by Adam Fereday
Wednesday, 18
August 2021
Debate
07:00

Could withdrawal from Afghanistan strengthen American power?

Throughout history, great empires have known when to cut their losses
by Adam Fereday
“Keep the change, we’re off” Credit: Getty

When rushing to give meaning to moments of great human misery, it is tempting to describe them as ‘turning points’, as if their emotional impact must inevitably translate into geopolitical change. In this way the abject scenes of civilians scrambling to escape Kabul in the wake of America’s withdrawal and the Taliban’s ascendancy have been taken as a definitive statement of US decline. Six months after President Biden’s declaration in Munich that ‘America is back’, US power seems more precarious than at any point in recent years.

But might this be a trick of the light? It is notable, for example, that the US spends more on defence now in relative terms than it did when it went into Afghanistan.

Surely the truth is that retrenchment — even when humiliating — is part and parcel of being a Great Power. A key secret to survival as a major international actor lies in knowing when to cut one’s losses. For example, Great Britain’s global power had not even peaked when, two and a half centuries ago, it made a much more humiliating withdrawal than President Biden in ceding independence to the Thirteen Colonies. By capitulating in a losing war for its First Empire, it preserved sufficient resources and geopolitical freedom to construct a new empire centred on Asia and Africa.

Like Great Britain then, the US now is engaged in an eastward geopolitical transition. Three successive Presidents have trailed a ‘Pivot to East Asia’, premised on strengthening alliances with regional powers and focusing on management (albeit in different ways) of an increasingly fraught relationship with China. Unlike his predecessors, however, President Biden has actually made the difficult sacrifices that come with abandoning legacy conflicts started in the early 21st Century in entirely different geopolitical circumstances. By winding down US commitments in Afghanistan, Biden has freed up resources to direct eastward.

Of course, he has created a headache in the process for European political leaders. They will be left to pick up the pieces when it comes to managing the flows of refugees out of the region and preventing a return of the political paroxysms that upset European politics after 2015. More importantly, he has brought crisis to many Afghans for whom earlier periods of Taliban rule are beyond living memory. If Biden’s early foreign policy is Realism 101, then both of these cases are ‘the weak suffering what they must’.

The scenes in Kabul earlier this week drew comparisons to the fall of Saigon in 1975. But perhaps this analogy should brings consolation, not despair: while it lost Vietnam, the US went on to win the Cold War.

 

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Andrea X
Andrea X
10 months ago

Still, the withdrawal could/should have been managed just a tad better.

Bill W
Bill W
10 months ago
Reply to  Andrea X

It looks like a complete failure on that front. Reminiscent of the same ill thought out approach
to Western interventions.

Jon Redman
Jon Redman
10 months ago

Napoleon’s long-drawn-out strategic defeat in the Peninsula emboldened his adversaries elsewhere to rejoin the fray against him: Austria in 1809, Russia in 1812, Prussia in 1813.
The same seems likely here. I reckon we will soon see someone like China do something like seize Taiwan or some other piece of the South China Sea, while daring the USA to do anything about it.
US forces will be well indoctrinated as to pronouns and their own racism, but whether they’re inclined and equipped to fight a proper enemy any more, who knows.

Perry de Havilland
Perry de Havilland
10 months ago

The USA should have declared victory & got out by the end pf 2002, a year after the Taliban was driven from Kabul, leaving the anti-Taliban factions with a little PMC air support, a little money (& I do mean a little) and a pat on the back for encouragement regarding the rest of the country.
So yes, long overdue the US got out.
But that is not the problem, but rather the half-arsed way they got out, beclowning the USA with Biden making it clear two days before the government’s army utterly collapsed that talk of a collapse was preposterous.

Ian Barton
Ian Barton
10 months ago

A good “non-hysterical” summary.
Such a shame that the MSM and social media can’t seem to even discuss the “long game” for everyone involved.

Tim Bartlett
Tim Bartlett
10 months ago
Reply to  Ian Barton

If we were better at doing that maybe we wouldn’t serially mess things up, as happens now. Worth paying my subscription for pieces like this.

GA Woolley
GA Woolley
10 months ago

‘many Afghans for whom earlier periods of Taliban rule are beyond living memory.’ And, outside the major cities and towns, will notice little or no difference. They will be ruled by new warlords, the women and girls will be traded and used by their new masters, and religious observance will be more rigorously enforced. But their lives will be far closer to what they were before than they would be living here. They are 20 years distant from life under the Taliban. About 1000 years from life in the West.

Katharine Eyre
Katharine Eyre
10 months ago

If we’re in the business of drawing parallels with Britain, perhaps consider whether this is to the USA what the partition of India was to Britain. Now that certainly wasn’t a consolidation of power. That was a similarly hasty, chaotic and damaging exit and showed Britain up for what it was: a clapped-out world power on the retreat.

Antonino Ioviero
Antonino Ioviero
10 months ago
Reply to  Katharine Eyre

I’d agree, but Palestine had already demonstrated that reality, although it was Suez that really drove it home.

JR Stoker
JR Stoker
10 months ago

Very good point, and a clever if mishandled manoeuvre, if so. But I doubt the current President or his predecessor are capable of such sophisticated strategic thinking

Antonino Ioviero
Antonino Ioviero
10 months ago

Why were there 20,000 interpreters in the first place?

20 years not enough to teach Pashto, Dari etc. to a few army personnel?

Alan Hawkes
Alan Hawkes
10 months ago

Stonewall seems to have abandoned women, gays and lesbians to focus on trans-women.

Hosias Kermode
Hosias Kermode
10 months ago

Sorry but this feminist is outraged at exactly the loss of those freedoms. Read Aayan Hirsi Ali in today’s Unherd for precisely that analysis. In case you hadn’t noticed, Stonewall speaks for hardly any feminists today.

Carmel Shortall
Carmel Shortall
10 months ago

Biden had to ditch Afghanistan in order to free himself up for the big fight ahead: the war against the American people.