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So it has come full circle. What started as an operation to eradicate al-Qaeda has ended two decades later with the return of its Afghan enablers to power. Rarely have so many lives and so much cash been spent on so little. It would be nice to think that US politics will learn from this debacle — and both parties are complicit. But the story is far from over. America may have quit this “forever war”, but it will go on. There will be little time for postmortems as we come to grips with the implications of a rebooted Taliban.
America’s default tendency is to see the rest of the world in black and white. Such was the response to the 9/11 attacks on the US homeland 20 years ago. Either the world was with America or against it. Linked to that is the assumption that friends want to remake themselves in America’s image, while foes are beyond the pale. Such binary thinking is a profound strength when faced with a deep menace, such as fascism or communism. But most challenges are greyer than that. A Manichean world view seldom produces good foreign policy.
Afghanistan’s recent history has been an object lesson in how this instinct can lead America astray. After 9/11, each US party chose one country as their target of nation-building. Republicans picked Iraq. Democrats chose Afghanistan. The split was settled by domestic politics rather than conditions abroad. Democrats believed Afghanistan was a war of necessity since Osama bin Laden was based there and Republicans had rashly pivoted to Iraq. Republicans wanted to settle unfinished business with Saddam Hussein. Neither country was susceptible to being remade as a coherent nation at the barrel of a foreign gun. Such processes take longer than two decades and must be led from within.
At each point in the post-9/11 story big US decisions have been based on conditions on the ground — the ground in Washington, that is. George W Bush’s pivot to Iraq was part of a pre-existing agenda that had nothing to do with 9/11. Saddam Hussein had no link to al-Qaeda. Nor did he have weapons of mass destruction. Nothing, including the fall of Kabul to the Taliban this week, could match the damage Bush’s Iraq invasion did to America’s global reputation. Even Donald Trump comes second to that. The 2003 Iraq war was the act of a reckless giant.
Barack Obama’s 110,000 troop surge to Afghanistan in 2009 was less damaging to US power. But it was equally driven by US politics. Since Obama had won the presidency on the basis that Afghanistan, not Iraq, was the just war, he had to redeem his promise. But he lacked conviction in his own policy. Even as he amassed American boots on Afghan soil, Obama vowed that his nation-building goals would be met within three years. That timeline had nothing to do with Afghanistan and everything to do with boosting his 2012 re-election chances.
Countless White House briefings were given about how many Afghan troops the US was training and equipping. Nobody asked who was training the Taliban. The only upside to Trump’s Afghanistan policy was that it was free of hypocrisy. He did not pretend to care about who governed Afghanistan or what happened to its women. But his effect on Afghan morale was devastating. By striking a direct deal with the Taliban that excluded Kabul, Trump cut the legs from whatever hopes remained of an Afghan political settlement.
It should be no surprise that Joe Biden stuck to Trump’s script, except for adding another four months to the US withdrawal timeline. Biden was the lone voice within the White House opposing Obama’s 2009 Afghan surge. Yet there is also a Manichean quality to Biden’s world view. In the past few weeks Biden has argued that there is no evidence that a continued US presence would result in Afghan peace. It does not follow that Afghanistan should therefore be abandoned to a theocratic fate. There are greyer scenarios in between, none of which was apparently worth considering.
The tragedy is that history will continue with or without America. The potential for Afghanistan to export instability to nuclear-armed Pakistan — the world’s largest potential failed state — is real. So, too, is the Taliban’s ability to rejuvenate Islamist groups in the region. Like his predecessors, Biden has fulfilled an election promise. But there is no link between political closure at home and the script that foreigners will follow. As Afghan refugees begin to head west again, and as troublemakers around the world find a new beacon, the US will inevitably get sucked back into the region. US presidents come and go. Geopolitics has a mind of its own.