What America Didn't Understand About Its Longest War

The problem was not isolated. The problem was not only corruption, but also the fact that soldiers and police were less effective because military commanders and government officials pocketed their salaries, hoarded ammunition, and diluted rosters with ghost troops. Despite accounting for corruption, the army and police were often numerically superior and better equipped than Taliban troops in any given battle.The reason why the soldiers and police did not want their lives at risk for a corrupt government was stronger. I did know of many Afghan commanders who were dedicated to their soldiers. Can we put the blame on corrupt and uncaring government officials when Taliban were fighting for less, with fewer heavy arms, and leaders who hid in Pakistan for years while their soldiers fought? The Afghan special forces, which have far superior leaders than the Taliban and are extremely well supported, still struggled to fight without U.S. advisers and air support.As I was leaving Afghanistan in August 2014, this question kept me awake at night. Although all of these factors are important, their total was less than the hardship I was experiencing.A few months after my return home, I attended a State Department discussion with Michael McKinley (the U.S. ambassador in Afghanistan). The ambassador intervened as we were engaged in a lively discussion about the reasons for the Taliban fighting. He suggested that I might have read too many Hannah Arendt. This refers to the 20th century philosopher who believed that humans are motivated by past experiences and fears. However, I don't think it is about money or jobs. McKinley captured my feelings, which I had not yet articulated. Five years later, the Taliban scholar would repeat for me what McKinley described.The Taliban were an example of something that inspired. They had the ability to win in battle and it was tied to Afghanistan's identity. They posed as representatives of Islam and demanded resistance to foreign occupation. These two ideas combined made a powerful combination for Afghans who are devout Muslims, but not extremists. The government, which was aligned with foreign occupiers did not have the same inspiration. Even though they were more numerous than the Taliban, it was unable to get its supporters to follow the same path. The governments' claim to Islam was fraught due to its association with the Americans. However, the Taliban were able co-opt Afghans religiosity to support their extremist vision. The Taliban could, however, use U.S. occupation as a way to distinguish themselves from the government and claim that they are truer representatives Islam. The Taliban had more Afghans willing to work for the government. However, more Afghans were willing and able to die for the Taliban. This advantage made a significant difference on the battlefield.This explanation is both powerful and dangerous. This could be misinterpreted to mean all Muslims are obsessed with war or fanatics. This interpretation is wrong. Islam is a source for unity and inspiration, not terrorism or atrocity. It is not possible to call Islam evil if a group of people has sympathy for their countrymen, co-religionists, and foreigners. It is more difficult to risk your life fighting alongside those who some call occupiers, particularly if they don't share your faith.This explanation was revealed in many conversations and correspondences I have had with Afghans, military commanders and tribal leaders over the years. Abdul Razziq, Kandahar's famous police chief, was well-known for taking care of his officers and being an authority on fighting the Taliban. He said that the Taliban morale was better than the government morale. The morale of the Taliban is extremely high. Take a look at their suicide bombers. They inspire people to do amazing things.Paktia's Taliban religious leader made the same point:Every day I hear of incidents in which soldiers or police are killed. I don't know if they are fighting the Taliban. Many soldiers and police officers are only there for the dollars. While they are given good salaries, many of them lack the motivation to defend their government. Taliban are committed to the cause jihad. This is their greatest victory.Multiple surveys of Taliban opinion conducted by Ashley Jackson, Graeme Smith and Antonio Giustozzi, among others, have shown that they fight because they feel it is their Islamic duty to resist the occupation and believe their cause will win. Jackson's 2019 survey of 50 Taliban revealed that they viewed their decision to join the group as a matter of religious devotion, and jihad as a sense of public and personal duty. Jacksons survey of 50 Taliban, published in 2019, found that they viewed jihad against foreign occupation as a religious obligation. They believed it was an act of self-defense.This thought extends to ordinary Afghans, who are often sympathetic to the Taliban's invocation of Islamic principles to defeat foreign occupiers but do not subscribe to their extreme political vision. The most respected survey on Afghans was the 2012 Asia Foundation survey. It found that 77% of those who sympathized strongly with the Taliban said it was because they were Muslims, Afghans and fighting jihad.Conscient of their government's vulnerability, Afghan leaders sought out Pakistan to mobilize the people. Razziq, President Hamid Karzai, and later President Ashraf Ghani used Pakistan to unify Afghans behind them. They refused to call the Taliban anything other than a creation Islamabad. Razziq insisted on claiming that he was fighting against a foreign Pakistani invasion. But Pakistan couldn't fully out-inspire occupation. An Afghan official shared a popular story about me in 2018 that illustrates the truth:A Taliban commander and an Afghan army officer were arguing over radios, while firing back and forth. The Taliban commander taunted the army officer: You are puppets in America! The Taliban commander responded: The Americans are infidels. The Afghan officer did not respond.Or, in the simplest form of an Afghan proverb: Be happy with a weak Muslim over an infidel