Arvanitakis on American Politics: What can we learn from Afghanistan?

| August 28, 2021

It is hard to find words to write about the tragedy of Afghanistan. And just as I was writing this short piece, the latest deadly developments took place with twin suicide bombings killing at countless Afghanis and least thirteen American service personnel.

A recent CBS/YouGov poll in the USA highlights the negative political fallout for President Biden and, to a lesser extent, former President Trump. The poll also shows that most Americans feel that the current disaster is the result of Afghan government incompetence.

The tendency to blame the Afghan government and army is hardly surprising. Not only did President Biden argue that the USA have done no more, but there is no shortage of many commentators pointing out the failings of the Afghan government and army.

Even more insightful is the comment from New York Times columnist Ezra Klein, who noted that focusing on the Afghanis avoids the US Administration, armed forces and public admitting defeat.

Personally, I have struggled to make sense of the 20-year conflict, the way it ended and the many and how we ended up where we are now.

While it is straightforward to blame the Biden Administration for the botched evacuation and the Trump Administration for excluding the Afghan government from negotiations with the Taliban, the reasons for the tragedy run much deeper. As such, here are four perspectives worth noting that may help you make sense of what has happened.

Let’s not forget the Bush Hawks

Writing for The Australian, former Premier and Foreign Minister Bob Carr argues that the “true miscreants” of this failed exercise “are the supporters of the neo-con ideology who took over foreign policy under President George W. Bush with licence provided by 9/11.” The core of their belief was that American power could remake the Middle East and a great power could remake the politics of small, weak state.

Carr reminded us that Bush announced in 2002 that America would “go on the offence and stay on the offence”. This set the course for a long war in the Afghanistan and a “a self-deluding enterprise” lost this week.

Similar sentiments are expressed by the aforementioned article by Ezra Klein, who simply states that we should not pretend it was the way we withdrew from Afghanistan that was the problem. Rather, it was the entire exercise that proved futile.

But it goes back further than that

Helen Zhang and John Fowler from International Intrigue point out that, for more than 40 years, Afghanistan has been the laboratory in which superpowers conduct their foreign policy experiments.

The Taliban did not just fall out of the sky – the context of where they came from, who supports them and what they are becoming – a transformation that continues and no one can know how it will end – bring us to an open question: how do we deal with the Taliban today?

The challenge Zhang and Fowler present is framed in this way:

The crux of the whole issue is what the Taliban are in August 2021; are they an adversarial government or a terrorist organisation with territory?

It looks as though the international community is leaning towards the former description, however begrudgingly. And it must be said that compared to 20 years ago, the group appears more politically deft and perhaps keen on actually governing.

While most of us are horrified at the history of the Taliban and its well documented human rights abuses, we must ask: what is better for those left behind, turning them into a pariah state or attempting dialogue to integrate them into the international community and all the expectations that follow?

Nation building is not a military exercise

The end of the conflict also highlighted the limits of military power: just because you want to, it is not possible to remake a nation.

Writing for The Atlantic, Kori Schake points out that the United States spent $83 billion training, equipping, and even paying Afghanistan’s security forces since 2001. As the events of the past few days make clear, despite all that assistance, Afghanistan’s military and police have proved incapable of securing the country.

U.S. military intervention in Afghanistan and Iraq, were initially justified by a need to dismantle immediate national security threat. These focused goals were quickly replaced by a longer-term goal of preventing future threats through nation building.

Nation building is as much about human resources and social infrastructure as it is about security. When those who argue that they are there to liberate become an occupying force, the contradiction is not lost on the population. In fact, over a decade ago, the Centre for Complex Operations noted that as a result, the mission ‘doomed to fail’ and recommended the military resume its historic focus on preparing for war.

What we do next counts

There is no doubt that Afghanistan has damaged the US and its allies including Australia. With the increasing dominance of China, the US as the most powerful nation in the world looks to be in retreat. This retreat, however, has broader consequences and can be interpreted as democracy itself taking flight.

Writing for the Australian Financial Review, Misha Zelinsky argues that leaders of democracies must remind their citizens that they exist for them: ensuring they share the fruits of liberty, hard fought rights and economic gains. In other words, there is no point in promoting democracy abroad if it fails to deliver on its promise domestically. For Zelinsky, this has never been more important particularly during the global pandemic where many feel left behind and forgotten.

It is also correct for our government, political leaders, media commentators and fellow citizens to raise concerns about the Taliban’s the treatment of women, those who supported the US and its allies as well as minority groups. These concerns and criticisms sound hollow unless we are also ready to show empathy and compassion through our refugee and humanitarian program.

Afghanistan presents all of us with moral, strategic and policy challenges on an international, national, and personal level. The level of the tragedy cannot be over-stated.

The far bigger tragedy will be if the world’s leaders – both current and future – learn nothing from it.