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 claim.
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.
More tears for our brave boys in Afghanistan last week. The sorrow was exacerbated by the knowledge that the ‘soft underbelly’ problem in armoured vehicles was identified more than four years ago and remains unfixed. We fought World War One in that time span.
Had our boys been in an American vehicle, there is every likelihood they would be alive today.
On a cost-benefit basis, both Afghanistan and Iraq have been a disaster. The Romans were more savvy when they built Hadrian’s Wall. They could have crushed the Scots had they wished. But what did Scotland have to offer them? A miserable climate – especially for an Italian – a constantly restive and warlike people (just like some others on the north bank of the Rhine – the Germans) and next to no natural resources.
As a pragmatic people they decided to leave them both to stew. So both missed out on a whole range of benefits which a more advanced civilisation had to offer. The whole of this can be said to apply to Afghanistan today.
Much of America’s financial woes can be traced back to the horrendous cost of the Vietnam war. After all, it was then that it was forced off the Gold Standard. Does anybody doubt that if the untold billions spent on the Iraq and Afghan wars had been sitting in the US treasury today that things would be looking very different? Yet exactly the same could be said about us.
Wars are expensive. From a position of incredible wealth as a country, it took just two of them to ruin us and rob us of our leading position in the world by 1945.
Afghanistan was always said to be the ‘graveyard of empires’, and no one knew this better than we did. We launched no fewer than three ill-fated forays into that country in the days of the Raj. In one of them, an entire column of 16,000 perished in the snows of the Hindu Kush on the retreat back from Kabul to the Indian frontier.
Prime Minister David Cameron would spend a long time reading out their names in the Commons. So, more than anyone else, we should have known better.
Of course it was right to go into that country to flush out Al Qaeda and punish the Taliban for harbouring them, but having done so we should have got out and stayed out. We, in our heyday, were never defeated in the field by the Afghans any more than NATO has been, or, for that matter, the Russians.
But the Afghans do not heed good advice to mend their medieval ways (especially when that advice comes from foreigners) so they must be left to marinate. Just be thankful that you are not a woman in that benighted country.
It is unlikely that if the Taliban return to power after NATO’s exit – which is probable – they will ever again allow Al Qaeda to set up training camps. They are canny enough not to go down that road a second time, helped by Bin Laden’s death. While he was their guest, there was never a snowball’s chance that they would have handed him over, even when we threatened to invade. Muslim law on hospitality absolutely forbade that.
It is always important to have an exit strategy. But it is equally important to keep the date of exit to yourself. Had we held to our original statements that ‘we are here until the job is done’ – even if you had a date in mind – then there is every likelihood that the same weariness which brought the IRA to the negotiating table would have done so in the case of the Taliban.
Why hold on, they would have said to themselves, and stay a fugitive forever and as likely not die in the struggle? Let’s do a deal.
The Afghans have always been known as the world’s greatest wheeler-dealers. Now they are going around saying ‘the West have the watches, but we have the time’. So now that we have revealed our hand, we must make every effort to equip and train the home-grown Afghan forces to look after themselves when we are gone.
Who knows, they might even pull it off, despite everything. And our boys, in the interim, must degrade the Taliban to the maximum extent possible. A weakened force might just be more amenable to a greatly strengthened home army. But the deeply corrupt Afghan government will make this an uphill struggle. We can only hope our fears are misplaced.