No one knows whether the fall of Kabul will mark the beginning of the end of Pax Americana. If so, the world will lose an imperfect but generally well-meaning hegemon and may obtain a more brutal and possibly more effective successor. An America built on the English ideas of individual freedom and liberty couldn’t help believing that the world wanted to adopt the same values. The Taliban – victors in the 20 year conflict in Afghanistan – had other ideas.
Much will be written about the reasons the US and its allies invaded Afghanistan in 2001. The proximate reason, to pursue Osama bin Laden and his Al-Qaeda terrorist organisation who were responsible for the 9/11 attacks, was quickly supplanted by a long process of ‘mission creep’ involving nation-building and investment costing the United States over $978bn and over 2,300 lives. Britain has suffered the loss of 457 service personnel and has spent an estimated £39bn – apparently to little lasting effect.
Yet, despite all that was spent, Afghanistan remains an inept beggar state where foreign aid accounts for 43% of GDP. After 20 years of investment Afghanistan is less self-reliant than it was in 2001. Of all the justifications for intervention the idea that it would reduce terrorist incidents across the West is the perhaps least convincing. If anything, the subsequent migrant wave following our defeat – and the failure to secure effective vetting – will pose a greater long term threat to our domestic security.
The shocking and humiliating scenes from Kabul – as Chinooks hover in the skies above desperate Afghans – inevitably invite comparisons with the fall of Saigon in 1975. Some comparisons are indeed instructive and others are useful if only to illustrate differences. Ken Burns’ monumental 17 hour documentary ‘The Vietnam War’ has become an essential study into both the folly of war and the perils of ‘sunk cost’ thinking as applied to military conflict. By the late 1960s American infantry and the Viet Cong would bitterly contest hill tops in vicious fire-fights only to relinquish these broken hillocks days later once a point had been made. And yet the point itself was unclear. Superficially the war was an ideological conflict between the free world and communism but, at root, Ho Chi Minh and his people sought national liberation and a Vietnam free of foreign domination – be it French or American. This bears similarities to Afghanistan in that foreign powers propping up unpopular kleptocrats invite rejection.
Perhaps the most striking thing about US and NATO intervention in Afghanistan is that, like Vietnam, it ignored the failure of another European power in the same theatre of war just years earlier. The defeat of the French in the first Indochina war and their rout at Dien Bien Phu in 1954 did not dissuade President Kennedy from intervention. Despite being advised in written communication at the outset in 1962 that ‘these people hate us’ and that ‘we cannot win’ Kennedy, along with his successor Lyndon Johnson, was gradually drawn into a conflict which lasted, all told, for 20 years and ended in abject failure. Likewise, nothing of the Soviet experience of armed intervention in Afghanistan seems to have suggested to President Bush, Donald Rumsfeld, Tony Blair and the rest of the neocons that a similar experiment might be foolish, far-fetched or even imbecilic. They rolled in anyway.
Whilst Vietnam and Afghanistan are markedly different societies, a profound ignorance of them by American policymakers is a common factor which contributed to failure. Interestingly, cultural remoteness from foreign theatres of war also plays a key role in the ability of US and other forces of intervention to kill innocent non-combatants with impunity. The process of wartime induced de-humanisation is a key observation of countless witnesses in Burns’ documentary. The lightness with which Blair, Bush and subsequent leaders such as Barack Obama have sanctioned bomb and drone attacks which kill ordinary members of the public across the world may have been facilitated by 21st century technology, but it was powered by the same mindset that saw Agent Orange once sprayed across the Vietnamese countryside.
While the biggest cost of such wars is in human life, the extent to which Western leaders have robbed their domestic voters of investment possibilities is truly staggering. It’s difficult to see how the inhabitants of post-industrial US cities such as Pittsburgh or Cleveland – where unemployment and an opioid epidemic has caused thousands of ‘deaths of despair’ – could imagine that their leaders are putting them first, while squandering trillions on foreign adventures.
So what was it all for? As the mission continued to creep, we saw the justification for intervention in Afghanistan fall back on the idea of imposing Western values such as individual freedom, democracy and women’s liberation. Despite it being a truism since John Stuart Mill’s day that democratic values emerge ‘bottom up’ within societies and cannot be artificially imposed, we nevertheless tried to remake Afghanistan in our image. As we should have expected, we failed.
For nearly two decades, the western foreign policy establishment has deluded itself into thinking that, somehow, they could erase the deep networks of tribal, religious, and kinship loyalties among the Afghan people. They thought they could force Afghanistan’s rural and conservative population to abandon their customs, loyalties, and beliefs, and swear allegiance to a small cabal of elites in Kabul. From this delusion, we’ve seen twenty years of death and destruction, both among our own servicemen and among the Afghan people.
The lessons from this? Western powers must now surely see that attempts to impose liberal democracy by intervention and lethal force are illegitimate, naive and morally suspect. Their attempts to do so have failed British servicemen, failed the ordinary citizen and failed Afghanistan.
When politicians call for further interventions of ‘Global Britain’ around the world, they should pause for thought. We should remind them that while the costs of foreign adventures are high and their aims are so often unattainable, priorities also exist at home.