The collapse of the western-backed Afghan government in the last week has been breathtaking. My first thoughts go to the many thousands of Afghans who made use of its liberal freedoms, and who supported the western powers, but who now face a bleak future, and many who face no future at all. Some soul-searching is due for those of living comfortable lives in the west, whose governments have created this fiasco.
The proximate cause of the disaster is a lack of leadership within the Afghan government, contrasted with strong leadership from the Taliban. There seems to have been a will to resist the Taliban, but the elected leaders of the government, and their appointed officers, did little to mobilise it. Their authority and power depended on an implicit guarantee from the western powers, and America in particular. When first President Trump, and then Joe Biden withdrew that guarantee, the whole pack of cards came tumbling down. We may question the American tactics – they had reduced their governments’ commitment to the war to a historically low level, perhaps this was acceptable for the indefinite future. But any serious analysis of the situation leads to the observation that “I wouldn’t start from here.” Historical inevitability is a popular idea for people looking backwards, and is usually overdone. But it is hard to resist the idea that the American intervention in 2001 was doomed from the start. How did we get there?
As I was growing into political consciousness in the 1960s and 1970s the dominant world event was the war in Vietnam. America’s defeat was a massive loss of prestige. The country deployed uge firepower and yet was still defeated. In the last years, after America had already declared its retreat, morale among US servicemen, mostly conscripts, collapsed. This added to the idea that America did not have the stomach for war – it had “gone soft” through excessive economic development. It is an idea that persists to this day, in spite of manifest evidence to the contrary. America’s military regrouped after this catastrophe, though. And then came the collapse of the Soviet Union, who had suffered a similar loss of military prestige in Afghanistan. America had won the Cold War without its military fighting spirit being put to serious test. And then came Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990. Iraq’s leader, Saddam Hussein, was a strong exponent of the “America has gone soft” idea, with his own nation toughened up by a long war with Iran. But America, led by probably its ablest President in modern times, George Bush Senior, responded with force and diplomatic skill. An American-led coalition counterattacked and so completely outclassed the Iraqi opposition that the world was left aghast. American military prestige was restored at a stroke.
Bush was conscious that even this awesome military power had its limits, but he was defeated by Bill Clinton in 1992. Meanwhile many Americans became hubristic; this awesome military power was for the using. They saw it as a means of either crusading to make the world a better place, or of bending the world to America’s advantage. To his credit, Mr Clinton was clearly sceptical about this. But into the picture came a politician from outside the US: Britain’s Tony Blair, who came to power in 1997. He developed the idea of “liberal interventionism” – the idea that western powers should intervene militarily to prevent humanitarian catastrophe, and, later, to stop villains. He persuaded Mr Clinton to use US power to intervene in Kosovo, which was perceived as a success – especially compared to the West’s earlier timidity in the Yugoslav wars. Then, in 2000, Bush’s son, George Bush Junior, won the US presidency.
Mr Bush was not as strong and experienced as his father. And amongst his key supporters, including his Vice President Dick Cheney, were a group of politicians known as the “NeoCons”. The NeoCons believed strongly in the muscular use of US military power to secure advantage. They also believed that sympathetic regimes could be put in established across the world based on liberal democratic values. Their particular project was the takeover of Iraq, still ruled by Saddam, in which they planned to make pots of money for their cronies, while bestowing on that country a superior political system. Then came the terrorist atrocities of 11 September 2001.
Most Americans wanted to respond to this tragedy with the use of military might, notwithstanding that it was unclear how this could be done effectively against so nebulous a foe. The was the NeoCon’s moment, and Mr Blair was happy to lend his support. But it was too much of a stretch to blame 9/11 on Saddam, even for the American right. But there did seem to be a link between the terrorists and Afghanistan, and there was a military opportunity. Taliban rule was starting to crumble, especially in the north of the country. The Americans could capitalise on this to gain a quick victory. This they duly did. But what next? It was easy to knock over the existing government, but there was little with which to build a replacement from the country’s disparate tribes. But this is exactly what America and its allies tried to do. Was failure inevitable? Perhaps not, but America lacked the political leadership with which to accomplish such a task. The NeoCons soon became bored and moved on to Iraq, where they managed to manufacture an excuse to go to war, backed by Mr Blair again. That was a colossal distraction, which has not ended very well.
But even if disaster in Afghanistan could have been averted, it would have involved a colossal effort for an unclear political gain, disproportionate to the aim of dismantling some terrorist bases. The country’s other area of significance, as a hub of the global heroin trade, has been beyond central government control. Afghanistan is often described as “strategic”, but this is very questionable. It borders many countries, but it comprises harsh terrain which has proved impossible for outside powers to control. Wise leaders leave it alone.
What strikes me is the hubristic nature of both Mr Bush and Mr Blair’s understanding over how military power should be used. The idea that America and its allies can act as a global policemen whose reach goes everywhere, apart from China, Russia and some of their satellites, has probably always been nonsense. It has led to countless thousands placing hopes on western intervention, which either fails (as in Iraq, Afghanistan or Libya) or never happens (as in Syria). We should be developing an alternative idea that the policeman’s role should mainly be down to to the lesser powers in the neighbourhood. Instead these powers define themselves in opposition to America’s power (or sometimes in support), and defer to its leadership or actively try to undermine it. Rarely do they offer leadership of their own.
Afghanistan is a good example of this. The powers in the neighbourhood are Pakistan, Iran, China, Russia and India (I’m not counting the neighbouring former Soviet republics as substantive powers, perhaps unfairly). None of them want Afghanistan to be a hotbed of Sunni extremism, but none, other than India, were prepared to make America’s situation any easier. The current mess is for them to sort out, and always should have been. This is clearly Mr Biden’s view, and probably Mr Trump’s, and they are right strategically, whatever the tactical errors.
But there is no sign of any of these local powers stepping up to the plate. That deepens the tragedy. Meanwhile the best that America, Britain and the other allies can do is accept as many Afghan refugees as they can in order to palliate the guilt somewhat. But their grumpy electorates are unlikely to reward such courage. The picture is bleak indeed.