Friday, February 23, 2024

OPINION AND ANALYSIS | 21-08-2021 21:36

A most humiliating retreat

The United States handed Afghanistan back to the Taliban because years ago most of her political leaders, including Donald Trump and Joe Biden, had come to the conclusion that “nation-building” was utter folly.


The United States handed Afghanistan back to the Taliban because years ago most of her political leaders, including Donald Trump and Joe Biden, had come to the conclusion that “nation-building” was utter folly. Some who influenced them said it was ridiculous to expect people of an alien culture to embrace a Western concept such as liberal democracy; as far as they were concerned, attempting to do so was a stupid waste of time and money. Others criticised the endeavour because it was based on the outrageous assumption that Western ways are better than those prevailing elsewhere. Although almost all agree that Biden’s government made a terrible mess of the withdrawal, many take it for granted that he was right to put an end to 20 years of direct involvement in Afghanistan’s internal affairs because, they say, absolutely nothing was achieved.

Nothing? The tens, perhaps hundreds of thousands, even millions of fearful Afghans who are either in hiding, trying to flee their native land or risking their lives by staging protest demonstrations while getting shot at evidently do not share that point of view. For them, what came to a sudden end barely a week ago seemed like the start of a golden age. They, especially the women among them, were all in favour of the nation-building project which the US and her allies had undertaken on their behalf. They certainly have no desire to be subjected once again to Taliban rule which, experience has taught them, is arbitrary, vengeful, sadistically cruel and backward-looking.

Why, then, did the Afghan regular forces simply cave it overnight? Because the sudden departure of the people who provided them with the materiel they needed and often told them how to use it left them demoralised. Perhaps some will regroup and embark on a long guerrilla campaign against the Taliban who, needless to say, can be relied upon to react with their habitual brutality.

The many who are against “nation-building” in chaotic parts of the world should ask themselves what are the alternatives. Must Westerners turn a blind eye to the abuses that are sure to take place in Afghanistan, telling themselves that treating women, including young girls, as livestock, building stone walls that will be toppled to crush homosexuals, amputating the hands of petty criminals and all the rest are just local customs which are every bit as good as Western ones? Are dictatorships as worthy of respect as democratic governments? Apparently this is more or less what we are being told to accept as patently obvious.

Would a softer approach, with solemn speeches about the importance of human rights, lots of money and the presence of charitable NGOs, work better than the more forceful one that was adopted in order to stop Afghanistan serving as a sanctuary for jihadists? There is no reason to think so. Bodies associated with the defence of human rights tend to be taken over by thugs, as has happened time and time again in the ones set up under the auspices of the United Nations, foreign aid usually ends up in the pockets of corrupt politicians and the good deeds performed by NGOs have been accompanied by well-publicised abuses of one kind or another which discredit both them and the West as a whole.

By pulling out of Afghanistan without bothering to make sure all her own citizens, plus the huge number of Afghans who had helped them, were safely out of harm’s way, and preventing the enemy from getting their fingers on an impressive amount of weaponry, the US suffered a far more serious reverse than any that could be attributed to the defects of a nation-building project that, to be successful, would have had to continue for several generations more.

Political cultures really can be changed by pressure from abroad, but unless the effort is preceded by a truly devastating military defeat, as in Japan and Germany, it takes time, something which is always in short supply in the United States, a country notoriously fond of the quick fix. As for the British and their fellow Europeans, if they wanted they could acquire the resources that would be necessary for those who take the long view, but they have become excessively reliant on their transatlantic “cousins.” For almost three-quarters of a century, their willingness to let the US take care of their defence brought them benefits, but in the unruly world which awaits them and others, the resulting psychological dependence could cost them dear.

Islamists like the Taliban and the Iranian ayatollahs, or Chinese leaders who feel the Middle Kingdom is about to reassert itself, are not noted for their humility. They think the entire world should recognise their evident superiority. Once upon a time, Westerners were equally self-confident, but those days are well behind us. Instead of bragging about the achievements over the centuries of the societies that for several centuries dominated the world, academics, influential public intellectuals, media personalities and now politicians like Biden enjoy nothing more than going on about how racist the countries they were raised in have always been, how unpardonably white and sexist, and, in many cases, insisting that their brutish inhabitants would never has achieved anything of value had it not been for the contributions of other civilisations.

To the bewilderment and, no doubt, great pleasure of those who would like to see the West grovel at their feet, since last year “taking the knee” to beg forgiveness for an allegedly unparalleled record of crimes against humanity is very much in fashion. From Biden down, the men and women currently running the US are more interested in making their country’s military more “diverse” by incorporating transsexuals and warning those in uniform about the grave dangers allegedly posed by “white supremacists” than in anything connected with their performance of the battlefield where, it is widely assumed, they have just been trounced by a band of tribal fighters. This is untrue because for many years they rarely engaged in full-scale combat, but it is what people believe.

None of this bodes well. The world has never been kind to losers. Those who prostrate themselves are liable to get trod on and there is no lack of individuals out there who will be only too happy to oblige. The feeling, let us hope exaggerated, that the United States along with the other Western countries have shot their collective bolt is certain to encourage rival powers and groupings which make no bones about what they are after. Exactly what they will do is hard to say, but it would not be surprising if terrorist attacks became bigger and far more frequent in the coming months, or, for that matter, if after they happened they were vociferously blamed not so much on the perpetrators and those who encourage them but on the persistence of racial injustice in Western societies.

James Neilson

James Neilson

Former editor of the Buenos Aires Herald (1979-1986).


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