View from
The Right

Afghanistan and the West’s Failure

(Jonathan Gifford/Ministry of Defence via AP)

“Whether America likes it or not, the unipolar moment, Pax Americana, is over.”

Today, Tuesday, August 31st, the last American soldier left Afghanistan. This concluded two decades of war, and the country that Americans and Britons bled for is now under the control of the Taliban. Again. The West poured blood and treasure into a bottomless pit of violence and corruption, and the only thing we have to show for it is a country back where it started before we invaded in 2001. This is a failure for all the world to see.  

It was right that the United States and its North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) allies invaded in 2001 in retaliation for the September 11th attacks. The Taliban had been sheltering Osama bin Laden and Al-Qaeda, thus providing Afghanistan as a terror training ground. However, the failures started almost immediately when Western forces held back from using overwhelming force and allowed bin Laden and his allies to escape through Tora Bora into the Badlands of our glorious “ally” Pakistan, from where they could conduct their affairs unimpeded. Meanwhile, the Taliban melted into the high hills and “cathedral-like mountain ranges” of that geographically riven land. 

The second failure was the setting up of the replacement Afghan state. The West, wrapped up in post-Cold War triumphalism, could not see that its way of governing was not suited for everywhere and always. The particularities of place and people butted up against and broke apart the abstractions of liberal universalism. Constructing a Weberian state around 14 different tribes and other groupings led by a centralized leadership class was always a recipe for conflict and corruption, especially once the money flowed in and the competition for spoils began. The Americans refused to consider the reinstitution of the Afghan monarchy, which might have provided a non-political symbol of authority that could have offered a unifying institution around which the diverse and divided population could coalesce. Another alternative was to break up the state to reflect the tribal and ethnic make-up. But no, America knew best. And in her post-Protestant, messianic fervor, the United States constituted a government rank with corruption and crippled by incompetence. 

The third failure was the lack of an overall strategy on the part of America and her allies. What were we all there for? First, it was retaliation. Then, it was government installation. Then it was nation-building. Then it was counterterrorism. Then it was capacity-building. The endless evolution of aims bespoke a strategic blindness and tactical ineptitude. The retaliation did not achieve its full objectives. The government installation was a disaster, worsened by a vote system (single nontransferable vote) almost designed to inflame ethnic tensions. Nation-building is impossible where there is no nation to build with and when it takes hundreds of years. Those who said we could stay in a stalemate refused to acknowledge the time it took for the British in India, for example. Counterterrorism was a superficially reasonable goal, but it quickly became an opportunity for defense contractors to cash in and a means for senior officers’ career progression. Meanwhile, the situation was constantly “turning a corner” (i.e., improving) when, in reality, the exact opposite was happening. Capacity-building was laid bare for the racket it was when the Afghan army collapsed without American technology and expertise to hold it up. 

Afghanistan, the righteous war, became the icon for an American ruling class looking for both moral motivation and financial compensation. The $2.26 trillion spent by the United States went on dodgy contractors, useless civic and governance initiatives divorced from reality, crooked government bureaucrats and warlords, and an overall wasteful war that achieved little and consumed plenty in men and material. The ruling class thought that the way to defeat terrorism (a delusional goal in itself) was to spread democracy, open markets, and individual liberty to the world’s darkest corners. America was the world’s hegemon, and it was her divine duty to lead the world’s oppressed into the light and warmth of freedom. If everyone is born free and equal but some are kept in chains, then it is obviously incumbent on America as the shining city on a hill to strike off those chains and set free those whose freedom and equality are suppressed. 

Of course, this ahistorical and unrealistic worldview was shattered on the rocks of the barren hills of Afghanistan. America’s ruling class, drunk on its own moral righteousness and divorced from the reality of the world beyond its shores, could neither see nor accept that the rest of the world—never mind somewhere with the cleavages of Afghanistan—might not want the vision of the future so beneficently bestowed upon it by the American community of the elect. After 20 years, Afghanistan is still the worst place in the world for women; is only 43% literate; is mired in extreme poverty that worsened on the West’s watch, and as such is 169 out of 189 on the United Nations Human Development Index; is sunk in corrupt government; has seen an increase in opium production; the return of the institutionalized sexual abuse of young boys; and had a society in 2013 that boasted 99% support for Sharia Law. 94% further agreed that a wife is “always obliged to obey her husband”; 85% favored stoning for adultery; around 80% supported death for apostasy; and nearly 40% said suicide bombings in the name of Islam were justified.

Afghanistan was our generation’s Vietnam, with the constant obsession with meaningless “metrics” of success, which constantly changed to make it look like we were winning (whatever that meant) when in reality we were losing. The debates in Britain and America following withdrawal have been surreal in their disconnection from reality. In Britain, we have seen supposedly serious members of the political and commentary classes arguing that we should decouple from America and pursue our own intervention in Afghanistan. Members of Parliament who served repeatedly talk of their rage and misery about Afghanistan’s fate, as though these are qualities that make for steady and stable leadership. Many American politicians and pundits have been decrying withdrawal as unnecessary and/or a betrayal of American servicemen and women. Even those who say there had to be a withdrawal at some point make clear through the course of their columns and media content that, actually, they were fine with the United States staying in Afghanistan indefinitely. 

At the risk of cliché, I have always wondered what it must have been like to live in 4th century Rome, when decline and civilizational decadence were starting to drift through the empire. There was still some semblance of greatness and a feeling that things could be turned around. If for no other reason than the blessings of its almost providential geography, America is unlikely to fall as Rome fell. However, there is a distinct feel of late-Rome to things. Whether America likes it or not, the unipolar moment, Pax Americana, is over. The post-Cold War order is dead and gone, and the United States’ rulers helped to bury it through their feckless idealism and solipsistic ignorance. 

The withdrawal from Afghanistan was a disaster in its incompetence that bordered on the criminally negligent. The depressing fact is that, considering the previous 20 years, it could have been even worse. There will likely be no reflection on any of this from the American ruling class, incapable of seeing its own faults. The one thing we can hope for is that some semblance of reality makes itself felt and that America and Britain can face our present and future challenges—of growing global anarchy, authoritarian rule, and climate change and attendant migration on a Biblical scale—as they are and conserve something of our own way of life by doing so. Whether they can or will remains a question without an answer.

Henry George is a writer from the U.K., focusing on politics, political philosophy, and culture. He has also written at Quillette, Arc Digital, Reaction, The University Bookman, and Intercollegiate Review. 

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