The anguished plea for the West to act, to protect the Afghans from the Taliban, is sincere, but it only underscores the problems of West Afghan politics. Why were we never there? Bring civil rights? Impose democracy? Or to suppress a government that had sheltered Al Qaeda and facilitated the worst terrorist attack in history? And why, after 20 years of Western support, could the Afghan state still not protect its people?
Since 2001, the justifications for war have changed over time. President Bush and Donald Rumsfeld hailed the Afghans’ “determination” to live in a democracy. Visiting politicians spoke with pride about educating girls and ending the brutal practices of the Taliban. They heard generals, strategists and spies say how things were about to get better – it always took a little longer.
Perhaps keeping the Taliban out, or at least keeping them busy attacking coalition soldiers, has made Western “homelands” more secure. Certainly, since the invasion, the West has protected itself better against major attacks such as September 11 and the bombings in Madrid and London. More recently, terrorists have often resorted to simpler methods, such as marauding knife and gun attacks and driving cars and vans over pedestrians.
But was the military campaign in Afghanistan a major factor in this change? The Islamists visited not only Afghanistan and Iraq, but also Somalia, Syria and Yemen. Terrorists planning and training for attacks in the West have often operated – and have been wiped out in drone strikes – in barely ruled tribal areas from Waziristan to Pakistan. Now terrorists are also operating digitally, expanding their networks and planning attacks using encrypted communications.
Of course, the world would be a safer place without a Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. The mullahs have long supported international terrorism and have an appalling record of brutality and persecution of their people. Having violent religious fanatics in power anywhere breeds extremism and danger. But this raises other questions. If this is true for Afghanistan, is it also true elsewhere? Since Tony Blair, at the height of his manic interventionism, no one has thought that we need to eliminate other dangerous governments and occupy their countries until the state-building process is complete. The cost – in financial terms, military casualties, civilian bloodshed and excessive strategic reach – would be unthinkable.
So does Afghanistan pose a unique threat to the West, so dangerous it is worth over a trillion dollars and the lives, limbs and sanity of even more young soldiers and civilians? What about other sources of extremism and terror, such as Saudi Arabia, the homeland of Salafism; Qatar, sponsors of the Muslim Brotherhood; or Pakistan, the country whose intelligence services spawned the Taliban in the first place?
What if we accept the reality in front of us that Western state building in Afghanistan has simply failed? After 20 years of corruption and venality among the most senior members of the Afghan government, it seems the public has little appetite to defend it. Despite two decades of support, 300,000 Afghan soldiers are said to have evaporated as the Taliban advanced.
This is the conclusion reached by the United States, the ultimate decision maker among the Allies. For it is ridiculous to think that Great Britain – alone or in concert with all the armies of Europe – could or should have waged a new Afghan war alone. First, Donald Trump struck a deal with the Taliban promising troop withdrawal by May of this year. Then President Biden declared that he had “zero responsibility” to Afghanistan, insisting that his only obligation was “to protect America’s national interest”. As his predecessor might have said: America first.
It is a humiliating defeat. But if withdrawal was inevitable, his way was not. By planning earlier or withdrawing later, the allies could have given themselves time to evacuate their nationals safely and establish a coordinated resettlement program for vulnerable Afghans, including those who had worked with the military. Westerners, embassies and humanitarian organizations. Tragically, whatever the nature of the withdrawal, millions more were still to live under the Taliban.
To claim otherwise, to insist that the West could or should have done more, is to argue that we should have started over, rebuilt our military presence and waged another 20-year war, all in the hope that this times our attempts at state building would be more successful. Permanent or semi-permanent occupation is possible, but it comes at a high price and represents a kind of imperialism that America has rejected, and that the non-American West cannot support.
This rejection of its imperial burden makes us question America’s will to rule the world. Is it simply a question of clearing the bridges to allow the United States to approach the great strategic confrontation of the next century with China? Or have the so-called “eternal wars” killed his will to act? Either way, there is a risk for Britain and Europe. As a source of terror, drugs and migration, Afghanistan and the Middle East are more dangerous for us than for the United States. If America is reluctant to use its power, we must reassess our own policies and capabilities.
Relaxed interventionism – not only in Afghanistan and Iraq, but also the action led by Britain and France in Libya – has failed every time it has been attempted. Targeted bombings and drone strikes backed by intelligence and security work turned out to be a better bet. The struggle to overcome the ideology and hatred behind Islamist terrorism must continue, with force at home and, in collaboration with others, abroad.
And we have to make sure that we have the capabilities that we need. If the United States has lost the courage for military action, or even if it is focusing its resources on the Chinese threat, we cannot be completely sure that NATO – the very foundation of our national defense – will hold up. As the chaos in Kabul shows, the world is changing rapidly and we need to make sure we can keep pace.