Wednesday, August 18, 2021

History Repeats Itself: Dedicated Ragtag Militants Defeat Larger, Corrupt Foes

 The world was startled by how swiftly the Taliban overran Afghan government forces, stunning even the most pessimistic of forecasts about the insurgents’ ability to quickly depose a larger, better equipped, diligently trained military. 

Yet, history is replete with examples of ragtag militants defeating ostensibly well-organized, better-equipped armies.

Our own American Revolution is a prime example. The British and their hired hands failed to subdue motivated colonists. Yes, the French provided us naval support, and several European military men professionalized the Continental Army. But a colonial victory was anything but expected, at least at the outset of the War of Independence.

There are numerous other pre-Taliban examples of might being upended by the slight.

Take the victory of the Maccabees over the Syrian Seleucid Empire in the second century B.C.E. Or the assaults on Rome by Germanic, barbaric tribes. Establishments were pushed aside.

Too ancient for you? How about the Haitian Revolution of 1791 that ultimately led in 1804 to the casting off of French colonial rule by self-liberated slaves. Spanish and Portuguese colonies in South America threw off their colonial yokes in the early 19th century. 

Lawrence of Arabia tapped into Arab pride and nationalism to confound the Ottoman Turks during World War I; the Bolsheviks defeated Czarist forces and those opposed to their takeover of Russia. 

Following the Second World War, Mao Zedong succeeded in his decades-long crusade to oust the Nationalist Chinese; the French and later American forces succumbed to the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese; vastly outnumbered Jews not only beat back larger Arab armies but also expanded the post-mandate territory controlled by Israel.  

Closer to home, Fidel Castro and his guerrillas supplanted the United States-backed Cuban dictatorship with a Communist dictatorship. A similar fate befell U.S. interests in Iran in 1980, producing our first exposure to a nation-state based on anti-American Islamic extremism.  

So it is no surprise that committed comrades routed trained Afghan army regulars who had little skin in the game, save saving their own hides once the fighting became too uncomfortable.

A common trait of all these conflicts was their longevity, the years-long commitment of “liberators” to challenge oppressive and/or corrupt regimes despite the latters’ vastly superior firepower and superpower support.

What will emerge in Afghanistan surely will not be pretty, at least to our Western sensitivities. Females of all ages will be consigned to second class citizenship, most probably bereft of any institutionalized educational or professional options. Surely that is their fate in the hinterlands of country. In Kabul or other large cities, perhaps they might retain some benefits enjoyed over the last 20 years.

Sharia law will be enforced. In Saudi Arabia it used to be common for repeat offender thieves to have a right hand amputated. How tolerant of a first offender the Taliban will be is an open question. 

Expect to be repulsed by executions of “collaborators” the Taliban will kill if for no other reason than to instill fear among the populace that opposition is fruitless and dangerous. 

While the overthrow of the government in Kabul was their main objective, the Taliban were a mostly united compact. Throughout its history, however, Afghanistan was a land chiseled up into warlord fiefdoms. How effective Taliban leaders will be in maintaining discipline throughout their ranks is among their most pressing concerns.

Will they allow their country to renew its status as a haven for murderous Islamic extremists bent on territorial expansion and attacks on American soil? Too soon to say.

Barring any unforeseen developments, our involvement in Afghanistan will shortly end. But the lesson to be learned is that our support for any government must be linked to the values we share. If our clients are corrupt, oppressive, dictatorial, we should expect a groundswell of opposition to form that could take months, years, or decades to topple the status quo and with it America’s standing in the world.