Rep. Michael Waltz speaks as Rep. Mike Johnson displays a map during the House Armed Services Committee on the conclusion of military operations in Afghanistan and plans for future counterterrorism operations on Wednesday, Sept. 29, 2021,

Former adviser Sarah Chayes: The US failed to understand how Afghans wage war

Sarah Chayes served as a special adviser to the US military in Afghanistan and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff after a decade on the ground in Kandahar. She joined The World’s host Marco Werman to discuss the military testimonies on the US’ chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan.

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A logistical success, but a strategic failure.

That’s how top US generals described the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, in the second day of hearings on Wednesday on Capitol Hill, this time before the House Armed Services Committee.

A lot of the most intense questioning dealt with intelligence failures and how the US could have missed signs pointing to the rapid collapse of the Afghan government. 

Related: Gen. David Petraeus: The US has a ‘moral obligation’ to help those left behind in Afghanistan

US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin tried to answer for these failures in his opening statement: “We need to consider some uncomfortable truths; that we did not fully comprehend the depth of corruption and poor leadership in their senior ranks; that we did not grasp the damaging effect of frequent and unexplained rotations by President [Ashraf] Ghani of his commanders; that we did not anticipate the snowball effect caused by the deals that the Taliban commanders struck with local leaders in the wake of the Doha agreement.” 

Related: Afghan UN employees worry about their safety

Author Sarah Chayes, who served as a special adviser to the US military in Afghanistan and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff after a decade on the ground in Kandahar, has been watching the hearings closely. Her most recent book is called “On Corruption in America and What is at Stake.” 

Chayes joined The World’s host Marco Werman to share her reaction to these military testimonies and to fill in the blanks on who else may need to testify on US failures in Afghanistan. 

Marco Werman: What do you make of that explanation for the lack of military intelligence?
Sarah Chayes: It’s just stunning to me, but in a way, not surprising. So much US intelligence was focused on who we should kill instead of being focused on the degree of corruption, not just in the ranks of the Afghan military, but throughout the government, and the effect that that would have on the willingness of Afghan citizens to take mortal risks for their own government, you know? I mean, that information was being hammered on successive US administrations for years. I was one of the hammerers and not at all alone. And so, I find that very distressing. And then — this snowball effect of the local deals. I think this is another really significant failing on the intelligence and military side — is misunderstanding how Afghans wage war. Afghans rarely fight as units to the death. Fighting is much more a kind of psychological exercise. That’s why it’s often quite violent. So, you have the combination of the Taliban, who were making battlefield victories, a Doha agreement that essentially conferred sovereignty on them, and then they went to work on the ground, as you said. How could the United States government have missed that context?
Joint Chiefs Chair Gen. Mark Milley tried to provide an answer for how the US failed to predict the Afghan government’s collapse: “We can count the trucks and the guns and the units and all that. We can watch that from different techniques, but we can’t measure a human heart from a machine. You’ve got to be there to do that. And I think that was probably one of the most significant contributing factors to missing the deterioration in the morale of the Afghan army.” What do you make of Gen. Milley’s comments?
We were there for 20 years. We were on the ground for 20 years, and we still missed that type of psychological and social intelligence. We never got close enough to ordinary people.

Related: How the Taliban might finance their new Afghan government 

Well, you spoke earlier about the lack of understanding of how Afghans wage war. I mean, Gen. Milley at one point questioned why the US had tried to build an Afghan army in our own image. What was he getting at? 
He put his finger on what you really can hang around the military’s neck, is why would you create, in an environment of very difficult terrain, where wars are constantly being won by ill-armed, ill-equipped insurgents, why would you create a conventional army that looks like ours, that requires highly technical equipment that people need to maintain, that seems to require air support (although the Taliban never seem to need air support). And that, again, was going on for 20 years. And I think we really have to ask ourselves as a country, why? What was the incentive structure behind building that type of top-heavy, equipment-heavy military? And were economic interests not involved here? I mean, is this not the type of equipment and contractor support that is delivered by very high-end military contractors whose executives have been building fancy mansions around Washington, DC, for the last decade?
So, the starting point for the hearings this week seems to be that the problems with the US project in Afghanistan were fundamentally military. And that’s why generals were brought before lawmakers today and called to task. But weren’t a lot of the fundamental problems also civilian?
Well, exactly. Thank you, Marco. And I hope that civilian officials will be called soon. And first and foremost, for me, it would be Zal Khalilzad, [special envoy for Afghanistan], who is responsible for the actual terms of the Doha agreement. … He’s an Afghan American who conducted these negotiations at President [Donald] Trump’s behest in Doha. Those negotiations, as far as I know, were conducted in Pashto without any member of the US government who spoke the language present — other than the ambassador — and they essentially conferred sovereignty on the Taliban. How would we expect an Afghan government not to be demoralized under those conditions?

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. 

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