by Mitch Kokai
Senior Political Analyst, John Locke Foundation
The seemingly instantaneous collapse of the notionally U.S.-backed regime in Kabul — a regime that had been in reality neglected by U.S. officials wearied by its corruption and inefficacy and then actively undermined by the Trump administration’s decision to bypass it altogether and conduct direct negotiations with the Taliban — calls to mind Lee Smith’s “strong horse” principle, which he applied to the Arabic-speaking Middle East but which also shapes political calculation in much of the rest of the world. As Osama bin Laden once put it, “When people see a strong horse and a weak horse, by nature they will like the strong horse,” a sentiment Smith connects to the thinking of medieval Arab historian Ibn Khaldun.
We are the weak horse.
There are many factors that shape the political life of Afghanistan: religion, ideology, tribe, geography, history — but also the brute facts of brute force. That has always been the problem with setting an arbitrary deadline for wrapping up U.S. efforts in Afghanistan: Without the United States, the Taliban wins, and it is not in the interest of anybody in Afghanistan to see to it that it takes the Taliban a long time to win — if they ultimately end up on the losing side of that fight, they and their families are going to be tortured and murdered. President Biden did his best impersonation of Lyndon Johnson, who famously complained about sending “American boys nine or ten thousand miles away from home to do what Asian boys ought to be doing for themselves.”
That’s familiar stuff, and it generally shakes out the same way. The same political decision that made Taliban rule inevitable also made it imminent. This isn’t the Army–Navy football game — there are real consequences for being on the losing side of a fight in Afghanistan. It was never going to be the case that as Uncle Sam went limping back home Afghans were going to stand there and make things worse for themselves.