A requiem for Afghanistan and America’s nation-building foreign policy
The past two weeks have left me, like so many others, sick to my stomach, looking at the unnecessary, tragic chaos accompanying America’s panicky withdrawal from Kabul.
As heart-wrenching as pictures of the suffering and chaos are, they are largely beside the strategic point. Worse, they are being used by the very US foreign policy establishment that got us into this mess as a very convenient excuse not to take responsibility for twenty years of absolute and utter nation-building failure in the Afghan War. It is essential we take a long view of the conflict and extrapolate the real lessons, to avoid a similar nightmare in the future.
First, Afghanistan is merely part and parcel of a broader failed nation-building strategy in Somalia, Haiti, Iraq and Libya.
In Somalia, the US briefly intervened, then cut and ran after only minor casualties, precisely because Washington had no significant interests of any kind there. This begs the question of why America intervened in the first place. The US intervention did nothing to stop Somalia’s slide into endemic civil war, chaos and terror.
America has intervened literally a dozen times in Haiti over the past century. It remains a voodoo-riven, kleptocratic, economic basket case.
Need we say any more about Iraq?
As Barack Obama rightly put it, the US intervention in Libya, urged on by America’s feckless European allies, was the “worst mistake” of his Presidency. Libya went from being a stable state run by Colonel Gaddafi, a bad man by all measures, to a failed state riven by civil war, where Isis has managed to regroup. Libya now poses a grave refugee threat to Europe’s southern flank.
Afghanistan is not a unique case. It is merely the latest domino to fall in America’s litany of nation-building failures.
You cannot socially transform a country if you don’t know much about it. Anyone who knows anything about Afghanistan knows there is no nation there to build, in the modern conception of “nation”. Since the days of Alexander the Great, Afghanistan has been largely a geographical expression. The political reality is that the area is dominated by a loose collection of tribes who are only united when they need to throw off foreign oppressors.
Anyone with a rudimentary knowledge of the place would have known better than to try a centralised power structure there, but that is just the point. Two decades worth of White House staff have lacked the granular political and cultural knowledge necessary.
As Lawrence of Arabia made clear in The 27 Articles: the only way to work with local cultures successfully is to make an unremitting study of them and work with the pre-existing grain.This has palpably not been the case in Afghanistan.
Leaving was always going to be ugly. But that is not a reason to indefinitely stay.
Las Vegas Casino magnates will be well aware of what can be termed the Losing Gambler Syndrome. Dad, having gambled away the kids’ college money, keeps playing at the tables, as he cannot go back to Mom and let her know of his disaster. This has been one of the basic psychological hang-ups of US policy-makers in Afghanistan.
The basic reason for the loss – the terrible odds – is never addressed. Instead he keeps playing, and keeps losing, a never-ending false rationale to never walk away.
Joe Biden was entirely right to end this doleful cycle by ripping off the psychological band-aid and exiting.
Strategically ending the ‘Forever Wars’ in Afghanistan and Iraq is a good thing for the US, as it allows the country to pivot to the Indo-Pacific and deal with peer competitor China, rather than squandering blood and treasure over areas of far less strategic importance to America. Beijing would love nothing more than to see the US stay bogged down in conflicts like Afghanistan.
Amidst his disastrous handling of the withdrawal, it must be said that President Biden did the right thing, almost entirely the wrong way. But he does seem to be learning from history. In his August 31st speech at the White House, the president said, ‘This is not just about Afghanistan. It is about ending an era of major military operations to remake other countries.’
We now live in a world of Sino-American superpower competition. Gone are the days of easy and unfettered American power, as we now are in a time of great power rivalry.
Ignore the present chaos and hysteria; these are the real lessons of Afghanistan.