Afghanistan: This is what losing looks like

 [Akhter Gulfam/EPA]

As we approach the 20th anniversary of the September 11th attacks on The United States, the Taliban has taken control of Afghanistan. The images of the Kabul airlift will remain the defining representation of the NATO defeat. For the second time in 20 years; The West has humiliated itself in The Middle East.

Many in America and Europe have tried to spin the withdrawal from Afghanistan as only a ‘failure’ and a case of ‘nothing more to be achieved’. While both of those things are true, rarely do you hear Allied governments acknowledge the important truth; The West has lost the war in Afghanistan and The War on Terror.

Afghanistan has been a war unwinnable since the 2001 invasion went beyond the scope of destroying Al-Qaeda’s ability to operate in Afghanistan. To anybody who has any basic knowledge of Afghanistan, its modern history or contemporary Islamist politics in the Middle East, the humiliation of Western powers in the Afghan theatre of war was utterly predictable.

We have a problem in The West. We are arrogant, narrow minded and naïve when it comes to the nature of foreign intervention. Despite decades of modern evidence pointing to one obvious truth. You cannot conquer a land, society or ideology which you do not respect or understand.

Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan have all proven that you cannot beat a popular insurgency with a conventional military force. Furthermore, the multitudes of problems that exist within the region and in our world cannot all be solved through military force and regime change.

Throughout the previous two decades, military and social progress in Afghanistan was grossly overstated, from officers on the ground, all the way to heads of state. It was not uncommon to hear Western diplomats and military officials, eager to portray the situation as constantly improving, speak of the possibility of an inclusive political settlement in Afghanistan. The public was constantly told that it would just be another few short years before Afghanistan would become a functional, popularly supported democracy.

As soon as the Taliban were toppled from power it was obvious that The West was seeking a reconstruction of Afghanistan. Not just of infrastructure, but a complete reconstruction of Afghan society, moulded in the image of our liberal-democratic societies.

A preposterous proposition in a land and culture so alien from our own, a land largely hostile to Western values. The very existence of a shared widespread concept of nationalism is questionable at best in Afghanistan, a rural, feudal land dominated by tribal allegiances and an assortment of provincial warlords.

Some of our press and societies in the anglosphere have been shocked at the images from Kabul this month precisely because our citizens were never told the truth about Afghanistan. That it has been a fruitless exercise since 2002. 

President Biden was right to highlight the cold hard facts relating to the Afghan National Army. That the ANA was a corrupt, incapable fighting force with little interest in operating independently of a NATO ground presence. Why should young Americans and Europeans fight for a nation which has little interest in defending its own current existence? How many more American and NATO troops should die in Afghanistan?

There is no more vivid a descriptor of the risks coalition forces have been made face in the last 20 years than the shocking and brutal suicide bombing which took place outside of Hamid Karzai International Airport. The absence of the 13 American troops who have died will forever leave a consuming void in the hearts of their families, friends and communities. That is the unacceptable price of this war and of the political folly which lead to this moment. There are many more Afghan citizens who were also caught in the crossfire of this conflict.

The Taliban, like all militaristic Islamist groups in the region, will of course remove many individual liberties. It is highly likely that women will once again be treated as property, girls robbed of an education and broader civil society will endure a deeply oppressive regime which restricts freedom of expression. That is a humanitarian crisis and a moral tragedy. But it will never be solved by Western militaries. The past 40 years of Soviet and NATO involvement have proven so.

The reality is that Afghanistan was America’s war. It was a direct response to the 9/11 attacks. It was started by the 43rd President of The United States and was initially popularly supported by the American public and the entire political establishment. 20 years of a disastrous strategy, allowed to continue by 3 administrations, has long borne festering fruit.

The only thing wrong about the American led withdrawal from Afghanistan is the fact that many Afghans who helped NATO forces will be left behind to suffer the retribution of the Taliban. Some media outlets have reported that such Afghans face an ‘uncertain future’. It is yet another small but costly lie, one which results in a softer perception of how much of a disaster the entire Afghan war was.

Those collaborators and their families face a very certain future; they will very likely be rounded up and murdered by the Taliban, unless extracted by Coalition forces. That is the price of 20 years of false promises to Afghanistan.

The Taliban is now emboldened and in a stronger position than it was 20 years ago before the invasion. It is now likely to receive international recognition and legitimacy from several key nations, including China. The Taliban also knows that there is no political will in The West to once again become entrenched in Afghanistan.

What we are witnessing today is the accumulation of two decades of institutional rot, the result of a press which proudly beats the drums of war and a school of foreign policy thought which barely understands the potency and definitive nature of identity and religious divides in The Middle East. The 46th American President has summoned enormous political courage and sacrificed priceless political capital to do what has needed to be done since the early 2000s. This is what losing looks like. Coalition leaders are obliged to acknowledge that defeat and learn from it. 

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