It’s not true that failure is an orphan. Afghanistan today is like Freddy Krueger, “the son of a hundred homicidal maniacs”, whose nurse mother was gang-raped by inmates of a lunatic asylum. The fathers of Vietnam 2.0 are too many to count, though the circular finger-pointing helps to identify many of them.
What’s happening in Afghanistan is heartbreaking. With the Taliban already effectively in control of the entire country and pouring into Kabul, the tragedy of the Afghan people is unfolding yet again right before our eyes. The tragedy lies not only in the ultimate outcome – an entire country yet again in the grip of a group of medieval barbarians, but also the fact that many on the ground will cheer that on, while too many have not done enough or anything to prevent it. You might not feel sorry for the nation as a collective, but pity the women and girls, pity the ethnic and religious minorities, pity the educated and the liberal, however small minority they are, whose great sin is to want to have a normal, decent life like most of us.
It’s not just a tragedy for Afghanistan, it’s also a tragedy for the United States. With weeks to spare before the 20th anniversary of 9/11, Osama bin Laden’s former jolly hosts are flying their black and white flags all over their country again, as helicopters take off the grounds of the American embassy in Kabul in scenes reminiscent of the 1975 Saigon. Twenty years, a trillion dollars or two or three, and thousands of lives of American and Allied personnel — Australians included — later and nothing to show for it.
As someone who supported the 2001 invasion and ousting of the Taliban and had subsequently blogged about the fragile progress throughout the mid-2000s (starting here), it’s a bitter day. But I’m sitting in safety of my home, thousands of miles away; I’ll survive the disappointment – tens of thousands of Afghans won’t.
It is also a tragedy for the world in general, for the return of the jihadis and America’s humiliation can only empower and encourage all the anti-Western forces around the globe. China, to whom the Taliban are already cozying up, has found another ally in Central Asia, halfway down the Silk Road. Will the pathetic spectacle in Afghanistan, presided over by the dementia-sufferer in the Oval Office, now encourage Beijing to strike at Taiwan, relatively confident in the knowledge that the United States won’t do much to stop China recovering its wayward “province”? Your bet is as good as the next pessimist’s.
Islamist militancy worldwide too will be strengthened by this debacle. Putin might not be able to gain much directly from the change in government in Kabul, but the fact that the Americans were not in the end any more successful than the Russians in remaking Afghanistan in their own image will probably give him a grim chuckle (if anything else, the Russians have a slightly better claim, their puppet being able to stay in power and alive for seven years after the Red Army withdrawal).
The collapse of the “new Afghanistan” is not something that can be laid at the door of any one American President. Obama, Trump and Biden all desired the US withdrawal and all supported the naïve strategy of “negotiating” with the Taliban. This is now happening on Biden’s watch; as the man (supposedly) in charge, who has only a month ago assured as the Taliban takeover is “not inevitable”, he has the power of action and inaction, and therefore at least some responsibility for the shape and the course of events.
An exit under Trump might or might not have been more elegant – America First does not necessarily equate to America the Impotent – but I’m not convinced that the end result would have been much different. Clearly, the fundamentals on the ground are rotten and must have been rotten for at least some time, if not always.
The most important among those fundamentals: the government security forces – army and police – collectively four times the strength of the Taliban, much better armed, and whose creation and training took two decades and tens of billions of dollars, have by and large folded like a cheap card table.
The Taliban obviously have more passion and faith in their cause, and that’s a powerful force multiplier, but that has been true of most insurgent forces in history, most of which have never gotten close to winning their uprisings or civil wars. Why an ostensibly modern armed forces have not been able to match fighters with pick-up truck-mounted machine guns in a conventional war – which is what the struggle for Afghanistan has been for at least the past few months, once we got to the stage of fighting for major cities – is something I’m not qualified to pronounce. Hopefully, knowledgeable observers elsewhere will shed some light in the near future.
The army of course only reflects the government and the broader society, which begs the question why a nation of nearly 40 million people does not have enough strength, courage and wherewithal to stand up to a rag-tag army of 75,000 guerrillas. Academics and commentators – including foreign policy realists and idealists – no doubt will continue their debates as to whether a backward tribal society can modernise – or be modernised with a lot of help from outsiders – in a timeframe any shorter than many generation. But if no one expected Afghanistan, an impoverished, underdeveloped, strife-ridden society, to become a Western-style liberal democracy, the complete state failure in the absence of foreign military support poses some more immediate questions. For a country that produces too many strongmen, everything else seems unnaturally brittle.
But while the internal weakness of the Afghan government and the society (such as it is) are now beyond doubt, more questions need to be asked of Afghanistan’s foreign protectors. Clearly, all the blood, sweat, tears, lives, treasure and effort expended over the past twenty years to turn Afghanistan into at least partly peaceful and functioning country with a chance to develop have been next to useless. But these problems must have been apparent to those in charge of the process for some time now. If they have been, what has been done about it, and why didn’t that work either?
If nothing new has been tried and the generals and the mandarins have spent the last decade or so merely doing the same thing over and over while expecting different outcomes, their expertise and judgment are in doubt. The worst of all scenarios, if everyone in charge has been blissfully oblivious to the catastrophe in the making.
Maybe the project to save Afghanistan from itself has always been bound to fail, as pessimists would say, which makes the last two decades’ worth of efforts misguided, foolhardy, unrealistic but at least noble. Maybe there were alternative scenarios leading to a different future than today. Either way, questions of wisdom, competency and honesty now loom large over our own institutions.
Invading Afghanistan and removing Taliban from power was the only realistic response to al Qaeda’s attack on America in 2001. Anyone claiming otherwise is not a serious person. Perhaps hoping for a better post-Taliban future for the country was naïve of me and many others. If so, I plead guilty for wishing for a world without scum like the Taliban and cheering on those trying to bring some degree of peace, opportunity and hope to a country ravaged by more than 40 years of horror since the Soviets marched in.
The “I told you so” crowd might be all smug today, but what satisfaction can there be in a day so dark?
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