'Shock and awe,' Taliban style

The Taliban’s stunning takeover of Afghanistan was a tragic vindication of “shock and awe,” with far-reaching consequences for the region and especially for American strategic thinking, foreign policy and intelligence analysis. I’m talking about shock and awe aimed at affecting, influencing and controlling will and perception – not what happened during the second Iraq War in 2003 by obliterating an enemy with massive firepower. This shock and awe is dependent on a thorough understanding of the adversary to exploit its weaknesses.

On paper, the Afghan security forces were numerically superior and better armed than the Taliban. Yet, the Taliban overwhelmed those security forces through intimidation, threats, bribes and psychological operations rather than battlefield wins firing relatively few shots — using shock and awe to exploit those weaknesses. The Taliban’s victory will correctly be perceived as defeating the most powerful military in the world, even with 130,000 Americans on the ground at one time who were unable to train the Afghan army to fight.

Many countries will seriously assess the Taliban’s success to reevaluate their views and policies regarding the U.S. Extremists, whether international terrorist organizations such as al Qaeda or domestic terrorist groups, likewise will learn from the Taliban takeover and apply some of those lessons to their tactics and strategies, something that did not happen when Saigon fell to North Vietnam in 1975.

ADVERTISEMENT

On the broader geostrategic and political-ideological level, China and Russia will interpret this dramatic military reversal as another, unmistakable sign of American decline and the failure of the democratic model. On the military level, both will conclude that their asymmetric approach to neutralize highly expensive American systems with lower cost counters relying heavily on non-kinetic cyber and electronic measures was validated. And the propaganda value cannot be overestimated.

China has already announced that it will recognize the new Afghan government. But Beijing will understand that Belt and Road investments will not work in Afghanistan under Taliban rule, which will not make modernizing the economy a high priority. China will have an interest in maintaining access to rare earth minerals and other resources and exerting influence.

Given its own homegrown threat, Russia’s main interest is to prevent Islamist extremism from spilling over. And it will certainly not want to forgo participating in the “great game” that has been part of regional politics since the mid-19th century. But it will not act to oppose China’s interests, as it views maintaining good relations with Beijing as more important. 

My last column forecast how Iran, Pakistan and India were likely to respond to the Taliban win. A very important question for the U.S. has to do with how key allies in Europe and Asia will react. NATO will not be well disposed to future out of area military operations. But the Biden administration’s commitment to NATO’s Article 5 (that an attack against one is an attack against all) will not be eroded even as Russia flexes its military muscles with major ongoing exercises lasting until mid-September.

As China emerges as a more formidable power, U.S. focus on China as the pacing threat and the new Pacific Defense Initiative will reassure its Asian allies, principally Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, Australia and New Zealand. But this is as much a function of China’s increasingly aggressive economic, diplomatic and ideological practices.

ADVERTISEMENT

The most important question is how the demise of the Afghan government will affect the U.S. The Biden administration seems to have concluded that the Afghan setback will be overtaken by other, more important domestic issues, such as COVID-19, inflation, economic growth, crime and the fate of the infrastructure and jobs bills, and thus will have only a minor impact on the 2022 and 2024 elections. But the staggering speed and manner of the takeover will remain a permanent stain on the administration, leaving Afghans to an uncertain and probably dire fate.

What went wrong with our intelligence and indeed our strategy are critical questions that need careful review and cannot be ignored or deferred. Nation-building is dead for a long time. Our strategy failed in Afghanistan; how will it do against China or Russia?

The looming question: Given the Afghan debacle, do we have the stomach for a real re-examination of both strategy and intelligence?

Harlan Ullman, Ph.D., is senior adviser at the Atlantic Council. His latest book, due out in December, is “The Fifth Horseman and the New MAD: How Massive Attacks of Disruption Became the Looming Danger to a Divided Nature and the World at Large.”