For the coalition, things were very different. Western forces have had access to a wide array of world-class technologies, from space surveillance to remote-controlled systems like robots and drones. But for them, the war in Afghanistan was not a war of survival; it was a war of choice. And because of this, much of the technology has been aimed at reducing the risk of losses rather than winning outright victory. Western forces have invested heavily in weapons that could incapacitate soldiers – air power, drones – or technology that could accelerate the delivery of immediate medical care. Things that keep the enemy at bay or protect soldiers from damage, like gunships, bulletproof vests, and roadside bomb detection, have been the focus of Western attention.
The West’s overriding military priority has been elsewhere: in the battle between the great powers. Technologically, that means investing in hypersonic missiles to match those from China or Russia, for example, or in military artificial intelligence to try to outsmart them.
The Afghan government, caught between these two worlds, ended up having more in common with the Taliban than with the coalition. It was not a war of choice but a fundamental threat. Yet the government could not progress in the same way as the Taliban; its development was hampered by the fact that the foreign military provided the main technologically advanced forces. While the Afghan army and police have certainly provided corps in combat (with many lives lost in the process), they have not been able to create or even operate advanced systems on their own. Western countries were reluctant to equip Afghans with advanced weapons, fearing that they would not be maintained or even end up in the hands of the Taliban.
Take the Afghan Air Force. He was equipped and trained on less than two dozen propeller planes. This allowed for a minimum of close air support, but it was far from state of the art. And working with the United States meant that Afghanistan was not free to look elsewhere for technology transfer; she was in fact stuck in a phase of delayed development.
So what does this tell us? He says technology is not a driver of conflict, nor a guarantee of victory. Instead, he is a facilitator. And even rudimentary weapons can prevail in the hands of motivated, patient humans who are ready and able to make whatever progress is needed.
It also tells us that the battlefields of tomorrow could look a lot like Afghanistan: we will see less purely technological conflicts that will be won by the military with the greatest firepower, and more old and new technologies implemented. side by side. It already looks like conflicts like the one between Armenia and Azerbaijan, and the pattern is one that we may see more of in time. Technology may not win wars anymore, but innovation can, especially if one side is fighting an existential battle.
Christophe Ankersen is Clinical Associate Professor of Global Affairs at New York University. He served in the United Nations in Europe and Asia from 2005 to 2017 and in the Canadian Armed Forces from 1988 to 2000. Author and editor of several books, including Civil-military cooperation policy and TThe future of global business, he holds a doctorate from the London School of Economics and Political Science.
Mike Martin is a former Pashto-speaking British Army officer who served several missions in Afghanistan as a political officer, advising British generals on their approach to war. He is now a Visiting Fellow in War Studies at King’s College London and author of An intimate war, which traces the war in southern Afghanistan since 1978. He holds a doctorate from King’s College London.