BFormer Prime Minister of Great Britain Harold Macmillan is said to have told his colleagues that the first law of politics It should be “Never invade Afghanistan.” It was a lesson that Imperial Britain had learned the hard way, following three separated casualty-strewn raids in the 19th and 20th centuries. After September 11, 2001, when Al Qaeda radicals, based in Afghanistan and protected by the Taliban government, successfully attacked New York and Washington, the lesson was quickly forgotten.
Instead, the United States, backed by Britain and NATO, launched a retaliatory campaign to destroy Al Qaeda and overthrow the Taliban. After spectacular initial success, marked by the unexpected collapse of Kabul and the massive bombardment of Al Qaeda’s presence in the eastern mountains, the military campaign became overcommitted and eventually even faced defeat. Western ambitions were long based on idealized visions of the postwar order, but did not understand regional realities and military capabilities. The Taliban regrouped and rearmed. Long years of wear and tear of civil conflict followed. This week, nearly 20 years later, Joe Biden has decided that America has finally had enough of an unusual and unwinnable war. Take the troops home. America’s allies, including Britain, will now follow the United States through the exit door.
In his televised address this week, Biden announced that nearly 10,000 US and NATO troops, including 750 from the UK, will begin withdrawing within weeks. All of them will disappear in time for the 20th anniversary of the September 11 attacks this year. The president’s words were a farewell to what, in the end and despite his achievements, has been a failed campaign. “We cannot continue the cycle of extending or expanding our military presence in Afghanistan, hoping to create ideal conditions for withdrawal and hoping for a different outcome,” the president said. You are surely right. Donald Trump had reached a similar conclusion from a different, more isolationist point of view, albeit, unlike Biden, without first consulting his allies. None of that will stop Republicans in Congress from denouncing Biden’s decision as reckless.
The announcement of the president of the USA Exposes some of the limits of American power in the 21st century. It is true that while the United States has been involved in Afghanistan, education has flourished in much of the country, including girls, who were largely excluded by the Taliban. Life expectancy, now at 65, has gone up every year. But these achievements remain fragile and their future is highly uncertain. When the Russian-backed Afghan regime collapsed in the early 1990s, the Taliban were able to quickly regain control. The same can happen after the departure of the United States 30 years later. The peace talks continue, but the Taliban will now have less reason to treat them seriously.
Biden’s decision marks the death of a particular type of American arrogance. New forms of warfare, increasingly technologically ambitious and with fewer ground troops than in previous wars such as Vietnam, were championed two decades ago by former US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. They have not achieved the objectives they intended. Winning this type of war without large troop commitments has not worked. Afghan opinion has been more divided and marked by greater hostility toward the United States than the simplistic Western assumptions of 2001 ever allowed. Regional hostilities have not been overcome. American public opinion has also become increasingly hostile to engaging in conflict. The nation-building claims that were made about Afghanistan, and later Iraq, have been exposed as unattainable. Much of this was predicted and predictable when the conflict began. But there is very little satisfaction in seeing it come to pass amid continued uncertainty and insecurity for so many Afghan men and women.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism