OpinionIsrael-Palestinian Conflict

Lessons for Israel from the Afghan debacle

Nation-building is a long, evolutionary process that requires fundamental, internal, societal shifts, which can never be imposed from the outside.

Demonstrators in front of the White House protesting the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. Credit: John Smith/Shutterstock.
Demonstrators in front of the White House protesting the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. Credit: John Smith/Shutterstock.
Samuel H. Solomon
Samuel H. Solomon

Beyond the political rhetoric, the Afghanistan meltdown is quite straightforward. The facts are simple: The United States invades Afghanistan to eliminate the Taliban’s ally, Al-Qaeda, and ends up in a “nation-building” mission for 20 years.

To this end, it spends $2 trillion, with probably one-third siphoned off to the pockets of local warlords, politicians, special-interest groups, and NGOs. More than 2,370 Americans die and more than 20,000 are wounded. In less than a week, upon the onslaught of determined fighters in pickup trucks, firing mostly ancient weapons, the entire 300,000-strong U.S.-trained Afghan “army” dissipates.

Afghanistan is lost again to the Taliban, and we feel horrible for the people, especially women, who put their trust in Western powers, in particular the U.S., to protect them. But all along, an independent Afghanistan was a fantasy of U.S. intelligence and defense officials, who forgot that they were not fighting in France, but in the Middle East.

Let us focus on the impact that this debacle must be having on today’s calculus by Israeli leaders and the “peace camp,” which seem to harbor similar fantasies about the intention and focus of our enemies and erstwhile friends. I can only hope that members of the ruling coalition in Jerusalem will take a hard look at its assumptions before emerging as another administration living in a Fool’s Paradise.

The following should serve as a reminder and a wake-up call:

  • The West still doesn’t grasp that tribalism is the core of Middle East identity, and thus Afghanistan, by definition, is not a “state.” The same applies to Lebanon, Iraq, Yemen and Jordan. In the Middle East, one’s loyalty to the hamula (extended tribal family) is more powerful even than that extended to Islam, let alone that towards an ersatz state. This tribal value cannot be wished away by grandiose think-tank papers or pontification by academic and political elites. Arab society in Judea, Samaria and Gaza, in a similar fashion, behaves according to tribal associations. Attempts to craft a “state” from this mess are completely inappropriate and will fail. Everything that happens in those areas is based first on tribal/family affiliation, and second on religious affiliation. Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas is seen as an outsider with no gravitas.
  • Another key misconception, born of Western arrogance, is that accommodation and guilt are concepts at work in the Middle East as they are in the West. The opposite is true, however, as Islamic culture expert Harold Rhode has reiterated. According to Rhode, people with tribal attachments place the ultimate significance on honor and shame, and when one’s honor is violated, it is a source of deep shame to his hamula. Shame cannot be negotiated away. The hamula can only purify itself by removing the source of that shame. This could mean murdering a sister or mother who shamed the family or, as in the case of conflict, never ceding territory. Honor and shame are inherent in the Palestinian narrative, as well. This is apparent in the P.A.’s delusional claims about a lack of Jewish connection to the land of Israel, about which there is no compromise—as compromise is seen as compounding the shame.
  • The Afghanistan debacle is living proof that Israel cannot outsource any of its security: not to the United States, the European Union or any United Nations framework. Just look at the U.N.’s total failure in Lebanon. U.S. Security Council Resolution 1704, which ended the Second War in Lebanon—Israel’s 2006 conflict with Hezbollah—has been a complete farce, with Hezbollah violating it daily in various dangerous ways.
  • There are always outside forces at work that benefit from any conflict. In the case of Afghanistan, for example, Pakistan, Russia, China, Turkey and Iran all had an agenda that included the weakening of the United States. The Israeli-Arab conflict, too, involves external players, such as the E.U., which operate in a way that’s not in Israel’s interest. Iran and Turkey, as well, are acting in the shadows of Israel’s war with Hamas. This is crucial for Israel when considering its freedom of action, and when calculating its response to terrorist attacks on its homeland and citizens. Internationalizing the Israeli-Arab conflict is therefore both completely wrong and perilous to the Jewish state.
  • Many American-Jewish organizations have been deeply compromised by progressive leftism, using the prism of “power,” rather than morality, to distinguish between right and wrong. This leads to crazy accusations, such as that Israel has an “unfair advantage” over Hamas, due to its possession of the Iron Dome missile-defense system, or ridiculous numerical casualty comparisons. These organizations include J Street, JVP, IfNotNow, BendtheArc and even the Anti-Defamation League. They constantly demand that Israel make dangerous compromises, though similar recommendations resulted in Afghanistan falling to the Taliban. Contrary to their assertions, they are not acting as “friends of Israel,” but rather dismiss the grave risks posed to the Jewish state. The leaders of these groups should be called to task, and their ideas must be rejected.
  • Nation-building in places like Afghanistan, Lebanon, Syria and the P.A. is a myth. Nation-building is a long, evolutionary process that requires fundamental, internal, societal shifts, which can never be imposed from the outside.
  • Western leaders love talking about the “peace of the brave” and other diplomatic nonsense. But the real formula for peace lies in the total defeat of the enemy so that it loses the will to fight. This is not what happened in Afghanistan; nor is it what’s happening between Israel and the P.A., as the latter still thinks it can win if it plays the long game. Unilateral withdrawals while such an enemy remains undefeated guarantee that it will fill the vacuum.
  • U.S. military structure, methods and battle doctrine fail when working outside of traditional approaches to conflict. Yet the Middle East requires a different battle philosophy—one that takes all the cultural factors discussed above into account. Indeed, the U.S. training of the Afghan army had zero value in the context of tribal affiliations. Israel, too, needs to adopt conflict strategies that directly speak to the societal issues in the P.A.
  • The Abraham Accords, based on people-to-people cooperation and not just agreements with leaders and elites, are necessary for long-term, stable success. Prior to the advent of the administration of former President Donald Trump, Washington directly discouraged Sunni-Arab states from engaging with Israel until the Palestinian “portfolio” was resolved. This wrong-headed approach, sponsored by the likes of former U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, is a classic example of a misreading of the Mideast reality. I fear that it’s returned under President Joe Biden.

One hopes that the current Israeli leadership takes the above lessons to heart. Israel may be trying to placate the United States and Western Europe by “playing nice” in the international arena, but—as Afghanistan illustrates—this shouldn’t be at the slightest expense to its national sovereignty, military freedom of action or coexistence in this complex, messy and perilous neighborhood.

Samuel H. Solomon is engaged in human rights advocacy in defense of democracies and has founded several non-profit organizations to address this issue. He has an MBA in finance, a master’s in philosophy, and theological ordination. He can be reached at https://sam-solomon.com and sam@sam-solomon.com.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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