UMD Expert Sees Ongoing Underestimation of Non-state Forces Amid Chaotic Military Withdrawal
The disturbing images of frightened Afghans chasing and clamoring aboard departing U.S. military planes last week sounded a desperate, chaotic coda to a war that has lasted for two decades and cost hundreds of thousands of lives and trillions of dollars but failed to stabilize the country.
As the Aug. 31 deadline approached for the United States’ withdrawal from Afghanistan, battle-hardened Taliban forces faced little resistance as they overwhelmed most of the country in a matter of days. And while President Joe Biden has said “there was never a good time to withdraw,” and a majority of polled Americans do not believe the war is still worth fighting, military and national security officials around the world are lambasting the disjointed exit that has left many Afghan citizens who supported or helped U.S. forces in danger.
Alec Worsnop, an assistant professor in the University of Maryland’s School of Public Policy and research fellow at its Center for International and Security Studies, is an expert on insurgent groups and spent time in Afghanistan as a contractor for the U.S. Agency for International Development. He spoke to Maryland Today about the weakness of Afghanistan’s institutions, whether the Taliban will use power differently this time around, and to the repercussions for American foreign policy.
What was your experience like in Afghanistan in the late 2000s? What did you learn about the country then that presaged what is happening now?
I worked for a USAID contractor called Chemonics International. I helped them write proposals for governance programs. They were building a centralized state structure that hadn’t existed before. It was challenging to help them find the capacity and tools to do this in a way that was responsive to high-levels of corruption, traditional powerbrokers and a population that was skeptical of centralized power. The country had been at war for three decades, and people were doing their best to eke out a daily life.
(The Taliban) had this whole other game plan going on. They understood the kind of human and physical terrain of Afghanistan, biding their time. It’s hard to defend broad, unpopulated areas.
Could the disordered scramble to leave have been avoided, or was it inevitable during a U.S. withdrawal?
It’s very hard to build partner militaries (like the one in Afghanistan). They have their own political will, preferences and domestic pressures. You had a military that wasn’t motivating its fighters. Ethnic divisions fragmented the officer corps and rank-and-file; soldiers weren’t paid on time, or at all; they were isolated from their families and re-supply; and they often had little affinity for the political elite in Kabul. A lot of the same things apply to the Afghan state. The capacity of the local governments was often low, and their connection to the central government was weak. It’s a huge expenditure to prop up the Afghan government and the state—it clearly didn’t work.
There’s an ongoing problem of not just the United States, but analysts in other countries, underappreciating the military capability of non-state actors. Local leaders and fighters didn’t think it was worth it to keep fighting. They recognized the Taliban was overtaking them.
Is this withdrawal permanent, or do you still foresee an ongoing American troops presence?
It certainly seems like the president is saying this is the end. They have made clear that those personnel remaining just have enough support to defend the area around the airport. It would take a major influx of U.S. fighting power to push back Taliban gains. It’s very unlikely and would be super violent, particularly after the Taliban has now captured so much U.S. military hardware. I don’t think there are short-term solutions. Without a long-term, major U.S. presence, it seems unlikely the tide would turn back.
The Taliban was a notoriously brutal and oppressive regime. Do you see it operating any differently now?
One of the things the Taliban has done over the last 10 years in the areas that they conquered is they created shadow governments. They use social media both to intimidate people and message to various audiences, and perhaps play themselves off as less extreme. It’s just really hard to know whether it’s the truth or not.
They don’t want to be totally shut off from the international community again—but don’t try to read too much into the relative calm right now. Afghans who have built new lives in the past 20 years, and women in particular, are obviously very worried about this.
What will the overall impact of this be on U.S. policy and actions in the Middle East?
The fact that the U.S. has faced criticism from NATO allies very quickly is indicative. As other regional powers look toward the U.S., they are likely doubtful of the U.S.’s credibility or willingness to deploy military force anytime soon. At least in the short to medium term, it’s not clear to me the U.S. will have the sort of influence to project power in the region after this. They’ve withdrawn in such a visually obvious, dramatic way. That said, at least to a nontrivial extent, the U.S.’s reputation and credibility did recover after its similarly calamitous withdrawal from Vietnam.