Even by the usual US standards, the collapse of the US-built and generously sponsored Afghan military in the face of the Taliban victory in Kabul is a fiasco of mega proportions. The usual autopsy (who ‘lost’ Afghanistan, how and why?) hardly gives a picture of what really happened.
When a clumsy move, supposedly forgotten by the world’s most powerful military alliance, and bombed and bombed again for more than two decades, rises from the ashes, walks into the presidential palace built by the “terminators”—which, by the way, still were always around, looking as if they were in a trance – to manage his terminal absence, it is not Afghanistan that we should be discussing here. It should be America itself and what’s left of it as a world power.
Until now, the standard answers offered were: how the “good war in Afghanistan” (as opposed to, God forbid, the bad one in Iraq!), also got bad; how better logistics and timing could have helped, how strategies could have been different, etc.
This focus on largely technical issues, such as NATO’s internal command problems, weak planning, corruption and incompetence in the Afghan leadership, the failure of President Barack Obama’s “surge” in 2009, missed opportunities to build peace, etc. derivation than an insightful analysis.
Even the ongoing allegations against Pakistan of supporting the Taliban are irrelevant; even if that were true, his involvement would be no match for the more than 40 other advanced nations that support America, and the strong support of tribal ethnic forces that initially did most of the ground fighting.
Here we have the world’s most powerful, state-of-the-art war machine, failing miserably in a war against a fringe, almost alien, military-political power, in one of the world’s poorest countries. This dream alliance, generously funded (to the extent of more than a trillion dollars) and backed by the leadership and guidance of the United Nations in civil affairs, spent two decades amassing “victories” and “achievements”. Then it watched in stunned impotence as villagers came in barefoot, or rode in on motorbikes, only to wipe out all those “achievements” in a matter of weeks.
That was not a technical or logistical accident. It was a beating, a defeat in every sense of the word, an abject failure. Even in the aftermath of the most violent colonial wars of liberation, we have never seen an occupation rush to take home all its “human achievements,” including the translators. As the routes go, this was epic!
A few critics raised the fundamental question of whether the idea of war itself was sound, and reminded us of its questionable justifications, since none of the perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks came from Afghanistan, and America has more of it. housed over Afghanistan. Al-Qaeda chose Afghanistan because of its statelessness, not because it had a “terror sponsor” state. The war thus did not address the root cause of the conflict.
Afghanistan had remained extremely resistant to foreign invaders — and very effective at keeping them out, unlike Iraq, which had a formative colonial experience. So the invasion was both futile and unwise. Many thought it was unjust and illegal.
Western support for this “good” and just war, however, generally remained strong, except for a small fraction of the skeptics. In October 2019, the Foreign Office asked a group of “authorities with deep specialized expertise” on the Afghan case whether the war was a mistake. Only a handful doubted its legitimacy, even after all that had happened or had become known.
In the trauma of post-9/11, American leaders felt they needed to do something violent, and do it quickly. It was more of an act of catharsis than a rational response. Like Osama bin Laden, George W. Bush also chose Afghanistan, the apparently weakest link, as the site of his reprisal spectacle.
Yet the consequences of such hasty indulgence were not so difficult to predict. The question is: why was it so difficult to foresee disaster in this ‘developed’ country, with a limitless supply of experts, scholars, experts and experienced policy makers?
The Afghan debacle was not the only major event that had taken ‘experts’ by surprise. So did the Arab Spring, the Berlin Wall, the Iranian Revolution, the rise of Islamism—you name it. There’s something problematic about “experts” who always seem to be the last to know.
Some scholars had argued that historical developments are inherently unpredictable, even for the actors involved; many of the latter are engaged in “favoring preferences” (the intentional concealment of intentions). However, this is not the whole story. There is often a reluctance among “experts” to see the obvious.
In recent decades I have responded to wishful thinking about the “end of Islamism”. In the late 1990s, an American friend sent me for comment on chapters of her book, which predicted the end of Islamism. I sent her an article I’d published ten years earlier, criticizing the methodology for similar conclusions from State Department analysts.
They had based their conclusions on “election results” from five countries, all autocracies! I warned in that piece that continued repression by US-backed regimes will radicalize, not eliminate, Islamists, as some seem to aspire to. I think we all now know how things have evolved since then.
Edward Said’s deep critique of “Orientalism” showed us that these errors were part of a wider pattern of distortions. Ironically, Said’s work faced a backlash that caused “sectarian” polarization in US Middle Eastern studies. Opponents of his views, including an alliance of neoconservatives and pro-Israel lobbies, launched multiple crusades against honest academics, including smear campaigns, lobbying to cut official funds for universities deemed anti-Israel or even anti-America.
These ventures include the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, founded in 1995 by Lynne Cheney and Senator Joe Lieberman, and described by critics as a form of New McCarthyism because of its systematic targeting of progressive academics as “enemies of American civilization.”
In 2002, pro-Israel lobbyists launched Campus Watch, targeting academics deemed hostile to Israel’s agenda. The group published a “blacklist” of “offensive” academics and urged students to betray their professors!
Given the already mentioned problems of “expertise” in foreign policy analysis, the advice of these activists seems like a prescription for the visually impaired to wear blindfolds. Since then, reinforced by Trumpism and his hostility to anything rational, this approach threatens American society as a whole, not just academia and rationality.
The Afghan issue must be seen in this broader context. Incorrect analysis (or obvious bias/bias) often leads to disastrous policies, which in turn lead to more misguided analyses. There is the background issue of Israel, and the irrational decision in Washington to give in to whatever absurd and dangerous policies Israelis are proposing, oblivious to the consequences, even for Israel itself. As a result, the greatest threat to stability in the region is not Israel, but America.
But the immediate roots of the current crisis go back to 1990, when President George Bush Sr. decided to exploit Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait to assert US hegemony in the post-Cold War era. Rather than use diplomacy to resolve the crisis, he took the opportunity to show off American firepower, bolster befriended despots, secure oil supplies, and show everyone who’s boss.
Senior British and American officials dismissed warnings of dire consequences and boasted after the war that they were right: nothing happened. Then of course 9/11 happened, and the same people asked, where did this come from?
What happened in 1990 in the Middle East was similar to what happened in Afghanistan in 2001. In both cases, a conservative society was traumatized by a disruptive foreign presence (more violent in the case of Afghanistan) that provoked its fractured and violent defensive responses that spilled over to America.
The intrusion into Saudi Arabia in 1990 was the original sin, giving rise to Al-Qaeda; the 2003 invasion of Iraq spawned ISIS; then the invasion of Afghanistan created a more viable Islamic emirate.
At the same time, the regional balance became unbalanced. Ironically, Iran, the alleged enemy, got multiple victories; the US neutralized its Iraqi (and later Afghan) enemies and practically handed over Iraq. At the same time, Iran’s nemesis Saudi Arabia was destabilized by the disruptive presence of US troops on its territory.
As I have stated elsewhere, supporters of the late Iran’s Supreme Leader Ruhollah Khomeini would be forgiven for considering this divine intervention: Heaven sent Iran’s nemesis to subdue its local opponents and hand the Iranians the spoils. The US acted practically like any of the pro-Iranian militias in the region, doing their bidding remotely, only for free.
In the same vein, instead of taking serious action to stop Bashar al Assad’s genocide of the Syrian people, the selective intervention against ISIS made the US and NATO the complementary air force of the Syrian regime and Qassem Soleimani of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. , this time handing over Syria to Putin and Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
America’s most trusted ally, Turkey, was left with the can, held hostage by the Russia-Iran alliance. Even good old Machiavellianism seemed elusive. Ethics is not the only victim here, but also pragmatism. By continuing to disappoint its allies through its fickleness and disloyalty, and by helping its enemies thrive through its incompetence, America will be without allies the next time it decides to face China or Russia.
Just a decade ago, the question would have been: How long could extremists survive in the age of American unipolarity? I think the question now would be, how long can America last in the era of the Taliban?
In this, so-called “experts” are just as guilty as the blundering politicians.
A few years ago, a taxi driver who took me to the Sky News studios in London for an interview asked about the subject I would be discussing. When he learned that it was the war in Iraq, he said wryly, “I think the intelligence community should be charged under the Trade Descriptions Act.”
Maybe they are not the only ones.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Al Jazeera.