Skip to content
When the ‘Strongest Tribe’ Leaves
Go to my account

When the ‘Strongest Tribe’ Leaves

Understanding the Afghan military collapse.

What makes a man willing to stand and fight, even if fighting might mean his death? The answer is complex and varied, involving combinations and permutations of hate, fear, love, patriotism, professionalism, fanaticism, and—a critical ingredient—hope. As we watch and lament the sudden and catastrophic collapse of the Afghan military, I want to do my best to answer why. Why did another American military ally collapse so quickly in the face of its enemies? 

This isn’t the first time, after all. In 1975, the South Vietnamese army’s retreat turned into a rout. In 2014, we watched in horror as entire divisions of the Iraqi army simply melted away, and a relatively small and militarily weak ISIS militia rampaged across regions of Iraq. And now, in 2021, after America invested billions and two decades in training the Afghan army, it has ceased to exist as an independent fighting force. 

Let’s dispense with the quick and easy answer to the question, the one you see pop up all over Twitter. No, the collapse did not occur because the Afghan army (or the allied armies before them) were cowards. In fact, as Marc Thiessen points out today in the Washington Post, the Afghan army has taken immense casualties in the long fight against the Taliban. More than 50,000 have given their lives, including “2,600 through Aug. 5 this year.”

That’s not to say that they’ve always fought well. But they’ve still fought by the hundreds of thousands and died by the tens of thousands. We could say the same about our Iraqi allies with whom I served during the surge. No, we didn’t trust them to fight in independent operations, but they did fight, and they took much higher casualties in our area of operations than we took, and we spent months in near-daily enemy contact. 

But I want to circle back to the word hope. It’s remarkable what a person can endure when they have hope, and hope is one thing we take for granted as an American fighting force. Yes, we’re professional. Yes, we fight for the love of the man or woman beside us. Yes, the military is full of patriots. But rare is the day when any one of us feels as if we face hopeless odds, and I mean that in the most concrete way possible.

Let’s take, for example, a typical, tiny three-Humvee convoy that would often leave the gates of our forward operating base. At no time did those roughly 16 to 20 men feel remotely alone. If attacked, they could call on a quick reaction force to come to their aid. If the attack was serious and prolonged, not only could we deploy even more force directly from our base, we could call on artillery fire if artillery was in range, and devastating, pinpoint air strikes from fighters, attack helicopters, or both.

And in each moment of crisis, the men in the Humvees could depend on their training and professionalism to help hold the enemy at bay until the cavalry arrived. In fact, we were so confident that the cavalry would arrive that delays were deemed scandalous and unconscionable. (The battle of Ganjigal—where Dakota Meyer earned his Medal of Honor—represented one of the most painful moments of the Afghan War in part because American help was too little, too late.)

We never had to fight without hope. In fact, Americans have rarely in our history had to fight without hope. Sometimes when we have, we’ve acquitted ourselves with almost unimaginable bravery (the Battle of Wake Island in December 1941 remains an extraordinary story). Other times, when defeat seemed inevitable, American fighting men have, in fact, cut and run. Research, for example, the “Big Bug-Out” of the Korean War to see what it looks like when American morale collapses in the face of a seemingly overwhelming enemy force.

Returning to our present conflicts, it was exceedingly difficult to create anything remotely approaching American professionalism in allied armies. One can’t simply step into Iraq or Afghanistan and reproduce military cultures that took centuries to build in Western lands. Our best successes came in training both Iraqi and Afghan special forces, but it was extraordinarily difficult to elevate those armies above the background corruption and tribalism of their own countries. 

(In one memorable story from our deployment, a friend of mine watched, aghast, as an Iraqi colonel took delivery of washing machines for his base, loaded half in the back of a truck for his family and left half for his soldiers. When he confronted the colonel, the colonel was incredulous at the idea that he shouldn’t enjoy the privileges of command.)

But while training was difficult and professionalism was elusive, our alliance still gave these armies hope. They were allied with—in Bing West’s words in his excellent book about the surge in Iraq—the “strongest tribe,” the United States of America. Even a relatively small American presence gave our allies access to better intelligence to understand the enemy’s disposition, to air assets that could turn the tide of virtually any battle, and to the raw technical ability to keep allied vehicles driving and allied aircraft flying.

In other words, our allies went into the fight with a trump card in their back pocket. Remove the trump card, and you strip that hope. In fact, remove the trump card, and they can’t even truly fight the way they’ve been trained to fight. You tell the ordinary soldier in the field that if they call for the cavalry, no one will come to their aid. 

Let’s go back to Iraq. In 2014, the Iraqi army fled from ISIS in a retreat that was, if anything, more shocking than the Afghan retreat we witnessed this week. Under attack by a fanatical and ruthless enemy, simply shocking numbers of Iraqi troops bugged out. The best estimates put the force that conquered Mosul at less than 2,000 ISIS fighters. Hollowed out by corruption, facing a fanatical enemy, Iraqi troops lost the will to fight. 

Fast forward two years. The Iraqi army, combined with Shiite militias and Kurdish Peshmerga, returned to Mosul. They spent nine costly months in grinding, house-to-house combat, one of the largest and deadliest urban battles since the end of World War II. Had the Iraqi army completely transformed and remade itself since 2014? Were the soldiers of fundamentally different character?

Certainly there had been some improvements, but the biggest difference was that this Iraqi army went into battle with its trump card: American support. A very small number of American advisers, combined with the power of allied air forces, changed the balance of power, decisively. So they fought, hard, for day after day, month after month.  

Now, let’s examine the flip side of hope—fear. Spend much time talking to American soldiers who trained either Iraqis or Afghans, and rarely (if ever) will they tell you that they were training extremists. Our allies tend to be drawn far more from the ranks of the average, ordinary citizen. al-Qaeda, ISIS, and the Taliban tended to be fanatical, possessed with burning religious zeal. While we often struggled to contain the brutality of our allies, our enemies were far more homicidal.

That meant that the cost of defeat for our allies was far greater than we could truly comprehend. When we grew weary, we could return home to a safe and prosperous nation. If our allies lost, they would die gruesome deaths. Their wives might die gruesome deaths. Their children could be tortured and murdered. I can’t even begin to describe to you some of the sights our soldiers saw in my area of operations in Iraq when they captured al-Qaeda DVDs showing terrorists taking vengeance on their foes.  

So what happens to normal human beings when you remove the hope of victory by yanking away the trump card of American help (which also compounds the corruption and incompetence of the forces that remain) and place them in front of an enemy that will show them and their families no mercy in defeat? Many of them make the calculation that a doomed fight will seal their fates. To switch sides or simply attempt to disappear gives them and those they love a chance to live. 

Remember, these are militaries that lack a sense of national identity, a comparable history of professionalism, and often even the sense of camaraderie that comes more naturally to those militaries that possess centuries of pride and tradition. If you belong, say, to the 101st Airborne (Air Assault) Division, you’re standing in the shoes of men who withstood the Siege of Bastogne and were first on the ground at Normandy.  

So what do we see when we look at Afghanistan? Is it a collection of cowards, people who’ve proven that we somehow cared more about their country than they did? There are cowards in any population, but what we really see are human beings, members of a society far more dysfunctional and divided than our own, who’ve been deprived of hope and ordered to face an utterly ruthless foe. 

How many times must we repeat the same mistakes before we learn that you cannot strip your allies of hope, deprive them of aid, and then demand that they stand firm when death stares them in the face? Yes, the Afghan army could have fought harder. Yes, it was plagued by corruption and incompetence. But when the strongest tribe leaves the battlefield, it is ultimately to blame for the calamity that results.

One last thing …

This is a grim week, but we can’t let this newsletter be unrelentingly grim, can we? I saw this today, and it made me smile. Texas is coming to the SEC, and it’s going to be a great joy watching it slowly understand that 1) it’s not the real UT (that honor belongs to the Vols), and 2) that it’s got a long, long way to go before Texas football is truly “back.” 

Mark my words, Texas will lose to Vanderbilt at some point in its first five years in college football’s greatest league. 

David French is a columnist for the New York Times. He’s a former senior editor of The Dispatch. He’s the author most recently of Divided We Fall: America's Secession Threat and How to Restore Our Nation.