The haunting GIF in the header to this post tracks the rapid return of the Taliban to power as a drawdown of the Forever War. It echoes a sense of inevitable loss–a dramatic ceding of territory, echoing the “loss” of Korea, China, or Vietnam–an un-imagined conclusion to the War on Terror. The terrifying denouement of a collapse of provinces across this virtual Afghanistan seems to suggest a logic deflating bravura of the Forever Wars, in which arms and military materiel were funneled at unprecedented rate to Afghanistan–at a rate that would only be later superseded by the rush of arms into Ukraine. This was hardly, the GIF suggests, the conclusion Americans would have expected from Donald Trump’s promise to “ending the era of endless wars,” but was the end of an era of pretenses to American empire, that sent hundreds of billions of military spending to Afghanistan, inflating the budget for the Department of Defense in unsustainable fashion, and, intentionally suggests an ominous terms a haunting pivot to an unknown future without imperial plans. This is a future where the return of military forces from Afghanistan will upset a global military playing field, where war will no longer be fought in terms of a map of Afghanistan or a level field.
But if the glass can be called half-empty or half-full, its apparently overpowering logic of loss also obscures, by flattening to a few months the long history of post-9/11 period, how wars waged since 2001 has left the United States without any control over the ground game. For by failing to find allies in the ground we’ve been pummeling , unsuccessfully seeking to construct alliances on the ground, the arrival of arms and military technologies have re-written the situation of Afghanistan, or the conflict there in which we were long immersed, in ways few Americans have any memory, and surely won’t be aided in the dramatic GIF that suggests the collapse of the house of cards on which we created a power vacuum filled with only intensified high-powered arms, in what was virtually a powder keg of massive American forces across the Middle East, in an extended military apparatus designed to keep a geo-political map afloat that had no endgame or even game.
It is hard to come to terms with the 9/11 wars without tracking the flow of military technology and tools overseas. Over 9,000 Americans have died, or the hundreds of thousands who returned from the wars, injured in body or psyche, the roughly 6,200 U.S. military personnel, contractors, humanitarian workers and journalists killed in Afghanistan since the U.S. government invaded are left off the map, but the legacy may be greatest for the huge amounts of military materiel shipped into the Middle East–arms that helped in some way to “modernize” the current Taliban, who may have received training from Pakistan intel–as well as the huge losses of population and infrastructure in Afghanistan, where about 71,000 Pakistani and Afghan civilians are estimated to have been killed–a staggeringly disproportionate number in crossfire, bombing raids, drone attacks, suicide bombings in Kabul and other bases, IED’s and night-time raids by NATO or American troops.
The GiF that purports to document the effects of American withdrawal renders the battlefield of Afghanistan as the rapid falling of provinces as if they were a gameboard, or a mock battlefield, creating a sense of causation due to American withdrawl by the proverbial falling of a set of dominoes. But the limited long-term strategy of these wars is handily elided in what seems the result of an immediate retreat of military presence. The retreat was, however, only the last act of a tragedy on a massive scale, the result of funneling arms rather than promoting national infrastructure in a nation that has limited infrastructure–and which even American forces were compelled to cast and indeed to consider as a tribal society that had no social structures that could be trusted or built upon. The increased lack of trust that dominated relations on the ground were more revealed by the map–as well as the lack of effort to foster a functioning government. Donald Trump may have escalated the arms trade into the Middle East to levels far beyond his predecessor, but the frustration of his successor Joe Biden was perhaps more clear-eyed than is given credit, if intentionally so: “We provided our Afghan partners with all the tools — let me emphasize: all the tools.”
But were tools of war ever enough? Biden’s remarks revealed a combination of deep dissatisfaction at returning to government after four years, and finding the same boondoggle on the table from the Bush years, and apparent exasperation. If he was trying to justify his rapid withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan as a pivot in prioritizing strategy he had long seen as of limited benefit or without exit strategy, it betrays a deep sense of what might have been different in Afghanistan, or how the map of civil government could have been different–if the arms sent to Afghanistan in military aid was not seen as a sufficient basis to forge a civil society. The vague circumlocution “all the tools” may well come back to haunt both Biden and the world. For in the course of training and equipping a military force of 300,000 provided the basis for delivering much military support, America created spiraling costs of a global arms industry, even if the range of arms offered was not as well-suited to Afghani terrain or as protective as equipment offered NATO troops. (Oryxblog notes the poor protection these vehicles offer against feared improvised explosive devices (IEDs) compared to the MRAPs available to NATO forces in Afghanistan, and offered to police departments across the United States, but not offered to Afghan special forces.)
While the messy exit from Afghanistan appeared an uncoordinated relinquishment of control, the reliance on firepower and bombing raids as the sole veneer of stability in earlier maps of the region is revealed by the map, far more than the crumbling of a once united front of control. The GIF dramatically collapses the past four years as they unravelled over the months from May to April 13 to August 16, 2021; if it is only one of the several theaters of war, it seems to offer a compelling, if distorting story of a fall of provincial provinces in the state that the United States and the failure of rebuilding an infrastructure to which NATO committed from 2008, a loss that seems to ratchet up one’s sense of a lost opportunity. The failure of being able to control Bagram Airfield thirty miles north of Kabul–its control ceded to an Afghan army able to provide cover for fleeing Americans–was a final tragic episode in sustained lack of commitment in the ground game over more than two decades of ignoring the level of local trust that might have better created the nation’s infrastructure.
Indeed, the fraught planning of the withdrawal from Afghanistan, too easily blamed on a failure of “listening to those on the ground” who grasped the critical strategically critical nature of operations of drawing down the war rests is imbued with a sense of loss the mock up maps released by outfits as Long War Journal communicated to the viewers that reveal incomplete tactical awareness of a long-term ground game, but cunningly erased the costs of a war that inflicted such sustained damage on the country–and introduced escalating levels of violence and anti-government opposition–that little trust or loyalty remained after intense military efforts over all those years.
The costs of the pursuing of war and of bombarding much of the nation are never referenced in the maps of the advance of Taliban forces across the nation that suggest a strategic meltdown of ground-game. The “loss” of territory in the flip-book like sets of images recorded a real-time reaction to the transmission of power from American military camps, a transfer of power that was so poorly coordinated to not even allow the departing United States troops to secure Bagram Airfield, miles outside of Kabul, and the Hamid Karzai Airport to coordinate departures.
The narrative of Taliban advance is however mapped as an optic of loss. But the loss is almost hidden from visibility in the very same maps. The failure to compel Afghanistan to present Osama bin Laden and Taliban officers or training camps created the false sense of security of a show of power. It was based on and predicated the false concept of a submission of Afghanistan as best achieved by bloody bombing campaigns, drone strikes, and military incursions. For the loss of what we imagine territory held by our troops seems almost to cleanse the bloodiness of that past history. The advance of the Taliban into areas that were allegedly once in “government control”–or are labeled as such–reveal the spread of an ominous wash of deep crimson across the country as the tragic end of the War on Terror, something of a blood bath in the making, a spurt of pink and deep crimson red–as if the bloodshed was not cast by an American show of power.
Yet it erases the effects of a sustained numbers of deaths, violence and loss of blood, and the deaths of civilians that might have been prevented, already destabilized what was left of the civil government. The absences of governmental structures or webs of local allegiance allowed the superficial sense of stability that the provinces had retained, as American air power left them , and as stockpiling of arms and munitions in many former American bases provided the materiel for Taliban forces to advance even more quickly across space than they had ever expected. The insufficient supervision of arms that arrived at American bases suggested a landscape long permeated by naivite about the agency of Afghan people, and the utter the absence of training of local forces, that anticipated local governmental failure across the Forever Wars.
The readiness to point blame at a new President for not listening to the on-the-ground sources is concealed in the maps that suggest an abandonment of areas “under government control” as a betrayal–rather than a culmination of the long-term costs of a failure of effective governance of a land that long lacked centralized governance of the sort that is signified–but not demonstrated–by a map. The very national borders of what was shown to be a “nation” created a sense of false security, belied by the appearance of relatively few areas of insurgent activity across the terrain since 2018, and with little sense of the infrastructure destroyed by sustained bombing campaigns.
But the arrival of bloodshed to Afghanistan was something that the United States, of course, brought there on a scale no one had ever before imagined, flooding the nation with arms of a level of modernity as if they would defeat the society we had once called ‘tribal’ and incapable of tactical maneuvering or high-tech weaponry. As the United States assures we are As the area under “Government Control” contracts to an isolated the limited area, leaving us asking how the United States mapped it so badly. As the Government four Presidents promoted military ties contracts to a dot, but the dream of such an independent state now apparently eclipsed and recast into what may now seem more of an inter-regnum between two rulers–Hamid Karzai and Ashraf Ghani–in a Taliban regime. Rather than being cast as a restoration of power, the map illustrated to Americans the fall of an American dream, and an eclipse of the idea of nation-building as a primarily military prospect, that the US Army took over from NATO.
The hope to recreate firm borders of Afghanistan at untold expense fell like a house of cards. The Taliban’s strategic operations for controlling the very roads on which they once attacked American and NATO forces had destroyed the structures long before the troops retreated, as they had paralyzed the country’s movement and flexibility of its soldiers or national infrastructure. The fiction that was long nourished of an Afghan state that America had been able to try to fortify by the importing armaments–the “tools of war”–over more than twenty years. While the map is a visualization that derives from the work of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, and poses as a vision charting the erosion or loss of the coherence of a liberal state in the borders of Afghanistan, it both isolates the nation from its broader context in the Middle East and War on Terror–from the United States Central Command (CENTCOM) in Qatar, from the allies of Taliban in Pakistan and elsewhere, or the exit of many Afghan forces as refugees, or the seizure of weapons, humvees, and armored vehicles abandoned by the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) who left them behind as they fled north across the border or abandoned their posts. A map of the arrival of firearms and materiel–the procurement of Foreign Military Financing (FMF) and International Military Assistance (IMET) programs that American Presidents are authorized, and with Donald Trump escalated and Barack Obama had previously–would be as helpful, as it would track a vision of a significant increase of security assistance for geopolitical dominance.
The investment in drone escalation as a tactical relation to “space” redefined territorial dominance to replace one of community building, often confusing targets with the territory. Drone strikes not only served to “take out terrorist commanders”–but as if this did not destroy the stability of the fabric of a nation America was allegedly trying to rebuild since 2008–defined a view far from the ground. Over 13,000 drone strikes on Afghanistan alone–a minimum of 13,072 strikes killed in Afghanistan alone over 10,000–conducted by the United States Reconnaissance created a landscape being invaded by foreign powers. The dynamic of incessant drone strikes–conducted by a tool not owned by the U.S. military before the Forever Wars, and now showcased in targeted strikes is an invaluable prism to understand the mapping of the land that appears a hope for peace and end to the Forever Wars, as much as a lack of training, strategy, or American assistance. In ways that make drone strike fatalities pale, the recent estimate of 46,310 Afghan civilians–if below half of the estimated 95,000 dead Syrian civilian casualties of the War on Terror–suggests the way that the United States has benefited form the low presence of reporters on the ground.
The war in Afghanistan was located predominantly in the countryside, and across the many provinces that “fell” to a Taliban newly fortified by the windfall of armaments they accumulated as provincial cities, abandoned by the AFSN, fell. The logic that we had supplied the ANSF with sufficient arms to defend the territory reveals a confusion between the territory and the map–and the theater of combat and the situation on the ground. When Joe Biden marveled at how American-trained Afghan security forces Americans out-numbered Taliban fighters fourfold, and possessed better arms, the 298,000 armed ANSF were thinly spread and at low morale; if trained and armed by Americans, perhaps amounting to but 96,000, they lacked decisive advantage against Taliban force of 60-80,000 whose leaders effectively exploited internal weaknesses off the battlefield.
The real map–or the inside story of the progress of the Taliban across the nation–lay the perhaps not control over districts’ capitols, but the many well-stocked bases, airfields, and army depots long cultivated by American troops. The long-running bases across the country–sites with often mythic and storied names, like Kandahar and Bagram airfield, where tens of thousands of United States soldiers had been stationed from 2001–had posed a site of immense military materiel that the . The Bagram Airfield was a site for drones, of course, but also for storing cutting edge Blackhawk helicopters that the United States committed to Afghan forces, even if they were not well-trained in using or maintaining them, munitions, and firearms, even if the larger American aircraft and drones were withdrawn. As American forces withdrew, the rifles, ammunition, and tactical vehicles–as well as cars–were left at bases that the Taliban had long attacked–as Bagram—and had their eyes and were particularly keen. American commanders, as if intending to disrupt the withdrawal’s smoothness, disrupted the smooth transition by not even telling Afghans before they arrived at the Kabul airport–allowing the looting of laptops from Bagram, as a sort of bonanza, by local residents, before the arrival of Taliban forces.
Over three million items were abandoned by the U.S. Army in Bagram, from food to small weapons, ammunition, and vehicles–presuming that the “tribal” Taliban did not know how to use them–before they down-powered the entire base. Did the generals doubt that the Taliban could ever operate them, or just trust they were secure with Afghan forces? The weapons were poorly monitored. As ammunition for weapons not being left for the AFSN was destroyed, the abandonment of materiel, planes, helicopters and ground vehicles followed departure from ten other bases before Biden took office, often over NATO objections–that bestowed a huge symbolic victory of sorts to the Taliban of having driven foreigners from the land as they long promised, if not one of military materiel as wall. If American military argued “They can look at them, they can walk around — but they can’t fly them. They can’t operate them,” the ludic inversion of Taliban displaying armaments of Americans was profound theater of deep symbolic capital.
If the hundreds of bases that Americans sent soldiers had long declined to dozens, the withdrawal of American forces without clear coordination with Afghans left a vast reserve of symbolic military material ready for the taking. How much was left at the bases closed in Helmand province, Laghman province, or Kunduz, as well as the bases in Nangahar, Balkh, Faryab and Zabul? Did these sites, and the reduction of American presence in Jalalabad Air Field, Kandahar Air Field, and Bagram not provide targets on which the Taliban long had eyes? The seizure of Kandahar provided an occasion for a triumphal procession of sorts, showcasing armored vehicles, as Blackhawk helicopters flying the Taliban flag flew in the skies overhead. In a poor country, the large prizes of American bases stood out like centers of wealth inequality, stocked with energy drinks, full meals, medical care and other amenities, and stockades were impossible to fully empty as the American bases closed from 2020.
Few gave credence to Taliban boasts 1,533 ANSF joined the Taliban by May, or that June saw another 1,300 surrender, but the numbers of deserters only grew, expanding “contested” areas where Government forces lost ground without a fight. All of this crucial information is absent from the map, but we still believe, despite all we might have learned from Tolstoy, that generals and strategists determine the state of play on a battlefield, without knowing how the war was waged, or that the war was never seen as geopolitical–as it was waged–but across borders and rooted much more locally on the ground, as Taliban entered sites of former bases, and amassed arms caches in a drive of increasing momentum to Kabul–one of the only areas that wasn’t bombed so intensively, hoping it would be a reprieve from the violent bombed out landscapes on the ground.
For a war that was long pursued remotely, the image of territorial “loss” obscured the failure of engineering a transition to democracy. We have already begun debating the extent to which an executive decision-making shouldered full responsibility for the folding of the government of Afghanistan that followed the withdrawal of United States soldiers. –and air cover. We like to imagine that an American President has continued to steer global dialogue about the Afghanistan War, the remainder and reduced proxy of the War on Terror. Perhaps it is that we have a hard time to imagine a sense of an ending, and loose the ability to imagine one, and have lost any sense of a conclusion to the War on Terror that was long cast as a “just war,” against evil, and in terms of a dichotomy between good and bad, as if to disguise its protracted disaster. If we could never “see” the results of a an end to the War on Terror, Orwellianly, we were told it was not endless–Americans must have patience, said President George W. Bush as he promised us he had, to pursue a simple, conclusive, and final end to terrorism, assuring us the war would not, appearances to the contrary, grow open-ended, with a “mission creep” even greater than the Vietnam War. Barack Obama, after he presided over the military surge, hoped to “turn the page” on it in 2016. But any “exit” receded, and may not even be able to be dated 2021–as we imagine–but more protracted and indefinite than resolute–as Barack Obama, who presided over the military “surge”–hoped to “turn the page” and wind down by 2016. The logic of the war grew, as if deriving from Bush’s refusal to negotiate as was requested after the eight day of the bombing campaign, or move Osama bin Laden to a third country, but employ military might to force destruction of the camps of the Taliban, and delivery of all Taliban, fixating on the Taliban escalated the war far as an American struggle, far beyond attention to the situation on the ground.
The nightmarish reversion of Afghan territories was seen as the culmination of the withdrawal of American troops at large levels, almost achieved by President Obama in 2016, after the heights of the first “Surge” in 20011, but which was delayed by President Trump. The war that refused to end or conclude was never seen as a protracted struggle–or presented as one–but it was, and perhaps because of this never had any end in sight. “This is not another Vietnam” was announced by the father of that President, President George H.W. Bush in 1990. Americans changed the organizational structure and leadership of Afghan troops with each U.S. President, making it hard to conclude or manage, shifting how Afghans were trained, that must have encouraged a sense of clientelism and corruption of which the Afghan government became increasingly accused–and perhaps introducing a lingering suspicion of corruption and clientelism, more than bringing anything like a modern fighting army or New Model Army. There was never a sense of refusing to leave for fear that the failure that the maps depicted of the collapse of all districts of the new “Afghanistan” depended on continued American investment and support to endure.
Although the rapid reversion of districts to Taliban is far more likely to remain perceived by Republicans as a fiasco in leadership, the poor state of the country and ineffectiveness to work with the increased military materiel it was provided as if the army members did not have to be motivated and organized. The impossibility of mapping the geopolitical interests America felt onto the Security Forces–Lt. General William Caldwell IV reflected Defense Dept. opinion in the military when he assured the world Afghanistan National Security Forces were effective and trained, in fact “probably the best-trained, the best-equipped and the best-led of any forces we’ve developed yet inside of Afghanistan,” by June 2011, after a decade of military training, and only able to get better, even if American Generals were clear they would tolerate a degree of chaos, and didn’t want Afghans to be defining priorities, but only to instill a “particular kind of stability“: by 2016, National Security officials openly worried about the lack of any metrics–levels of violence, control over territory, or Taliban attacks that presented or projected confidence. The distrust, missed assessment and mutual mis-communications between American Generals who promoted and mistrusted Afghan troops whose efficiency they promoted created a disconnect between Americans as they downplayed the military ability of the Taliban, regarded as lacking sufficient air capacity or military prowess to command the nation or pose a threat to the Afghan Security Forces who folded before the Taliban’s military and threats of reprisals.
Is it possible to trace a transfer of military technologies and armaments in the twenty years since the crashing of airplanes into the Twin Towers by jihadist militants and the appropriation of sophisticated arms, night-goggles and humvees of members of the same Taliban who now occupy Baghdad? At the same time as American purchasers of handguns and firearms grew, the transfers of weapons and military firearms to the Afghan areas–UAE; Saudi Arabia; and especially Qatar–in a massive transfer of military technology that paralleled the emergence of the very groups cast as primitive rebels who had commandeered aircrafts to strike the Twin Towers into an efficient user of enhanced military tools and technologies, rather than the primitives who occupied the outer peripheries, but were both trained and prepared to occupy a nation’s center in disarmingly modern ways. Although the image of the plans flying into the Twin Towers presented an image of modernity versus premodernity, a lens through which the protracted war was pursued, as we cast the Taliban as “tribal,” and drove the Taliban into the opium production business, selling “modern” weapons and military tools into Afghanistan, the dichotomy of modern and primitive failed to present anything like a proper lens to pursue the war, although it was one American military had adopted on cue from an American President who had promised a “crusade” in no uncertain terms.
Perhaps the story of the War on Terror, in both its Afghanistan chapter and in other ways, demands to be written, when it is, as a massive transformation from the perspective of a shift of military engagement on the ground, and the military experience of the soldier, or what John Keegan called “the face of battle,” rather than the grand narratives of a conflict of civilizations in which it was framed. If the experience and strategic outlook Keegan emphasized might well be expanded, following increased awareness, to the long-term psychological and physical costs to those who were fighting, the erosion and fraying of the sense of nation and national motivation for combat must be included in the history as well, but the shift in war experience of the soldier must have shifted far more dramatically for how the “sharp end of war” appeared for the generation of the Taliban who matured in a terrain where American weapons had increasingly arrived in abundance to become part of the landscape of the state, and might be understood in terms of the shifting eras of military engagement from being attacked by bombers, targeted by drones–none of which were owned by the U.S. Army before the war, a telling index of engagement that reflects the way the war was in fact pursued at its sharp face. While in America disdain candidate Obama showed for how his opponent thought the military operated by measuring might by its navy or air force–“we have these things called aircraft carriers . . .,” suggesting one might use cavalry or bayonets as metrics in the Presidential debates in condescending tones–the shifting theater of military engagement of the Taliban, from placement of IED devices to the mastery of roadways and local influence–greater than the American soldiers on the ground.
From IED placement to suicide bombers, to rifles, kalashnikov, helicopters, and humvees, Taliban developed a new mastery of terrain, control of road networks for shipping materiel, to a n increasingly sophisticated tactical and performative use of arms and modern fighting tools that altered its experience and skill at the “sharp face of war” that we ignore, or attribute to outside assistance from Pakistani military, preferring to see the Taliban as primitive fighters without access to the technology America possesses and our provision of military “aid” as destined for “Security Forces” alone, rather than for a theater of war.
1. The current appeal of the clear mapping of the “fall” of Afghan districts to Taliban omits any senses of the line of battle. This is perhaps convenient for the military observers, who digest the war as it is pursued by American interests alone, even the NATO presence was increasingly defined in terms of the development of Afghan forces and democracy, although the “military alliance” shared by America and its Afghan ally is most often understood only in American terms. In mapping the “fall” of districts as if they were of purely strategic outposts in a geopolitical game, the map not only ignores the face of battle, but emblematizes the mis-mapping of American geopolitical interests onto Afghan interests. Despite the continued perhaps overzealous promotion of the skills of Afghan Security and the continued presence of American and NATO military failed to transition to Afghan Security Forces, even if we have continued to equip them with robust “tools of war,” without having trained them fully to fight our wars or to imagine their territorial mastery as anything like a strategic advantage for themselves.
Although the first elected President of Afghanistan, Hamid Karzai, was a friendly figure for Americans, trained in international relations and fond of Islamic philosophy, the promise invested in him as a “transitional figure” uniting “all Afghans” was better received by the British Queen and American President, Americans have been more concerned to map Afghan strategy as if it aligned with American interests, and a global war on terror, which Afghan Security Forces were deputized to adopt. We had long mapped the Taliban Resistance or “neo-Taliban” after the Taliban had been crushed as confined in the mountians, rather than in terms of its engagement with the “sharp face” of battle and its toll on both soldiers and the civilians who lived it. We saw the Taliban as an “insurgency” confined to the mountains as if these were the margins of the nation, and located them in Tribal grounds that were opposed to the vision of a central state–or as the inhabitants of a “Triangle of Terror” they had created.
In the images of Afghanistan’s “fall,” the “face of battle” is conveniently absent. In the visualizations of “district control” that were produced in the maps of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracy and reproduced across Western media, serving lambasted President Biden for some sort of dereliction of duty in concluding a forty-year old poorly thought out war? Democracy becomes something that the United States defends in these maps–or deputized Afghans to learn to defend–but the American President is suddenly seen as asleep at the wheel and not vigilant, the reverse of the image of a powerful Commander-in-Chief we desire, or the necessary and needed military “genius” who can strategically protect the national interests these visualizations reveal to have been tragically imperiled. And so we watch the “fall” of districts that had never gained independent unity, as if they failed to protect themselves from a theocratic opposition. We pretended that the failure was not the entry of increased materiel to the nation, but the global dismay at the levels of arms that are left in Afghanistan–more than are possessed by some NATO countries, and an unknown remainder of the $83 billion of materiel shipped to that nation–and the failure of Afghans to learn to use them against the Taliban, as if they were the exponents shaped by a Triangle of Terror, not affected by the shifting face of battle and “sharp edge” of war.
Increasingly, the promotion of the image of success in containing the Taliban that the U.S. Government promoted was doubted in the press, and seen as not an accurate reflection of the dominant role that the Taliban already had gained and controlled in Afghanistan, but which United States military assessments had rather dishonestly diminished, a scneario in which the maps of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracy provided a needed reality check as the true crowd-sourced story of the limited amount of control that the Afghan Government controlled. The extent to which the misleading military map by which the US government was seen as exaggerating and misleading the public on Afghanistan was US government is exaggerating and misleading the public on Afghanistan reflected the more bracing judgements of the right-wing Long War Journal, which valued its ability to present a clear-eyed view of America’s strategic interests in an unvarnished or not sugar-coated geopolitical assessment that America needed in the Trump era, when the confidence in our own government declined.
We did not ever map the “sharp edge” of war, preferring to view the nation from above, either against a “Triangle of Terror” we sought to bomb and domesticize, or parsed into tribal affiliations that became the preferred means of translating Afghanistan to an American audience, which almost acknowledge the failed imperial fantasy to project Afghanistan as a nation with clear sovereign borders, or to define an objective for Afghan independence that is not backward-looking, and rooted in the cartographic attempts of Great Britain in the nineteenth century, translated into the crucial “buffer” function that might contain Pakistan, and stabilize Central Asia in a geopolitical struggle defined by the War on Terror, and not the situation on the ground, or how Americans altered that situation by their increasing military presence and profile. As the Taliban slowly gained ground over the years, and in which the logic of waging war as a protracted struggle had ceased to be worth the $6.4 trillion American taxpayers have invested in post-9/11 wars through FY2020, in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, and Pakistan–and the escalating future costs that the war would mean. As we have lost sight of the logic of continuing the “forever wars” into the Biden Presidency, and the vision of a “just war” has become clouded and polluted in the Trump yeas, we have lost site of any ability to imagine the ground plan for the resolution of the continuation of a War on Terror or imagine at what scale such a conclusion might ever occur.
To be sure, the advance of Taliban was not how we wanted to imagine it as a restoration of “normalcy” or a status quo, and a rejection of a theocratic government for a secular liberal ideal. But perhaps the image of Afghanistan as a liberal state was indeed a failed project, and it only existed in maps that had outlived their usefulness or reflection of the area on the ground. The “fall” of Afghanistan reflects the inability to contain the Taliban from the nation, and the weird blindness that America–and the American military and perhaps military intelligence–have to the effects of war on Afghanistan on the ground, wanting to believe in a clear chain of command, recognizable in other militaries, in the AFSN. The GIF seems to raise as many questions as it resolves of the fall of Afghanistan’s provinces to imagine what that ending looks like. As much as the number of districts that speedily negotiated a resolution of hostilities with the Taliban, the fall of Afghanistan and painful and deadly withdrawal from Kabul has been cast as the final cataclysmic episode of the War on Terror, as if President Joseph R. Biden–and Donald Trump before him–had already decided on a military withdrawal from the region was both long planned, and was indeed a means of cutting losses and leaving a region to re-dimension or re-scale the War on Terror that had been fought.
The mapping of the collapse of Afghan districts to the Taliban, cast as sudden and without any sense of occurrence, seem to justify the continuation of that war, but track the erosion of a territorial war, long morphed into a struggle whose aims are unclear. Maps that suggest a “country” of Afghanistan as land that was lost help us imagine that the authority of US forces might have trumped geography. And so we are retrospectively questioning the reporting of intelligence on the ground, trying to read the records of intelligence, or debate the false confidence projected by U.S. military through the final years of the campaign, as if this were an American decision, and a reflection of American global authority, as a microcosm of the image of the United States in the world theater, and seem to present the reassuring picture of a scenario of global politics in which wars are still fought on the ground, and which the loss of the War on Terror was not a failure of the American military, but the ceding of land by Afghans themselves who lacked ability or conviction to fight the war against theocracy that was largely scripted by American Presidents and military–who were unwilling to share their sense of their mission in Afghanistan with Afghan leaders, certain, as last as 2016, that Afghan “priorities are different from ours”–perhaps making it impossible for Afghans to take charge, as leadership of the nation was less of a gridded battlefield that became the dominant graphic that filtered, processed and mediated the withdrawal of American forces across the mainstream media.
In viewing a nation as a battlefield, we are not looking at the right map, or perhaps not looking at the right maps at all–or at the role that the arrival of military weapons played in the rendering “Afghanistan” all the more difficult to map. Perhaps the exportation of arms to the Middle East and to Afghanistan in the years since the nation’s invasion provides a better legend, and indeed a necessary legend, to map how control slipped out of the increasingly corrupt Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, established in 2004 after the United States as it assumed control of most of the country, which has been ceded–and destroyed–by the advance of the Taliban. The drawdown of troops in the country from the heights of the first surge under President Obama of 10,000 men and women has in fact been declining for years, but we have not noticed, or even looked closely at it. Yet the compelling nature of visualizations of “control” over individual districts by 2020 seemed a sudden loss of the nation, a progression of a fall of provinces culminating in the Taliban taking control over almost all of Afghanistan’s provinces, and entering Kabul, perhaps as Afghanistan seems a fitting theater or field for the master-trope of America’s imperial decline. Indeed, the attention in media maps to the delusion at an apparent absence of groundplan for American extrication or withdrawal.
These graphic visualizations are hardly accurate maps, but conveniently omit all information about the “sharp end” of battle, falling back on the geostrategic place of “control” over provinces–is this by the flags flying in their capitals? what is control in a war-torn area?–that can be understood as an element of a “Global War on Terror,” rather than the ways that the war was fought. As uncomfortable as such images might be, we prefer the “objective” GPS image “mapping” control, not pausing to ask what they miss or distort, or process the war in an episode on the War on Terror, or a lost field of battle for Afghan independence which it has long ceased to be.
The time-lapse visualization in the header to this post, of Afghan provinces shifting from “Government Control” or “Contested” to “Taliban Control” offers an image of dramatic impact, as if it were real-time, compelling as a tragic narrative, but erases the deep roots of the “lightning drive” of Taliban forces, fueled in large part both by absence of administrative unity and a massive uncoordinated influx and abandonment of arms–both left to Afghan Security forces or in caches. So strong was the flow of arms to Afghanistan and Qatar from the United States that the Biden administration only suspended arms contractors from delivering pending arms sales. Caches of arms left abandoned by Afghan Security Forces and, presumably, American military who had left them to be used by Government forces, not only destabilized the landscape of local government, but amplified a landscape by men with guns long fed by the over $40 billion contracts for firearms and ammunition flowing to the Middle East since 9/11. But if Biden assessed the Afghan Security Forces as being “as well-equipped as any army in the world” in contrast to the Taliban–and greatly outnumbering Taliban fighters–the long-term distrust of Afghan priorities and concerns left them with little sense of a common grounds for defense. As Americans were making similar assurances, Afghans were already fleeing in July to Tajikistan, where over a thousand Security Forces had already fled.
The arrival of the Taliban did not embody the victory of a theocratic to a secular regime that Americans have cast the War on Terror. The arrival of the Taliban as an armed infantry group, with its own modern military power, is an unwritten history, but was fueled by the arrival of an increased number of weapon that arrived in the region, and the transmission of military technologies across borders in ways that American governments could not perhaps imagine. Whether they were not exposed to the arrival of high tech arms of US manufacture in previous years or not, the idea that the arms that allowed Taliban members to arrive with speed in Kabul and negotiate a ready capitulation of districts, perhaps with Pakistani assistance, the seizure of of an unaccounted number of weapons caches turbocharged the advance to Kabul, in ways that not registered adequately in daunting images of the shift in districts to Taliban control. Such visualizations map a checkerboard of district that seem to track the government “control” of districts that image the erosion of a secular vision of Afghanistan. The division of Afghan lands into “districts” is almost a shorthand for the localism of Afghan politics, an admission of the difficulty of knitting together a secular state from into a centralized state, was never resolved by occupying forces or the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan. More than confirm the alienation of ethnic groups from the vision of an allegedly secular government, inter-ethnic divisions have dramatically grown in the place of a coherent strategy for forging a multi-ethnic state, emblematized by an unknown CIA analysts’ map of circa 2017, that continued to map a nation bound by the red line of Afghanistan’s historical border–the “Durand” line, negotiated in the last decade of the nineteenth century–a conceit bisecting a region of Pashtun dominance and mountainous terrain that poses questions of Afghanistan’s ‘borders’ as much as it answers them. Was the retention of this imperial cartographic imaginary not suited for the sense that Afghanistan, as Samuel Moyn argued, offered a chance for the “last gaps if imperial nostalgia” in the post-Trump years, that was, improbably, able to play across the political spectrum?
Is it possible that the among of weapons funneled into Qatar, United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia that have disguised the cost of the War on Terror to some degree have created a huge concentration of arms in Afghanistan.
If a rationale for the increased ability of Taliban members both to manipulate negotiations may lie in their attention to negotiations at Doha, their use military weapons may lie in the increased arrival of arms in the region. The escalation of imports and sales of arms to Afghanistan–many not registered or under the radar–escalated in the course of the Afghanistan War, and reflect a growing geopolitical significance that the nation was given to the United States, rather frighteningly similar to Vietnam, if the withdrawal from Afghanistan has been most focussed on as the greatest similarity between these two long wars, both fought at considerable hemispheric remove, only conceivable as they were logistically mapped by GPS. In both cases, wars were pursued across a complex and often oversimplified logistic chain, pursuing an elusive vision of global dominance or geopolitical strategy, whose obstacle appeared a lack of geopolitical “vision”: but was the presumption of a possibility of “global military dominance” that mismapped both military projects from a purely American point of view. The flattening of the effects of waging war only seems to have increased, paradoxically, as the geopolitical significance of Afghanistan overwhelmed the well-being of its residents, blotting it out, as the country modernized by force as it became a focus of the arms trade.
2. The investment of American taxpayers’ monies in the region was astounding, and hardly democratic, so much as a tantamount to a massive dereliction of national vision amidst the faulty reprioritization of mission creep that may be attributed as much to the military-industrial complex as to leadership or governance. Over half of all American foreign military financing arrived in Afghanistan directly by 2008, but aid had long flowed to Mujahideen and other insurgents through Pakistan, yet in later years billions of substantial materiel flowed via Qatar, location of the $1 billion CENTCOM headquarters where Americans coordinated all air operations in Afghanistan–a small nation that became the tenth largest importer of arms in the world, after South Korea, Iraq, United Arab Emirates, from 2015-19, largely from the United States, with contributions from France and Germany, jumping by 631% from 2010-14–becoming the eighth-largest market share in arms imports for 2016-2020 behind South Korea.
The absence of attention to the situation in the ground is nowhere more apparent than in the GIF that is the header to this post, which reveals the “fall” of Afghan districts to the Taliban from April, 2021. We map the hasty conclusion of the long war in GIF’s of districts, as in the header of this post, the flattening of a country that has been divided for over forty years, a form provided by the Long War Blog. The division of inhabitants of the land, or the effects of previous combat on the nation’s infrastructure and sense of security, is hardly rendered in the shape-files that flip from one hue to the other, suggesting a “lightning” advance of a militarized Taliban, evoking a sudden loss of a territorial advantage for which Americans long fought, and for which Aghans are to blame. Yet as much as the linked maps of “district control” suggest a traumatic collapse of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, the ally of the past five American Presidents, the maps collapse or elide the deep disturbances the war and importation of arms has brought to the territory that lies beneath the map, or oversimplified visualization of regional control.
The quandary of designating Afghan regions by questions of “control” presumed a sense of stability and allegiance more akin to an idealized military map than to the situation on the ground. The checkerboard image of areas of “government” and areas of “Taliban” control became thinly veiled covers for a Global War on Terror in which the United States defined itself on the side of the good, that was current in a variety of maps long after the First Surge. In the context of the broad drawdown of American troops after the First Surge, as US troops level fell below 10,000 and Afghan Security Forces were celebrated for their effectiveness, the Taliban made steady gains on the ground. But the maps that suggested “stability” in government-held areas created a cocoon from which to affirm stability of a regime that never had broad institutional support as if the dangers it faced were from an “insurgency” 2002-6, and promoted an image of government control within the outlines of a national map, arriving from outside of a nation that still had retained its integrity and clear bounds as if they were able to be preserved.
Even as Taliban presence was more clearly established than we liked to map, the image of the Taliban as outsiders in Tribal lands created a sense of justifying a “civilizing mission” that was understood as more pacific than military, underpinned by a myth or conceit that the disciplined bodies of American warriors would beat the undisciplined bodies of the Taliban. This myth was confusing the goals of the military occupation, but creating an increasingly real edge for Afghans who experienced much more fully “the sharp edge of war” both forged increased bonds between the members of the military and the fighters and the landscape among the generations of Taliban fighters, and their logic of responding to a military strategy American generals mismapped on a geostrategic checkerboard–the very checkerboard that Foundation for the Defense of Democracies encouraged us to understand the success, progress, or challenges of combat, and indeed control their fears and responses to technologies of combat imported to the region by the United States.
The deep concern of a lack of “strategic vision” was not the best way to understand military engagement of Taliban forces, or to cast the compact shift of district loyalty after the American withdrawal.
But these terms provided the terms to condemn and bewail the broad geopolitical military failure read into the maps of Taliban advance in August, 2021, apparently confirming that the AFSN had built up as our surrogate was unable to “face” the Taliban militia we continue to cast as “rebels” or “insurgents.” But the negotiated settlement allowed te rapid fall of a number of districts, as while it required the Taliban cease hostilities with NATO and American troops who had negotiated the settlement, the terms allowed Taliban forces to concentrate on negotiating settlements with local regions, exploiting divisions and existing corruption of Ghani’s Afghan government, boosted by the concessions to release 5,000 prisoners in the past, and the opening of jails in districts whose centers they captured or negotiated a solution.
Donald Trump may have escalated the arms trade into the Middle East to levels far beyond his predecessor, but the frustration of his successor has perhaps provided a far more clear-eyed assessment, perhaps more than he is given credit. “We provided our Afghan partners with all the tools — let me emphasize: all the tools,” U.S. President Joseph R. Biden sternly told the nation, in a combination of evident dissatisfaction and apparent exasperation, in justifying his rapid withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan. The vague circumlocution “all the tools” may well come back to haunt both Biden and the world. For in the course of training and equipping a military force of 300,000 provided the basis for delivering much military support, America created spiraling costs of a global arms industry, even if the range of arms offered was not as well-suited to Afghani terrain or as protective as equipment offered NATO troops. (Oryxblog notes the poor protection these vehicles offer against feared improvised explosive devices (IEDs) compared to the MRAPs available to NATO forces in Afghanistan, and offered to police departments across the United States, but not offered to Afghan special forces.)
It is hard to tally or come to terms with the human cost of post-9/11 wars. Over 9,000 Americans have died, or the hundreds of thousands who returned from the wars, injured in body or psyche, the roughly 6,200 U.S. military personnel, contractors, humanitarian workers and journalists killed in Afghanistan since the U.S. government invaded are left off the map, but the legacy may be greatest for the huge amounts of military materiel shipped into the Middle East–arms that helped in some way to “modernize” the current Taliban, who may have received training from Pakistan intel–as well as the huge losses of population and infrastructure in Afghanistan, where about 71,000 Pakistani and Afghan civilians are estimated to have been killed–a staggeringly disproportionate number in crossfire, bombing raids, drone attacks, suicide bombings in Kabul and other bases, IED’s and night-time raids by NATO or American troops.
The changing face of battle on the ground of this war that was predominantly fought at a remove, by drone operators in the United States or from bombing raids, might be conceptualized as a different scale of war and military and tactical engagement, as much as mapped by the presence of American military at bases, or the sheer the number of civilians killed in bombing raids from the Obama to Trump administrations increased by 330 percent.
We have ad difficulty tracking the arrival of the “tools” of war both to Afghanistan and to the strategic thinkers of the Taliban or their soldiers, because the uptake of weapons among the Taliban is poorly known. The “tools” demanded by the Republic of Afghanistan were all too willingly provided, despite the danger supplying further military materiel as the presence of American and NATO diminished, as the United States forces began to withdraw, during the Trump administration, in anticipation of a military withdrawal, and as troop levels presence dropped in 2015 and 2019, arms imports astoundingly grew–excluding small arms and light weapons, small artillery, and ammunition.
The Afghan War began twenty years ago after the willingness of NATO and European allies to enter the country after 9/11, when terrorists hijacked planes they made collide with the World Trade Center, managed by Americans. But as the war was pursued as if to orchestrate a needed recuperation of American authority, after the traumatic vulnerability that 9/11 had traumatically revealed by a gaping wound in lower Manhattan, as if to justify authorizing military force by and unprecedented expansion of the executive authority. President Biden’s recent attempt to reassure the nation by his public statement that the United States was “The only country capable of projecting this much power, with this much precision, on the other side of the world” almost, improbably, seemed unaware of its irony in this broader context.
3. The United States was pursuing a long war as if it were dominated by such a sense of strategy that the American command took its eyes off of the ground–the waves of bombings and suicide bombers in cities, lack of clear leadership or administration, severe food shortages, and disruption of family life. As we are wait to see how the non-state movement of the Taliban will translate into the state of Afghanistan–and if Taliban 2.0 is a less extreme version, its leaders having sat at the table with Mike Pompeo, William J. Burns, as well as the envoy and ambassador of Donald J. Trump and George W. Bush, the maps showing the “surprising fall” and “lightning-speed advance” seem only the fruit of the extended war itself. The spate of negotiated surrenders closely managed by the Taliban during the Spring of 2021 created the sequences of maps we are often asked to read as a failure of American strategy, as militants advanced from the periphery to Kabul in swelling numbers, portraying a compelling vision of government corruption and explosions on the nation’s highway so central to military logistics. Visualizations that present a “folding of Afghan provinces” flatten the war to the bad strategy of a sitting President–the Commander-in-Chief–and masks the disconnect between the current President and those cast as enemies of the United States, reflecting a deep difficulty to process Afghanistan’s territorial dynamics or the war’s undermining of its security.
The color-coded map of a “fall of districts” dramatically detailed how “Taliban offensive” swept across the territory is treated as a record of gains across the nation, both poorly mapping the nation and casting American withdrawal as a cataclysmic loss. If America represented the Long War in Afghanistan was the culmination of a “war on terror,” once understood as categorically unlike wars on nations, and fought on different and other terms. But the War in Afghanistan has shifted the “war on terror” to national terms, which , thanks in no small part to the Long War Journal, that already on July 5 had announced “Afghanistan is at risk of a complete collapse,” as the gains of the Taliban went unopposed by Government forces, especially in the north, leaving the government only in control of a rump of 20% of the nation.
The alarming dashboard of the war, oddly akin to a video game, provides a surreally removed image of combat, and encourages a vision of a tactical collapse of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, the American-backed “government,” although that government was, indeed, no longer in charge of almost the entire country. The few numbers of “contested” districts or shape-files in this map provided a chilling sense of a strategy gone wrong, if not an outright failure of strategy. The image only got worse, over the months that American and NATO forces withdrew and the districts were mapped as controlled by Taliban members with limited resistance or fight, claiming that the abandoned weapons caches and stockages of arms and technology–“Foreign Military Financing” left by NATO and Americans across Afghanistan over twenty years. It was a classic example of a failure to mind the store. One could only wonder: who didn’t expect arms and jails would not be lures to attract Taliban or propel them to power?
It is almost as if we have found a state to map the war on terror. We continue to map these final months of the war in Afghanistan by dividing “districts” into camps of “Government Control” and “Taliban Control,” allowing only for uncertainty in the grey grounds of “contested” districts in between. The image of such maps that cannot help but to convey a broader strategy–or to offer strategic insight–creates a false dichotomy that is as haunted by as it seems to perpetuate the dichotomous vision of a War on Terror. Strung into time-lapse visualizations reproduced in this post’s header, we marvel at the speed or at the inevitability of anti-government victory after withdrawal of American forces in August, and the division of a county that seems to gain new form and landscape after the withdrawal of American forces, hoping to detect where an American decision went wrong. To be sure, the process of withdrawal of American troops was long ago negotiated, and had begun in February 2020, negotiated by Zalmay Khalilzad, protegée of Zbigniew Brzezinski, and architect of selling arms to the mujahedin in the Soviet-Afghanistan war, who in 1997 lamented the tragic way that “almost twenty years of war have shattered Afghanistan,” “dividing the nation into several hostile fiefdoms [as] anarchy reigns across the countryside.” Khalilzad did advocate for peace, and his pronounced hope led some of the advocates of pursuing the War on Terror to accuse him of betraying the American cause in predicting that the American withdrawal would be a peaceful resolution to the war.
Despite such a recent assessment of the ground conditions of Afghanistan, we have been repeatedly oriented to “map” primary division of administrative districts in ”Government Controlled” or “Taliban control” to process the war as it draws down, and present a “march to seize control of Afghanistan” as if it was a forgone conclusion. The template of a district map has provided a buckets to filter that seem to drill down into the situation on the ground. Yet the parsing of the “Taliban’s march to seize control” reveal less the quite pained situation on the ground of a battlefield that has been pounded for some twenty years, where over ten thousand lives have been lost–and many more civilian deaths of women and children–in a landscape long flooded by increasing American weapons, as American arms exports grew to the highest levels since the Cold War, and had surpassed 37% of global arms sales: perhaps a better orientation to this accelerated timeline might found in arms imported to Afghanistan.
4. It may well be that we prefer a geostrategical map to one of the lay of the land. The geography of the war in Afghanistan that followed 9/11 reflected a scarily similar logic of geopolitics, haunted by the expansive region of Afghanistan and refueling stops in a Command CENT in not only echoed Vietnam in bombing raids, elusive struggle for stability, and its drawn out nature, as well as the almost dehumanizing nature of the militarized landscape, a humanitarian crisis of land mines planted across Vietnam paralleled in the IED’s used by the Taliban and increasing refugees fleeing war. The geography of bombing Afghan territory in the drawn out reaction to 9/11–a year after the fall of the Twin Towers–suggested a disconnect from the ground, pounding a country that led to a broad campaign of IED’s and explosives on the ground along the major highways of routing military materiel around the country–evident in the placement of explosive devices parsed by numbers and along the southern road that NATO and American forces used.
If it may seem now to have only added gasoline to the flames, it is no secret that the United States has fed, as much as military training,–the United States now accounts for over a third of global arms exports. The exporting of arms that demands to be studied as a technology transfer not only fed a market for arms sales across Afghan lands; there were many reports that members of the Afghan National Army turned to arms smuggling, carrying saddle-bags of arms in caravans to the Pakistani border of ten to fifteen pieces three times a week–arms from the caches that the United States supplied in the Soviet-Afghan War in the 1980s to Kalashnikovs to American-made M16s, M4s and M240s, and an even shadier black market in ammunition.
The view of global governance from high above the terrain echoed the image of the United States presented in Vietnam as the war’s final offensive against Viet Cong in 1972. George H.W. Bush entered the Gulf War by assuring the nation in 1990 that “This will not be another Vietnam. This will not be a protracted, drawn-out war.” Bush argued that “the forces are arrayed differently,” unlike the vacuum of power and a cascade of dominoes of Vietnam; he increasingly recast victory as unfolding for the nation in redemptive terms against Vietnam, a specter haunting the nation. But the successive wars in Afghanistan not only echoed the same logic of a vacuum of power and fear of a cascade of dominoes, as a “mission creep” of attacking Al Qaeda gained geopolitical terms; the withdrawal from Afghanistan mirrored a withdrawal from Vietnam that long haunted the nation, as a loss of international stature and military honor. But if the image of the B-52 dropping its bombs in stealth fashion over Afghan mountaintops terrifyingly echoed the pounding of Vietnamese who evaded the airborne power they were able to resist and conquer, the images of Afghan dead civilians was rarely able to muster comparable outrage, in the light of the invasion as a “just war” that fulfilled retribution demanded by the events of 9/11. Did they also augur the difficulty of managing endless war from such a distance?
One never granted or admitted the humanity of the Afghan people whose country was bombarded in the Long War, eager to mask its human costs. The landscape of the war was haunted by Vietnam, moreover, in more ways than one, from the first dropping of B-52 bombs over Taliban “territory,” where forces had retreated, that echoed the planes use for aerial bombing of Vietcong in the final stages of the Vietnam War in December, 1972–seeking to penetrate inaccessible terrain, to be sure, fearing a power vacuum in Central Asia, and fearing a domino effect between the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan, a nuclear power. Yet the intensity of IED attacks across the country’s southern road system, and the the sustained bombing of the past must be placed in the context of Taliban promises to remove foreign soldiers from Afghan lands. While the end of Vietnam was by no means so quick, the hastiness of both the negotiations at Doha and the desire for condensed visualizations conspired to the tragedy of the GIF that reveal the huge distance at which American policy in Afghanistan was long conducted.
5. The animated map in the header to this post focusses on districts, as if provincial divisions might conjure the lost dream of an Islamic Republic of Afghanistan. The state-like boundaries by which Afghanistan is mapped conceal the absence of roads, networks of food, or economic infrastructure within a country that has been pounded for many years by aerial bombing and IEDs. If the falling of districts may seem to anticipate the effects of the withdrawal of “American” forces–ending in the sudden shift of thirty-two of thirty-four provinces to the Taliban, charting an offensive success as a spectacular “failure in leadership, intel and the military,” the absence of infrastructure has been a result of the insistence If the centrality of the timing of an American withdrawal to the anniversary of 9/11 is notable, as the date provided an occasion for Trump to invite the Taliban leadership to Camp David in 2019, and a date for the finalization of the troops’ withdrawal, it nay have gone far less noted that the visualizations of “Government” and “Taliban” control in Afghanistan’s districts derived from visualizations promoted by the Foundation of the Defense of Democracy (FDD), founded months after 9/11 to strengthen national security in ways that understood the world in black-and-white terms as an opposition of “Good” and “Bad” guys to clarify the lay of the land by the optic of global geopolitics in which “Afghanistan” has come to assume so central a role.
After beginning from B-52 air strikes on Al Qaeda and the Taliban, civilian deaths and injuries only grew as the war progressed. Bombs dropped December, 1972, in Operation Enduring Freedom in 2001, sought to push back the Taliban, but the “strategic partnership” of equipping and arming Afghans for “long-term security, democracy, and prosperity” led arms to be funneled into the nation, augmenting the violence of airstrike and dronestrikes that provoked a desperate efflorescence of Taliban suicide bombings, placement of IED’s–7,500 explosions with victims, and another 8,000 cleared, per per a Wikileaks revelation, 2004-09–as a weak civil government unable to protect civilian populations demanded increased arms. And the flow of light arms, weapons and ammunition rarely tracked even in rising arms imports, created an instability in the terrain few seems to have foreseen, and whose fate was in fact rarely tracked as they crossed into Afghan territory. The division of the nation even as the treaty was signed seemed difficult to parse by shapefiles of grey and pastels, but may have been better to show as grey.
As we turn introspective about how presidential decision-making might have better coordinated military withdrawal, we must look back at the state of play as American Special Representative Khalilzad, who arrived in the State Dept. to advise on the Soviet-Afghan War in 1985-89, and the fragmented government control over the region we call “Afghanistan” at the time that the American withdrawal or drawing down of military presence that was agreed to on February 29. 2020. While we continue to conceive of “Afghanistan” as a nation, and map Taliban control within the inherited borders of Afghanistan by retaining the jagged boundary line determined by a local administrator of the British Empire in 1893, as if to posit the integrity of a region that the entrance of arms and sustained bombing has increasingly fragmented. Khalilzad, an ethnic Pashtun who had long funneled arms to Mujahideen, helped engineer the withdrawal of American troops when the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan poorly mapped onto the borders of the nation, based in cities like Kabul, Herat, Jalalabad, and Kandahar.
The assembly of visualizations sequence a “rapid takeover” of the terrain, of unexpected speed, as the consequence of a decision of an American chief executive, as if the proverbial fall of dominoes can be lain at the feet of the miscalculation of the President who inherited it. The “loss” of land seems to be demonstrated by the convincing “tactical” maps that appears to track an unfolding chain of events in real time; the visualizations come to possess an explanatory value of their own, removed from the deep instability of Afghanistan’s coherence, and the difficulties of fostering national coherence by the arrival of an increased amount of tactical gear and arms. Yet our local Oakland movie theater reminds us on its marquee, converted to a podium before closure of theaters, to push back on an apparent amnesia that these visualizations seeming to lay blame on the Afghans’ refusal to defend territory from the Taliban, that the absence of creating a convincing government in Afghanistan had deep roots, and the ground was often disrupted more than helped by foreign intervention and an increasingly open flow of arms.
“Coalition” troop levels in Afghanistan had leveled off some time ago; but an astounding amount of military materiel and combat gear that remained across the region, discarded for the taking by advancing Taliban troops, contributed symbolically and tactically to the Taliban forces’ advance in ways that cannot be effectively mapped so far. The conspicuous brandishing not only of Russian AK-47’s by Taliban members, but shinier American-made M4 carbines and M16 assault rifles left by Afghani fighters recur on the Taliban’s active Twitter accounts–a keen sense of social messaging grown as active users for over a decade– signifiers of power that have caused several social media double-takes among American observers: the discarded rifles Afghan Security Forces abandoned provided a critical visual coin for social media resurgence of the Taliban since their first use of Twitter a decade after they were ousted from power in 2001, by posting with alarming rapidity to Jihadi Web sites, Facebook accounts and often suspended Twitterfeeds,–and to Afghan journalists. Per the Asia Foundation, by 2019, an increasing Afghans saw future reconciliation with Taliban forces inevitable, including large majorities of Southern and northern states, as well as those along the Pakistani border–few felt their security or livelihoods had been improved in recent years.
The jarring notion of how quickly Taliban “fundamentalists” have adopted modern military tools in media savvy ways for propaganda purposes Taliban insurgents grew their wealth by collecting about a half billion from the opium trade and poppy production in 2020, access to abandoned armored vehicles, helicopters, state-of-the-art gear, ammunition and firearms relinquished by withdrawing forces created–at no cost–a storehouse of modern military equipment rather jarring juxtaposed to the Taliban’s alleged tribalism for global media.
6. What was going on on the ground in Afghanistan, and what was omitted from the maps we watched and studied introspectively of the fall of the Republic of Afghanistan? The apparent destabilization of a delicate system of inter-tribal alliances and tensions between ethnic groups suspicious of who had the upper hand may have been achieved by the arrival of so many armaments and tools of war into Afghanistan, an imbalance that increased local insecurity and that contributed to a dangerous terrain in advance of the withdrawal of American support for the Republic of Afghanistan–a tenuous network at best,–where some district administrators were not able to travel easily to the districts’ center, and local functions of policing and justice were no longer identified with the state.
And the appearance of a folding of districts, shifting magenta, that interrupts the looping time-lapse map June-August 2021, of districts once cast “under Government control” tracking expanded areas falling under Taliban control from the Fall of 2019, as “contested districts” spread on the map and green islands area contract to an ring around Kabul by July 2020-August 2021, as if the advance is only able to be blamed on the Afghans themselves.
The visualization, which is derived from datasets from the strikingly named “Foundation for the Defense of Democracy,” amassing open source data by a soldier turned journalist, Bill Roggio, present the county as a tactical landscape of combat, to urge support for the Government the United States supported. The maps broadly diffused on social media have gain double duty in previous months as authoritative records: a landscape of “district status” makes no mention of American miscalculation and subtraction of support for the Republic of Afghanistan in starting negotiations with the Taliban,and includes no register of the war’s human cost, but flattens the war to the scale of control over a landscape in which “contested areas” were ill defined, but dramatically grew in 2021, and a virtual dashboard to present the Taliban advance. The aura of a secret tactical map of official fabrication that was implicit in the visualizations using Roggio’s data offered an “insider” view of the war, without any mention of the tens of thousands killed, but simply a grid of districts that, loosely from about July-October 2020, slipped from “government control” to “contested” to “under Taliban control.” The visualization is a tragic over-simplification, but suited to an almost existential struggle between Taliban and Government forces, as if the war were not both started and sponsored by the United States, eager to affirm alliances in Central Asia, and the result of a “mission creep” that echoed Vietnam but was fought perhaps even more brutally by an array of improved destructive weapons.
While these maps of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracy, here assuming high contrast of light green to evil magenta, seemed to hold out the opportunity of a victory for an American-backed Republic supported for two decades, until time ran out, and was condensed into a loop in which despite American support for the Government’s superior weaponry and training, a lightning offensive moved on the ground to capture more than two-thirds of Afghanistan, swamping what was still shown as a “nation” with a crimson of Taliban control. Yet while the often crimson-colored or bring pink colors designating Taliban “control” suggest an ideology of jihadists, or of extreme Islamic fundamentalism, the associations of the stark palette was not so clearly a massive power shift. Did the shape-files that had provided Roggio with an easy graphic suggesting the intensity of the battle as a tactical game provide an all too convenient means to track the loss of districts in relation to the withdrawal of American forces?
Did the increased flow of military materiel into the region of Afghanistan effectively destabilize the complex network of alliances on the ground? The very pretense of the autonomy of the Republic of Afghanistan appeared undermined as Donald Trump undertook negotiated with Taliban authorities,–a fact that played poorly across the region, and confirmed long-standing Taliban accusations charging the Afghan state was but almost a puppet without the pretense of autonomy by not involving anyone from the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan. If the February, 2020 meeting with the Taliban led Trump to act as if he were defending American interests as he promised, “We’re down to 4,000 troops in Afghanistan. I’ll have them home by the end of the year. They’re coming home, you know, as we speak. Nineteen years is enough. They’re acting as policemen, OK? They’re not acting as troops.” As rumors grew Russian monies were arriving in Taliban coffers from the GRU, including for killing American forces; as the Taliban reached an agreement for the United States to withdraw, more than for “bringing peace to Afghanistan,” and troop levels in Afghanistan fell precipitously before the Presidential election from about 13,000 to 8,600 to 2,500, the presence of Russian arms and miltiary technologies among the Taliban grew, and information-sharing was revealed. “It’s been a long, hard journey for everybody,” Trump said with some resignation, “It’s time after all these years to bring our people back home,” that month, although few knew what that negotiated peace would look like.
The agreement signed with the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, nominally not recognized as a state by the United States, was a timeline “of complete withdrawal of all foreign forces from Afghanistan,” and proclaimed as such by the Taliban, presenting a permanent ceasefire as a “the future political roadmap for Afghanistan,” placing all future hopes in a “post-settlement Afghan Islamic government,” rather than any agreement between the two Afghan governments. The United States seems to have been primarily interested in getting out, and the agreement raised the earlier exchange of Taliban prisoners held in Guantánamo Bay in exchange for Bowe Berdahl by releasing 1,000 Taliban prisoners immediately, with the assurance to liberate all remaining prisoners over the next three months, a major victory of sorts that would for the first time launch the Taliban to prominence on a global stage.
7. The somewhat deceptive–and very selective–map of the lay of the land in Afghanistan left it unclear what “contested areas” in between “Government control” and the Taliban were. But Khalizad’s conclusion of the talks seem to have bent over backwards to the Taliban, in the year after Trump almost gleefully bragged to Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan, he might yet “win the war in Afghanistan” claiming with the bluster of one who newly acquired a nuclear arsenal that at his mere command, “Afghanistan would be wiped off the face of the earth, it would be gone, it would be over, literally, in ten days . . .”
Trump’s threat only echoed his claims of “obliteration like you’ve never seen before” to Iran, but beyond bluster raised serious questions of the American commitment to Afghanistan. When one looks back at the military map’s unfolding, one must wonder about what is concealed beneath grey of “contested” areas, and the oddly archipelagic form of those areas identified as in the control of the nominal Afghan government–so significantly reduced from 2016. The refusal of the American negotiator to include the Afghan government in negotiations or protect their interests weakened their position on the map in crucial ways.
8. Did weapons caches turbocharged the advance to Kabul? Or did it accelerate the modernization of the Taliban in ways we will not be able to understand for some time? When we marvel at dissonance between the appearance of premodern tribalism bearing American materiel, or the velocity of the Taliban advance into Kabul, would we do well to map their mastery of projecting authority through a social media landscape? One might do far better to read these shape-file maps against the rapidly changing face of battle that might have to be seen as a surrogate for how we understand “modernization”–or how former Afghan President Hamid Karzai, previously widely feted in Washington, D.C., studied modernization at Columbia University. The shifting face of battle must be considered by both the Taliban and Afghan Security Forces, moreover, in reaction to the emotional and psychological impact of sustained battle, both in their increased reluctance to engage troops in a Civil War, as they were being asked to do, and to confront the payload of modernized armaments that the Americans had left in the nation’s frontiers.
As Security Forces of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan left not only firearms but databanks of facial recognition software, running across borders as refugees before the announced arrival of the fortified divisions of the Taliban troops who avidly proclaimed their new arms, and thousands fled across the border to Pakistan or mobbed Kabul’s airport, and hundreds of thousands displaced internally, forcing Taliban fighters to firm up the border with Pakistan as US forces fled in July, before Kabul fell, and northern border crossings to Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, after Taliban fighters moved to capture twenty-six provincial capitals by August 10.
Whether or not the Afghans felt limited protection from the war they were being urged to fight against the Taliban created griping and uncertain sense of commitment, the withdrawal of the troops set many of the military tools into the hands of disorganized local troops, delivered them to the Taliban, who brandished them akin to triumphal victory torches as they paraded through captured cities and displayed in social media feeds, until Kabul fell.
The arrival of arms over twenty years were as available as if they had been airlifted into the mountains where the Taliban was once confined. The lustre of American material offered not only trophies. Even for soldiers not practiced in using them, weapons opened a theater of power, from the display of helicopters seized in Kandahar, including UH-60 Black Hawks, decorated with the emblems of the Afghan Air Force, weird reminders of the $88 billion in arms Americans provided Afghani troops since 2002, when America had bolstered military allies after 9/11. Already from 2004, Washington Post warned how Afghans had “lost track” of over 200,000 weapons provided to the newly formed Afghan Nation Security Forces or just under half–43 %–of 474,823 small arms supplied to the ANSF, from heavy machine guns to sniper rifles, grenade launchers, kalashnikovs, and M-16’s that resemble AK-47’s. Yet the need to transport arms to the people imagined to be our allies, and the hopes to export arms to crush the Taliban, left us oblivious to the fact that the Taliban–people we insisted were tribal, almost less than human–could ever grasp the ability to use, or to gain the technological know how that would be demanded to use them effectively. The orientalist lenses by which we viewed these men as “tribal” people, objectifying them as evil and the target of “just war” rhetoric, imagining that we were not killing them by carpet bombing of their land, we never 9imagined that the arms we directed to the Middle East would end up in their hands.
Since mid-August, members of the Taliban had seized Blackhawk helicopters, gunships and transport aircraft supplied by the US over the years, including almost 2,000 trucks, vehicles, and Humvee’s captured by Taliban, with over sixty-one mortars and including over fifty armored vehicles. Their abandonment during a hurried withdrawal echoes a scenario seen in the withdrawal from Iraq years earlier, but the accumulation of arms over twenty years was far greater this time: over $2 billion worth of arms, equipment, tanks, helicopters, and armored personnel carriers were left in Saigon, but perhaps a better analogy is the number of HMMWV’s and M1 Abrams Tanks that were left for ISIS in 2011 Iraq. The range of abandoned materiel and technology suggests a way to fuel a virtual arms trade of its own, symbolized by the 25,000 “Humvees” that the United States has sent to Afghan troops as invincible vehicles suited to the rough off-road terrain, suggests not only fuel for an arms industry but the dangers of diverting trillions of taxpayers’ monies to a military industrial complex that has fallen into the hands of the current Afghani rulers, as over 7,000 Afghani forces have left the nation in fear. (Intercept reports that among the technology left was a databank of iris scans and facial recognition of Afghans who had assisted NATO forces in the country, biometric devices or kits from iris scans to fingerprints, with capacities for facial recognition, encrypted for now in Handheld Interagency Identity Detection Equipment (HIDE) that entered possession of Taliban members, containing sensitive identifying data.) As such technologies flowed into Afghanistan, as a massive overseas technology transfer fed by demand, on-the-ground presence had so reduced to a residual contingent whose presence could hardly be imagined as able to intimidate or guard arms and technology exported for the war.
Perhaps the real on-the-ground story was not military deaths, but the unremitting increase in bombing of Afghani lands, which as they grew in number during the Trump era, once again, created a level of burn-out in a decimated land of mounting civilian casualties that in the periphery alone surpassed 100,000.
9. Was there a need to accept the refugees from the Afghan war with dignity? There was clearly little ground plan made for them or their lives, the Biden administration’s objections to the contrary. The massive blowback that the media directed against Biden for a failure to mastermind the war was immense, but was not including any sense of accounting for the refugees leaving the country, for which our protracted intervention in the nation was responsible. After the bluster of the Trump years, perhaps the delusion at Biden for not having been the military mastermind the nation wanted to draw down the troops in Afghanistan was a comeuppance for the refusal of the Commander-in-Chief to inhabit the boosterish image of national strength that Trump peddled, and the difficulty of admitting the eclipse of American sovereignty overseas and in Central Asia.
This, too, echoes the “last gasp of imperial nostalgia” that barely accounted for, and only grudgingly accepted, the arrival of members of an empire into Great Britain. What will happen to the refugees who are seeking admittance to America, and not only those who cast their lots with occupying forces? Of the 20,000 completed applications for Refugee Status by Special Immigrant Visas, few will be quickly processed. For the Biden administration must be haunted, in the back of their minds, by memories of the map of an eery states’ rights revolt, triggered in response to the influx of 85,000Syrian refugees in 2015, which, as fears far removed from southwestern border led a majority of state governors to refuse to permit Syrian refugees to settle in their borders–a map that, for better or worse, constituted a new sense of the red-state “heartland” of America, and the end of the quixotic Obama era.
Yet we should map this protracted military engagement as a border war, in many ways, as much as one of spheres of influence and power vacuums. Although we seem to have forgotten it, in focussing on the districts of Taliban or Government control, as if the divisions were clear, and fed by a demand to know “who controls what,” the war was a border war, fought in Pakistan and Afghanistan, with 24,099 Pakistani civilians killed, as well as 47, 245 Afghani, and about 33,000 opposition fighters in Pakistan killed, and 51,191 based in what we map as Afghanistan, and just short of 10,000 military and police killed in Pakistan, with 66-69,000 in Afghanistan, and many more due to hunger, diseases and injury as the result of a cross-border war. Until, tragically and most tellingly, the Kabul airport became the final open frontier for fleeing, more a portal out of the country, than a border, for families of over 300,000 Afghans who worked with United States forces, leading to demands for a new Refugee Resettlement Act.
10. The question of border-crossing Afghans was seemed omitted from the maps of the “Long War” that showed a patchwork of areas ruled by Afghanistan’s “government.” The balance of power in the nation was already unclear by April, 2021, in part because the majority of mapping of areas that the Taliban controlled were contested, and from a hawkish right-wing think tank, Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, whose graphics and animations Roggio dished out to journalists in the “Long War Journal,” have become a staple of wartime visualizations for a variety of news outlets, tracking the threat that the Taliban–a group he argues the United States never fully appreciated. The fall of thirty-two of thirty-four provinces reveals in its offensive success “a failure in leadership, intel and the military.” FDD was founded in the months after 9/11 to strengthen national security, and broadcasts plaudits for its assessing “the threats that we face” by former National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster and “protecting the country from the bad guys” by Antonin Scalia. Although this blogger has long championed the importance of open-source mapping tools and data, and even began in order to call attention to open-source mapping tools, the use of open-source data crafted a message for FDD, a proponent of active military engagement. It has become in the course of the war a clearing house of all news maps of the Afghanistan War is troubling–and demands unpacking, but is perhaps a casualty of the news data industry and the reliance on plundering online tools and data by limited news teams.
The primacy FDD and Roggio placed on Homeland Security as an optic by which to view the war, and the blinders this creates on the fate of the and human conditions of well-being among the Afghan people. The superimposition of a sense of statehood in visualizations of districts “controlled” by the Taliban or “contested” by them posits a sense of Roggio served in the military in Iraq (2005-8) and Afghanistan (2006), seeks to provide “open source research” to policy-makers and the media, but makes no bones about the oppositional nature of armed conflict in Afghanistan. Over the past decades, he has created a databank for images of the struggle for control of Afghanistan by foregrounding explicitly tactical terms of control over local districts, using Tableaux to cast the “Long War” as a struggle for terrain, akin to a game board of two dimensions.
In many of the regions that were labeled as “contested,” Roggio noted, “the government really only controls the district centers,” a nominal sort of control that might be more of a fig leaf based on the aura of an American presence, rather than providing an accurate map of the state of affairs, but the staying power of the sought after maps he had disseminated were broadly accepted within the ecosystem of data visualizations, where maps alone presume a sort of control, confirming the authority of the news agencies themselves to provide news.
But the news they provide seems informed by Roggio’s global picture, as much as the arrangement of forces on the ground: the region is itself understood by the Foundation for Defense of Democracy as if situated as a piece in the puzzle of a global “democracy map” akin to the Cato Institute’s totalizing slippy map proposing a “Human Freedom Index,” which flattens local differences or relations between center and periphery in a monochrome optic of uniform global promotion of democratic freedoms, based on seventy-six measures of individual and economic freedom their own device, from freedom of expression to freedoms of movement or civil society or to sound money. (There is rather menacingly “no data” for Afghanistan, with Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Somalia, and Southern Sudan.)
Roggio framed compelling and visually effective “story maps” intended to be taken up by news media compelled to orient their audiences, that amplified the need to orient oneself to the unfolding of a struggle of global significance unfolding on the ground in Afghanistan, but poorly mapped for Americans. We cannot but read them but in the context of the terrifying advance warnings that the Taliban have become more fierce and brutal since 2001, when they were last in charge–and against the menacing pronouncement they have issued, “See how other provinces fall into our hands very soon?” The news commentariat speculated, as thirty-two provinces “fell” to Taliban forces, what major power–China? Russia? Pakistan?–enabled by tactical coordination and funding the advance of a decentralized group without clear lines of military leadership or command, as well as the sharing of intelligence with anti-government insurgents. The lens of mapping the War on Terror as an on-the-ground conflict able to translate into districts has distorted the cost and toll that pursuing the war which an increasing proportion of Afghans–81%– wanted to see concluded, up to 70% in southern regions, in ways that isolated resistance to a conclusion of hostility to relatively isolated pockets in the north and east.
The vast oversimplification of two-color districts describe Afghanistan frame its checkerboard to reflect and register the extent of America’s global power–a narrative familiar from Vietnam, Korea, and a Cold War era engagements that cast wars as struggles for American global dominance. Yet framing Afghanistan as a register of American power is not only hubristic, but trapped in an interpretive framework that is dated and deeply out of touch with the ground. To demonize the danger of the periphery as harboring Al Qaeda and espousing global jihad needing to be contained and contested fails to be grasped by being posed as a geopolitical struggle on a broad game board of clearly-drawn divisions based in Central Asia, and created the power vacuum feared to be emerging in Central Asia, bordering the sphere of influence of the Russian Federation and Pakistan; American military commanding NATO presence cast an “ungoverned” periphery as a constant target of bombardment and attack, in the belief that it could be subdued by a central government by overhead buzzing of American surveillance drones, or the drone strikes that occurred nearby in the mountainous terrain of the north and stretching into Pakistan. The same southern regions where IED’s had shattered much of the highway network in in past years left a population with little stomach for war, mostly under Taliban control or contested by June 1, 2021, when “Afghanistan” was contested, if continued to be mapped as a united nation, divided into different hued shape files.
11. When the Taliban arrived in Kabul, their spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahid, appeared for the first news conference of the Islamic emirate to declare “we don’t want Afghanistan to be a battlefield anymore,” he conjured the arrival of peace. The arrival of the Taliban conjured speculation as to the inability of Afghani “security forces” to provide security–the term recurred almost twenty times in the statement that promised “full security of the country” and “security of the country’s space”–his message was to “congratulate the whole nation” and affirm that “we have expelled the foreigners,” the central talking point of Taliban resistance and a claim of their achievement of longstanding goals. The charm offensive that extended to hoping foreign journalists “have a nice day” amidst a chaotic city divided by panic and fear was bizarrely effective. But if the dominant message he bore that “we will not allow the soil of Afghanistan to be used against anyone” almost seemed refreshing, the sound byte suggested facility messaging in punchy statements promoting future their intent of one hundred and forty or two hundred and eighty characters, as much as a message that we might trust.
The picture of Mujahid calmly and disarmingly directly addressing reporters behind a bottle of hand sanitizer–and rather relaxedly contending with some rather severe questioning from the Afghan press corps as to his future intent, in stark contrast to the rather tight-lipped American President–played rather well on global media streams, as he acted the part of the spokesperson of a Commander in Chief, rather than a poster on jihadi websites. As much as the shock of the calm delivery and poise of a man who most had speculated was himself a social media composite, the greater shock of the physical presence of someone long speculated not an actual person fielding all those press requests and interviews, hit the global mediasphere and raised eyebrows across the west.
We imagine that the Taliban’s arrival from mountain redoubts, catapulting their longstanding plan to rebuild the Islamic Emirate around the central talking point of expelling foreign forces from Afghan lands, pole-vaulting tribal divisions to pick away at the presence of Afghan institutions across the south and east borders of Afghanistan, as they continue to establish inroads to the north. But fighters understand the war as having been imposed from outside, on generations that were born into an increasingly violent face of battle that was defined by increasingly high tech modern weapons they were not scared of, but saw as part of the landscape in which they fought. If the war was seen on the ground–or justified to the Taliban–as an important from the abroad, an inverse of how we saw the 9/11 attacks as an importation of unaccustomed violent appropriation of civilian aircraft for military objectives, the tactical sense of the war increasingly emerged from the commandeering of weapons of explosive power to the adoption of military tools of outdated but increasingly modern form within the Taliban itself, whose fearsomeness within the Afghan Security Forces was sufficient for so many to flee their nation north, when possible, to Uzbekistan or Tajikistan, rather than continue to engage in war.
The attack on regions held by the Taliban has become a new base for strategic operations. Yet continued minimization of the Taliban as a purely local movement of aggression that is rooted in premodern concepts of medieval character, rather than as building a modern network of national logistics and ambitions which derived broad support by calling for resistance to foreign occupation.
The growing presence of the Taliban to the north, never addressed or reduced by NATO or American forces, who have also feared to directly attack or seal the Afghan-Pakistan border–where military forces tried to confine Al Qaeda and the Taliban, imagining an extended border war, even as streams of foreign troops from Arab states, Central Asia, and Kashmir continue to arrive and replenish in response their calls for Jihad.
The questions of scale of engagement on the fronts U.S. military presence engaged were poorly conceived as tribal areas outside of Afghan boundaries, if this was the site of training camps for foreign forces. Taliban held their own in mountainous redoubts for decades, their leadership pummeled by drone strikes, analysts convinced it was insufficiently organized to mount a coordinated advance, and lacked the elusive coordinated air power that American generals were largely convinced was a requisite to control the national terrain. Continuous bombardment of civilians played in failing to muster local energy to combat the Taliban–whose primary offense seemed to be to have offered shelter to Al Qaeda, in addition to the threat of brutally imposing a theocratic code against women and girls as they had done in 1996-2001–seemed insufficient to be popular issues among Afghanis, despite the dangers to the gains of women in cities. The increased deaths of women and children, and increased trauma of the destruction of the war, as deaths by IED’s grew in 2017, largely from Taliban forces, as the trauma and human cost of the war escalated in civilian areas, inflicting untold suffering, including among women and children.
The problems of directing increased weapons had made the periphery a tinderbox, and pounding tribal regions by drones, hardly a successful strategy to attract popularity of the current state of affairs on the ground, especially after Afghani President Hamid Karzai seemed ready from 2014 to negotiate with the Taliban. By 2019, according to the Asia Foundation, over 88% of Afghans favored a negotiation of a peace between what were seen as irreconcilable sides in the United States. The instability of a forty-year war had shaped these responses, as well as the problem of on-the-ground diffusion of arms, vehicles, and other tools of identification that America increasingly airlifted into Afghanistan, but rarely tracked, boded badly early in the Obama-Biden administration. The US Government Accountability Office (GAO) had already in 2009 raised concerns that many of the weapons provided Afghani National Security demonstrated “accountability” in taking charge of $120 million of light weapons arriving from the United States, finding few guidelines in place for transporting, storing or distributing firearms.
Although the sudden absence of air support offered to quell resistance on the peripheries have made it impossible to contain Taliban forces into areas of control, and the departure of much of the Afghani air force removed any impediments to their expansion, the maps of control over districts distract from the critical dynamic of center and periphery in Afghani society–a tension that the presence of troops failed to address. The sense of a strategic checkerboard minimized the coherent strategy that Taliban leadership developed, as casting the “insurgent” groups as without a single point of leadership, rather than a network that was already practiced against Soviet invaders, even if they were forced into guerrilla tactics and reliance on cashflow, given their establishment of a communication networks of deep commitment, loyalty to the jihadi cause, and ideology, independence and using that survived individual tactical losses or military incursions that America promoted as victories, skilled at broadcasting the effectiveness of their military as they seized caches of NATO and American-made arms and military materiel, independently from the charisma or tactical intelligence of individual leaders of an uprising.
Despite the terrifying disparities in the checkerboard of districts that are the basis of Bill Roggio’s maps, did the Afghan government ever effectively “control” these areas? Or was the attack on the Afghan government’s corruption as The uncertain category of “Government Control or Undetermined” raised as many questions as it answered. The striking visualizations from the Long War Journal served to place districts’ capture as city after city fell before the advancing Taliban in terms of a War of Civilizations, as much as a capitulation, in potentially very unhelpful ways. Despite the real concerns for the retrograde religious policies and codes that the Taliban has promised it will promote, was the autonomy or resistance of provinces like Herat or Kunduz as significant on the level of districts, or was it a guiding presumption cities controlled surrounding lands? The rapid widespread collapse of government authority was terrifying and striking, but had the long war itself already tired Afghans about a struggle that they were never clearly involved, as rumors and fears of corruption of the Afghan government grew. Pakistani Ambassador Akbar Ahmed had long ago instructively argued that the optic in which America cast the warfare was wildly inappropriate: the primary dynamic of center versus periphery in both Pakistani and Afghani society alike. And as much as the Taliban are labeled as “tribal,” the clear awareness among Taliban leaders to increase the support of local communities against the both to broaden the resistance and to give resistance to invaders a “national reach” able to gain “local meaning” that transcended a single ethnic group-and indeed allow the Taliban to transcend an ethnic differences, even as Taliban was centered in Pashtun regions mostly south of Kabul. Especially as local leaders were undermined as threats to the government in Kabul, the power vacuum encouraged Taliban_forces by attempts to create a centralized state, often from local strongmen.
And if the largest ethnic group in Afghanistan is Pashtun, the focus on maps of administrative districts imposes a hope for civil society that over-rides or over-writes how Pashtuns straddle the Afghan border with Pakistan.
Being battered by drone strikes not only encouraged resistance from the periphery, but intensified struggles long waged between center and periphery, and had the effects of displacing many and relentlessly pounding those who remain into submission. The theater of conflict all too often naturalized as occurring in Tribal Areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan in “a fortress built by nature for herself, guarded by the mountains,” as a British administrator of the region argued in the nineteenth century. The situation on the ground, as much as one of control over districts, might be grasped in part by the heightened food insecurity that had arrived with the disruption of markets, supply chains, and funds, even as withdrawal of American troops confirmed in late February, 2020 was being negotiated, as the nation, leaving most districts and provinces beset by critical food conditions, if not by a state of emergency.
What was left out in mapping the central dynamic of Afghanistan by district control, rather than food security? The problem of heightened food security that created massive refugee flows we have recently seen–and will see–created a problem from hell deeper and in ways more profound than the fall of cities to the Taliban, or the fall of the islamic Republic of Afghanistan. For all the presence of American military assistance, there was strikingly little improvement (and some worsening) from 2014-15, and certainly didn’t bring any trust in the Afghani regime, even if the situation had in part bettered to one of crisis from one of widespread emergency, after a decade of fighting, saw a worsening of food security in Kandahar from a situation when only Kabul was an island of minimal food insecurity.
The stark visualizations from the Long War Journal served to drum up support for the war, placing districts’ capture as city after city fell before the advancing Taliban in terms of a War of Civilizations, or a video game, in unhelpful ways. The mapping of the area as a game-board based on Kabul’s control over tribal areas replicated any dynamic that was on the ground, assimilating it to a microcosm of a global struggle for power, and against the United States, rather than seeing the conflict in local terms, imposing on the conflict a sense of thinking like a state by fixating on peripheries and the difficulty of the local terrain as the sites of the War on Terror, rather than the need to stabilize or offer order to tribal communities, or provide on the ground solutions to an apparent vacuum of power and fears of government corruption.
From early July, 2021, we were transfixed by time-lapse maps of changing of districts with alarm. The checkerboard of Afghan provinces provided a running tally of the shrinking of government control of the districts that from mid-August went overwhelmingly red, the scenario that was the result, perhaps, of taking our eyes off the ground, and the strength or alienation of alliances that were increasingly less tied to Kabul, or to the project of centralized government whose benefits were failed to be articulated in meaningful ways on the ground: did the mosaic-like map of principalities only stubbornly continue to adhere to a model of governance Kabul had promoted, as a basis for modernization of the state, that was itself in danger from the start of being rejected on the ground? The absence of much clear meaning or information in the checkerboard of “districts” as parcels of widely different scale, size and ethnic composition–or even habitation!–seems evidence of stubbornly taking one’s eyes off the ground, often based on following the cues and evidence taking its bearings from Kabul or local military commanders.
This GIF was strikingly similar to the Long War Journal‘s images of district control that Roggio devised for the war. Yet the war was deeply mis-mapped as a question of national security, rather than a terrible threat to people living in its periphery. Despite real concerns for the retrograde theocratic codes that the Taliban has promised it will restore or promote, was the autonomy or resistance of provinces like Herat or Kunduz as significant on the level of districts, or was it a guiding presumption that the cities controlled the surrounding lands?
Roggio used Tableau for seemingly crystal-clear visualizations of territorial “control” that offered little room for subtlety, but raised alarms at the scale of clear territorial losses that were rapidly triggered by the American withdrawal–and the remove of air cover–as a clear tactical loss. It did not consider how much gasoline was thrown on the fire by leaving storehouses of military materiel behind, ostensibly in the hands of Afghani forces, storehouses that Taliban members readily seized, and displayed as propaganda of their own military strength.
Roggio’s visualizations were contested by the Afghani government, but the dominance of this self-styled political commentator and former soldier who has forged a strong presence on social media also suggest how limited “news” information was on the ground. The Taliban’s groundmap, per Roggio, had escalated in August 10-16, 2021–even if the areas under “government control” had been in a long, slow, inevitable, slide, according to Roggio’s maps, from the start of Trump’s Presidency–
Roggio tracked the erosion of areas in the government “control” over the “Long War” Roggio dutifully documented as a citizen journalist for the right-wing group, from the shift of NATO’s military mission had redefined its presence from June, 2014 to one of “advise and assist.” The shift must have precipitated an increase in the flow of arms to Afghani forces, with palpable frustration on the part of Americans unwilling to acknowledge or treat this as a proxy war, especially as the Taliban had described the government of President Hamid Karzai from 2004 as but a “puppet regime.” For Bill Roggio, whose web-presence had grown in the war, the decision from April 2019 to create a map of district-level control of the situation effectively left the United States command of the NATO Resolute Support mission without a ground plan leaving them with “limited decision-making value.” To bolster American leadership, Roggio offered a clearly contoured visualization of ground control, though the spirit of Afghan forces must have declined with limited encouraging signs and arrival of more materiel than they knew what to do with, or were able to take advantage. Would it not make sense to track, in parallel to the falling of districts into Taliban control, the arrival of arms into the area over time, using a similar time-lapse, and perhaps include the numbers of arms of which NATO and the US Navy lost count?
12. The state of affairs on the ground, per Roggio, before the 2020 election was grim indeed, as apparent lack of leadership had left government forces with a diminished and fragmented base, of unclear foundation. Although it is hard to say what “contested” means as a category, or to qualify what the state was of “control”–and the rise of “contested” areas among Afghanistan’s districts make it hard to see what order can be detected in the periphery, government authority clearly fragments as one approaches Pakistan or as one comes closer to the borders of Iran.
9. Joe Biden had long rued the fact that Barack Obama had bolstered the Afghani forces in 2016, even if it may hav been that the actual state of affairs on the ground was, it seems, especially murky on the ground. But after Biden made a commitment to withdraw, the time-lapse visualizations of impending disaster of “failing provinces” across Afghanistan compiled by FDD has provided the master-narrative to understand the war. Sped up into animated form, the GIF tracked thirty-four provinces by a new index, degree of “Taliban threat,” as the denouement to the drawdown of U.S. forces in 2011, tracking “Taliban control” across the provinces by the new metric of “threat,” showing the abandonment of the very notion of government controlled provinces around a rump of “moderate Taliban threat” in what he called a “living and breathing map” from open source information from the Taliban and government, presenting himself as the official clearing house of images for news media across the world that foregrounded the quick unfolding of a collapse of order before a broad-based siege of Taliban forces, that might be better mapped by the abandonment of Afghani forces of positions of defense.
Roggio established himself not only as the clearing house for maps, but a dominant voice on news markets, from C-SPAN, CNN, PBS, Politico, Daily Beast, and over Twitter, as the compelling “fire maps” of the Afghan debacle was circulated as a flip-book on the “deteriorating security situation”–as if it was one of national security, as the military maps suggested a loss of land to an enemy who was colored red to signal a danger flag. The comic-strip sequence tracking the fall of provincial districts offered an ominous drumbeat from April of visualizations of impending doom, of the Islamic Republic at a considerable remove from the ground, by a war veteran who had a clear axe to grind.
American officials seem to have been unclear about what the strength of the Taliban actually was, even as a Congressional Research Service report reminded legislators who were scrambling for consensus about domestic policy, that “By many measures, the Taliban are in a stronger military position now than at any point since 2001,” which was hardly good news for continuing the Long War, or for retreating–although the quandary for getting a clear purchase on the situation once deemed America’s interests was complicated by the fact that “many once-public metrics related to the conduct of the war have been classified or are no longer produced”–acknowledging the absence of any good maps of the contested terrain, or of the “war,” as if due to burn-out, but more likely due to lack of clear leadership in the previous four years. Perhaps the absence of maps, and the apparent absence of maps of the storehouses of weapons–howitzers; anti aircraft guns; mortars; as well as tanks and fighting vehicles– left by Americans, as well as Turkish, German, French, and Canadian forces on the ground–or of Russian origin–raises questions about how much American participation in wars increases the inexorable rise of the arms trade.