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Slow Views

This is how the West ends: not with a bang but a whimper

Monday 16 August 2021

As the most powerful nation in the history of the world abandons the women of Afghanistan to a gang of misogynistic theocrats, how confident do you feel today about the strength of the “international community”?


In the face of catastrophic failure, the least one can do – ethically and strategically – is to embrace honesty. So let us admit, first of all, that the theocratic thugs of the Taliban who sat around the presidential desk in Kabul yesterday are unlikely to be much perturbed by the news that Boris Johnson has recalled parliament for a day to address the crisis in Afghanistan. 

What, after all, do they have to fear? These men – these Islamofascists, pulsing with testosterone, twisted doctrine and malevolent fundamentalist certainty – have played the long game, planning in decades not days, gambling (correctly) on the West losing the will to fight on. Why should they be worried that one of America’s closest allies, complicit in its failure, has convened a talking shop in Westminster for a few hours to airbrush away some of the shame?   

It was pitiful, too, to hear Antony Blinken, the US Secretary of State, claiming on CNN that the West had somehow achieved its objectives in this benighted land. “We went to Afghanistan 20 years ago with one mission,” he said, “and that mission was to deal with the folks who attacked us on 9/11 – and we have succeeded in that mission.”

Really? On 7 October 2001, President George W. Bush launched Operation Enduring Freedom to topple the Taliban regime that had given safe harbour to al-Qaeda as it plotted the September 11 attacks. Now, two decades later, the Taliban have seized power once more, backed by Islamists in Iran and Pakistan, as supportive as ever of al-Qaeda and the variants into which it has mutated. 

By what possible measure can one call this success? Watching Blinken squirm in a sweat of delusion, I was reminded of the late US defence secretary, Robert McNamara, desperately deploying data and graphs to persuade himself and others that America was winning the war in Vietnam. If the US and its allies have succeeded in Afghanistan, what would failure look like?

Brace yourself, meanwhile, for the rationalisations that will be offered in the days to come. Chief among these is the claim that Joe Biden’s hands were tied by the deal that his predecessor struck with the Taliban in February 2020, and all that remained to be decided was the timing of the final withdrawal of US troops.

This is an odd, not to say craven defence from a president who has defined himself since the Democratic primaries by how different he is to Donald Trump, and by his determination to set a different course. How often did we hear during Biden’s first visit to Europe in June that “America is back” and that Trump’s isolationist doctrine had been decisively ditched?

Had Biden wished to reverse his predecessor’s strategy in Afghanistan, he could have done so. The fact that he did not reflects a geopolitical decision, not forces beyond his control. “I was the fourth President to preside over an American troop presence in Afghanistan,” he said on Saturday, “two Republicans, two Democrats. I would not, and will not, pass this war onto a fifth.” 

But why not? There are, after all, still 64,000 US troops in Europe, which makes Biden the 15th successive president to have overseen this continuous deployment (the first being Franklin D. Roosevelt). As far as I am aware, he is not troubled by that ordinal.

There was no intrinsic reason for the US and its allies not to stay in Afghanistan. We chose not to, and should own that choice. There was also no axiomatic necessity for the president to beat such a hasty retreat – the Pentagon and external experts such as Frederick W. Kagan had presented alternative, phased timelines – or for him to announce in April that all US troops would be out by 11 September. The president decided that, when it comes to military withdrawal, “speed is safety”. 

The question, of course, is whose safety he meant. For the girls and women of Afghanistan, in particular, the immediate future is one of existential terror. There is a world of difference between citizenship in a culturally Muslim country, and the servitude of life under a fundamentalist regime that rules by terror, systematic oppression of women, and the murderous quashing of dissent.

In 2001, all students in Afghanistan were male. By 2017, 40 per cent of them were women. I wonder what the gender split will be a year from now. In Herat, female students turning up at the gates of the university have already been sent home. In Kandahar, female bank workers have been dismissed from their jobs. A generation of young women who have grown up since the Taliban were ejected 20 years ago now face a reimposed regime of ultra-conservative severity that is quite unlike anything they have ever experienced. 

Students at the Zarghoona Girls High school in Kabul, on July 25 2021

In this context: it is striking how much more the Taliban have learned in the past two decades than we have. They have grasped that the peoples of the West lack stamina and are driven, in foreign policy as in everything else, by a yearning for instant gratification.

In particular – like ISIS before them – they have studied the arts of media manipulation, and have deployed a squadron of spokesmen on the airwaves to depict the all-new Islamic Emirate as “Taliban 2.0”. 

Afghan women, these professional liars have already claimed, will be able to pursue their studies – though they are hazy on the detail. All reports of girls and women being beaten, harassed and worse, they allege, are hearsay and false propaganda.

Yes, the new Taliban spin doctors say, the restored regime will be Quranic in spirit, word and deed; but it seeks only a “peaceful transference” of authority and a happy and prosperous Afghanistan for all. But why bother with such flagrant falsehood? Because they know that there is a market for it, that those who feel shame – that’s us – will, sooner or later, buy into any myth to lessen its impact. They will ruthlessly exploit the West’s longing to avert its gaze, and to forget all this horror, by speaking in tones that are just sufficiently calm and considered.

Expect much nonsense to be talked, too, about the “moderate Taliban” versus the “extremist” wing, and how it is the West’s responsibility to shore up the former against the latter in the talks between the rival Afghan parties in Doha. One may as well distinguish between “good murderers” and “bad murderers”. There really is no such thing as a Taliban moderniser.

On Wednesday, parliament must address the question of when and under what conditions the new regime will be granted international recognition – though the bilateral talks that have already been held between the Russian, Chinese, Iranian and Pakistani governments and the Taliban have done half the job.

Boris Johnson’s promise to intervene on behalf of this year’s 35 Afghan Chevening Scholars – who need visas urgently to travel to the UK – is certainly welcome. But it is only the first of many steps that ministers have to take in the days ahead to ensure safe passage for all those who have served HMG as interpreters and ancillary staff, whether directly or via contractors. The scenes of bedlam in Kabul on our screens today suggest that a much greater refugee crisis lies ahead – greater, perhaps, than the exodus from Syria over the past ten years.

It was deeply depressing to learn yesterday that the UK military has already encountered strong resistance from the Home Office, as senior officers familiar with fast-deteriorating conditions on the ground asked for flexibility and compassion in our approach to the many Afghans who will now be seeking sanctuary on these shores. Priti Patel reportedly denies that there is any such tension – which is odd, given the pride she has shown in the past in turning away the most desperate people of the world.

Looming over this foreign policy catastrophe there is a hazy question mark, as though the horrors unfolding before our eyes were somehow mysterious. But that is the one thing it is not. In fact, the return of the Taliban to power is the all-too-predictable conclusion to a circuitous saga that began 20 years ago in unity and determination, and ends in drift and shuffling weakness.

Why are we surprised? On the Left, it has long been reflexive to denounce every US intervention as “colonialist”, “imperialist” and a “recruiting sergeant for terror”. Every jihadi outrage fom 7/7 to the Manchester Arena bombing in 2017 has been blamed upon “Western foreign policy” by the self-styled peace movements of the West, for whom America the Oppressor is always the true enemy.

On the Right, meanwhile, a form of nationalist populism has arisen that has turned its back dramatically on the West’s historic responsibility to intervene militarily to prevent humanitarian disaster. In Trump’s pledge to put “America First” was born a 21st-century version of US isolationism that abruptly renounced multilateralism, the international rules-based order and any meaningful notion of US global leadership.

It need not have been so. As recently as 2005, the UN world summit enshrined the “responsibility to protect” (or “R2P”) doctrine in international law, mandating the “collective use of force” in order to stop genocide and the massacre of civilians.

Yet that principle began to ossify into irrelevance almost as soon as it was codified. The fork in the road came in August 2013, when Ed Miliband refused to back David Cameron’s call for action against the Assad regime’s atrocities in Syria; which in turn gave President Obama political space to kick the can way down the road. Trump hated almost everything that his predecessor did, but he liked – and continued – the can-kicking.

Was Biden not meant to represent a fresh start and a resumption of America’s putative role as Lincoln’s “last best hope of earth”? The president certainly talks a good game. He does like a conference, too – witness his announcement of a special “Summit for Democracy” on 9-10 December. 

According to the administration’s rubric for this gathering: “we have to prove democracy still works and can improve people’s lives in tangible ways. To do that, democracies have to come together – to rejuvenate and improve our open, rights-respecting societies from within; to stand together in defending against threats from autocracies; and to show we can address the most pressing crises of our time.”

Stirring words, aren’t they? I wonder how they would go down in Kabul and Kandahar and Mazar-i-Sharif right now. Or how persuasive they would seem to teenage Afghan girls, fearful as they watch US helicopters evacuating Americans that they themselves face a future of sexual enslavement as Taliban “wives”. They might indeed wonder how the US Commander-in-Chief dares to congratulate himself on his global democratic mission, even as he flees their still-nascent democracy, leaving it in the hands of brutal Islamist misogynists.

The sheer scale of this betrayal and what it represents gets clearer by the hour. “What we’re watching right now in Afghanistan is what happens when America withdraws from the world,” Republican congresswoman Liz Cheney told ABC News yesterday. “So everybody who has been saying, ‘America needs to withdraw, America needs to retreat,’ we are getting a devastating, catastrophic real-time lesson in what that means.”

All of which is true. But the even greater lesson is that the idea of the West and its role in maintaining anything like a global order is now in mortal danger. 

And – again – we should be less surprised than we are. In the wake of the Cold War’s end in 1989, we completely squandered the opportunity to remake and reform the institutional structures that had been established after the Second World War, and to launch a series of Marshall Plans to fight off the many forms of atavisms that bubbled to the surface with the collapse of the Soviet bloc.

We failed again after 9/11, and again after the crash of 2008-09. The only respect in which the powerful and wealthy nations of the world can be said to think and act on a planetary basis is economically. Globalisation has not been matched in geopolitics, international law, the management of population mobility, the nurturing of democracy or the regulation of the digital revolution.

Precisely when we should have been thinking most deeply about our interdependence as a species, walls have gone up (literally and figuratively); backs have been turned; and even (as with Brexit) supposedly great nations have seceded from alliances in the name of thin doctrines of self-sufficiency and national greatness.

As we have been arguing at Tortoise in #TheArmsRace campaign for global vaccination, it is extraordinary that – in a world where a book can be ordered overnight from Australia and an Uber despatched by algorithm to your doorstep in minutes – the huge surplus of doses in the richer nations cannot be sent more or less instantly to the poorer parts of the world where they are needed (to prevent the 10,000 entirely avoidable Covid deaths that still occur every day).

And – as you watch America’s flight from Kabul – how confident are you of its leadership, and the leadership of its allies, at the COP-26 summit that opens in Glasgow in two and a half months? If the West cannot collaborate with rigour and purpose to see off a bunch of Islamist gangsters like the Taliban, what chance does it have of tackling the climate emergency? How reassured do you feel this morning that the international community is up to the task of “building back better” after the pandemic?

Very few moments are genuinely historic, but this is one of them. The whole notion of “the West” is at its lowest ebb, with no immediate reason to think that it will recover its vigour and moral sinew.

Only 26 days before the twentieth anniversary of 9/11, it feels as if we are back to square one. Nothing is predetermined. No collapse is total. But, for now, we must fully confront the bleak reality that the most powerful nation in the history of the world has been defeated by a mob of fundamentalists. 

And then, no doubt, we will grow weary and distracted, look inward again, and resume our contentious bickering about statues, pronouns and masks. And then the theocratic fascists will have won. They’ve already won.

Photograph by Paula Bronstein/Getty Images