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Lessons from Afghanistan

It was apparent to most Americans yesterday that we were watching history unfold with the unprecedented collapse of the Afghanistan government and the rise of The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. As I watched the news prior to going to church, I commented to my wife that it would be over before the days end. I was right. There will be months of “after action” postmortems and blame will be assigned in all directions—basically, to anyone who has been in U.S. political leadership for the past twenty years. But even before the dust has cleared and the embassy personnel evacuated from Hamid Karzai International Airport, there are some lessons to be learned.

1. Nation states are fragile. There is a tendency to assume a given stability of social institutions that is rarely justified. We tend to think that if we can count it that it exists. This materialist bias has come back to bite us. We counted the Afghan troops, the amount of arms provided, the billions in aid given, and the years of occupation. All of these visible factors masked the underlying reality. A twenty-year investment dissolved within a week. The Taliban conquered mostly without firing a shot. This was not a military victory, not even a political one, it was a cultural/spiritual victory. Tocqueville observed American society in 1830 and stated that our strength was not in our geography or even in our laws, but in the habits of our heart. In this sense, Afghanistan had a heart attack. All social groups from families to nation states are intrinsically fragile. This means that when weaknesses are observed these weaknesses should not be taken for granted.

2. The visible masks the invisible. If culture is upstream from politics, then the invisible substance of culture is more decisive than the political. What Afghanistan taught us is that politics is upstream from the military. Afghanistan faced a decades-long crisis of cultural legitimacy which was exposed under the pressure of the Taliban’s advance. All of the visible assumed structures of military might evaporate within days.

3. Americans are naive on foreign policy. The weakness of being a global superpower is a latent arrogance that assumes that all civilized persons will inevitably think just as we do. Characterizations of the Taliban being “a 7th century barbarian force,” even if true, reveals a neo-colonialist bias and blindness. It meant that in our military and political calculations we rarely took them seriously. Canadian Margaret Atwood’s assessment of American borders is worth remembering: “American borders are a mirror. Americans look out and only see themselves.” Americans have a cultural arrogance born of a spirit of empire that is finally a decisive liability. We don’t learn other nation’s language or learn their culture. We have been chastened in our past efforts at nation-building, but we have continued to assume that we can build a functioning military without political legitimacy or cultural understanding. Once again it did not work. Our own arrogance came back to bite us. We cannot assume that all legitimate governments will follow the liberal Enlightenment principles of 17th century Europe.

4. History matters. The unconscious dispositions of a people are learned through a long accumulated internalized history. Sociologists call this “swallowed history” “habitus.” American politicians made political and military calculations without taking this into consideration. Journalist and U.S. military field commanders read deeply the books that suggested why Afghanistan has long been the graveyard of empires. Too often though this local knowledge does not filter its way up to the politicians making the decisions, which are generally dictated by reasons totally irrelevant to the cultural realities or lived experiences of actual Afghans.

5. Culture is determinative. Afghanistan is intrinsically a tribal culture with little to no intrinsic identification to arbitrary Western ideas such as the “nation state.” Added to this was extensive corruption, an opium-based economy, an unpaid army, and a delegitimized government, and you have all the makings of a political implosion. James Madison argued in The Federalist that the Constitution is nothing other than a “parchment barrier” apart from the beliefs of its citizens. We watched a parchment barrier fail.

If Afghanistan were a church, we would have been guilty of counting buildings, hymn books, and AV equipment and thinking all was fine. When under the threat of persecution and eminent martyrdom, it was discovered that no one in leadership actually believed in God. Everyone simply disappeared.

So it was that we discovered in real time yesterday the extent of the Afghan crisis of cultural legitimacy. This is the extent that the Afghan people believe in their founding ideals and governing institutions. American money was the apparent glue of Afghan society, not culturally supported ideals. When the flow of this money ended, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani fled the country with four vehicles and a helicopter full of cash. Under the pressure of the Taliban the extent of the hollowness of their moral conviction was revealed.

6. Legitimacy is cultural and crucial for social stability. There are lessons to be learned. Lots of people were involved in this debacle, far more than just President Biden. But perhaps the greatest lesson to be faced is that American society itself is facing its own crisis of cultural legitimacy. What we witnessed in Afghanistan reflects our own cautionary tale. We have a divided culture, a partisan government, a disillusioned and angry populous. Many observers have warned about the hollowing out of American core beliefs, reflected in the increasingly symbolic nature of the culture war. We can’t even get to sensible masking and vaccine public policy without going to DEFCON 1.

Nation states are fragile. In the end, the invisible culture of a people matters. If we can get past our arrogant sense of empire, we might recognize the cracks in our own foundation. There are lessons that we can learn from what we witnessed yesterday. These are lessons which we cannot afford to ignore.


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