PODCAST: Afghanistan: Past, present, and future

Discussion with UP political science professor John Zavage

By Austin Thompson | September 19, 2021 5:14pm

A close-up photograph of Afghanistan from a desktop globe.

Image courtesy of Unsplash

The views and opinions expressed in this discussion are those of the speaker alone and do not necessarily represent the policies or views of the Department of Defense.

Austin Thompson 

Hello everyone, my name is Austin Thompson, reporter for The Beacon. And today, we're going to be talking about the American withdrawal in Afghanistan. I imagine you and many others are asking what happened, how this happened, and what's going to happen. So here to help us better understand this very confusing and honestly tragic situation, I am joined by Professor Zavage of the political science department. Professor Savage, if you wouldn't mind briefly just introducing yourself telling us about your background, and any other information you think might be important.

John Zavage

Absolutely awesome thanks so much for having me. As Austin said, my name is John Savage. I'm a retired Army officer with 27 years of service in the US Army. And as part of that service I've been given the great privilege of being able to serve at a number of different places. Most relevant for this conversation is the Middle East, including Jordan, Iraq, two times in Saudi Arabia, and I've also been able to study the Arabic language. And I've also conducted some graduate work in Middle Eastern Studies. Unfortunately, I've never been to Afghanistan, nor studied Afghanistan as an academic focus but given the global war on terror for the past 20 years and that's been our security focus in many of the security areas of focus for my colleagues, I've been able to gain a general understanding of our mission in Afghanistan.

And so, I'll be drawing on that general understanding today.

And I especially just want to note one particular colleague and that's Professor Tom Johnson from the Naval Postgraduate School. A colleague of mine in my last active duty job, who is really one of the more, one of those guys who's written more on Afghanistan, then I'll ever know.

But yeah, I had a fantastic time with it, and I look forward to having this discussion. 

Austin Thompson

Yeah, absolutely. We are incredibly glad to have you. So um, yeah, so let's just jump right in. So if you wouldn't mind, could you give us a brief explanation regarding the history of the invasion and subsequent occupation of Afghanistan, and specifically, if you could touch on the evolution of the Taliban, and how they've adapted over the past 20 years?

John Zavage

Absolutely. No, this is a great question because, you know, we have been hearing the word Taliban now for more than 20 years. And so let's kind of dive into who they are and what they've done so, first off, who are they really? I think it’ll be constructive to talk about who they are real quick. So the word Taliban is a Persian Farsi and also Arabic word and it generally means it's the plural of the word student, or seeker.

So that indicates that the Taliban see themselves as devoted students who are seekers of religion — and then by extension political truth. So their leadership group, kind of like a political party, although not the way we conceive of a party, and they're comprised of Sunni Muslims in there, they're derived primarily from the Pashtun tribal ethnicity, which resides in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and their worldview mixes traditional African tribal law, with a very conservative interpretation of Sunni Islam. So they espouse an extreme form of Islamic government where state law is based strictly on Islamic law, so.

So to talk about how they've developed over the last 20 years we'll touch briefly on where they were before that. So, the Taliban came to power in Afghanistan. They moved Afghanistan from 1996 until 2001, until they were removed from power by the US and coalition forces. In the wake of 911, but it's really important to note that they came to power on that, on the heels of the US and Pakistan supported Mujahideen insurgency against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan that occurred in the 1980s so, most listeners probably have a pretty general understanding of this history but when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, they did so to support what they believed was to support a supportive Marxist regime in Afghanistan. The United States and Pakistan had common ground pushing the Soviets out and so they joined forces in and they aided an Islamised insurgency throughout the 80s and ultimately that effort was successful, but that that Islamic insurgency went on to form the core of, of not only the Taliban, but also what we know is Al Qaeda today, and the legacy of Al Qaeda, so a couple of things were created there were the core of what we know is the Taliban and to realize it's sort of solidified, a relationship between the Taliban and Pakistan that continues to this day. So, as I mentioned, the Taliban fell in 2001, very quickly, you know, two months after the US intervention in Afghanistan began.

And as a fighting force in a leadership with me as they retreated into Pakistan, and, and they really, they benefited from safe haven and other means of support from Pakistan, Pakistani co ethnic, tribal elements or elements of the Pakistani government earlier both. So throughout the 20 year US involvement that the Pakistanis have worked principally and proved to be an instrumental element of their strength. So, they resurged in Afghanistan, in about 2004 that timing between 2001 to 2004, was important because their fall happened so quickly that the US and NATO forces, generally, sort of had a false sense of security that perhaps they were just gone. They weren't gone, they would reconstitute themselves, they had the safe haven and the time to do so.

And, they were able to do so. So when they did resurge in 2004. They began a really long slow road to generating the type of power and influence that culminated in what we saw last month where they were able to take over the entire country.

And they did so in many different ways, as I kind of mentioned I'm not an expert but a few things that they were able to do throughout that 17 year period that I think were instrumental in their ability to take over the country. The first one was that they, ranked in the, in the US and the NATO forces, recognized that they had an enemy with a very limited understanding of Afghan tribal social and religious values, especially a limited understanding of the role of honor and revenge in Afghan tribal dynamics. So as a result a major part of the Taliban strategy was really to entice coalition forces to try to bomb African villages knowing that its subsequent targeting created collateral damage in the villages. The Taliban would then reap the political benefit of the ensuing anti-coalition Revenge dynamic. And then the second thing that they did throughout this is a 17 year period with they embarked on a major information campaign, and they proved themselves to be just really, really successful communicators, they use both traditional oral means of narrative building, meaning through traditional stories that resonated with the local tribe people in addition to modern more modern, modern themes like social media platform.

And all of this, they used to convince the local Afghan tribes, that only the Taliban, and not the coalition and not the government was, was, what that was, was the entity that truly understood the history and the culture and the values and ethics of the proud Afghan people. And then, no suffice to say that all of the US and coalition's overwhelming military technology were really never enough to build trust in the Afghan populace that the Western supportive government was a better caretaker of African tribes and values.

So does that answer the question? 

Austin Thompson

Yeah, absolutely. So I think it's kind of building on that, and probably the question on everyone's mind is, let's talk about the actual fall itself of Afghanistan. How did it happen so quickly, and what enabled the Talibane to take territory so quickly, and what happened to the government, the Western backed government that is, in Afghanistan?

John Zavage

Right, yeah, I know this is a, you know I have to admit, I was watching it from afar like everybody else, so-

I'll try and try and sort of, you know, walk this through as deliberately as we can. So on the surface it seemed like a military victory by the Taliban over the former Afghan National Defence and Security Forces or a ANDSF which, which is completely counterintuitive because the ANDSF was better trained, better equipped than the Taliban was. But the reasons for that, yes, it was military victory but under the surface, there was so much more at work than just military capability so to try and talk about both components, both the military component to it but then also the social, cultural, and political component that were sort of at work underneath and I had a lot of this, we've already talked about. So first just from a military perspective, let's just talk numbers, The United State’s 20 Your involvement in Afghanistan was, primarily it was a combat operation carried out by a US NATO coalition forces against the Taliban and other violent extremist groups but it was simultaneously a military building exercise intended to build the ANDSF into a legitimate capable fighting force that can maintain the fight after US withdrawal. So, the eyes were always toward the ANDSF being able to fight on their own after the US withdrew. The figures of what the US gave them paint a really disconcerting picture that spans 20 years and four presidential administrations. So since 2002 the United States appropriated nearly $90 billion to build the ANDSF providing, and I'm just throwing out numbers there are more, providing at least 208 aircraft, mostly helicopters, 76,000 vehicles, many of humvees, and then, 600,000 personal weapons, you know, rifles and machine guns, and stuff like that. And, they help raise and train an ANDSF approximately 180,000 personnel. So yes, it's no small concern that it's US funded and US trained force collapsed so precipitously against the Taliban force reaching somewhere between 55,000 and 85,000 personnel. So, the underlying social, cultural, and political reasons are several. The first is what we alluded to in the first question that is, the Taliban's relationship with the local populace, you know, through their ability to, you know, from the plan I noted above their ability to draw the coalition into into collateral damage, and their unmatched ability to really identify with and communicate to the needs and the world-views of individual Afghans, contributed to a sense of support cohesion and esprit de corps in connection to the local populace that, created a will to fight among the Taliban fighters that greatly outpaced that of the ANDSF.

Now let's look at the ANDSF, they had faults and weaknesses that you wouldn't know just by looking at their numbers.

We can talk for days on what those were. But I'll just highlight a few:

The biggest one was just corruption at the highest level leading to all sorts of shortfalls. One of the biggest ones was just the lack of steady pay for the rank and file African soldiers, and other failures that led to just a deterioration of morale and an atrophy and fighting cohesion when compared with that of the Taliban, and then another big fault of the ANDSF despite US efforts to train them otherwise, we never really got them to a place where they were comfortable in maintaining the types of institutional support functions that are necessary for any large military formation and by those I mean, I mean things like supply, logistics, administrative support, personnel support, you know, pay as I alluded to, you know, just the mere feeding of soldiers, making sure that they have enough fuel for the vehicles, making sure they know when their ammunition is gonna arrive and all these types of institutional functions that all need to be in place in order in order for the fighting to occur. Many have said that individual African fighters were trained well and can fight but they don't have confidence that their support structures are going to get them what they need on time, that erodes their cohesion in their will to fight, as well. And then it's worth, you know, what we know of it now, much will be written and studied in the future, but it's worth noting that the Taliban did seem to have a relatively strategically and tactically successful plan. They were able to exploit the ANDSF’s inability to provide strategic logistics and reinforcement support.

The Taliban cut off major roads and choke points. They prevented the ANDSF from being able to reinforce and so without any reinforcements at all and a tenuous fight in the first place, and without the support of the local populace, the ANDSF was just not able to hold ground and so then the government just, they just fled and ceased to exist, really, I mean, simply put, without a military force that was able to defend the institutions of their government and protect the members of the government in the performance of their duties, there was really nothing for them to do but flee. So they just fled.

So, I hope, I hope that kind of answers that. 

Austin Thompson

Oh yeah, absolutely. So yeah, I have one more final question, and I imagine it's gonna be a lot of speculation, but I mean what can we look forward to in the future. What can we expect from the Taliban, and what's gonna happen to Afghanistan and the rest of the world, with all the fallout from the situation?

John Zavage

Yeah, you know, the whole world is asking themselves the same question. So no, we are just one among many. As you said, trying to speculate on what this will be. So for this discussion, I will break it down into three main sorts of ideas. The first idea is, will violent extremist groups that we worked so hard to eradicate come back? The second is, how can we expect the Taliban to act on the regional and international stage? And then the last is, what is the likelihood of continued violence? So on the first point, the first point being, will violent extremist groups like Al Qaeda and ISIS have a resurgence in a Taliban controlled Afghanistan?

So there are reasons for optimism and pessimism. On the optimistic side, the strategic goals of the groups are different. So, both al Qaeda and ISIS have global aspirations, meaning that their ultimate goal is to reestablish a global puritanical Islamic caliphate across all geographic ethnic, tribal, and political lines.

So while these groups and the Taliban share core religious beliefs, the Taliban does not share this global aspiration and they aspire mainly to rule only Afghanistan so the competing strategic objectives, offer hope that the Taliban might recognize that both al Qaeda and ISIS would threaten to rob the Taliban of their people's loyalty and undermine Taliban stability and legitimacy. If this is the case perhaps the Taliban will work with regional neighbors. They can find common ground with many regional neighbors, including the United States, because everybody wants to see, you know, China and the Central Asian republics, and the United States and Iran, all would like to see al Qaeda and ISIS contained, so that is the optimistic view. The pessimistic view is that the Taliban and al Qaeda and ISIS do in fact share many core religious beliefs and they share many components of the puritanical model of social organization and government. So, there have to be areas of common ground, especially, sort of at the local level. So, if these areas of common ground lead to mutually beneficial forces of action, you know, at the local level, among the tribes and tribal leaders and so forth, then it's very easy to see a scenario where you know the the strategic leadership of the Taliban looks the other way while the more violent groups are allowed to grow and reconstitute themselves in small pockets.

So, that's what happens with violent extremist groups. If we want to wonder, which we are wondering, you know, what can we expect the Taliban to be and act like on the regional and international stage?

So, Like the first question, there's an optimistic and a pessimistic view on the pessimistic side. I'm sorry, I'll start with the optimistic view.

Realism and pragmatism can be moderating influences in the foreign policy and diplomatic world. The Taliban were overthrown once and they don't, they don't want to be overthrown again so if they're looking at things pragmatically they would recognize that to be a player and to be taken seriously, they have to play the diplomatic game, they have to establish legitimate diplomatic relations, they have to acknowledge that competing states have competing interests, and if they do that they'll recognize that there may be opportunities for regional cooperation with their neighbors as I mentioned before, you know, Central Asian republics, Iran, and Pakistan will most likely be an ally either way, but they may have to give some things up to strike the types of relationship they may want to have with these countries and especially with Russia and China.

So, there may be opportunities for regional cooperation that may moderate their outlook and force them to be somewhat, you know, legitimate players on the international stage.

So the pessimistic view is definitely there And I must say that from some of the indicators that we've seen just in the past couple of weeks and by indicators I'm talking about some of the reporting that we're seeing in terms of Taliban treatment of civilians, it may be anecdotal, but it's there, in multiple outlets nonetheless, and also from the hardliners in former, you know, military and crime related leaders, they've chosen to leave their interim government, those indicators may force us to acknowledge that there's more reason for pessimism than optimism right now, at least in the short term. So, either way we can probably expect the Taliban to conduct their internal affairs in accordance with strict Islamic law, which most likely points to you know, the limiting of many freedoms that we in our country are blessed to enjoy. I mean, you know, freedom of speech, freedom of expression, freedom of worship, and then some of the opportunities that we enjoy, the right to access education, growing equity in terms of opportunities for, for all walks of life, that we're blessed to have in our country.It would not be anywhere close in the Taliban-run Afghanistan. So, this makes it extremely difficult for the United States and for Washington to formally recognize a Taliban government, and it would certainly create a dire situation, you know, in terms of likely violations of internationally recognized human rights by the Taliban on the citizens of Afghanistan. So, we will have to see. 

And, in terms of just violence, it's very likely we’ve not seen the end of violent conflict inside Afghanistan, it's one of the most ethnically tribally and religiously fragmented societies, really on the planet.

Just as an example, some of the tribal ethnicities that make up what we've known as the Northern Alliance, which the United States has had alliances with in the past are not Pashtun, they're not ethnically aligned with the Taliban they are primarily Tajiks and Uzbeks from the north of Afghanistan. They maintain strong militias, they don't have a natural reason to support the Taliban unless the Taliban goes out of their way to be inclusive, which is yet to be seen that they'll do that. So, if these groups are supported by their ethnically related regimes in particular Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan to the north, then that cleavage could lead to the resurgence of civil war. A similar dynamic exists with ethnic Hazaras in the center and West who were ethnically and religiously aligned with Iran. And so, if the Taliban doesn't go out of their way to be inclusive of these groups, you know, the chances of civil conflict would definitely increase. So folks will certainly be keeping a close eye on that.

So I hope that gives us an idea of what to look for. 

Austin Thompson

Yeah, absolutely. That's more than enough, that's fantastic information. So that's about all the questions I have, unless there is anything you want to add or anything you want to say before we end this? 

John Zavage

So, the only thing I would say just because I know that there's been a lot, I would like to offer a word just about implications for US policy, and again this is, this is an opinion, but something to think about. 

Austin Thompson


John Zavage

I think it's, there's a couple of things that I think are constructive and valuable to think about. Counter terror policy from the United States point of view, is not going away, and the United States will not stop using, you know our capabilities, our security capabilities to, you know, to hunt and destroy terrorist threats, especially those that pose a direct threat to the homeland. So, even if that were to continue to Afghanistan, the US policy in the US assets would continue to be in play, you know, if that makes sense.

And by that I mean both hard power and soft power punches, you know, approaches, economic approaches, diplomatic approaches, in addition to military approaches. So, it'll be important to just, you know, give the policymaking apparatus some time to kind of figure out, you know where this is going. I also kind of want to make a note, just that on the recent, you know chaos and difficult situation that we all watched, you know, much of the focus seems to have been on really the chaos of the withdrawal, the mistakes that seemed to have been made and the conduct of that withdrawal which then led to, you know, a very urgent evacuation.

And, it's useful to focus on that and it's helpful to be thankful for the folks that got out and it's helpful to be concerned for folks that may still be there, and it's important to be concerned about the mistakes that were made.

I do want to say though that focusing on that only shouldn't be allowed to obfuscate really the fact that for every year for 20 years now, the United States continued to spend billions of dollars into what ultimately was a failed endeavor.

And so, our policymaking unions made 20 years worth of, I guess, mistakes is probably the word, and we haven't really forced ourselves to critically and realistically challenge our own central assumptions for 20 years and those assumptions really that the activities that we undertook would enable Afghanistan to thrive, you know, as an electoral Democratic Republic, and that we could build a force from the outside in, into a legitimate capable force, you know, for many of the reasons that I've alluded to today and others that I haven't, you know, many of the assumptions that we made for 20 years turned out to be misguided. And really, as a foreign policy making and security policymaking community, really, you know, to kind of figure this out and move forward, we all need to step forward and accept responsibility for that. I place myself in that same category.

And in order to sustain ourselves as a, you know, for the United States to sustain itself as a strategic, the world's strategic influencer and power depends on our ability to really to kind of internalize and transparently account for those challenges and to continue to educate our policymakers and military leaders and really emerge ready to make, you know, more sustainable and focused decisions about how to expand national talent in terms of going forward.

So yeah, so thanks. I hope that all made some sense. 

Austin Thompson

Yeah, absolutely, tons of sense. I just want to say thank you for coming on. I think it's gonna help me and everybody around to help better understand the situation. Thanks for being so prepared and answering my questions, and I really appreciate your time.

John Zavage

My pleasure. Happy to do it and have a great day. Thank you Austin. 

Austin Thompson

Yeah, you too. Thank you very much.

Transcribed by https://otter.ai

Austin Thompson is a reporter for The Beacon. He can be reached at thompsau22@up.edu.