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History’s Rhymes in the Fall of Kabul and Mosul: Flawed Ideas, Broken Promises, and Poisonous Spin

02 Sep 2021

As Afghanistan has unravelled, it’s been difficult to ignore a foreboding sense of déjà vu that has too-often arisen during these wars on terror. The nightmare goes something like this. In the aftermath of a withdrawal of US and allied forces, a jihadist insurgency once considered defeated triumphantly returns to capture thousands of square kilometres of territory and takes control of major cities. When the scale of the unfolding human tragedy and strategic defeat becomes clear, the triumphalism that justified the policy decision is replaced by deflection, blame, and self-justification. Meanwhile, almost two decades of slowly but surely establishing civil society where it had historically been crushed by an authoritarian regime, building schools and universities with the promises of a brighter future, and empowering women and girls to have civic, social, and economic lives are, seemingly overnight, destroyed. The grim future ahead for all is destined to be worse for some who, because of their ethnicity, gender, or sexuality, face violent persecution or even death. Sadly, this describes both the unfolding tragedy in Afghanistan and the situation that faced millions of Iraqis seven years ago as the Islamic State made their own “impossible” comeback after the Obama administration’s US troop withdrawal. The similarities are viscerally obvious when listening to the perspectives of Iraqis who lived through this period and the desperate appeals of Afghans now. For listeners to Mosul and the Islamic State, a podcast which tells the story of Mosul’s occupation by the Islamic State via interviews with Mosulis, there are haunting similarities between the events leading to the Taliban’s capture of Kabul in 2021 and the fall of Mosul to the Islamic State in 2014. Certainly, the imagery is strikingly similar from average citizens desperately trying to escape (2014/2021) and victorious jihadists showing off the spoils of war (2014/2021) to the “before and after” spin of politicians and the mealy-mouthed justifications of spokespeople (2014/2021). These almost mirror images are so powerful precisely because they are symbolic of strategic dynamics and psychosocial factors that, even after two decades of the wars on terror, are still misunderstood or ignored. We argue that where the rhymes and repetitions in the history of the wars on terror emerge is also where its most important lessons can be found. In this article we focus on the similarities and the implications of the broken promises to those most committed to democracy, and the intellectual shortcomings that led to victories for the Taliban and Islamic State insurgencies.

Sacrificing a generation of “true believers”

In both Afghanistan and Iraq, US-led military operations toppled totalitarian regimes that had (often violently) controlled every aspect of the population’s lives. Despite decades of wars and sanctions that the Taliban and Saddam Hussein dictatorships had each blamed on the West, Afghans and Iraqis largely supported their newfound democracies and looked to take advantage of the social, educational, and economic opportunities that came with freedom from authoritarianism. This is reflected in the advancements that have been made in both Afghanistan and Iraq over the last two decades. Under Taliban rule, an archaic education system existed in Afghanistan, which disallowed half the population (women and girls) to attend. Given the opportunity with the fall of the Taliban regime in 2001 and, however imperfectly, with some sense of stability thanks to the presence of coalition forces partnered with a nascent Afghan military, many Afghans sought to educate themselves and their children. Rates of education and literacy, while still poor by global standards, were increasing and promised a better future that previous generations who had lived under Taliban rule could not have imagined. Under the Taliban there was no civic life yet, over the course of two decades, Afghans established a vibrant civil society sector across the country. Again, however imperfectly, there was sufficient security in pockets of the country and enough of a belief in a better future, for many Afghans, particularly women and minority groups, to actively try to contribute to better their lives and society. The presence of US and allied forces in Afghanistan had been enough to manage risks and provide security for life to go on. The situation was never ideal, but it also never had to be perfect. For most Afghans, it just had to be better than the alternative, which was a return to the Taliban dictatorship. The exit of Western forces now guarantees that worst case scenario.  In Iraq the picture was similar. The Saddam regime controlled every aspect of life for Iraqis resulting in an education system that was largely an arm of his propaganda state. Any activities that resembled a genuine civic life were violently crushed by the regime. To be clear, the war in Iraq was an immense foreign policy blunder that also hamstrung stability and development efforts in Afghanistan at a crucial moment from which it never fully recovered. However, in the aftermath of Saddam’s ousting, Iraqis participated in their nascent democracy, and many looked to contribute towards building an energetic and diverse civil society where none had previously existed. A useful way to consider these dynamics is to look at the example of Mosul. For many, Mosul has unfairly become synonymous with jihadism and the Islamic State. Yet this great city has historically been Iraq’s cosmopolitan intellectual and cultural capital. Indeed, less than two months after US-led military operations commenced on 19 March 2003, Mosul was one of Iraq’s first major cities to hold elections in May 2003. So promising were Mosul’s grassroots local governance and civil administration efforts in the wake of Saddam’s toppling that it was highlighted by both US officials and in media reporting as a paragon for other areas. However, as the disasters of de-baathification swept the country and the priorities of the US-led coalition pivoted to support a more top-down, centralised, Baghdad-focused strategy leading to the 2005 elections, the support to grassroots local democratic and civil society efforts, including those in Mosul, waned. The timing could not have been worse for the city because, just as support to its local administration shrunk, the jihadists’ local grassroots strategy started to gain momentum, peaking with its declaration of the Islamic State of Iraq in October 2006. It would eventually be routed as Mosulis turned against their jihadist occupiers and, by 2008, a bright civic life had returned to Mosul. In a recurring (and too-often ultimately tragic) theme in the city’s recent history, Mosulis tried to take advantage of these windows of hope to improve their lives. The US military presence in Iraq, which would be significantly reduced over the years, was still sufficient to support Iraqi security forces and act as a deterrent against a jihadist resurgence.  The Obama administration’s withdrawal of US forces from Iraq in 2011 removed that steadying presence and, as we highlight soon, inadvertently created the space and exacerbated the vulnerabilities which a resurgent Islamic State movement had been specifically preparing to exploit. Men and women, especially those from minority communities, who had sought an education and openly participated in Mosul’s civic life all but guaranteed their future targeting by the jihadists. And this is precisely what happened when the Islamic State captured the city in June 2014. While it is important to recognise the mistakes that devastated so many lives across Iraq and Afghanistan, it is important not to dismiss the extraordinary advancements that have been made in both Afghan and Iraqi society, thanks in large part to western (particularly American) efforts. The myth that all has been wasted and withdrawal is/was the only responsible option to minimise harms is duplicitous. So too is measuring the health and future potential of a democracy only by its central government. The corruption, mistrust, and ineffectiveness of Afghanistan’s central government is self-evident in its recent implosion. Iraq’s central government has had similar problems. However, the bottom-up, civil society-driven forces that provide the true foundation of a democratic and free society were all-too-often insufficiently supported and protected. Nevertheless, it is those young Afghans and Iraqis who pursued an education and were involved in civic life that emerge as the true believers in democracy, its freedoms, and opportunities. This contrasts with many of the first iterations of their nation’s new political leadership, who having often spent most of their privileged lives overseas, opportunistically returning to their home nations after dictatorships have been toppled to step into politics. Ironically and tragically, it is often these politicians who are able to later escape while its educated youth must remain to suffer and struggle on. Amidst a global democratic recession deep into its second decade, democracy’s cause cannot afford to lose another generation.

Succumbing to Wars of the Flea in Afghanistan and Iraq

In Robert Taber’s seminal work on guerrilla warfare first published in the 1960s, he argued that “analogically, the guerrilla fights the war of the flea, and his military enemy suffers the dog’s disadvantages: too much to defend; too small, ubiquitous, and agile an enemy to come to grips with. If the war continues long enough – this is the theory – the dog succumbs to exhaustion and anemia.” In Afghanistan, the Taliban’s apparent decimation in 2001 was proved to be only the beginning of a prolonged insurgency. Indeed, three weeks after the launch of Operation Enduring Freedom in October 2001, senior Taliban commander Maulvi Jalaluddin Haqqani, speaking from Pakistan, declared: “Remember that the Soviets also controlled several Afghan cities once. What happened to them? We never had a single city but look at us now. We will retreat to the mountains and begin a long guerrilla war to reclaim our pure land from infidels and free our country again like we did against the Soviets.” Less than twenty years after this interview, the Taliban swept through Afghanistan’s provinces, capturing provincial capitals and US military equipment along the way, before finally making their victorious return to Kabul last month. To get some idea of the speed of the Taliban’s recapture of territory during the US and allied withdrawal, the Taliban controlled 90 districts on 9 July 2021 with 141 districts in government hands and 167 districts being contested. By 16 August 2021, the Taliban controlled an estimated 391 districts with only 7 being contested. Just as rapidly, the Taliban were also purportedly shown establishing security in these areas, and even governing in many of these cities. Before the Taliban’s extraordinary comeback, it was the Islamic State movement that achieved the unthinkable in 2014. Like the Taliban, the group was also almost destroyed in 2007-08 by the joint US troop surge and Sunni Sahwa (Awakening). But this heralded arguably the most important period in the Islamic State movement’s internal history. From 2008 onwards, the group devised and implemented a strategy characterised by three pillars. First, having been decimated by Sunni tribal Sahwa forces, the Islamic State looked to establish its own jihadi sahwa units. Second, it eroded Iraqi government and civil society resistance to its revival efforts through a campaign of violence captured in the maxim: “For every ten bullets, nine should be directed toward the apostates and one toward the crusaders.” Third, its strategic architects called for a more sophisticated approach to propaganda to “diversify our speech and messages to differentiate between different people, depending on their orientations and ideologies.” The Islamic State’s revival strategy was reliant on one crucial factor as its Fallujah Memorandum (circa 2009) declares: “We can claim that the next war will be primarily a political and a media war. The winner of this war will be the one who can prepare and plan for the period after American troops’ withdrawal.” In October 2011, President Obama announced that US forces would pull out from Iraq by year’s end while supporting Nouri al-Maliki’s government which was notoriously sectarian in its approach. The stage was set and, three years later, the Islamic State’s revival would be complete with it controlling around 100,000km2 of territory, millions of people, and major cities such as Mosul, Fallujah, and Raqqa. To be clear, the Taliban and the Islamic State have engaged in different insurgency efforts reflective of a variety of ideological, operational, and contextual nuances. For instance, Afghanistan’s terrain and geopolitical position has meant that the Taliban has deployed its forces in markedly different ways to the Islamic State which generally operates on either side of the Syria-Iraq border.  Moreover, the Taliban and the Islamic State are declared enemies and the former has regularly fought the Islamic State’s Khorasan Province. Nevertheless, their approaches to insurgency share a suite of core strategic principles that are broadly common in modern insurgencies. For example, an insurgency will look to:

  • implement a “competitive system of control” via politico-military activities and a “competitive system of meaning” via propaganda and other influence activities to out-compete adversaries for the support of contested populations and control territory and resources;  
  • transition through campaign phases characterised by guerrilla military and governance activities in its nascence and more hybrid/conventional activities based on relative strengths and vulnerabilities;
  • focus on three basic goals throughout these transitions: exploit opportunities to achieve functional advantage, impose a functional disadvantage on adversaries, and use propaganda as a force multiplier/nullifier;
  • centralise propaganda in their campaign plans to amplify the impact and reach of their actions, nullify the impact and reach of adversaries, and project a “competitive system of meaning”;  
  • target supportive “decisive minorities” (for example, tribal leaders, politicians, businesspeople, militia leaders) for alliance building and recruitment while looking to intimidate or kill “decisive minorities” that support their opponents;
  • co-opt established government institutions to expedite transitions towards greater conventionality;
  • rationalise to expedite transitions towards great unconventionality; and
  • measure success and failure by standards relative to the campaign phase at the time and the adversary’s strengths and weaknesses.

A basic understanding of these principles helps to make sense of the logic driving the broadly similar actions of the Taliban and the Islamic State as it captured major cities. For example, the Islamic State is assessed to have generated $12 million USD per month in revenue for the year prior to capturing Mosul. Before Kabul’s fall, the Taliban were operating in the city at least as early as April. Moreover, upon capturing major cities, the Islamic State in 2014 and the Taliban in 2021 assured citizens of security, stability, and fairness. On both accounts, these assurances have proven to be lies. The speed with which the Taliban and the Islamic State implemented their system of government reflects both a long history of planning and co-option of government institutions to expedite the process. To summarise, having a presence in the city prior to its formal capture, assuring citizens all will be well, and trying to quickly create the illusion of stability are all crucial to facilitating this strategic transition to “conventional” governance.   We highlight all of this because misunderstanding or ignoring what are the basic mechanics of the “grand strategy” of modern insurgency, and how these principles manifest in practice, have led to a suite of policy failures. Two are particularly noteworthy. First, defeating an insurgency in a particular phase of its campaign is rarely indicative of a “total defeat” and this has been evident in both Iraq and Afghanistan in the resurgences of the Islamic State and Taliban. Second, an overly centralised and top-down politico-military strategy, of the type that has characterised counterinsurgency and broader nation-building efforts in both Afghanistan and Iraq, cedes too much space and time to the insurgency and often inadequately protects and empowers grassroots local allied “decisive minorities” that are complementary to those top-down efforts.  

A dark future ahead

Perhaps the crudest similarity between Mosul 2014 and Kabul 2021 can be found in the rhetorical trends leading to and after the policy decisions. Irrespective of political party or ally, the cycle seems to begin with hubristic assurances during the policy “sell” that are soon replaced by a well-worn spin strategy. It goes something like this: lament the unpredictability of events, blame that misfortune on the complicity of locals and the hopelessness of the situation to double down that it was the right policy (if imperfectly implemented). This is precisely the kind of political spin that sows the seeds of mistrust amongst allies, delivers propaganda fodder to adversaries, and blunts any chance of lessons ever being properly learned from mistakes. As we highlight in Mosul and the Islamic State, this poisonous spin also tends to present, whether explicitly or implicitly, civilian populations under the control of jihadist insurgencies as either passively complicit or active collaborators with their oppressors. It is sadly most evident, though, in the disparaging way that politicians who have never served in the military so flippantly speak about Afghan and Iraqi servicemen and women fighting against incredible odds. Little wonder that there is so much despair being expressed by so many Afghans and exhibited in their desperate acts.    Writing on the Vietnam War, Viet Thanh Nguyen reminds us that “all wars are fought twice, the first time on the battle field, the second time in memory.” After two decades of the wars on terror and in the aftermath of the final troop withdrawal from Afghanistan, the battle for how that history is interpreted  has already begun. There are valuable lessons to be drawn from that history and arguably the most important will emerge from parallels between Afghanistan and Iraq. The rhymes and repetitions in that history can too-often be found in the hard lessons that are yet to be fully understood. What is clear to us, having spent our entire careers living and working in these parts of the world, is that facetiously dismissing the last twenty years as a complete failure is not supported by the facts. As in Iraq and now in Afghanistan, local expressions of betrayal and loss are evident of what had been gained and is now lost. For so many young people who have grown to believe in democracy as the fairest way to build a stable and peaceful nation, those hopes have vanished. As in parts of Iraq before and in all of Afghanistan today, now seemingly abandoned, they will be confronted with the jihadists’ favourite propaganda message: “we told you so.” And for many, the response will be “yes you did, and now what?” With the prospect of a US withdrawal from Iraq beginning soon, the sad parallels in the fates of these two countries will likely continue.