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The US quits Afghanistan for good, not better
Written by Alex Massie
15 April 2021
Time passes in many different ways. But – should you wish to feel old – you might contemplate the fact that children born after the United States and its allies invaded Iraq in early 2003 will be voting in next month’s Holyrood election. Those of us who were still young when al-Qaeda attacked New York and Washington DC twenty years ago must accept we have become middle-aged.
It now takes a conscious effort to recall how, at the time, this appeared to be a moment that would define a generation. It seemed certain that nothing would ever be the same again. But if we have learnt one thing this century, it is that the modern world’s capacity for paying attention is not inexhaustible. It is years since Afghanistan and Iraq dominated the evening news bulletins or the morning newspapers.
Now, at long last, the long war is all but over. On Wednesday, President Joe Biden announced that the final 2,500 American troops stationed in Afghanistan will be withdrawn before the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks this September. The United Kingdom’s 750 soldiers in Afghanistan will leave too. The 7,000 or so other NATO personnel currently posted to Afghanistan will also be coming home.
By some measures, this has been the longest wartime commitment in the history of the United States. The cost of the Afghan mission alone is staggering; when combined with the far greater commitment to Iraq, the price – in blood and money – is beyond immediate or instinctive comprehension.
And yet despite that, and after all this, one haunting question lingers: what was it all for?
A war that began as a simple punitive expedition metastasised into something very different: a generation-long occupation of Afghanistan that was supposed to bring stability, entrench democracy, and bring the country into the modern international community. It ends with a groan, not a bang, for however much al-Qaeda’s ability to use Afghanistan as a base may have been suppressed, few of these other objectives have been achieved. Over 20 years, a NATO soldier has died every second day in Afghanistan and yet, despite this sacrifice, the Taliban remains intact and Afghanistan’s democracy at best a fragile sapling.
“War in Afghanistan was never meant to be a multigenerational undertaking” Biden said. “We cannot continue the cycle of extending or expanding our military presence in Afghanistan, hoping to create ideal conditions for withdrawal, and expecting a different result.” The days when the mission might be considered accomplished are long gone; all that is left is to settle for what has been achieved while trusting that the coalition’s departure will not open a path to fresh instability.
That may be a gamble but if so, it is one that cannot be avoided. An open-ended commitment is beyond the realms of what is feasible. If goals cannot be unambiguously achieved in 20 years, when might it be reasonable to expect them to be cemented beyond doubt?
To ask the question is to illuminate the endgame futility of NATO’s mission in Afghanistan. It is a reminder, too, that hubris is a taxman whose demands are always punitive. A war that began in righteousness – given the Taliban’s refusal, or inability, to deliver Osama bin Laden to justice – gave way to a series of amorphous objectives incapable of being measured by dispassionate or objective criteria.
It was a slow bleed but one sufficient to humble even the world’s pre-eminent military power. To that end, the impact of the Afghan (and Iraq) wars was even more expensive than anything which may be measured in terms of dollars or lives lost. The United States may still defeat its foes on the battlefield but, as we have learned, that is only the beginning, not the final word. What comes after the bombs is more important.
Failure may always be repackaged, the better to disguise it as some kind of happy success but no sleight-of-hand or shiny wrapping paper can really change the reality. Save in the limited sense bin Laden and Saddam Hussein are no more, the 9/11 wars have been a chastening experience for the world’s dominant superpower. That has consequences that are felt far beyond the mountains of the Hindu Kush and the deserts of Mesopotamia.
They are felt here, too, for the British army’s failures – including a humiliation in Basra – hammered home some hard learning. The UK’s ability to project force is not what it was; its status as a reliable – or rather, a capable – US ally has been sharply downgraded too. The idealism with which the 9/11 wars began disappeared long ago as well. There will be no refashioning of the globe, no new world order arising from the rubble of the World Trade Center. Those of us who supported these expeditions – I include myself here – have had ample time to check our assumptions and find so many of them wanting.
And all of that has had consequences. Two great disruptions have occurred this century and each has pointed, in its own way, to a future less certain than anything which might have been imagined at the fag end of the last century. 9/11 and its wars are half of that story; the financial hubris which led to the great crash of 2008 the other. Each has proved a weighty blow; combined they are something thunderous.
For the certainties of the immediate post-Cold War era have given way to a world in which the limits of western hegemony are ever more obviously apparent. The humbling of a superpower is one part of that and it is hard to disentangle the trend towards populism and resurgent nationalism from the one-two punch of the twentieth century’s wars and its economic calamities.
There is, in the end, a melancholy aspect to all of this. The Last Post always has a mournful quality but as the last NATO troops prepare to leave Afghanistan it is, once again, very hard to avoid one thought’s turning, as so often, to Shelley. For here, in dusty Kabul, you may discover another monument to a fallen power:
“And on the pedestal, these words appear”
My name is Ozymandias, King go Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”
About Beyond the Street and Alex Massie
We are all guilty of being too inwardly focused sometimes, especially as we navigate these changed times. It is all too easy to be caught up in the problems close to home, and for overarching trends to pass us by.
To remedy that short-sightedness, Charlotte Street Partners has enlisted the ingenuity and talent of the writer and commentator Alex Massie. As our new correspondent at large, Alex will look at the bigger picture for us each week. We have challenged him to come up with something a bit different: broad, lateral thinking, thematic insights and a more global perspective.
Alex is a freelance journalist and commentator based in Edinburgh. Not only is he Scotland editor of The Spectator, but he also writes a political column for The Times and The Sunday Times. He features regularly on the BBC as a political commentator and has written in the past for The Telegraph, Politico, The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, the New Statesman, The Observer, and TIME magazine, among others. He was also the Washington correspondent for The Scotsman and assistant editor of Scotland on Sunday.
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