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.