April 16, 2021 - 11:42am

With one excellent speech this week, Joe Biden fulfilled what Donald Trump began, and confirmed America’s withdrawal from its failing war in Afghanistan, to be completed just weeks short of its twentieth anniversary. The war was never intended to be a “multi-generational undertaking,” he emphasised. To the liberal hawks demanding America stay a little longer, as if victory was somehow just around the corner, he asked “when will it be the right moment to leave? One more year, two more years, ten more years? Ten, twenty, thirty billion dollars more above the trillion we’ve already spent?” 

As Biden underlined, America has lost 2,448 personnel in Afghanistan, to no purpose at all. The cost of the war to the Afghan government is unimaginably higher. As a recent New York Times piece claimed, now that the full weight of the Taliban’s wrath is directed solely at them, the Afghan security forces are suffering an utterly unsustainable casualty rate of 3,000 personnel a month. It’s unlikely in the extreme that their hold on even the country’s largest cities can long survive the American withdrawal. The Communist Afghan government forces managed to hold Kabul for three years after their Soviet backers finally pulled out in 1989 — whether or not the current Afghan National Army (or ANA) can outlast it is an open question.

So what was it all for? It’s reasonable to assume that the withdrawal from Afghanistan will be remembered as a turning point in history — fantasies of spreading liberal democratic governance at gunpoint in countries where it has never existed will be abandoned. That is, at least for as long as the Western world concentrates on the greater challenge from China. Over the generation-long Afghanistan conflict, America and its NATO auxiliaries, including Britain, wasted blood and treasure trying to extend the writ of Kabul’s central government to isolated rural regions of the country it had never, throughout its history, fully controlled. 

It is painful, now, to remember the fashion for counterinsurgency or “COIN” doctrine in the 2000. This doctrine held the sincere belief that political legitimacy could be “borrowed” by embattled governments like that of Kabul through infrastructure and governance projects imposed on a restive population by foreign occupiers like ourselves. British military thinkers flaunted their supposed superiority in counterinsurgency warfare, a natural talent derived from the days of empire with which their rude cousins in the Pentagon would surely be impressed. Until, that is, our humiliating retreat from Helmand, like that from Basra, disabused them of this comforting myth.

Helmand towns like Sangin and Musa Qala — resonant names to a British audience — are now firmly under Taliban control. Their ultra-conservative rural Pashtun population is now ruled by an ultra-conservative rural Pashtun government, seemingly more competent and popular than its rival government in distant Kabul. 100 of the 454 British deaths in Afghanistan took place  in Sangin alone, for no ultimate purpose other than making British politicians feel relevant in Washington DC. America wanted us to enter a poorly-thought out war with no clearly defined parameters for success, so we did. Now America wants out, and so our 750 remaining troops are to be withdrawn, on Biden’s timetable, and not our own. 

It would be worth our Atlanticist politicians like Tom Tugendhat, still forlornly demanding the US stay in Afghanistan like a backwoods Gaulish chieftain demanding the Roman emperor stay the course in Parthia, to reflect on what this says about Britain’s place in the world. The difference between the ANA and the British Army is only one of degree, and not kind, both being expendable, entirely dependent auxiliary forces for American imperial projects. 

Perhaps in future our politicians can consider what British interests are involved the next time voices from DC start singing in their ears of glory and renown to be won in some distant continent. If, like Iraq, Afghanistan leads Britain’s defence establishment to reassess its fundamental purpose, perhaps some good may yet come out of it.

Aris Roussinos is an UnHerd columnist and a former war reporter.