The 1990s may be back in fashion on the high street, but the prevailing world-view of that era and of the 2000s – that America dominates a unipolar world – has fallen badly out of favour. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the United States’ ignominious retreat from Afghanistan.
The withdrawal has arguably been driven by Western electorates that have grown tired of their obligations to the wider world. This was reflected in President Joe Biden’s speech on Monday 16 August. With mid-term elections in sight, Biden spoke of “ending forever wars” and bringing “America’s daughters and sons” home. It was a speech about America’s national interest that was every bit as “America First” as anything emitted by Donald Trump during his time as president.
Critics of the war in Afghanistan like to frame the conflict as a “humanitarian intervention” on the part of the United States. Yet it is worth remembering that, unlike the invasion of Iraq, the war against the Taliban was an act of self-defence by the US under the United Nations charter following the attacks of 11 September 2001. Indeed, until its overthrow by a coalition of more than 40 countries, the Taliban had provided a safe haven for Osama Bin Laden’s al-Qaeda, from which the latter orchestrated the attacks on New York that killed nearly 3,000 people.
In one sense, however, the deposal of the Taliban by coalition forces in 2001 was a humanitarian intervention. Indeed, it would take a particularly cold heart to ignore the capacity of the Taliban to inflict misery on the Afghan population. During the first period of Taliban rule between 1996 and 2001, the female population of Afghanistan was enslaved while the country’s rulers directed an extermination campaign against the Hazara minority.
It is therefore wrong to lazily opine that no good came out of the Islamist group’s overthrow. During the years after the Taliban’s removal, infant mortality in Afghanistan was halved. The number of children attending school increased tenfold from 0.9 million to 9.2 million. In 2001 only one million boys attended formal schools while no girls did. By 2012 there were 7.8 million pupils attending school – including around 2.9 million girls.
Yet, as was reported by George Packer in the Atlantic, President Biden appears to care little about the fortunes of Afghan school girls. “Fuck that, we don’t have to worry about that,” said Biden in 2010, according to Richard Holbrooke, Obama’s special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, when asked about the US’s obligations to the Afghan people.
Democrats may seek to blame former president Donald Trump for the calamitous withdrawal from Afghanistan – it was, after all, Trump who agreed to downgrade and withdraw US forces without getting anything in return. But Biden’s contemptuous language is indistinguishable from anything the boorish and ignorant Trump might have uttered during his time in office.
Equally Trumpian was Biden’s historical illiteracy when attempting to blame the Afghans themselves for the Taliban takeover. “American troops cannot, and should not, be fighting and dying in a war that Afghan forces are by and large not willing to fight and die in themselves,” the President tweeted on 16 August. Yet while the United States has suffered 2,488 fatalities in the war against the Taliban, Afghan military deaths number almost 70,000.
It may be true that there has “never been a good time to withdraw US forces” from Afghanistan, as Biden put it. However, the manner in which the US withdrawal has taken place – precipitating harrowing scenes in which desperate Afghans cling to the undercarriages of departing US military transports – was arguably enacted for domestic political reasons: so that Biden could triumphantly claim to have ended the war in Afghanistan on next month’s 20th anniversary of 9/11.
In this respect, Biden is probably in tune with American voters who, like their British and European counterparts, have had enough of “forever wars”. The idealism of the 1990s and 2000s, in which it was widely believed the West could reshape the world to fit the precepts of liberal democracy, feels hopelessly disconnected from our own era of economic insecurity and loss of faith in technocratic elites.
Yet in the months and years ahead I suspect voters, at least in Europe, will come to better understand that “troops out” has consequences too. It is not possible to stop the world and get off, however alluring that proposition might sound. To paraphrase a quote once attributed to Leon Trotsky, Western electorates may not be interested in the war and dictatorship, but it is interested in them. Just as the conflict in Syria sent waves of refugees fanning out towards Europe, I suspect we will see a similar exodus from Afghanistan by those fleeing tyrannical Islamist rule.
The political repercussions in Europe of another wave of refugees are easy enough to predict. The French President Emmanuel Macron has already given us a foretaste of how our politicians will respond: with one eye on his far-right rival Marine Le Pen, Macron has urged Europeans to “protect ourselves against major irregular migratory flows”. Fortress Europe is about to be strengthened.
History rarely repeats itself but it does often adhere to a similar rhythm. As the US enters one of its periodic retreats into isolationism, here in Europe a resurgent and reinforced right-wing populism may be the end result. Similar forces were unleashed during the US retreat from its international obligations following the First World War. The fruits of such a political realignment may be another “low dishonest decade”, as WH Auden wrote 80 years ago in his poem “September 1, 1939”. We can only hope that the resultant political fallout is less severe this time around.