Articles – The Centre for Independent Studies

A realistic decision to quit Kabul

Tom Switzer

25 August 2021 | Financial Review

The American effort to remake Afghanistan as a viable democratic state has ended in failure. It’s tragic for those in this war-torn country who long for peace and stability. For the US, the tragedy involves a certain amount of humiliation.

However, much of the coverage of the sloppy withdrawal seems hysterical. Far from representing an avoidable debacle that means US security guarantees can’t be taken seriously, this is a tragic end to a long blunder that has cost America dearly in blood and treasure.

As the prominent US Cold War diplomat George Kennan said in the context of Vietnam: “There is more respect to be won in the opinion of the world by a resolute and courageous liquidation of unsound policies than by the most stubborn pursuit of extravagant or unpromising objectives.”

Remember, the US spent $US2.26 trillion, fought for 20 years, supported a corrupt and despised local government, lost almost 2500 soldiers, not to mention all those who were wounded. And nobody could offer a viable alternative to the chaos other than try to postpone the day of reckoning. Was the US supposed to stay forever?

Critics claim that the US had reached an equilibrium with 3000 to 5000 US troops. This is implausible. The deal Donald Trump cut in Doha in February 2020 involved a quid pro quo: that the US pull out by May 2021 and in return the Taliban do not attack US troops, but instead focus their guns on the inept Afghan army. That was the source of the equilibrium.

Had Joe Biden stayed beyond the deadline he extended to September, the Taliban would have gone back to war against the US. With a couple of thousand troops, could America defend a country the size of Texas for long against an adversary willing to die to get the foreign forces out?

Critics slam US intelligence for failing to predict how quickly the Taliban would regain power. Never mind that US intelligence (like most observers inside and outside Washington) believed that the withdrawal would result in the collapse of Kabul within six months.

The end doesn’t look so bad

Biden, unlike Trump and Barack Obama, was prepared to pay the price to get out. No one predicted that the end would come so quickly, which is why the US evacuation has been chaotic. Wars almost always end in bloody and messy ways. So far, this one does not look so bad.

The US policy to topple the Taliban regime that had harboured the 9/11 terror plotters was justified. It has generally worked: al-Qaeda’s capacity to cause mayhem is limited while the Taliban are targeting Islamic State operatives.

But the mission to transform a medieval society into a democracy was doomed. If there was ever hope, the US and its allies, including Australia, squandered it by foolishly invading Iraq in 2003.

The misbegotten ventures in the greater Middle East have encouraged pundits to warn that, just as the Suez crisis in 1956 marked the end of the British Empire, so Afghanistan today greatly diminishes US power and prestige. This is, once again, a gross overstatement.

The US was badly humiliated in Vietnam in 1975, yet won the Cold War within 15 years and became the most powerful state in recorded history. If Vietnam didn’t wreck America, how will Afghanistan wreck US foreign policy?

Critics warn that, with this month’s humiliation, China is likely to exploit a strategic opening. But far from cutting and running in east Asia, Washington is ramping up its commitment to defend Taiwan.

Afghanistan does not equal Taiwan in terms of strategic importance, any more than Vietnam equalled West Germany.

Why is the punditry overreacting? One explanation lies in understanding Chicago University professor John Mearsheimer’s thesis: that, since the end of the Cold War, many Western commentators have subscribed to the notion of US global leadership.

They thought America had found the magic formula for creating peace and prosperity – liberal internationalism. And they saw a benign US as the driving force behind that enterprise.

Slowly but steadily, it has become evident that the enterprise was a delusion: with the collapse of Pax Americana and the return of power politics, the US now recognises its limits in a messy world.

Not only was there no way to win in Afghanistan, the commitment helped divert attention away from Asia, where Washington will now focus.

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