First in a series of 2-4 articles on Afghanistan, the Taliban, and the United States
Afghanistan has fallen to the Taliban and the United States is scrambling to evacuate Americans. So screamed a headline in the New York Times all of yesterday and so say the images being flashed on television and mobile phone screens. How the Americans are running with their tails between their legs! US Secretary of State Antony Blinken was on the air defending the Biden administration’s decision to undertake a rather abrupt withdrawal of American forces and the most striking pronouncement that came from his lips was surely this: ‘This is manifestly not Saigon.’ The very fact that he attempted to disabuse people from recalling the humiliation that the United States suffered on 30 April 1975 as North Vietnamese troops occupied the city and the US sought to evacuate its personnel from its embassy in Saigon suggests the potency of the analogy. Then, and now, the most iconic image from the end game is of American helicopters ferrying US personnel and ‘collaborators’, as the enemy dubs them, to safety—this time to a secure location at the airport the perimeter of which is ringed by American military forces. Then it was the evil communists; now it is the dreaded Islamic terrorists. But it is America, once again, which is fleeing from scenes of chaos—the very chaos that it engendered in the first place.
The United States, the preeminent military power of the post-World War II period, has suffered yet another crushing defeat. Let us not minimize the enormity of this defeat. Many commentators have sought to soften the blow: some are calling it an ‘embarrassment’, others are speaking of the loss of American ‘prestige’, and yet others are speaking of how the US military has been caught flat-footed. It is all this and far more than just the end of the US era in Afghanistan. It cannot suffice to say that the Americans were committed to a withdrawal in any case and that Biden and his advisors only miscalculated if severely the extent to which Afghan security forces would be able to hold back the Taliban. On this view, the present ‘humiliation’ can be put down to failures in strategic thinking and implementation of a policy laid down by Biden’s predecessor, though many American themselves will wonder why a ‘trillion dollars’ have gone down the drain. This is the amount that is being mentioned as the cost of the 20-year war, allowing for expenses incurred in military engagements, maintaining a massive American presence, and nation-building in an attempt, as the Americans saw it, to secure the ‘free world’ from the scourge of terrorism and bring ‘civilization’ to tribal ‘savages’. Such a view shows a complete unawareness of the culture of militarism, which is another form of savagery, which is as intrinsic to American foreign policy and even the American character as the purported love of liberty.
The brute fact of the matter is that, since the end of World War II with the decisive victory of the US and the Allies against the fascists in Germany, Italy, and Japan, the US has not won a war outright, if it has won a war at all. The Korean War (June 1950 – July 1953) ended in a stalemate, marked by an armistice agreement, and its bitter legacy continues to the present day. In Vietnam, the Americans assumed the responsibilities, as it saw them, that the French were no longer able to carry out of stemming the menacing advance of communism. Then, two decades later, in what can be called another protracted entanglement, this time in Iraq, the Americans sought the submission of Saddam Hussein first by bombing Iraq back into the stone age and then, some years later, by cornering the Iraqi dictator and literally digging him out from a hole before he was sent to the gallows. In the process, they not only left the country in shambles, but their ambition to introduce democratic reforms—when they had enough to do in their own country, as the rise of white supremacists and xenophobic militarists has established all too clearly—would have the effect of unraveling entire societies all over West Asia (or the Middle East as the Americans call it). The debacles in Syria, where the atrocities committed by the Western-educated Bashar al-Assad make Iraq under Hussein look tame, as well as the civil war in Libya, precipitated by the US resolve to bring down the government of Muammar Gaddafi, bear the imprint of US foreign policy, even as one recognizes the role of other states such as Russia and Saudi Arabia in creating the unholy mess in which the Arab world is now enmeshed. Now, to cap it all, is the story of twenty years of the presence of American troops dissolving into capitulation to armed tribesmen over a matter of a few days. Some might argue that the US did win the Cold War: if it did so, which thirty years after the demise of the Soviet Union is far from being clear, it is worthwhile asking what the implications might be of winning only a ‘cold’ rather than ‘hot’ war.
What should be unambiguously clear now is that military power, indeed overwhelming military power, has limitations and indeed is even a liability. There is a lesson in this for other powers, especially China, though one should never underestimate the human tendency to forgo what historians fondly and sometimes wistfully call ‘the lessons of history’. The US never fully acknowledged its military defeats and the generals only took back the lesson that they would not fight a war with one hand tied behind their back. American counter-insurgency operations would henceforth be focused on developing tools and the skills required to fight guerrillas and what are called non-state actors. In the operations against the al-Qaeda, the Taliban, ISIS, and other jihadi outfits, the Americans thought that they had learnt something about how to engage non-state actors. However, none of this should be allowed to obscure the fact that overwhelming military power does not necessarily confer advantages as it once did, even when the asymmetry of firepower is astronomical. What is seldom mentioned about the American triumph over Germany, in contrast to the wars that the US has fought in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan, is the element of the shared culture between the US and Germany as one of the torch-bearers of ‘Western civilization’. This had a great many implications: the US forces were never viewed as alien in Germany, just as the Taliban, whatever one might hear in the Western press about the dislike for them among common Afghans, have capitalized on the shared culture between them—even allowing for differences between Pashtuns, Tajiks, Hazaras, Uzbeks, and the handful of other ethnic groups—and the myriad other insurgent groups and political parties. The newly appointed Taliban mayor of Kunduz, Gul Mohammed Elias, is reported to have said that ‘our jihad is not with the municipality, our jihad is against the occupiers and those who defend the occupiers’. The return of the Taliban, to which I shall turn in a subsequent essay, owes much to this consideration, not merely to realist political assessments of foreign policy, geopolitics, military strategy, and the like.
A Polish translation of this article by Marek Murawski is available here.