Why Afghanistan was worth it
It's time to not look back with blame, but forward with hope and generosity. Stephen Hoadley reflects on the US exit from Afghanistan and shares his expectations of the road ahead.
Comment: We will long remember the tumultuous month of August 2021, probably with regret. Now we need to distil the right lessons from the dramatic events that have erupted in Afghanistan, and not be misled by facile generalities.
August began with advances by the Taliban ahead of the planned US exit by the end of the month. The Afghan government in Kabul and the western military intelligence agencies offered assurances that a Taliban victory was months away, and even then not inevitable. But government forces surrendered provincial capital after capital to the astonishment of all analysts, and to the surprise of Taliban leaders as well, who expected weeks of negotiations with the government in Kabul.
On August 15, the Taliban entered Kabul without a fight and became, de facto, the new government of 40 million Afghans. This was its second turn, having previously governed from 1996 to 2001. Armed Talibs in traditional dress, without recognisable insignia of rank or function, occupied the presidential offices and patrolled the streets. While Western media headlines screamed "chaos", TV footage showed a surprising degree of order in Kabul, albeit laced with anxiety. The exception was at the entrances to Kabul Airport where Afghans associated with Western governments massed in an attempt to be evacuated.
The embassies of the foreign partners of the erstwhile Afghan government retreated to Kabul Airport and commenced a military air evacuation of their nationals and Afghan associates and families deemed at risk. Active were not only the United States but also the air forces of a dozen NATO allies who had contributed forces, advisers, and aid in the past two decades, and Australia and New Zealand.
US President Joe Biden’s insistence on an end-of-August exit was reluctantly accepted by US allies and partners, who conceded their inability to keep the airport open without the nearly 5000 combat-ready troops the US had sent to secure it for the military evacuation operation. The internal perimeter remained secure; it was in the Taliban-controlled outer perimeter that 13 US servicepersons and 170 Afghans were killed by Isis-K suicide bombers.
The evacuation did not reach leaders’ goals. By the end of air operations, Britain estimated that 1100 citizens and eligible Afghans didn’t make it to RAF flights. The corresponding figures of those left behind by Germany were 10,000, France 1000, Canada 2000 and New Zealand 500. The US could not evacuate an estimated 200,000 ‘at risk’ Afghans and up to 2000 American citizens.
Throughout August the embassies of China, Russia, Pakistan, and Iran remained in place and open. China’s foreign minister Wang Yi and Taliban leader Abdul Ghani Baradar were famously photographed together in Tianjin, the latter pledging to prevent any ‘East Turkistan terrorists’ from using Afghanistan to threaten China. Close China-Taliban diplomatic relations, and aid, trade, and investment, were predicted. Russia was also firming up its ties with the Taliban authorities, as were neighbouring Pakistan and Iran.
Recriminations erupted among international affairs commentators, and, although phrased diplomatically, among allies and partners of the US. Biden and his predecessor Donald Trump were blamed for "cutting and running", and former US President George Bush was blamed for intervening in the first place. American "nation-building" aspirations were judged ill-conceived and American commitments hollow. A geo-political shift was perceived that favoured Chinese, Russian, and Iranian narratives. Terrorist organisations everywhere were thought to be rejuvenated by the Taliban victory over the great powers of the West.
But in my view these gloomy conclusions were premature. Consider the following alternative perspectives.
In the last two weeks of August, the greatest evacuation since Dunkirk in 1940 and the largest non-combat air transport operation since the Berlin Airlift 1948-49 was executed by the US Air Force and allied air forces. Despite improvisation under pressure, nearly 120,000 persons were airlifted to interim destinations in UAE, Bahrain, Kuwait, Turkey, Spain, Italy, and Germany. After processing for security and eligibility, they were resettled in Western countries, mainly the US. This evacuation was completed without the loss of a single plane or evacuee. It was a model of an orderly retreat, not a "shambles" as characterised by the media and critics of the US.
Western governments pledged to continue efforts to get eligible at-risk Afghans out. Land departure routes via neighbouring Pakistan and Iran were to be explored, and commercial flights were to be used in due course. The Taliban leaders in Kabul pledged to allow departures. Western governments can bargain for the departure of their eligible at-risk Afghans, and for avoidance of reprisals and suppression of women, by offering to return some US$10 billion of Afghan government assets held in US banks and US$0.5billion in loans pledged by the IMF, now frozen contingent on Taliban moderation. Western NGOs and UN agencies are poised to resume much-needed aid at the grassroots. Multinational companies can offer investment and trade opportunities. And Western governments can offer diplomatic recognition, legitimacy and inclusion to the new Emirate.
Undisciplined Talib gunmen may perpetrate atrocities in the provinces, so the challenge to the more cosmopolitan leaders is to revive the economy so as to provide non-combat roles to the rank-and-file fighters. They appear to accept that cooperation with the West is their most prudent course of action, albeit within the guidelines of Islamic law, which the West must accept.
Is the US finished in the Middle East? The cooperation of the Gulf states with the air evacuation suggests otherwise. US forces still provide a backup to deter Iranian pressure. And India will rely even more on the US to counter pressures from China, as will the wary governments of Southeast and East Asia.
Has US hegemony reached its apogee? Not yet. Recall that the ‘loss’ of China in 1949 and the ‘loss’ of South Vietnam in 1975 did not spell the end of US influence. The ‘losses’ of Czechoslovakia, Cuba, Iran, Cambodia, Lebanon, and Somalia did not deflect the US rise to post-Soviet unipolarity or undermine the NATO alliance. US influence will transcend the exit from Afghanistan.
Nor have all US interventions been futile. Recall the model democracies fostered by the US in Germany, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, and post-Soviet Eastern Europe, the curbing of Serbia and support of independence of the states of former Yugoslavia, the liberation of Kuwait in 1991, and, arguably, the post-Isis-uprising stability of the government of Iraq. Few liberals would wish Biden to cease speaking out for human rights in China, North Korea, Myanmar, Iran, Belarus, or Venezuela, or to abandon the growing ideas of The Responsibility to Protect and humanitarian intervention.
And will terrorist attacks surge, inspired by Taliban success? The Taliban has pledged to suppress Isis-K and to eschew assistance to international terrorist organisations. The challenge to leaders in Kabul will be to restrain fighters from Al Qaeda and Isis and Syria and Chechnya who fought alongside the Taliban. It would be ironic, but not illogical, if US and Western intelligence agencies find themselves assisting Taliban security forces in a common counter-terrorism endeavour.
My conclusions are necessarily interim, as the Afghan story continues to unfold. They are as follows.
- Western leaders and analysts, and many Middle Eastern and Asian leaders and analysts too, will long deplore the way the intervention in, and then exit from, Afghanistan were managed by presidents Bush, Barack Obama, Trump, and Biden.
- But having worked with the US in Afghanistan and Iraq and around the world, they will tacitly conclude that there is no practical alternative to US leadership. They will continue to cooperate with the US to pursue their common interests, and to resist their common rivals and foes, notably China, Russia, Iran, and international terrorist organisations.
- They will accept that 20 years of Western ‘nation building’, however flawed, has left most Afghans healthier, better educated, and more empowered than if the Taliban had remained in power from 2001 to 2021.
- They will note that the Afghan community has become internationalised at home and its diaspora has dispersed across the world, that it will survive the Taliban and future regimes, and that it deserves continued support.
Thus my answer to the nagging question, "Was it worth it?" is a qualified "Yes". Now it is time to look not back with blame but forward with hope and generosity.