What is it about Afghanistan that causes Western policymakers and commentators lose all sense of perspective? A striking example of this phenomenon is former British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, who has described President Biden’s policy as “imbecilic” in an outburst on his website – or at any rate that regime’s attempt to justify it.
This loss of perspective has been going on for more than 40 years. It all started at the end of 1978 when the Soviet Union established a puppet government there backed up by a military invasion – it made me chuckle that the year’s most significant event occurred after all the papers had published their reviews of the year. All hell broke loose in Western political circles. The US president, Jimmy Carter, was condemned for being soft, and failing to counter Soviet global encroachment. There were constant references to the Afghanistan’s supposed strategic importance. This was too much for me. I was a student at Cambridge at the time, and had been prompted to rethink my whole attitude to geopolitics by a course on the philosophy of international relations taught by Professor Harry Hinsley (hardly a radical leftie…). The games that the US and Soviet Union were playing by intervening in third-world countries were inversely proportional in intensity to strategic importance. The Soviet coup and invasion was undertaken exactly because the country was not strategically important, so there was no risk of an extreme counter-reaction, which could lead to a nuclear war. I even wrote a letter to The Economist, who were fuming away with everybody else, pointing this out. Alas the Great Game continued as leaders in America and Russia continued trash poor countries with little strategic importance while pretending that this was some life or death struggle of values. In the case of Afghanistan, Americans started to sponsor jihadist terrorists who were attacking Soviet troops – thereby helping to secure the foundations of the jihadist movement that would in turn attack the West. Events after the Iranian Revolution in 1979 should have been enough of a warning (and incidentally that country was strategically important, which is why the superpowers treated the crisis with kid gloves). That failure to grasp the bigger picture was all too typical.
At least this time we are hearing a lot less about the strategic importance of Afghanistan. Instead people are being exercised about the humiliation of the US-led coalition, and how this is upsetting our allies while heartening our adversaries. Mr Blair is saying, apparently, (confession: I have only skimmed his article and I am mainly relaying on secondhand reports) that the West needs to be “resolute” – and that the retreat in Afghanistan is a catastrophic and unnecessary defeat. This isn’t how the West won the Cold War, he suggests. In fact there were many defeats and humiliations for the West over the course of the Cold War. Vietnam (together with Cambodia and Loas) is the most obvious, but after that there were defeats in Angola Mozambique and Nicaragua. Military and intelligence types kept popping up to say that the West was losing, and needed to give them more money to buy their toys or play their deadly games. I was left feeling that these types weren’t all that impressed with Western values, and were more impressed with the higher priority that the Communists gave to their military and intelligence services. And then, practically without warning, it was all over.
How the West won the Cold War had little to do with military confrontation, or the winning or losing of third-world allies, notwithstanding US Republican attempts to suggest as much as they try to deify their hero, Ronald Reagan. It was the self-evident superiority of Western values that did it. This led to a much better standard of life for its citizens, which became clearly evident in Europe, with, for example, the contrasting fortunes of West and East Germany. The Communist Party governments simply lost the will to continue. Mikhail Gorbachev tried to address the system’s weaknesses, but instead simply precipitated their collapse.
Tony Blair has baggage, of course. He has staked a lot on his narrative of “no regrets” for the Afghan and Iraqi wars. This has long been built around cartoonish invocations of good guys and bad guys, in a war of values. But the bad guys are a disparate bunch. Alongside the jihadists who want to take the world back to Medieval values, and reject practically the entire Western materialist ethos, you have Russia and China, who are, if anything, even more materialist, and who also consider jihadism to be a threat. To find these powers cheering a jihadist victory shows just how over-extended the projection of power by the US and its allies had become. To many people, and not just ruling elites, the Western projection of power is not about the promotion of decent human values, but about the advance of the narrow interests of an elite that wishes them ill. In Afghanistan Western values became irreparably linked to civic corruption. Apparently the focus on fighting a war had much to do this; the military types in charge of the allied effort are get-things-done people; they used familiar channels of using people they saw as effective. Getting things done in a less developed society usually means abetting corruption, and so it appears to have been. The West thought that it should sort out security first, and then deal with nation-building. But they got it the wrong way round. The Taliban’s strongest selling point was that they were not corrupt, which most people seemed happy to believe. And with that they won the hearts and minds of people outside the educated urban elites, including, it seems, most of the Afghan security forces.
We should just let the paradox of that sink in. One of the best things about Western, liberal societies is that they are amongst the least corrupt. And yet Western interventions in less developed countries are closely associated with maintaining corrupt elites. We are trying to win the war of values by betraying them.
Ultimately the West will win the contest for the world’s hearts and minds through demonstrating that its values are better at bringing peace and wellbeing to their citizens. Russia is clearly in an economic cul-de-sac and its leaders will eventually be held to account. In China, this is much less clear – but power is being concentrated in a narrow elite which is intolerant of criticism. Perhaps more quickly than we image, they too will find themselves in a cul-de-sac.
But all is not well in the West either, due to the complacency of governing elites. The reverses in Syria, Iraq and now Afghanistan will not help the West’s standing and the advance of liberal values. We will need to respond robustly to threats to public order from jihadists, from Russia and from China. But we should not forget that our values will win through only by proving their worth. We were making too many compromises in Afghanistan, and ultimately that is what accounts for the humiliation. But as humans we should know that it is better to accept humiliation than indulge in an endless game of denial.