Site icon Preston Byrne

Did America just lose Afghanistan because of WhatsApp?

In the middle of a conflict, good analysis is hard to come by. Because adversaries do not telegraph their plans to one another, plans depend greatly on the fact patterns surrounding their execution, and no human mind can possibly observe, much less comprehend, the movements of all players on the battlefield, the course of a war, no matter how meticulously planned and no matter how eminently credentialed the planners, frequently defies the plan.

This phenomenon is known as the “Fog of War,” a phrase which originated with Prussian military theorist Carl von Clausewitz in his magnum opus, On War:

War is the realm of uncertainty; three quarters of the factors on which action in war is based are wrapped in a fog of greater or lesser uncertainty. A sensitive and discriminating judgment is called for; a skilled intelligence to scent out the truth.

Such intelligence is evidently completely lacking in the U.S. political, military, diplomatic, and “intelligence” apparatuses. A little over a month ago, President Biden – presumably echoing the advice he was getting from the permanent bureaucracy – said the following:

How wrong this assessment was is now clear for everyone to see. A week ago, the U.S. said Afghanistan could withstand the Taliban for 90 days. Today, the (70,000-strong) Taliban is in control of the capital, the much-vaunted Afghan army has disintegrated, and tens of thousands of Afghans – whose collective force could stop the Taliban, if only it had the organization to do so – are fleeing to any place and by any means they can.

Conventionally, the United States did everything right; it installed a government, equipped and trained an army with four times the Taliban’s manpower, an air force, and top of the line American military materiel, and even now is apparently flying sorties against Taliban targets. Yet everywhere the Taliban is in control, and they did so, in many places, apparently without firing a shot.

So what the hell happened?

I’m a tech guy, not a military guy. And in terms of the kind of tech I’m into it’s that weird decentralized crypto tech like Bitcoin, not SaaS.

I do know enough about the war to know that when the Taliban went toe to toe with American and NATO soldiers, the Taliban got its ass kicked basically every single time. No air force, no navy, and no artillery meant that whenever the Taliban revealed themselves on the battlefield they were guaranteed to be cut to pieces by various pieces of intimidating American hardware like A-10 Warthogs or .50-caliber rifles.

It appears the Taliban tried something different this time around. Open source reporting shows that rather than rocking up and going toe to toe with the Afghan national army, they appear to have simply called everyone in the entire country, instead, told them they were in control, and began assuming the functions of government as they went:

See this from 2018:

Or this from June:

Or this from today:

The fact that WhatsApp is so good that it beats any homegrown communications alternative is not new or unknown. This story in the New York Times in 2019 discussed the use of the app by both groups of belligerents in detail:

WhatsApp has unique benefits in the fight against the Taliban, who also rely on the app to update their superiors and check in with their fighters. The battle has become a war of small, quick tactical gains — a district here, a village there — and for this, the advantages of the app, they say, far outweigh the potential vulnerability.

Mainly, it’s quick and flexible. Urgent decisions on an imminent attack no longer must wait for ministers and commanders to get to a secure operation center. WhatsApp groups have become virtual operation centers, with ministers and commanders sending decisions from their bedroom, in between meetings or even from an airport lounge.

What I think has not been considered enough is the degree to which WhatsApp DMs were a strategic blind spot for the United States.

The Fog of War obviously makes it impossible to know what’s happening on the ground, right now, in Afghanistan, even for observers from the military and the D.C. political apparatus who do this for a living. Recalling, however, that the U.S.’ longtime strategy for crippling an opponent begins with decapitation strikes on radar and communications infrastructure, it is fairly obvious to anyone that as far as the Taliban were concerned, this never took place. The Taliban is setting up a government fairly expeditiously. Its propaganda circulates on Twitter in plain view.

The Taliban are thus free, and have been free for a number of years, to take their fight not to American soldiers (where they always lose) but directly to the hearts and minds of the Afghan people, all using free-to-use American internet infrastructure like Facebook and Twitter (where they have now won).

WhatsApp is an American product. It can be switched off by its parent, Facebook, Inc, at any time and for any reason. The fact that the Taliban were able to use it at all, quite apart from the fact that they continue to use it to coordinate their activities even now as American citizens’ lives are imperiled by the Taliban advance which is being coordinated on that app, suggests that U.S. military intelligence never bothered to monitor Taliban numbers and never bothered to ask Facebook to ban them.

They probably still haven’t even asked Facebook to do this, judging from the fact that the Taliban continues to use the app with impunity.

This might explain why Afghanistan collapsed as quickly as it did.

The Afghan government was built, by the Americans, in the style of a late 20th-century, western, neoliberal state with a credulous and compliant electorate, able to effectively convey its messaging to its people via press conferences, carefully-tailored public statements, and newspaper articles. See e.g. the below:

Cringey, exceptionalist, Beltway langue de bois is hackneyed and even in the United States is widely disbelieved, as it has been ever since Nixon. This is the case whether it be Nancy Pelosi tut-tutting a conquering army or the State Department extolling the merits of American-style democracy.

It is especially rancid when it emanates from the permanent bureaucracy that runs the Executive Branch.

Culturally speaking, the U.S.’ messaging in the region is rather out of step with what we know about Afghanistan specifically, and the Middle East more generally, and is likely ineffective and unpersuasive communication to most Middle Eastern listeners.

There are numerous such examples of milquetoast, tone-deaf messaging directed towards Afghanistan in the run-up to this calamity. Scroll down the US Embassy’s Twitter feed for more examples. The U.S. was trying to convince the Afghan people of the omnipotence of American power through the use of language better suited to talking to a C student from Barnard at a career fair.

The United States thought it was fighting an army. I suspect the reason we lost is because we were fighting a meme.

The Taliban is a decentralized, insurgent force. In many cases they live where they fight. They know the soldiers on the other side. And they have spent years engaged in a public dialogue with each individual Afghan on cell phones using messaging apps. They appear to have leveraged this dialogue to attempt to convince every Afghan before fighting even started that despite having a fighting force on par with the NYPD, they would have the ability to take on a fighting force twice the size of the British Army. They have been DMing soldiers for months inviting them to individually surrender. When they arrived in the cities they accepted those surrenders. After the surrenders they quickly pivoted to assume the roles and responsibilities of government.

Two decades of getting annihilated by U.S. infantrymen showed the Taliban that asymmetric application of force could not overcome American power. So instead of going after the boots, they went after the suits, betting that asymmetric application of tailored persuasion and propaganda could overcome weak, “woke,” politically correct American propaganda.

And it did.

As a result, the Taliban took Afghanistan with almost no formal resistance. I suspect this is because they convinced everyone they would win before they showed up.

Imagine if the U.S. were in the throes of state failure and you received a personalized message from your local Antifa/Proud Boy/[insert_boogeyman_here] branch, right on your cell phone, explaining there would be a nationwide offensive, following which your boogeyman of choice – backed by millions of supporters – would install a totalitarian regime. Imagine they offered you the chance to surrender ahead of time. Then, one day, the proposed offensive happens, with boogeymen Zerg rushing the state everywhere at once; how would you feel?

What would you do if your leadership showed even the slightest weakness in the face of this assault, their public statements limited to sophomoric platitudes about pluralism? Would you surrender? Would you run? Would you fight?

Most people I know would surrender or run. This may explain why Afghan divisions cut bait, and thousands of people in Kabul who could pick up rifles and fight, and if they chose to do so would present a substantial obstacle to the Taliban closing in on the city, didn’t, choosing to flee instead.

Whether the Taliban can hold all of the territory it has just taken is a very different matter. If indeed U.S. intelligence is correct, then their 70,000 men have rather a lot of territory to manage. There is no reason, however, to permit further use of any encrypted American communications technology, app stores, and devices by the terror state for at least as long as American citizens are in jeopardy.

There can and should be recriminations for what happened here. It is not solely the Biden Administration’s fault; the military should have been considering how to decapitate Taliban communications for years, which it clearly has not done. The fact that the Taliban is using US-based servers to run its terror state and nobody in the Biden Administration has thought to disconnect it, even as U.S. forces retreat in disarray, is a strategic blunder on par with Pearl Harbor.

In terms of our collective future, we should expect the government to push for more surveillance and control over internet communications, with governments closing off websites and ports or effectuating internet blackouts in crises real, imagined or feigned. It’s a dark future, and one which I hope decentralized technology will be able to circumvent and defeat.