The harsh truths you won’t hear about the withdrawal from Afghanistan
This opinion may not be in vogue among Britain’s media establishment and centre-left milieu at the moment, but US president Joe Biden’s decision to withdraw all western forces from Afghanistan was both good and necessary. The medieval brutality and repression of the Taliban speaks for itself and needs no introduction, but the tremendous human cost of the 20 year occupation perhaps does. Massive majorities of the public support bringing troops home, but this is never reflected in the way we talk about it. There is something especially unedifying to see Britain internalise the second-hand humiliation of another country’s strategic decision as a means of litigating its own post-imperial decline. British combat troops withdrew all the way back in 2014. Our media class is baying for more American blood to be uselessly shed in order to nurse its own wounded imperial pride, to say nothing of the real victims – Afghans themselves.
The first myth is that NATO’s 20 year long presence in Afghanistan was fundamentally driven by a liberal mission to transform and empower the lives of Afghan women and children and drag the country towards progress. It was a brutal military occupation that saw thousands of civilian deaths per year, all to prop up an illegitimate narco-state with little power outside Kabul, whose writ out in the hinterlands was enforced by warlords every bit as violent as the Taliban ones they replaced. The mission only gained pretensions of “nation-building” when its original objective of finding Bin Laden and uprooting Al Qaeda hit a brick wall. Nonetheless, the Taliban regime crumbled just months after the invasion, Al Qaeda’s operations in the country were functionally dismantled by 2011 and Osama Bin Laden was found and neutralised in neighbouring Pakistan. That wasn’t enough for “the blob”, who then had to find new pretexts for keeping the scam going as long as possible. Outside of Kabul, the lives of Afghan women and children – 70% of whom do not live in cities – saw little social gain, but were immiserated by relentless airstrikes, civilian fire and extortion by coalition-allied warlords and troops.
The second myth is that there was a better way of carrying out the exit on the table. The withdrawal is over, now. More than 150,000 people have been evacuated – the vast majority of them Afghan allies. Considering the wider circumstances, that has to be understood as a real success, no mean feat. The reality is that this is a war that the United States and its allies lost. Losers do not usually get the privilege of dictating the terms of their own retreat. Even the US, which did have that privilege, was obviously never going to be in a strong enough position to have its way and make everything go according go plan. There is no orderly, rational way of withdrawing from a disastrously chaotic and irrational war.
Another pernicious myth is the idea that absolutely no warning was given as to how quickly the Afghan government would crumble. Although for obvious reasons the White House could never spell out in open the inevitability of the Ghani regime’s collapse, the State Department was actually issuing formal directives as early back as May asking people to leave the country because of the worsening security situation. Perhaps here the real criticism to be made is a lack of honesty and forthrightness from the administration about what the reality on the ground was. Likewise, there are those who decry the withdrawal as a betrayal of our allies portending a weakening of the Western system of alliances in the face of more serious adversaries like China. This analysis of course neglects the fact that Biden is merely honouring an agreement that his predecessor made during the Doha political process. For him to renege on the accord (as the hawks want him to do) would surely do far more to undermine the standing of the US vis-a-vis international agreements and norms.
There are also those who believe that “strategic patience” (i.e. maintaining a full military presence indefinitely, even decades) could have paid off and led to the Afghanistan mission resembling that of the US military in places like South Korea. On the face of it, the comparison is ridiculous – the US military presence in South Korea today is directed entirely toward the DMZ and defending it from northern incursions, not quelling a mass insurgency and propping up an extremely unpopular and weak state. However, scratch beneath the surface and even there the comparison doesn’t reflect favourably on the doctrine of interventionism – the first three decades of US presence in Korea were defined by its decision to prop up successive brutal military dictators like Syngman Rhee and Park Chung Hee, who imprisoned and murdered tens of thousands of people. And even today, the presence is highly contentious among South Koreans, the majority of whom want nuclear weapons removed from the peninsula and believe in a peaceful path to reunification with the North. Some humility from the people who insist that the sprawling US military empire is a force for good would be in order after this most crushing defeat.
Perhaps the most egregious lie is that the 2021 status quo – where deaths were at an all-time low – was feasible for a long time to come. Those who peddle this line completely neglect the fact that this lull was a product of Trump’s successful negotiations in Doha last year, where the Taliban agreed to cease hostilities towards occupying forces while the US prepared to withdraw by May of 2021. For Biden to have gone back on the agreement would have meant that those hostilities would have resumed, making ghastly scenes like witnessed in Abbey Gate all the more common and requiring US escalation and a surge of thousands of more troops deployed. This also erases the tremendous human cost of 20 years of occupation, as seen below:
The war in Afghanistan was never a benevolent civilising endeavour. It was the outgrowth of a legitimate response to the trauma of 9/11 that turned into an epic grift for contractors. When the government you’ve been propping up for 20 years collapses in a fortnight, you were never “nation-building” – you were running a colony. Some of the compradors installed by the coalition escaped with the hundreds of millions of dollars that the occupation enriched them with. Not only was it a misguided mission, but also a deeply incompetent one. The 2019 Afghanistan Papers released by The Intercept revealed just how much of the occupation was built on a web of lies. Entire military units existed merely on paper. Many people listed as national police personnel existed solely as paper-pushers. Local allied warlords often staged attacks on Western forces in order to maintain their own reliance on them. US troops got sucked into being used to settle personal feuds as people often accused their tribal foes of being Taliban in order to get them whisked away in the dark. The final note of the occupation was the US military’s response to the ISIS-K attack – to launch an air strike at a car full of children with a former embassy translator (on his way to be evacuated), and then try to pass it off as a success. In that sense, the war ended as it began – with senseless violence against civilians, failure and dishonesty.