the Taliban advance. The lack of cohesion enabled the Taliban to cut deals with local military units, even bribing some to not fight.

A second structural factor undermining the creation of a cohesive Afghan military is more general: nation-building is a difficult, bloody process and it almost never works when implemented by foreign occupiers. David Edelstein of Georgetown University has shown in his work that unless there is a greater external threat present, local populations will resist foreign occupiers. The populations of post-war Germany and Japan concluded it was better to be occupied by the United States than the Soviet Union. Without such a threat in Afghanistan, there was always fated to be a level of resistance against the U.S. and its efforts to create a cohesive national military.

What are the implications for American foreign policy? Perhaps the most straightforward is that a nation's will to fight is not something that can be supplied from the outside. Only a strong state will suffice to produce endurance in war. This means that the United States should be wary of interventions where the need for state-building appears greatest. As problematic as a weak state in Afghanistan might have seemed after 9/11, it was beyond the capabilities of the United States or its allies to build a stronger one. A compelling argument can be made that the state-building effort did more to fuel corruption among Afghans than anything else. Afghanistan can be contrasted in this respect, again, with the postwar occupations of Germany and Japan. In these cases, the fundamental challenge was helping Germans and Japanese rebuild after devastating defeats, not establishing strong states in contested environments (as attested to by the fact that insurgent violence was not an issue in either Germany or Japan while American troops occupied them).

The bottom line is that it was reasonable to help Germany and Japan get back on their feet after World War II. It could be done at a reasonable cost, and the balance of power in Europe and Asia depended on it. Neither the prospects for success nor the stakes justify the even more substantial effort that was made in Afghanistan. The scenes streaming out of Kabul today are gut-wrenching; all the more reason to learn the right lessons and avoid making the same mistakes in the future.

Jasen Castillo and John Schuessler are co-directors of the Albritton Center for Grand Strategy at the Bush School of Government and Public Service, Texas A&M University.

The views expressed in this article are the writers' own.