With the collapse of Kabul, 20 years after the US invasion of Afghanistan, US President Joe Biden informed the world that the purpose of the US campaign in Afghanistan had never been to build a state or create a democracy. A Taliban leader confirmed that the movement would never adopt a democratic system.
“Afghanistan is the graveyard of empires,” were the words that resounded in official circles in east and west. Books of history in the libraries of the world’s prestigious universities and high-powered think tanks confirm this famous adage, but since when has people learned the lessons of history?
Soon, more studies of the recent events in Afghanistan will join their predecessors on the shelves and then share in their oblivion. The price will continue to be paid by ordinary men and women in terms of lives lost or damaged, squandered resources, decades of lost development and continued underdevelopment.
Along with the images of chaos and panic coming out of Afghanistan this week – the desperation at Kabul Airport and the people who died trying to latch themselves onto planes as they took off – the Internet has also been circulating pictures showing Taliban fighters eating ice cream and riding bumper cars in fair grounds, giving us a glimpse of the fuller dimensions of this tragicomedy.
In the coming days, the media will doubtless turn to other events, as is usual with its rush from one crisis to the next and the desensitisation of audiences to the one that has just passed. However, crucial questions will remain, many without clear answers.
The first is the easiest. What went wrong in Afghanistan? Experts will take us back to the roots of the crisis in 1979, if not before, and to the attempts of the then Democratic Party administration of US president Jimmy Carter to support the Afghan resistance against the Soviet-backed government in Kabul during the Cold War.
Moscow was lured into invading Afghanistan, which has been mired in conflict and bloodshed ever since. The destruction of the country reached its height after Republican Party president George W Bush formed a US-led coalition to invade Afghanistan and avenge the terrorist attacks against the US on 11 September 2001. In the process, the US overthrew the Afghan regime that it had earlier fabricated.
Some US experts today, some of whom served under the Democratic Party president Barack Obama, say that the US should have withdrawn from Afghanistan after its forces had killed Osama Bin Laden in Abbottabad, Pakistan, in May 2011. Others, senior officials under Bush, go one step further and say the withdrawal should have taken place after it was confirmed that Bin Laden had fled the caves of Tora Bora in Afghanistan following battles in the Nangarhar province in December 2001.
So why did coalition troops remain in Afghanistan for two decades after Tora Bora and a decade after Bin Laden was killed if the purpose of the mission was not to build democracy in Afghanistan? That question has had the experts casting about for answers. According to Richard Armitage, deputy state-secretary under Bush, speaking in a recent radio interview, the US should have got out of Afghanistan in 2002, but simply put the matter on “autopilot.” It was for this reason that it had remained in the country until this month’s wretched ending, he said.
Most Americans agree that the withdrawal was necessary, but that it came too late. However, they disagree over whether the US should have gone in to begin with. With the exception of a minority, they also mostly agree that there was an exit strategy. This brings me to the second question: why the sudden collapse?
Political analyst Ian Bremmer attributes what he has called the Biden administration’s first major foreign policy crisis to a failure in execution and not in strategy. He argues that the US presence in Afghanistan was unsustainable and that it was a situation that the US could not win, and the Taliban could not lose.
The withdrawal was the best of bad options, but it was incompetently executed due to four main factors – a military and intelligence failure, a failure to coordinate with allies both in terms of the withdrawal measures and the aftermath, a planning failure, in the sense of anticipating different scenarios and making the necessary resources available, and a communications failure due to minimising the chances that the Taliban would take over the entire country as quickly as they did.
On the third point, the result of this failure was having to send in 3,500 more troops than the US had withdrawn in the first place in order to assist with the evacuation and the scenes of panic and desperation following the Afghan regime’s sudden capitulation to the Taliban. On the fourth, when asked about the images of panic seen in Saigon in 1975, Biden assured the public that there would be no scenes of helicopters airlifting people off rooftops in Afghanistan as there had been in Vietnam.
The third question concerns the nature of the Afghan state and its future. The coming days will clarify this, but what we know thus far is that despite the trillions of dollars spent, the invasion bequeathed a failed state, a neglected economy, and a society that is more fractured and torn than ever. The situation today poignantly drives home what should have been obvious before the disastrous invasion: that foreign meddlers cannot build a nation state.
This is the case even when assuming the best of intentions, let alone when the prelude to the political intervention takes the form of wide-scale destruction blessed by the preachers of outworn “creative chaos” theories. There definitely was chaos, but it created nothing but devastation.
In his article “Blood in the Sand,” US economist Jeffrey Sachs remarks that “even a cursory look at America’s spending in Afghanistan reveals the stupidity of its policy there.” Citing a report by the special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction published earlier this year, he writes that of the $964 billion the US invested in the occupation over the course of 20 years, “fully $816 billion, or 86 per cent, went to military outlays for US troops. And the Afghan people saw little of the remaining $130 billion, with $83 billion going to the Afghan Security Forces. Another $10 billion or so was spent on drug interdiction operations, while $15 billion was for US agencies operating in Afghanistan. That left a meagre $21 billion in ‘economic-support’ funding.... In short, less than two per cent of the US spending on Afghanistan, and probably far less than two per cent, reached the Afghan people in the form of basic infrastructure or poverty-reduction services.”
It is little wonder that Afghanistan is at the bottom of international economic and human-development rankings, apart from some limited improvements in public health and female education that now face a precarious future.
The fourth and last question concerns the future of US foreign policy after this resounding failure and, more importantly, the future of the international order in a rapidly changing multipolar world. After all, the failure is not just about the tragic scenes at Kabul Airport; it is also about a long chain of testimonies to the US’ poor performance at many levels.
This has led a growing body of opinion to advocate a stronger focus on domestic reform in the United States. One exponent of this view is Charles Kupchan, a professor of international affairs at Georgetown University in the US, who holds that US policy should prioritise domestic reconstruction with investment in infrastructure and social policies, while setting an example to other countries by means of democratic reform and the pursuit of a popularly supported foreign policy.
Meanwhile, the editor of the UK Financial Times has reminded us of the US’ long history of successive cycles of flagrant foreign interventionism and isolationism. As he has pointed out, various domestic factors have compelled the US to avoid intervening in foreign conflicts unless absolutely necessary, as occurred the two world wars. On the other hand, the US will always concern itself with the stability and security of its allies in Europe and Asia, despite mounting domestic appeals to refrain from foreign involvements.
Americans are fond of saying “better late than never.” In the case of Afghanistan, not only is late worse, but they should never have been there to begin with.
An Arabic version of this article appeared on Wednesday in Asharq Al-Awsat.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 26 August, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly