As Afghanistan suffers and slips back into darkness, America licks its entirely self-inflicted wounds and Europe stands aghast
America used to proudly boast that it never lost a war, but now Afghanistan joins Vietnam in destroying that boast.
As a ragbag force of 83,000 Taliban sweeps to final victory in a single week over a well-trained, highly equipped government army three times bigger, the US has suffered a humiliation every bit as great as that inflicted by the Vietnamese 45 years ago. Even that jaw-dropping scurry from the embassy roof has found a fresh equivalent.
A geopolitical catastrophe has been inflicted on the West as well as on NATO by a naïve, increasingly inept president and his predecessor. NATO had hitherto been seen as the longest, most successful military alliance in history and, indeed, it was. Now that hard earned credibility has been seriously jeopardised by its leading member. What is so galling is that the forces deployed before the collapse of its mission were minuscule compared to that it had deployed to bring relative order to the country. Yet this tiny force had been sufficient to encourage the Afghan army to do its job and stiffen poor decision making with its ranks. It also gave it state of the art equipment as well as training. Why, then, did the Afghan army fall apart so precipitously and succumb to a hugely inferior enemy?
It did so because of a terrible feeling of abandonment. Also, because its corrupt masters had stopped paying it – pocketing the huge funds its western backers were sending, when a foolish president set a date for withdrawal. The crooks in government knew that a day of reckoning was fast approaching with the austere men with long beards. Those funds went to myriad offshore accounts in the run-up to departure and before the crooks scurried off to their seaside mansions.
Over the course of twenty years, Afghanistan – and particularly its women – have come to engage with the modern world and enjoy its freedoms and opportunities. All this is about to be snatched away. Society will be plunged back into feudalism. Women, again, will become the playthings of men, suffering torment, cruelty and anguish with their Human Rights cut from under them along with education and job opportunities.
Although bringing overwhelming firepower to bear, once the heavy lifting had been done, the West only needed to maintain a fraction of that effort to hold things together. But its guiding light lacked the backbone to see the job through. Sadly, it stands to pay a heavy price for its pusillanimous. Had the Taliban, like the IRA, faced an enemy willing to stay the course, its stomach for a never ending fight would, eventually, have evaporated.
Afghanistan, more and more, would have moved into the modern world and there would have been no turning back. That kind of resolve, demonstrated by NATO over 45 years, eventually broke the back of the mighty Soviet Union. It will have to be summoned up once more to contain the assertive designs of a totalitarian China that binds the human spirit in chains of a sort never before available to tyrants.
Meantime, Afghanistan suffers and slips back into darkness. America licks its entirely self-inflicted wounds and Europe stands aghast. Has our stalwart ally and protector lost the plot, as well as its bottle? Can we rely on it as we always felt we could? We in Europe are half a billion people – rich people at that. Has the time come that we have to look to ourselves, while remaining in closest concert with our Atlantic neighbour? These are urgent questions, and they must be addressed. Meanwhile, laughing in the wings are China, Russia and Iran.
It seems too much to hope that the Taliban Mark 2 has seen the error of its former ways. Even if its now elderly leadership might wish to do things differently, its young foot soldiers out in the countryside can be expected to exact Quranic justice as per its 7th century origins. There are a lot of scores to be settled.
Afghanistan remains a tribal society with animosities that run as deep as did those between Scottish Highland clans. Perhaps one of its warlords will cobble together a challenge to the Taliban, much as the Northern Alliance did successfully. But then, again, perhaps we may all be wrong and it really is a changed Taliban. They certainly won’t want a fresh invasion, which is what they will get if they facilitate renewed terror attacks.
Above all, they crave international recognition for their renewed Emirate and only good – or at least better – behaviour can secure that. They have pledged to eradicate poppy production and appealed to the world to help them replace their narcotic dependency with alternative crops.
Afghanistan developed expectations as a result of thirty years of exposure to a fastmoving world – first the USSR and then NATO. It is just possible that the now weary old men can succeed in reigning in their hothead younger men and settle society down as has been achieved in our own backyard of Northern Ireland.