When America decided to save Afghanistan from the tyranny of the Taliban, it acted on two major beliefs. The first was that the US had the might, the tech and the ability to reshape Afghanistan — what could a superpower have to fear from a ragtag bunch of insurgents? — the second was a belief that this Kabul project was not about colonialism. History was moving America’s way and it needed was a nudge. Both theories have now been tested to destruction.
The humiliation that America has just inflicted upon herself (and her western allies) will reverberate globally and in a way the emboldens all the wrong people. To leave Kabul in such an undignified and callous manner is a victory not only for the Taliban but for both Russia and China. It also cements the retreat of the West from both Afghanistan and neighbouring Pakistan. It secures the primacy of Chinese interests in Pakistan (which is increasingly taking on the complexion of a Chinese satellite state). The world has been given yet more confirmation that America may be a superpower but she can be dismantled with tenacious insurgent warfare — the very insurgency warfare strategies that China and Russia and Iran have been heavily investing in since Saddam Hussein’s defeat in the first Gulf War.
Joe Biden is right to reject comparisons to the Vietnam war. This defeat is orders of magnitude greater, tectonically more ignominious. The Afghan war lasted longer and cost more in terms of treasure and loss of human life if you consider the death toll amongst Afghans and Pakistanis as well as the Nato allies. Every ally of the United States will now recalibrate their alliances with the United States with this defeat in mind. Americans now are now confirmed as fair-weather friends and unreliable allies. Our military, supposedly the mightiest the world has ever seen, has been roundly defeated by chapli-wearing ragamuffin insurgents armed with RPGs and a rabid Islamist fundamentalism.
Pakistan will now be enormously destabilised by having a Taliban caliphate on her highly porous 1,500-mile-long border. This will do nothing to calm Pakistan’s domestic Taliban elements. A vast array of fundamentalist imams and mullahs will be emboldened by events in Kabul (so too will be pro-Iranian militia inside Iraq). Of course the Taliban will, for now, promise not to nurture any terrorists — this is the fig leaf that Britain and America will use to justify their retreat. All of them can pretend that the new regime in Kabul will be committed to civility and stability. But the Taliban rules by Islamist totalitarianism: that is to say, it wants to control culture, faith and society more than it cares about the machinations of the state. Afghan women and girls will be the prime victims. We can soon expect to see an Islamist state in the mould of a steroidal Isis caliphate, fed by tax revenues from opium, secure within Afghanistan’s notoriously impenetrable geography and surging in a vacuum of international powers.
For its part, China has long been making headway into Pakistan, investing in its infrastructure in its quasi-imperial ‘Belt and Road Initiative’. There’s the $62 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and the deepening military engagement between Pakistan and China (when the US stepped out, China stepped in). We can expect China to be cautiously engaging with the new Taliban — mindful that Afghanistan is the graveyard of empires. But China’s empire is one of influence rather than conquest. Expect Beijing to be much more calculating and strategic with engagement with Afghanistan than the United States ever was.
I was in Cairo in the days after a 2017 Palm Sunday terrorist attack in Alexandria on Coptic Christians that had emptied Egypt of tourists. On my flight down to Aswan, I noticed that I was the only non-Chinese passenger. One informed me she was a hydroelectric engineer travelling to study the Aswan Dam with her colleagues. My Egyptian guide wryly informed me later in Egypt the Chinese are known as the ‘conquerors’ — he meant of all Africa.
Anthony Blinken, the US secretary of state, has announced that America’s mission is now ‘accomplished’. Making this claim demeans every soldier who has ever served in the long war. But at least Blinken is explicitly honest when he adds that it is not in US self-interest to remain in Afghanistan — revealing American interests always supersede even their most hard-won alliances. A point that will now be clear the world over, to China’s advantage.
At the start of the Afghan war, George W. Bush asked countries to choose: were they with America or against it? Far too many of those that stood with America have since been betrayed. The Afghan soldiers and others can now expect to be executed by the Taliban as soon as it feels it’s safe to start a revenge campaign. But we also have the brave Peshmerga who tried to make sense of Donald Trump’s betrayal of Syrian Kurds in favour of an alliance with Recep Erdogan their Turkish nemesis.
I also think of all the brave Pakistanis — both civilians and soldiers — who worked to deradicalise child Taliban soldiers. I think of all the brave north west frontier corpsmen of the Pakistan military who protected me when I visited there, then fought the Taliban not only for Pakistan but America. I think of the incredibly brave Iraqi Yazidis left to rehabilitate the remnants of the Yazidi community which has faced genocide at the hands of Isis. Seven years later they are left forgotten by the United States and the international community and remain in refugee camps in meagre tents in the baking Iraqi sun. The precipitous exit from Afghanistan bodes ill for all of Iraq. To Anthony Blinken’s point, I can only suppose that none of them superseded US interest.
We will reap what we sow. And what we have sown is impulsive wars. Betrayal of our allies — diehard allies like the Kurds — the decent Afghanis, the long-suffering Iraqis, the defenceless Yazidis, all of whom have held more strongly to our ideals than we have ourselves. That’s why the shock of Kabul will reverberate from Washington to London, from Baghdad to Jerusalem, on to Islamabad and beyond.
After the 9/11 attacks, Tony Blair told the Labour party conference that the wars he was about to fight were about building a new world order. ‘The kaleidoscope has been shaken, the pieces are in flux, soon they will settle again,’ he said. ‘Before they do, let us reorder this world around us.’ As Britain and America retreat, defeated, it will now be up to others to reorder the world. An opportunity that China is unlikely to pass up.
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