An era that began two decades ago with the shock of hijacked planes crashing into American skyscrapers ended this week with desperate Afghans clinging to American planes as they tried to escape the chaos of Kabul. Some fell; one was found dead in the landing gear.
A colossal two-pronged investment of American violence, treasure and diplomacy to defeat a hostile ideology aimed at establishing an Islamic emirate of Afghanistan has failed. Over four presidencies, two Republican and two Democratic, more than 2,400 Americans gave their lives and spent more than $1 trillion dollars shifting Afghan goals, many of which proved unattainable.
The curtain fell on the post-9/11 era, with the Taliban retaking control of the land that served as the base for the attack on America, a circular debacle for the United States that will painfully engrave Afghanistan in the national memory.
Mistakes and illusions and a certain American naivety, or hubris, to remake the world in its image led to the swift Taliban takeover nearly two decades after the defeat, but a more fundamental factor also played a role. As China flexed its muscles, the country’s priorities shifted. The relative power of the United States is not what it was twenty years ago.
The country’s ability and propensity to commit resources to distant struggles ebbed away. Without the Cold War, Americans have little appetite for the kind of open-ended military engagement that cemented democracies in Germany, Japan, South Korea, and elsewhere.
“As president, I am adamant that we focus on the threats we face today, in 2021, not yesterday’s threats,” President Biden said Monday, defending his decision to proceed with a rapid military withdrawal.
“U.S. troops cannot and should not fight in a war and die in a war that Afghan troops do not want to fight for themselves,” Biden said.
But if there has been a single push for Mr. Biden’s presidency, it has been defending democracies at an “inflection point” with the spread of repressive forms of government, and the reaffirmation of American values.
“America is back,” was the chorus. But the question will now be asked: to do what? A planned December summit to strengthen democracies seems far less credible as Afghan schools may be closed again to girls and Afghans who believed in freedom are desperately fleeing.
“Afghanistan has been victimized for decades by people who wanted to get it right,” said Lakhdar Brahimi, an Algerian diplomat who served as the United Nations Special Representative for Afghanistan and Iraq. “Right now there was no good time to leave, so this was just as good – or as bad – as any other,” he added.
The chaos in Kabul, as the United States and its allies scrambled to evacuate their nationals, and the Afghans who had helped them, has inevitably been compared to the desperate scenes in Saigon in April 1975 when North Vietnamese troops captured the city. Then, as now, a homegrown guerrilla insurgency overturned the plans of a superpower.
However, the analogy should not be exaggerated. The United States was bitterly divided over the Vietnam War. Today most Americans want to leave Afghanistan. Their priorities are domestic.
As Mr Biden said, an overriding US objective was achieved: Islamist terrorism, in the form of Al Qaeda, was largely defeated over the past two decades. But the political Islam embraced by the Taliban has maintained its appeal as an alternative to secular Western governance models.
It remains to be seen whether a newly qualified Taliban, honed by diplomatic experience that may have cooled some of the seminary’s zeal, will deliver on promises to prevent Afghanistan from becoming a terrorist haven again.
Whether the United States should have maintained a modest military presence sufficient to keep the Taliban out of power and the hopes of the women and emerging middle class of Afghanistan now feeling betrayed will be debated for a long time to come. .
There was little reason to think that what cannot be achieved in 20 years could one day be. On the other hand, as Saad Mohseni, an Afghan entrepreneur whose MOBY group runs radio and TV networks in Afghanistan, argued, “Afghans have been pushed under the bus in the most unfair and irresponsible way.”
What appears to be out of discussion for now is the disaster caused by the hasty US withdrawal. A few days ago, President Ashraf Ghani, who has now fled, thought he had two weeks to negotiate an organized transition, according to a person who spoke to him at the time. Without the United States, he was even a house of cards.
Long skeptical of the purpose of America’s longest war, President Biden acted in the belief that it was “highly unlikely” that the Taliban would “take over everything and own the entire country,” as he put it last month.
Those words certainly seem to haunt the Biden presidency, even if there is enough debt to be shared by both sides. So are images from Kabul of the shuttered US embassy and of armed Taliban troops taking over the government buildings that were supposed to anchor an American-built democracy.
“I have no doubt that this will be a huge liability for Biden even if Trump includes him,” said Cameron Munter, a former United States ambassador to Pakistan, referring to the 2020 agreement the Trump administration will have with the United States. Taliban signed outlining the US withdrawal this year.
That was the difficult legacy left to Mr. Biden. Still, his government had options other than an accelerated withdrawal.
“What’s terrible is that the government didn’t have a plan,” said Stephen Heintz, head of a foundation that has been working on Afghanistan since 2011. “There was hardly any consultation with NATO and little with the Afghan government. It’s a failure of intelligence, planning, logistics, and ultimately a political failure because whatever it is, it’s Biden’s.”
Others were more supportive of the president. “Twenty years was a long time to give Afghan leaders the seeds of civil society, and instead they only planted the seeds of corruption and incompetence,” said Massachusetts Democrat Jake Auchincloss, a Democrat and a former Marine who served in Afghanistan. . NewsMadura.
Both Mr. Biden and his predecessor responded to an inward-looking US vote in different ways. Supervising the world is expensive, often thankless work and there are many domestic problems. The military withdrawal from Afghanistan accurately reflected a shift in priorities, including the intensification of the major power rivalry with China.
But America-in-Afghanistan amounts to a chronicle of errors and misjudgments that pose fundamental questions for American policymakers.
From the moment the United States decided in 2003 on the basis of flawed intelligence to go to war in Iraq on the basis of flawed intelligence – opening a second front and diverting attention and resources from Afghanistan – the feeling grew that the Afghan conflict was a directionless secondary venture.
Defeating terrorism dangerously turned into nation building. But democracy was a far-fetched goal in a country that had never had a census and where tribal loyalty was strong. It was always unlikely that mass electoral fraud could be averted, or that millions of dollars in aid would ever reach its intended target.
The attempt to build a credible Afghan army ended in an $83 billion tab fiasco.
“We’ve been trying to build an Afghan army in the image of the Pentagon that really can’t operate without us,” said Vali R. Nasr, a senior adviser on Afghan policy between 2009 and 2011. “It shouldn’t have been dependent on our air support or a skill the Afghans don’t need to operate helicopters.”
The reckoning of this American failure certainly seems painful. The tendency to build in the American image – rather than adapt to simpler, less ambitious Afghan needs and capabilities – seems to be a broader lesson for the United States in the world in the 21st century.
Mr Munter, the former ambassador to Pakistan, led the first Provincial Reconstruction Team in Mosul, Iraq, in 2006. He recalled getting there and found that “there was no plan at all”.
Officials distributing aid seemed more concerned about how quickly they could do it, than where it was going, “so they could convince the people on the hill that we were spending the money allocated to us,” said Mr Munter. .
The Mosul experience, he added, “seemed like a miniature version of what was happening on a much larger scale in Afghanistan.”
The element that so often seemed to be missing from US policy, both in Iraq and Afghanistan, was the ability to ask a fundamental question: What do we know about where we are going?
“Americans have been very reluctant to acknowledge that they don’t know much about what was happening on the ground, maybe they don’t know what they don’t know, and made mistakes because they didn’t know enough,” Brahimi said. said.
However, American naivety, if it was, brought many benefits. Mr Mohseni compared the past 20 years to a “golden age” ushering in Afghanistan from the 12th to the 21st century. Women could be educated again. A digitally connected middle class emerged. Infrastructure and technology connected people to the world.
“Afghans have changed forever,” he said. “For us, the stalemate was sweet.”
The question now is how much of everything the Taliban, themselves changed by the internet they depend on, will try to reverse.
The most immediate threat they pose is certainly to Afghans, especially Afghan women, and not to the United States. Anything seems possible, including violent reprisals and a mass exodus of refugees.
“This is a devastating blow to US credibility that begs the question of how sincere we are when we say we believe in human rights and women,” Mr Heintz said.
When Richard C. Holbrooke served as Special Representative for Afghanistan from 2009 until his death in 2010, he insisted that his entire team read Graham Greene’s “The Quiet American.”
In the novel, a well-meaning and idealistic American intelligence officer, Alden Pyle, confronts the bitter realities of the French colonial war in Vietnam as he attempts to bring social and political change to a complex society.
Writing through his cynical journalist-narrator, Greene said, “I’ve never known a man who had better motives for all the trouble he caused.”