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20 October 2021

Afghanistan shows the American dream of remaking the world is over

If the US’s occupation of Afghanistan was a failed exercise in nation-building, its withdrawal could mark a long overdue shift to foreign policy realism.

By John Gray

The abrupt disappearance of a familiar world leaves a sense of unreality in those who witness it. When an unhinged rabble stormed the Capitol building in Washington, DC in January, it was hard to believe the scenes broadcast across the world were happening. A similar sense of disbelief is produced by images of American and allied forces struggling to extract their citizens and partners from the grip of a triumphant Taliban in Afghanistan. The two events are part of the same process of disintegration. The disorder that has been loosed on the world reflects the disorder that reigns in the United States itself.

There are many who think Joe Biden’s decision to accept the Afghanistan withdrawal plan negotiated by Donald Trump in Doha in February 2020 was simply a default in leadership. Biden should have disowned Trump’s deal, or delayed its implementation until conditions looked more propitious. The US’s retreat was needless, and the decline of American power can be reversed by an act of will. It is not only a shrunken army of neoconservatives, seething in their Washington bunkers, who think this way. So does Tony Blair when he fulminates against Biden’s “imbecilic” decision.

It is true that the Biden administration’s handling of America’s withdrawal has been deplorable. Leaving Bagram airbase in the dead of night on 1 July, without informing the local Afghan commander and programming electricity and water supplies to be shut off after the last plane had departed, prefigured the chaos that followed. The base housed a prison – widely feared and hated by Afghans as a centre where large-scale torture was practised – which contained thousands of inmates. Many of them fighters from the Taliban and Islamic State, they soon escaped or were released.

Arrant incompetence characterised the American exit from the start. But attributing the Afghan tragedy to Joe Biden’s poor judgement and allegedly waning mental powers is a cop-out. Instead, the retreat is the outcome of 20 years and more of liberal overreach in the US and its allies. If anyone is senile, it is the political class that mired the West in this conflict. Biden’s decision may yet be remembered as a long overdue shift to realism in American foreign policy.

It is worth asking what the US and Nato believed they were doing in Afghanistan. The official narrative propagated by the governments involved in the Afghan mission is that the original plan was to prevent the country from being used as a safe haven for terrorists, and that this was achieved. Exiting in present circumstances has left the West more vulnerable, they argue, and at the same time signals to its allies that they cannot count on its protection.

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There is some truth in this story. It is not only Ukraine and Taiwan that suspect they too could be abandoned by the US. Japan, Israel, the Gulf states, the Baltic states and Georgia will be wondering how much American guarantees of their security are worth. Jihadism has been re-energised, a trend already manifesting itself in countries such as Somalia and Mali. A horrendous refugee crisis is brewing. Desperate Afghans fleeing terror and famine, who only weeks ago were being assured that human rights are universal, will face sealed borders across Europe. Within Afghanistan, the US pull-out has handed the initiative to terrorist forces even more extreme than the Taliban, such as Isis and various jihadist splinter groups.

The dangers are all too clear. Yet installing an army of occupation was never a sustainable strategy. More than the US switching its attention to another misbegotten war in Iraq, it was this fateful decision that made disaster unavoidable. Occupying Afghanistan meant waging a counter-insurgency campaign, which in turn meant a failed exercise in nation-building. An ignominious exit was preordained.

There were better ways of defending the West. The campaign of disabling terrorist sites by bombing, which drove Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda from the country, could have been turned into a permanent threat backed by that of concentrated ground operations. Pressure could have been exerted on Pakistan, whose military Inter-Services Intelligence agency (ISI) nurtured and sheltered the Taliban throughout its history.

[see also: Jeremy Bowen’s Diary: Where the West went wrong in Afghanistan, the ruins of Helmand, and my sharp new attire]

Launching a counter-insurgency campaign defied the lessons of history. The last major victory in a war of this kind was in the Malayan Emergency in the 1950s, where the British were able to deploy an existing state infrastructure against communist rebels. In Afghanistan a modern state had to be constructed from scratch – an impossible task, as Afghan history has repeatedly demonstrated. If a small Western garrison had been kept in place, as some have proposed, it would have only delayed the final reckoning. All the Taliban had to do was wait.

When a modern state has existed in Afghanistan it has been superimposed on a country of tribes and clans, and this is the case today. Around three-quarters of the population live in villages, where identities and loyalties are local and tribal. For these rural communities, which suffered the worst carnage of the war, the Afghan nation is a fiction.

This may explain the uncanny ease with which Kabul fell, which seemed to surprise even the Taliban. Knowing the weakness of the state, the real holders of power – local and regional governors, police chiefs and clan leaders – surrendered without hesitation. The Kabul government functioned principally as an instrument of kleptocratic elites. Aid funds were siphoned off on a stupendous scale. Ghost soldiers were invented and their salaries stolen while actual soldiers went unpaid. The legal system installed by the allies was slow and corrupt, forcing many Afghans to turn to Taliban justice instead.

The government did secure improvements in society, particularly for urban women. But these gains were dependent on keeping the Taliban at bay, which demanded a permanent, colonial-style military presence in the country. It was never a viable option. No democracy can sustain an indefinite loss of life for such an endlessly receding goal. The women and girls who are being denied a proper education and dragged off to sexual slavery are casualties of promises that could not be kept.

Some suggest Afghanistan’s new rulers are savvier now than when they were in power between 1996 and 2001. They may be, but that does not make them any less malevolent. The liberal West understands fanaticism as the result of ignorance and error; as human beings grow smarter, they will be less cruel and repressive. It is a dangerous delusion. Taliban forces are making house-to-house searches using handheld digital surveillance devices left behind in the allied retreat. Wherever they can, they deploy new technologies to enforce a virulent fundamentalist ideology. Nothing is more prototypically modern than fundamentalism – the attempt to recreate a crudely simplified version of an irretrievable past. Describing the Taliban as taking the country back to the Middle Ages does an injustice to the subtler cultures of medieval times.

The new self-declared Emirate threatens the West, its friends and its enemies alike. While delighting in America’s humiliation, China and Russia have jihadist threats of their own to contend with. India fears Afghanistan will become a base for terror groups like the one that carried out the 2008 attacks in Mumbai. Iran and Pakistan welcome American defeat, but worry about a further influx of refugees on top of the millions they already host. Unlike Vietnam, where American withdrawal failed to cause a domino effect for communism in south-east Asia, Afghanistan’s future is a crucial factor in regional and global power struggles.

Nation-building in Afghanistan demonstrated the limitations of a model of development that has mesmerised thinkers and governments from all parts of the political spectrum for generations. Modernisation means catching up with the West and adopting its institutions and values. Temporary deviations are permissible, given the imperfections of local cultures, but all societies are moving towards a single destination – an idealised replica of the kind of state and society that used  to exist in some Western countries.

This view of modernisation was promoted by Ashraf Ghani, Afghan president between September 2014 and August 2021, in the book Fixing Failed States: A Framework for Rebuilding a Fractured World, co-authored with the British human rights lawyer Clare Lockhart (2008). The two founded a Washington-based consultancy, the Institute of State Effectiveness, in 2005. By the time of the American withdrawal, Ghani was a world-renowned expert on development. When the Taliban reached the outskirts of Kabul he fled the country, and now lives abroad.

Ghani’s model originates in 18th-century Europe, when economists such as Anne-Robert-Jacques Turgot (1727-81) and Adam Smith (1723-90) presented human development as unfolding in a series of distinct phases terminating in commercial societies of the kind in which they lived. Progress consisted of transforming or eliminating any remnants of earlier and supposedly more primitive forms of life in their own societies, such as village communities, while others followed in the wake of this ongoing advance.

Later thinkers accepted the idea of all of humankind moving through the same phases of development, even if they changed the ultimate destination. Karl Marx, writing in the New York Herald Tribune in 1853, praised British imperialism for disrupting the “undignified, stagnant and vegetative life” of Indian villages. Though modified by Lenin, Marx’s view of pre-industrial life framed the Soviet effort to “catch up with and overtake” the capitalist West through forced-march industrialisation, which led to millions dying in the collectivisation of agriculture in the early 1930s. A generation later, a parallel concept known as “forced-draft urbanisation”, developed by the American political scientist Samuel Huntington, was applied as a strategy in the Vietnam War, resulting in the mass displacement of Vietnamese villagers.

The belief that modernising meant copying the West resurfaced during the short-lived Gorbachev era between 1985 and 1991, when jubilant liberals imagined post-communist Russia becoming a democracy like Canada or Sweden. This fantasy had an academic pedigree in the work of the Harvard sociologist Daniel Bell (1919-2011) who, in The End of Ideology (1960), envisioned Soviet communism and liberal capitalism converging in some variant of social democracy. Bell’s analysis was revisited by Francis Fukuyama in The Origins of Political Order (2011), where the world’s central political problem was defined as “getting to Denmark”.

There are radical defects in this neo-colonial vision, which many in the ruling elites of developing countries, for all their anti-Western stances, have embraced. Liberal democracy developed over centuries in conflicts that included revolutions, civil wars, dictatorships and two world wars. The idea that this fraught history could be compressed into a couple of decades was delusional. Conceivably, a modern state could have been fashioned in Afghanistan by building on traditional structures of authority in villages and tribes. But that would have meant admitting that there could be more than one path of political development for the country, a possibility that seems never to have been seriously considered.

Today, the liberal mode of government is decaying in the countries where it originated. The US in particular shows many of the signs of a state in disrepair. An American cultural revolution has transformed the country out of recognition. Police forces are being defunded, and some cities, such as Portland, are not far from becoming ungoverned spaces. A combination of ultra-progressive social policies and neoliberal capitalism is turning others, such as San Francisco, into drug-sodden shanty towns, but without the informal communities that preserve some semblance of order in developing countries. Superficially at odds, neoliberalism and the prevailing progressivism have a common root in the privileging of individual choice over other human values. Together, they erode the social bonds that individuals need in  order to make meaningful decisions. The result is an acute form of anomie.

The esoteric liberalism of language-purification and thought-cleansing that has seized control of many American universities and institutions can be understood as an attempt to impose a kind of solidarity on the resulting chaos. Universities in particular are theatres for Maoist-style struggle sessions, while much of the media is engaged in agitprop. Practically all of America’s institutions are sites of political warfare. In these conditions, any attempt to export American ideas of government will be seen as the globalisation of America’s disorders.

Failed intervention: evacuees board a US Air Force plane in Kabul on 17 August 2021. Photo by Senior Airman Brennen Lege/AP

But there is little likelihood of any future project of that kind. A country that has dissolved into warring ideological tribes lacks the taste for foreign adventures. Many expect these divisions will pass, and someday they will. But the world will not wait on America to resolve its internecine warfare, and in the meantime US foreign policies will need to be less erratic if the country’s international standing is to be salvaged.

Perhaps Biden has begun this renewal. On 1 September he announced: “The decision about Afghanistan is not just about Afghanistan. It’s about ending an era of major military operations to remake other countries.”

This “Biden doctrine” has been denounced as a stratagem aimed at the midterm elections in November 2022. But Biden has voiced doubts about the Afghan mission for at least a decade, and it could be that his new doctrine marks a turn to a more restrained and realistic American foreign policy.

To claim that US withdrawal could have been averted is to fail to grasp the necessity of what is now unfolding. It may be true that Afghanistan’s fate was sealed with Trump’s exit plan, which told the Taliban the war was over. But Trump proposed the plan because he knew promising to end foreign wars was a key lever in coming to power, while Biden knew that if he declined to implement the plan he would boost Trump’s chances of re-election.

A tragedy that can be avoided by willpower is not a tragedy. A crumbling Pax Americana is the logic of events, and it is not a process America can unilaterally reverse. An argument can be made that the end of the Afghan War enables the US to focus on China, and renew its military pre-eminence through the use of ultra-advanced technologies such as artificial intelligence and robotics. However, the next phase in world order will be shaped not by what the US plans to do but more by what other states are already doing.

Nations throughout the world that have relied on American power for their security will hedge their bets. In late August this year Saudi Arabia, a long-standing strategic ally of the US, signed a “military cooperation agreement” with Russia. Poland, disappointed and anxious since the US tacitly endorsed Russia’s Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline to Germany earlier this year, has been forging closer links with China – a trend evident in Viktor Orbán’s Hungary for years. European leaders such as Emmanuel Macron and Ursula von der Leyen have talked of the need to develop European “strategic autonomy”. Yet after decades of declarations of intent, a European army remains a phantom. A creaking structure composed of 27 states cannot support a credible defence union. In practice, the pursuit of a chimerical independent defence capability will only strengthen Europe’s urge to seek an accommodation with Russia and China.

This strategic vacuum in Europe may be part of the rationale for the historic Aukus pact between the US, UK and Australia to build a new fleet of nuclear-propelled submarines and collaborate in the Indo-Pacific region. If China’s expansion must be contained, only the US can do it. But it should be clear that the upshot cannot be a renewal of American hegemony. The rise of China is part of an unalterable shift from Western dominance. We will continue to inhabit a world more like that before 1914, in which a number of great  powers compete with one another for status and resources.

There are many reasons for the Afghan debacle besides the fatal decision to install an army of occupation. Rigid Western military bureaucracies, profiteering Washington contractors, corrupt Afghan elites and the exigencies of American politics have all played a part. But the ultimate causes lie in the mindset which believes that humankind advances by becoming more like the West.

There is no universal human agent advancing through history. Human beings have common needs, but they also want different futures. Do Afghan villagers truly yearn for the personal autonomy pursued by a Westernised middle class in Afghan cities? Could it not be that much of the Afghan population remains attached to the tribal identities that have thwarted attempts to remake the country in the past? When the West looks at Afghanistan, might it be seeing a blurred image of itself rather than the complex and discordant truth?

For liberals these questions are akin to blasphemy. The “rules-based liberal order” was always in part an illusion. Power was more important than rules, but the illusion maintained a kind of stability until power moved elsewhere with the rise of China, Russia’s  re-emergence as a major player and India’s increasing role as a counter-weight to China. Any reference to the international community today demands a suspension of disbelief. The West has ceased to be the deciding force in world events without noticing the fact.

This blindness is not surprising. For figures such as Tony Blair who imagined a new humanity was emerging, globalised and progressive, understanding the present would destroy their self-image. Dreading this trauma, they remain transfixed by the alternate reality they have constructed in their minds. As a consequence, the West suffers from a chronic cognitive disorder, which prevents it from framing workable strategies for its own survival.

For all its crusades and self-destructive impulses, what remains of a Western way of life is worth preserving. But defending it effectively means renouncing the attempt to project our values into societies we do not understand. There are many ways of being modern. Some of them, like the Taliban’s attempt to impose a fundamentalist ideology on Afghanistan and the ensuing resurgence of worldwide jihadism, are a threat to the West. In a different and more profound manner, so is the high-tech totalitarian experiment under way in China. Balancing these and other threats such as climate change and the risk of future pandemics will be extremely challenging. What is needed, above all, is a sense of reality.

But unless the West can shed the delusion that the rest of humankind is a backward version of itself, tragedies like that enacted in Afghanistan will be repeated, in new and possibly more grandiose forms.

[see also: The graveyard of empires: Why American power failed in Afghanistan]

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This article appears in the 20 Oct 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Twilight of the West