Can there be an end to forever wars?
The airport bombings on 26 August claimed by Islamic State, killing more than a hundred including US soldiers and Taliban, show the fragility of Afghanistan’s new leaders. The US has been seriously undermined by this chaotic end to an unwinnable war of untold human cost, in an exhausted country whose people hope simply for peace.
Afghanistan is rightly known as the ‘graveyard of empires’. The Afghans successively defeated the Mughals and the Persians, and drove out the British in the 19th century and the Soviets in the 20th. Now the Americans are the latest to pack up and leave.
After a 20-year military campaign — the longest in its history — during which it recruited 38 countries to the US crusade (under NATO command), Washington is leaving Afghanistan in total chaos. Symbolically, the military withdrawal — more like a rout — is happening just before the 20th anniversary of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, which were the pretext for the invasion in the first place. Donald Trump originally set a deadline for withdrawal of May this year; Joe Biden is completing it just a few months later.
From ambassadors to the low level, they say we are doing a great job. Really? If we are doing a great job, why does it feel like we are losing?Michael Flynn
Their predecessor George W Bush had told the world it would be a lightning operation, and claimed victory against the Taliban regime in late 2001, saying that America had been avenged and all that remained was to build a new state as close as possible to the American model, something which was well within the capabilities of the world’s greatest power. After all, America had defeated communism and, with its ‘democratic values’, could claim to be the world’s defender of freedom. Western governments fell into step.
In 2009 Barack Obama, who had initially promised to pull US troops out of Afghanistan, sent reinforcements for a final ‘surge’. And in a solemn address on 1 May 2011 he hailed the killing of Osama bin Laden at his compound in Pakistan as ‘the most significant achievement to date in [the US’s] effort to defeat al-Qaida’ and ‘a testament to the greatness of our country’.
America’s complete rout
A decade later, in February 2020, the Doha agreement signalled the US’s complete rout. It was signed between the Trump administration and the Taliban, without reference to the Kabul government, which the US had until then supported financially and politically. The Afghan people had not been consulted, and there had been no attempt to coordinate with the other members of NATO, which still had 7,100 troops on the ground besides the US’s 2,500 (1,300 came from Germany, 1,110 from the UK, 900 from Italy and a few hundred each from Georgia and Poland; France had withdrawn its last units in 2014).
Around 17,000 private military contractors from the US, Afghanistan and elsewhere were also presented with a fait accompli. This high-handed approach should give pause to all those with dreams of an ‘Asian NATO’ that would defend those same ‘democratic values’ against a new enemy, China (1).
The US has not simply imposed its Afghan strategy on the world: it has paid a large part of the bill — more than $1tr (2). Some 775,000 US troops have served at least one tour of duty in Afghanistan, including 100,000 during Obama’s surge; the US has committed cutting-edge military equipment, including drones, and has funded dozens of NGOs. This has been a huge investment considering the poor outcome so far: at least 160,000 Afghans killed, as well as 2,400 US troops, 1,500 allied troops and 1,800 private military contractors. And it’s not over yet.
Conditions in Afghanistan are even worse than before the war, except for women, whose situation has improved, at least in the cities. But Taliban pressure to stay at home has increased in past months, along with threats against female writers, journalists, doctors and teachers (forced into exile if not murdered), and deadly attacks on girls’ schools. The West’s ‘civilising mission’ has also made Afghanistan the world’s leading producer of opium (90% of the global supply), which generates more than 15% of the country’s GDP.
Afghanistan has become a kleptocracy. Colonel Christopher Kolenda, an advisor to the US army, said in 2006: ‘I like to use a cancer analogy. Petty corruption is like skin cancer; there are ways to deal with it and you’ll probably be just fine. Corruption within the ministries, higher level, is like colon cancer; it’s worse, but if you catch it in time, you’re probably OK. Kleptocracy, however, is like brain cancer; it’s fatal’ (3). And things haven’t improved since then.
Not if, but when
No wonder the Taliban face little opposition. The war with the West has put them back in the saddle, whereas a Pakistani journalist noted that before the invasion (after five years in power) ‘they no longer had much popular support’ (4). Recently, few asked if they would take back power, only when.
We are never going to get the US military out of Afghanistan unless ... there is something going on that will provide the stability necessary for us to leave. Help!Donald Rumsfeld
This war, variously described as a ‘good war’ (George W Bush, 2001), a ‘just war’ (Obama, 2011) and a war against ‘obscurantism and terror’ (French president Nicolas Sarkozy, 2008) — ‘our war’ as Bernard-Henri Lévy, Pascal Perrineau, Stéphane Courtois and other French righters of wrongs put it — was supposed to protect the world against terrorist attacks and bring the Afghan people out of barbarism.
In 2009 France’s foreign minister Bernard Kouchner talked of ‘winning hearts and minds with a bulletproof vest’ (5) — as if one could fight terror with terror and impose democracy with guns and dollars. But these people never admitted they were wrong, even when faced with an obvious defeat. They called for one intervention after another — Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria, the Sahel — in the name of human rights (except in ‘friendly’ countries such as Egypt or Saudi Arabia), confident that they were on the side of good.
But these invasions do not bring good. They cause chaos, promote the establishment of groups like ISIS, destroy societies and state institutions, inflame ethnic tensions, divide nations and lead to civil war, and invariably to the failure of key democratic principles — including in western countries, where these unwinnable conflicts have been accompanied by lies, corruption, torture, dirty tricks and the removal of freedoms.
We already knew about Guantánamo (where some 40 people are still being held without trial) and about offshore torture sites: Julian Assange’s WikiLeaks lifted a corner of the veil — and he is now in prison, treated as a terrorist. The Washington Post shed further light on the machinations of US leaders on 9 December 2019, when it published the ‘Afghanistan Papers’, more than 2,000 pages of interviews with US and other policymakers collected by the Office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction. They revealed that presidents, ministers and military chiefs of staff had deliberately lied to their compatriots and the wider world.
‘The facts belie the myths’
Six months after the start of the Afghan campaign, on 17 April 2002, Bush’s defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld wrote in one of his confidential memos, known as snowflakes: ‘We are never going to get the US military out of Afghanistan unless ... there is something going on that will provide the stability necessary for us to leave. Help!’ A few months later (8 September 2003), he wrote: ‘I have no visibility into who the bad guys are.’ Yet on the Pentagon’s website he posted a paper that talked of ‘a multitude of good news’, and said that ‘while it has become fashionable in some circles to call Afghanistan a forgotten war, or to say the United States has lost its focus, the facts belie the myths.’
The Afghanistan Papers sources — soldiers, members of intelligence services, NGO staff — had been told to report only positive indicators. In 2015 Lieutenant General Michael Flynn vented his frustration: ‘From ambassadors down to the low level [they all say] we are doing a great job. Really? So if we are doing a great job, why does it feel like we are losing?’ The people at the top were not deceived but all insisted, like poker players, that they would win the next hand, and that the next battle would be the last.
From the start, international law was turned upside-down: the US initially took the decision to bomb Afghanistan unilaterally, and only later asked for the backing of the UN Security Council, which unanimously passed a series of approving resolutions between 12 September and 20 December 2001. Yet it was no longer a matter of using military force against an attacker — a fundamental principle of international relations — but of a ‘war on terror’, which made it possible to attack any country suspected of harbouring jihadists. Authorising this ‘preventive war’ made it possible to intervene in Iraq, in Libya and, for France, in Mali, though it has not stopped the terrorist attacks.
As a consequence of this democratic bankruptcy, laws curtailing freedom have multiplied, from the Patriot Act in the US to the state of emergency measures in France, which have become permanent legislation, with arbitrary arrests, and demonstrations banned at the whim of prefect or president.
The chaos is all the greater because Afghanistan is a theatre of the Asian Great Game. The players are Pakistan, which is a US ally but protects some of the Taliban; India, which has supported some anti-Pakistani mujahideen groups in Baluchistan; China, which fears the Turkestan Islamic Party (formerly the East Turkestan Islamic Movement) may destabilise Xinjiang (officially the Uyghur Autonomous Region), and which like India, has an eye on Afghanistan’s mineral wealth; Russia, which is unexpectedly taking a renewed interest; and Iran, which has taken in many Shia Hazaras fleeing persecution (see Inter-Afghan talks are the best route to stability, in this issue).
Afghanistan combines all the failures of the West: military, because the US has not won any armed conflict for decades, because the ‘war on terror’ turns out to be worse than terrorism itself; moral, because the regimes installed in Kabul and Baghdad are corrupt and the electoral process is discredited; democratic, because the decisions to embark on such expeditions are made by a single person; and political, because the states concerned are destroyed and the forces that were to be annihilated are assured of coming out on top again, eventually.
The withdrawal from Afghanistan, for which there is now a consensus in the US, marks the end of an era of direct interventions and ‘forever wars’. But does it herald a new era in which Americans no longer see themselves as a chosen people, destined to lead the world? The answer lies in the title of Biden’s foreign policy plan: ‘Leading the Democratic World’ (6). America’s desire for hegemony survived the defeat in Vietnam. It will not evaporate after the bitter lessons of Afghanistan.
(3) Quoted in Craig Whitlock, Leslie Shapiro and Armand Emamdjomeh, ‘A secret history of the war’, The Afghanistan Papers, The Washington Post, 9 December 2019. Except where specified, all quotations are from these documents.
(4) Jacques Follorou, ‘Ahmed Rashid: “Les talibans n’ont jamais montré la volonté d’aboutir à la paix”’ (Ahmed Rashid: ‘The Taliban have never shown any sign of wanting peace’), Le Monde, 28 May 2021.
(5) Canal Plus, 18 October 2009.
(6) See Olivier Zajec, ‘Biden dreams of rebuilding the international order’, Le Monde diplomatique, English edition, December 2020.