Bookmarked Was US failure in Afghanistan inevitable? (ABC Radio National)

The chaos of the American’s leaving and the associated logistical and humanitarian catastrophe that is now unfolding at Kabul airport, have produced two seemingly incommensurable conclusions:

  1. This proves that despite twenty years of “nation building”, international support, military training, and the expenditure of around US$2.3 trillion, the Afghan government was never going to be able to survive on its own. If the departure of US soldiers and diplomats was inevitably going to precipitate the collapse of the Afghan government, why stay?
  2. This proves that a tolerably small US presence in Afghanistan was enough to provide political and social stability (to say nothing of protection for women, girls, and vulnerable minorities), keep the Taliban “at bay”, and permit the Afghan government to find its feet. If the departure of US soldiers and diplomats was going to precipitate the collapse of the Afghan government, why not stay — at least for a little longer?

The fact that both conclusions can claim a degree of truth, and yet seem mutually exclusive, points to a deeper contradiction at the heart of the involvement of the United States and its allies in the affairs of the non-Western world.

If there is one thing that I learnt from the conversation between Stephen Wertheim, Scott Stephens and Waleed Aly and the Taliban’s retaking of Afghanistan it is that nothing is ever as simple as we might desire. Werheim sums up the situation with three problems:

The United States still faces two major problems in Afghanistan. The first is how to rescue vulnerable Afghans who wish to leave their country and settle in the United States or elsewhere. The second is how to drive a wedge between Afghanistan’s new government and al-Qaeda so as to prevent terrorist attacks on the United States. These are significant challenges, but they do not diminish the decision to withdraw.

For Americans, a third challenge may prove most important of all: coming to terms with defeat instead of indulging the fantasy that somehow, in some way, an unwinnable war could have been won.

As a Vietnamese refugee, Viet Thanh Nguyen makes the connection with the fall of Saigon in 1975, while Robin Wright wonders if it will serve as a ‘bookend for the era of U.S. global power’, an end of an era?

The fall of Kabul may serve as a bookend for the era of U.S. global power. In the nineteen-forties, the United States launched the Great Rescue to help liberate Western Europe from the powerful Nazi war machine. It then used its vast land, sea, and air power to defeat the formidable Japanese empire in East Asia. Eighty years later, the U.S. is engaged in what historians may someday call a Great Retreat from a ragtag militia that has no air power or significant armor and artillery, in one of the poorest countries in the world.

I cannot be helped but be reminded of the Old Italian Man speaking with Nately in Catch-22:

The old man laughed indulgently, holding in check a deeper, more explosive delight. His goading remained gentle. “Rome was destroyed, Greece was destroyed, Persia was destroyed, Spain was destroyed. All great countries are destroyed. Why not yours? How much longer do you really think your own country will last? Forever? Keep in mind that the earth itself is destined to be destroyed by the sun in twenty-five million years or so.”

Nately squirmed uncomfortably. “Well, forever is a long time, I guess.”