X Close

America’s empires always fail The withdrawal from Afghanistan was an inevitable tragedy

US soldiers in eastern Afghanistan. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

US soldiers in eastern Afghanistan. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)


July 9, 2021   4 mins

Over the past week, dispiriting stories have dripped out from Afghanistan with a leaden inevitability. “US troops left Bagram Airbase at night with no notice”; “Afghan soldiers flee to Tajikistan after Taliban clashes”: “Taliban battle their way into western Afghan city”. We can expect such three-act tragedies to be repeated over the coming months, in plain sight but without attracting much notice.

The US has promised to remove all its forces from Afghanistan by 11 September this year, and there is something astonishing about the world’s hyperpower agreeing to a date that will become doubly resonant not of American victory but of American failure. Were America leaving Afghanistan after 20 years of spent blood but with a thriving, stable Afghan society, then it is possible that the whole exercise could still have been marked up as a success. Instead, the opposite is true.

After two decades of insurgency, open warfare and betrayal, the US and her allies are leaving an Afghanistan that could be overwhelmed by the Taliban at any moment. Only yesterday, just hours before Boris Johnson announced the end of Britain’s military mission in Afghanistan, Sir Nick Carter, Chief of the UK Defence Staff, revealed that the Taliban now holds “nearly 50% of the rural districts”.

Suhail Shaheen, the Islamist group’s spokesman, this week warned that all foreign troops must obey the withdrawal deadline — a demand that the Biden administration has so far displayed every indication of following. Yet it would be wrong to think Biden is solely to blame. As wildly different administrations have come and gone in the past two decades, a vacillating commitment to the Afghan operation has remained a constant.

Perhaps it is inevitable that when a conflict goes on for so long, people, including politicians, eventually switch off. But even without that, I suspect that many would have tired of the Afghanistan war long before this grim season finale. For the truth is that if there is no point in fighting wars you’re going to lose, there is even less point in fighting wars you’re going to lose slowly.

In hindsight the outlines of the Afghanistan disaster were clear from an early stage of the conflict. The US and her allies went in to ensure that Al-Qaeda and its affiliate groups would never again be able to have a country they could call home and from which they could plan attacks on the West. The allied bombing campaigns and ground operations wound up the first stages of that operation successfully and in good time.

And then, within the first year, the mission creep began. Al-Qaeda and the Taliban merged into an understandable blur in the eyes of the allies. The borders of Afghanistan and her neighbours were more porous than our generals expected, and as the conflict became entrenched within the country, it also seeped out. All the while, America and her allies failed to create anything that resembled civil society.

It was famously, if erroneously, claimed in 1883 by Sir John Seeley that Britain acquired her empire in “a fit of absence of mind”. America today has spent her time as the world’s leading superpower attempting not to be accused of the same. But while the US has often been criticised by her enemies for “empire-building”, the country’s problems on the world stage have largely been caused by her unwillingness to do any such thing.

If you are going to invade a country like Afghanistan and attempt to transform its society in the space of a few years — or in this case decades — then your military, diplomatic service and political class all must contain people who wish to engage in that activity; people who are fascinated with the local culture, are willing to learn the language and are eager to live among its people and to show leadership if needs be. To put it simply, if you are going to acquire an empire then you need empire-builders.

For better or worse, this is not an American instinct. Its military does not want to remain in control of large countries thousands of miles away from home. Its diplomats have no special vision for how these societies might realistically look. And its political class professes its desire to get out as swiftly as possible even as they become more embroiled in conflict. Whether it is Barack Obama, Donald Trump or Joe Biden, all wanted to get out of the mess they had inherited. Yet all professed commitment while dreaming of abandonment. And now we see the results.

Will anything be learned in all of this? Possibly. The undoubtedly hubristic moment that America engaged in under George W. Bush after 9/11 is unlikely to return. There is now no appetite for foreign adventures on either the political Right or Left. The late John McCain could always be relied upon to call for American intervention in any country he saw, but since his death no one has stepped forward to pick up his mantle.

After all, they have witnessed countless interventionists talk with certainty about what societies would look like if America showed its might and the muscle, before watching them get it wrong again and again. I know, because I was one of them. I had hopes for Afghanistan, as I once had hopes for Iraq. But nobody could watch these interventions  and come away believing in America’s half-hearted imperial ambitions. That isn’t to say that the UK would have been any better if it had attempted such missions alone. Simply that America has repeatedly demonstrated herself to be eminently capable of starting fights while being profoundly disinterested in actually winning them.

Syria was the moment I decided to get off the train, having become immune to claims of foresight, special intelligence or “operational ease”. By then — late in the day, it may well be said — I believed that America had neither the will, knowledge nor desire to see through the operations that it started. It had the resources and the technology, certainly. But without the personnel to make a success of it, that’s meaningless. The country had fallen for the pottery barn rule of intervention (“You break it, you own it”), despite having no wish to own the countries it intervened in and forgetting that in warfare it is perfectly permissible to go in, break a lot of things and then leave.

That is what America should have done in Afghanistan: gone in, carried out some punitive strikes, made an example of her enemies and then left. Would it have still had to return to the country from time to time? Most certainly. Would it have been able to do everything it wanted to do from 20,000 feet? Almost certainly not. But it would have beaten two decades of American soldiers having to give up their lives for stretches of road which their colleagues — and eventually their government — would shortly abandon.

So perhaps it is inevitable that the stories emerging from Afghanistan are greeted quietly. They stir quite a cocktail of feelings: inevitability, boredom, disappointment, shame.


Douglas Murray is an author and journalist.

DouglasKMurray

Join the discussion


Join like minded readers that support our journalism by becoming a paid subscriber


To join the discussion in the comments, become a paid subscriber.

Join like minded readers that support our journalism, read unlimited articles and enjoy other subscriber-only benefits.

Subscribe
Subscribe
Notify of
guest

31 Comments
Most Voted
Newest Oldest
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
3 years ago

Where is the MacArthur? The Marshall?

Being multi-National I just CANNOT Believe how stupid people in power are, in America especially in this way, but all the West. I have talked to various Ambassadors over the years – every one a political appointee to begin, then strings of countries they add no good to, who have no idea whatsoever about anything but Middle America and Liberal America values and culture And the professional politicos who have been educated in foreign history and culture are even more stupid, the classic example of how dangerous a little knowledge is..

But where the most institutional foreign Wrong Thinking seems to be is anyone who ever was in any of the American Security Organizations. CIA, NSA, FBI, like Bush and Bremmer, like the Dulls Brothers of the past – all of them, something in their time in those organizations makes them Wrong About Everything, it is like they make everyone misunderstand everything even more than when they started – it is a mystery to me.

And now it is still just the same but lefty. US Embassys in strange countries flying BLM and Rainbow flags on the masts beside the American flag – now the crazy Biden effect is peculating through the system and making it even madder than it ever was….

I wonder how China is going to be with its Colonies, which it is bringing in more and more, through Loan Default Diplomacy (loan a bunch to corrupt leaders on vanity projects knowing they will default, then grab up real power once they do) and just by buying the leaders and then taking over their sources of foreign income…

M A R C US M A R C U S
M A R C US M A R C U S
3 years ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

Where are the MacArthurs? Well, we could write the book on that, couldn’t we? For now, the tl;dr is: We have a permanent military industrial bureaucracy in U.S., and so, should one deign to want to steer this money machine toward a winning strategy that entertains alacrity, modest and realistic gains, swift exists from fool’s errands, gambles great in risk for failure, but as great in reward for success, expect to be put on the list of the untrustworthy and subversive. You are rocking the boat, sir. Recall, too, the experiences of Stan McChrystal, Dave Petraeus—political missteps equal public humiliation for military leaders now, even for those the system presents as its best and brightest.
Until we summon the will, or another great power poses an existential threat that demands it, we are unlikely to tame the great beast. Not while the money is rolling in. Expect prideful, human, yet very able George Pattons, master strategists like Marshall, to find something else to do with themselves.
And, just remember, Douglas is right: Americans, deep down, have no taste for protracted foreign interventions. We are the nation that violently pushed away the British imperialists who arbitrated our existence, peoples who, up until then, we ourselves were. Happily, our DNA recoils from expressions of domination and subjugation, however checkered our history might be there. The controversies of this time, in fact, having to do with equal treatment of our fellow citizens, seem to fall right in line with this national character.

ralph bell
ralph bell
3 years ago

Another fantastic thought provoking article from Douglas Murray.

Simon Denis
Simon Denis
3 years ago

Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were the flip side of the end of history delusion that the whole world has become western. The other side of the coin is “open borders”. The fight became ever more ludicrous and desperate as the “end of history” west ran itself to bankrupt exhaustion in the incorrigible middle east, whilst increasing levels of violence and disorder broke out on its own streets: Chechens fighting gun battles in Dijon; Christmas markets in Germany subject to massacre; churches burned down across Europe; war graves vandalised; Jewish people intimidated, sometimes caught and tortured to death; Bataclan; Nice; Manchester; “grooming” gangs. And free expression? As Mr West makes clear elsewhere on this site, who could possibly make the “Life of Brian” today? And who could dare to apply such enlightenment mockery to a certain thriving religion? No – the universalist centre and the cynical, calculating left – which has used the centre as an easily gulled puppet – have driven the west off the cliff. Like the road runner, as Charles Murray observes, we think we’re still on solid ground but in fact we’re in mid-air.

GA Woolley
GA Woolley
3 years ago

The mistake in Iraq and Libya was to think that the people there are ‘human beings just like us’, and once we removed the jackboot from their necks they would make the most of their new-found freedom. In fact, the supposed jackboots are the lids on pressure cookers of murderously intolerant factions, which, unless kept in check by even more ruthless b’tards, will only stop slaughtering each other when they have a common enemy to turn on. It’s no different across much of the ME, North Africa, and central Asia, something to remember the next time the cry goes up ‘we must do something’.

Michael Richardson
Michael Richardson
3 years ago

Afghanistan: The Graveyard of Empires. Add another notch.

Hubert Knobscratch
Hubert Knobscratch
3 years ago

Surely if one invades a country, slaps the locals about a bit, it would be an idea to have a plan as to what happens afterwards, and life has to return to a better normal in your eyes and hopefully those of your new found friends. It appears the Americans had no plan as to what to do in Libya after toppling Gadhafi. 
How much Afghanistan has cost the Americans, 2 trillion? 
Imagine if they had just said “here’s a shed load of cash to make things better, and we’ll advise you what good stuff you can spend it on”. I suspect the result would have been much better.
With this level of thinking in their foreign policy, maybe it’s a good thing their influence is waning.

chris sullivan
chris sullivan
3 years ago

I FOR ONE AM UNDER A LIKE IMPRESSION THAT Great wads of cash will always win hearts and minds over napalm etc CArrot, plus maybe a stick in the form of ‘if you dont behave we will knock down all that nice stuff we built for you as Jugoslavia-knock out the infrastructure. How come all those highly paid experts NEVER seem capable of thinking outside the WAR square ????

R S Foster
R S Foster
3 years ago

…the only point when the West could have “won” in any recognisable sense was in 1991…when we could have removed Saddam Hussain before he destroyed the civil society of Iraq, and completely changed the weather in that part of the World – because we could have installed a functioning government with local roots, not tried to create one from people who had been in exile for decades.
However, we rather idiotically deferred to the UN…which even then was very obviously a more or less Anti-Western organisation, and in the subsequent years has pretty much become the principal cheerleader for our mortal enemies.
And yes, obviously…we should have conducted a punitive campaign in Afghanistan, probably remaining afterwards amongst the Northern Alliance…but with none of the nonsense about “education for girls”, and “votes for women”…just as we should now be operating from a more-or-less independent Kurdistan under Western protection, working much more closely (and openly) with Israel…and possibly recognising Northern Somaliland on the same basis, and doing much more in Sierra Leone and the other smaller and better run West African states.
But we won’t, which is not to say that we will lose…but more that we will only really start to fight when the Black Banners of the Prophet are raised over the Balkan Passes…which will be a great deal worse, not only for us…but also for our enemies. Amongst whom, pretty obviously…is the UN and most of it’s various instruments and agencies.
Sad, but true

Last edited 3 years ago by R S Foster
Mike Doyle
Mike Doyle
3 years ago

Two sides: one we support, one we hate. One gets all the equipment and support that the world’s only superpower can give, one get its support from a second world nation. One is not willing to die for its beliefs, one is. One side runs away as soon as it can, one manages to recruit more soldiers no matter how many we kill. One side is in it for the pay and benefits, and the other is in it to win it. It seems to me that, in the view of Afghan society, it is the Taliban that are the good guys.

Andrew McDonald
Andrew McDonald
3 years ago
Reply to  Mike Doyle

That might work if ‘Afghan society’ was 100% male, but I guess the women probably take a different view of these ‘good guys’ and their mediaeval attitudes.

Campbell P
Campbell P
3 years ago

Anyone who thinks that the West could have brought to either Iraq or Afghanistan or Syria a regime change which could ensure a western-style democracy is living in cloud cuckoo land. All the advice from the regional experts was ‘stay out’; and that was what Sunnis, Shia’, Alawis, Christians and even Jews old me in Aleppo, Damascus, Homs, Hama, ASSuaida, etc when I was there just a few weeks before the Saudi/US led insurrection to topple the ASSADS. It was the young women who told me that under the Assads they got got education to university level, employ, and the choice of what to wear in public. Again, as they said, the only democratic groups in Syria would be easily disposed of, as they were, by the Islamic fundamentalists. So there was no real hope. We should cease our ignorant, arrogant, and cavalier forays into other countries and cultures WHO DO NOT POSE ANY REAL THREAT TO US. We created our own immigrant problem, released pigeons who came home to roost as bloodthirsty vultures, and directly or indirectly caused the deaths of hundreds of thousands! When will we ever learn?

JR Stoker
JR Stoker
3 years ago

Great article. America should have learnt from the European experience of empire, and as Douglas says, just occasionally remind her enemies what she is capable of. Then get out until the bad guys get uppity again. Intervene just to protect American interests, the moral and economic example can be taught by example of a splendid life at home.

And what on earth are the Brits doing there, or indeed almost anywhere except home defence? Why must we join in other people’s fights? Germany doesn’t, not Italy or Argentina or [fill in almost every country]. We are just addicted to an over large military and seeing ourselves as a world power, which we really really are not.

Colin Elliott
Colin Elliott
3 years ago
Reply to  JR Stoker

To correct you; many nations other than just USA and UK lent assistance.

A Spetzari
A Spetzari
3 years ago
Reply to  JR Stoker

As of 2021 Germany has 1,300 personnel in Afghanistan, and Italy 895. The UK has 750. There are 33 other nations operating in the country as part of ISAF.
https://www.nato.int/nato_static_fl2014/assets/pdf/2021/2/pdf/2021-02-RSM-Placemat.pdf

Last edited 3 years ago by A Spetzari
Frederick B
Frederick B
3 years ago

If you want an example of the right way to deal with Afghanistan, study Britain’s second Afghan War (in which my great grandfather was a proud participant as a sergeant in the Royal Horse Artillery). Religious extremists laid siege to Europeans at Kandahar, so we went in, smashed the Afghans, raised the siege, and went home back to India – job done.

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
3 years ago
Reply to  Frederick B

The British did this in Ethiopia “The British Expedition to Abyssinia was a rescue mission and punitive expedition carried out in 1868 by the armed forces of the British Empire against the Ethiopian Empire.”

Built a full harbour, built a Rail Road to the interior, bridges and roads, marched in – killed the King and army, marched back rolling up the Rail Road, packed it all up, sailed off.

Then in Sudan, one we all know, sailed up the Nile, Marched in under Kirchner, Fought the Mahadi and killed him/them (the Fuzzy-Wuzzues, see Kipling) and marched back out.
And my Favorite “The British expedition to Tibet, also known as the British invasion of Tibet or the Younghusband expedition to Tibet began in December 1903 and lasted until September 1904.” Marched into Tibet, took Lhasa and defeated the Tibetan Army, had them sign trade agreement, marched back out.

And the Zulus, even the relief of “The Siege of Kut al-Amara between 3 December 1915 and 29 April 1916 is an important episode of the war between the Ottoman Empire and Great Britain. The surrender of approximately 13,000 British-Indian soldiers after 147 days of siege was the worst surrender in the history of the British army up to that point, and a great victory for the Ottomans”. Where the British built harbour, rail road, and roads for the relief – but too late…

But remember the first and third British Afghani wars were not successful – the first a disaster.

Sam McLean
Sam McLean
3 years ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

We did not build any “Rail Roads” 😉
But I take your point.

Last edited 3 years ago by Sam McLean
LCarey Rowland
LCarey Rowland
3 years ago

It’s been a long time coming. There is no shame in this, just some hard-earned wisdom.

Michael Coleman
Michael Coleman
3 years ago

That is what America should have done in Afghanistan: gone in, carried out some punitive strikes, made an example of her enemies and then left. ”
That says it all in a nutshell.

Lesley van Reenen
Lesley van Reenen
3 years ago

Afghanistan is always a war too far – many nations have got bloody noses here, but how can America simply leave its weapons behind for the Taliban?
Who in America is making these decisions while the world watches snippets of a doddery old president searching for words during agonizing silences while he searches for his flash cards. Huh?

Last edited 3 years ago by Lesley van Reenen
Jake Dunnegan
Jake Dunnegan
2 years ago

Those of us in the US also wonder who is pulling the strings on the puppet president. I’m not a conspiracy theorist, but Biden doesn’t even sound like Biden from 5 years ago when he left office. He can barely read what’s put in front of him. The question is, who is putting the stuff in front of him?

Colin Elliott
Colin Elliott
3 years ago

Britain did indeed acquire many parts of its empire by accident, often the desire to pacify unruly neighbours, leading to the imposition of law, and other advances, but the local British depended upon a good understanding of local languages and cultures (and things went wrong when overruled from afar).
We never attempted to do this with Afghanistan and the North West Frontier, but used carrot and stick; the former through payments to chiefs to keep the peace, the latter through retributive expeditions when raids into settled areas became too murderous or expensive.
When force was used, the majority of the forces used were non-British, e.g. in respect of the NWF, Ghurkhas and Piffers, who were nimble and deadly enough to resist the tactics.of the tribes, whose skill in and love of fighting was well-known. But rapid withdrawal was always wise.

Charles Hedges
Charles Hedges
3 years ago
Reply to  Colin Elliott

Regiment were often raised, trained and led led by British officers, -Skinner’s. Hodgson’s . etc, Also The Indian Amy comprised Indian Officers and NCOs. The senior Indian NCO, after consulting the soldiers, decided whether a British officer was suitable for the regiment, not the colonel.
By 1945, John Masters DSO, OBE , (Gurkhas and Chindits) was the fifth generationof his family to have served in India.
Col Dickson, a son of British Diplomat in the Levant was wet nursed by woman from the Anizah Tribe and therefore under Islamic Law became a member of the tribe,
H. R. P. Dickson – Wikipedia
The problem the West has is that that we do not have people with the experience of Masters and Dickson and and the FCO,Academics, Military Leaders and Journalists do not admit this. Just because there is CNN reporter in a country it does not man they know what is happening, why and what is likely to happen.
A policy of we know little of a country and therefore any contact should be export of goods only until we are confident of what we are dealing with, would prevent much grief.Even investing in say oil or minerals brings commitments, such as safeguarding Britons which rapidly become a military task. The EIC raised an army to protect it’s factories and stores, not conquer India.

Paul Sorrenti
Paul Sorrenti
3 years ago

I’d be very interested to hear of Douglas Murray’s own ‘special vision’ for how Iraq and Afghanistan societies might have changed for the better back when he to was a supporter of the wars. Perhaps he saw a future where the boys of Baghdad bounced in the streets singing praise to the US for teaching them the virtues of Zionism, fornication, homosexuality, intoxicants, gambling, and trading with interest, whilst their half-dressed girlfriends gossiped outside their local Greggs with gumption and gum-drop smiles . . .

I know, because I was one of them. I had hopes for Afghanistan, as I once had hopes for Iraq. But nobody could watch these interventions and come away believing in America’s half-hearted imperial ambitions.

So it’s not that Douglas is admitting he was wrong to support the wars, just that he was guilty of not anticipating the ‘half-heartedness’ of it all. Does he really believe that had we just – wholeheartedly – sent over a few Dari speaking diplomats in Kuchi dresses these seminal acts of folly could have worked out splendidly? And all in the age of Twitter and 24 hour news! It’s preposterous

Colin Elliott
Colin Elliott
3 years ago
Reply to  Paul Sorrenti

You may scoff at the kind of virtue-less things the US might teach Baghdadi boys, but the effort of such people to leave Iraq for the USA surely says something about what they might truly wish for.

Paul Sorrenti
Paul Sorrenti
3 years ago
Reply to  Colin Elliott

Im a big fan of pretty much all those listed virtues and i welcome all refugees hoping to experience them here and wish them too upon the societies of iraq and afghanistan, but it was insanity to ever think that could be achieved by our ‘might and muscle’. Those things listed could only be achieved by the people desiring it and fighting for it themselves. Imagine how cheap democracy would feel it was handed to you

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
3 years ago
Reply to  Paul Sorrenti

I was for the Iraq war. Saddam was a monster, his invasion of Kuwait (and his list is Very Long prior) was just the beginning of his wish, to take Arabian oil.

But I still naively thought we could have won the peace, as I knew winning the war was was an easy given. Paul Bremmer and Bush destroyed that though – single-handedly. We could have won the peace – should have, but it was SO, the Wrong Man at the Wrong Time on the Allies side.
I also blame the French, but that is another story, and goes back to Sikes-Picot, and then post WWII, and then especially by breaking a unified Western coalition against Saddam (and so emboldening the enemy) to score points of the British and Americans in their petty French way.

Al M
Al M
3 years ago
Reply to  Paul Sorrenti

I wasn’t aware that Greggs operated in the US.

Ethniciodo Rodenydo
Ethniciodo Rodenydo
3 years ago

At least the UK is still part of the empire, at least for the time being

Jake Dunnegan
Jake Dunnegan
2 years ago

All I know, is there was actually the political will in the US right after 9/11 to actually drop nukes on Afghanistan. No, not in the cities, but in the caves that were supposed to be impenetrable – and they did, eventually drop bunker busters there, which may has well have been small thermonukes for all the damage they did.
After that, who knows? If you’d asked your average American in 2003, if we’d won in Afghanistan, the overwhelming answer would have been a resounding, “Yes!” I have NO idea why we didn’t get out completely then, and do as Murray suggests – go back as needed, blow up some terrorists, and get out again.
But, no, the United States has no wish to “own” other countries, never has. There was the Manifest Destiny stuff, the occasional pick up of a strategic asset, like Hawaii (gotta vacation somewhere!), but time and time again, where we set a country to rights, and then leave. (German, Japan, the Philippines, etc etc). We’ve sort of even done that in Iraq.
But Afghanistan? It’s an ungovernable country. Shoulda pulled out permanently, right around the time when Bush was prematurely declaring, “Mission Accomplished” on that carrier. (May of 2003).