So Kabul has fallen.
The Ghani regime lasted barely three months after its NATO support started to be withdrawn. For comparison, Najibullah’s held out for three years after the Soviets withdrew its forces in 1989, outlasting even the USSR itself. Failure to come close to even that low mark belies the true scale of failure that we have seen last week. In almost twenty years, the US and its allies have failed to build either a viable democracy that would reject Islamism or a capable army able to turn its superior equipment and numbers into the continued containment of the Taliban.
The Soviet-Afghan war was a bitter moment for the USSR and hastened its demise. The debacle we are witnessing now has damaged American soft power irreparably. The notion that the West can spread democracy around the world by overthrowing dictatorships, already heavily dented by Iraq, has been totally destroyed. Twenty years of military casualties, twenty years of Afghan civilians killed by airstrikes and almost a trillion dollar’s worth of investment has resulted in the Taliban controlling more of Afghanistan than ever before and capturing more American weaponry than they could have dreamt of. People make the usual comparisons to Vietnam, however this is worse. Vietnam was a defeat inflicted with the help of the USSR and China, here was a meek surrender from a position of relative control caused only by the whims of the US president.
There will be the inevitable arguments about whether we should have invaded in the first place. Personally, I think there is a fundamental difference between Afghanistan and Iraq. In the business of ‘spreading democracy’, one should be judged by the results, by whether you improved the livelihoods of the citizens of the countries in question. Replacing Saddam’s brutal but secular dictatorship with chaos that eventually led to the Islamic State was a monumental failure. But in Afghanistan, a violent religious cult was removed and things slowly improved. Women started going to school, to university.
The sight of those people, the ones who had their secular society snatched from them for a second time in 30 years running after aircraft in the airport in Kabul illustrates the scale of the betrayal in a way that needs no other comment. Irrespective of whether you think it is right or wrong to have invaded in the first place, it happened. We have built a society around our invasion. It is deeply wrong to leave those people to a violent insurgency now without even putting up a fight.
Besides, Afghanistan is our mess. We made it by arming the mujahideen in the 1980s to fight against the Soviet Union. Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, US, UK, China, Iran — all those rival countries cooperated against the government in Kabul and the Soviets. They owned the mess that was Taliban. The military invasion of 2001, ostensibly to get Al-Qaeda and bin Laden, made it our mess to an even greater degree. The answer to ‘we screwed you over’ is not ‘let’s go away so someone else screws you over even more.
And not just go away but how! There was no discernible attempt at all to assess the risks of withdrawing. No attempt to even delay the Taliban advance so that allies could flee, or help them flee. All that happened was a callous, cold-blooded washing of the hands, a wholesale acceptance of Donald Trump’s crazy plan to withdraw from a position of superiority and control in a country that we have made reliant on our aid.
A lot of people are making excuses. From the Left, comes the well-worn accusation of ‘Western Imperialism’. Supposedly, we have no business in these countries, even if it is to contain an evil such as the Taliban. This is a simplistic and ideological view that rides roughshod over the very real suffering of the Afghan people. The thesis that ‘if we hadn’t invaded, things would have sorted themselves out by now’ is unsupportable to a degree that beggars belief — it is certainly possible for hardline religious dictatorships to persist for decades. Such a view ignores the existence of non-Western imperialism, ignores the forces that stand to benefit from our withdrawal. This does not justify every invasion — the decision to invade Iraq is still as inexcusable as ever — but it certainly justifies standing your ground against the Taliban. Those on the Left going on about ‘imperialism’ would do well to listen to the people on the ground in Kabul, the ones they are trying to supposedly save from the long reach of the West.
From the Right, there is the equally mistaken claim of ‘why should our soldiers die trying to fix the world’s problems’. Well, this is one problem we created ourselves, so fixing it is on us, no matter how long it takes to do so. Sure, there were many failures with the fix, however the Taliban was being successfully contained and kept away from the main cities. Numbers of fatalities of US personnel have been low since 2013. Their deployment was not large but acted as a deterrent — and arguments about the cost of keeping them there are not valid given all the others places around the world that the US has military bases in.
There is a relentless desire by people on both sides of the political spectrum to talk over the actual Afghans experiencing actual takeover on the ground, fearing for their lives and their future. Many even choose to victim-blame, claiming this is the Afghan people’s fault. A particularly erroneous stance given how every regional power worth their salt sought to destabilise the country and how many foreign jihadists have fought against its governments on their soil. Sure, many soldiers might have surrendered too easily. Many officials sold out. And yet, people who served there believe that the Afghan army, despite its size, was left high and dry by the withdrawal of American support. It had been taught to fighting relying on US logistics that were pulled. Can we, sitting in our comfortable safe Western homes, blame them for surrendering when their divisions were surrounded one by one by Taliban, after a disastrous decision by the Afghan leaders to try and hold the cities and let Taliban roam loose in the countryside?
There will be jubilation not just in Riyadh and Islamabad but in Moscow, Beijing and Tehran. The West has shown itself unable to honour its commitments or stand by its allies. It has shown itself unwilling to realise its error and step in when things went badly wrong. It has given away a country it comfortably controlled, people who relied on it, to a violent cult. The gloating in Russia and China in particular will be deafening. Unlike in 1996, the results will be seen on social media as Afghans are arrested and shot by the Taliban. The stains on our credibility will take decades to wash off.