August 2021 will be remembered for years to come for one of the greatest betrayals in human history. The premature withdrawal from Afghanistan by coalition forces has effectively pulled the rug from beneath the feet of millions of Afghan citizens striving for a better future.
The NATO coalition led by the USA & keenly supported by the UK, Canada and many others has “aimed to create the conditions whereby the Afghan government could exercise its authority throughout the country”. Upon completion of that mission in late 2014, the Alliance had the sole objective to help the local Afghan population build the infrastructure for a brighter tomorrow (Resolute Support Mission).
These missions have come at great cost for all involved; over 7,000 days elapsed, with the loss of over 240,000 lives including 70,000 civilians. The financial cost is estimated in excess of $2.1tn (£1.5tn).
Political Popularity Trumps Morals
The endeavours of the Western coalition were of course not completely selfless – the rationale for intervening in Afghanistan was linked directly to the Taliban providing refuge and resources to Osama bin Laden and Al-Qaeda in the run up to, and immediately following the 9/11 attacks in the United States.
It was therefore politically convenient at that point in time for the US to announce an invasion of the Taliban controlled territory, made internationally palatable by the presence of allied forces from NATO.
The opinion polls soared for George W Bush with his overall approval ratings hitting 90% in late 2001 & remaining consistently over 80% through 2002. There was a similar story in the UK with parliament overwhelmingly backing Tony Blair in a vote by 317 votes to 13.
Following early successful advances from the Northern Alliance backed by the Allied forces, there came an opportunity to strike a deal with the Taliban; they would surrender on the condition that their leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar could remain in Kandahar under supervision from the appropriate military forces.
However Donald Rumsfeld quickly rejected this offer to effectively end the war before it had gathered momentum. Why? There are many explanations, including;
- The perception that the offer would result in the leader of the Taliban receiving relatively little punishment. This was politically unpalatable to the Allied forces given the Taliban’s collusion with Osama bin Laden and Al-Qaeda.
- Defeating the Taliban in such quick time would raise uncomfortable questions about how such a comparatively weak organisations (Taliban & Al-Qaeda) had caused so much damage and destruction on US soil and evaded capture. A longer effort that saw the complete destruction of the Taliban would be a better “show of force” and deterrent.
- The economic benefits of war would be lost. War drives employment figures up, and also justifies exorbitant amounts of money to be invested in defence budgets and the development of new military technologies. In effect the US (and to a lesser extent their Allies) could make large advances without much scrutiny.
- “We don’t negotiate with terrorists.”
The common thread amongst all the above explanations being they would all almost certainly cause significant damage to the approval ratings of Bush, Blair et al.
Fast forward 20 years, and the narrative surrounding the acrimonious departure of the Allied forces from Afghanistan seems to be avoiding this key thread. Political popularity.
Why was President Joe Biden so quick to reject calls to reverse the Trump administration decision to withdraw from Afghanistan?
- The perception that the war has run its course – Punishment has been served. Osama bin Laden has been found and executed, and any further action was a waste of much needed money and American (& Allies) lives.
- To do so would further divide the US politically, and result in the Afghan war and all its previous failings becoming Biden’s War – causing significant damage to chances of a second term in office.
- The economic benefits have waned. There is no longer any real benefit in this regard and so it becomes purely ideological.
In other words Biden, Johnson and Trudeau et al have calculated that any U-turn here would cause significant damage in the polls. As we have seen throughout this war, ultimately for the ruling elite political popularity trumps morals.
However where Bush & Blair’s gamble initially paid off in the early days of the conflict in Afghanistan, the Allied gamble of 2020/1 has backfired spectacularly.
Criticism has rained down from all sides across each Allied nation. The gains made in Afghanistan now seen as lost. Service men and women, over 3500 of whom made the ultimate sacrifice in support of the mission statements above, seemingly now betrayed – with a catastrophic impact on the mental health of both those who served and the families of those who never returned.
There is now a very real fear of reprisals and the return of terrorist factions to Afghanistan, plotting attacks in the region as well as in the USA, UK & Canada. The complete betrayal and subsequent lack of compassion shown to the Afghan people by each Allied government will now serve as the ultimate recruiting tool for the Taliban and other extremist groups.
The Convenient By-product
Back to the mission statement; to help the local Afghan population build the infrastructure for a brighter tomorrow.
The truly positive by-product of this popularity contest has been the progress made across Afghanistan, be it girls attending schools, women holding office, businesses flourishing, or simply freedom of expression and thought. The green shoots of progress have been clear to see.
Sadly, these green shoots, 20 years in the making, have been all but destroyed in a matter of weeks. The news is a continuous cycle of scenes of desperate crowds at Kabul Airport / various Embassy buildings trying to flee the country, and harrowing stories of the Taliban’s aggression against so called “collaborators”.
The true intentions of the governments of the US and its Allies now laid clear for the world to see – the so called mission statement abandoned and left in tatters, yet each government still claiming a success…
Light in the darkness
But where there was once growth, it shall return. Whilst the green shoots above the ground may have been temporarily destroyed, the roots run deep.
Brave Afghans have been protesting in the streets against the Taliban, celebrating Afghanistan independence day, waving their national flag as opposed to the flag of the Taliban. Brave young girls continue to go to school. Valiant government ministers such as Rangina Hamidi make a stand and refuse to leave their country behind. Courageous female journalists such as Beheshta Arghand continue to hold the Taliban to account.
The resolve of the Afghan people, who have been in an almost continuous state of war for half a century, should not be questioned. They will rise from the ashes and create a beautiful tomorrow for their country.
What Happens Next?
It’s already clear to see the Taliban will not live up to their promises of peaceful rule – those seen as having worked for or alongside Allied forces have in some instances been tortured, and executed in others. Citizens attempting to leave via Kabul Airport have been whipped and beaten as they run the gauntlet past Taliban fighters to get to the overcrowded airport gates.
Some commentators are expecting the Northern Alliance to regroup and a civil war to break out in the coming weeks and months in Afghanistan. Others are anticipating China and Russia having a growing influence with the Taliban – China’s Foreign Minister, Wang Yi met with leaders of the Taliban as recently as July in Tianjin. But the prediction most experts agree on is the expectation the Taliban will implement a brutal and bloody regime similar to that of two decades ago, only this time armed with new weaponry left behind by the Allied troops, and having learnt the art of political propaganda.
Whether some or all of the above forecasts are correct, the months and years ahead for Afghanistan are going to be tumultuous. It is vitally important that across the globe we keep helping in any way we can – by applying pressure to our politicians, donating to charities where possible (some suggestions down below), maintaining the current high profile of the ongoing situation, and letting the Afghan people know that we are aware of what is happening and we care about them.
The solution in Afghanistan should not be one decided in the wings of the White House or the corridors of Whitehall – but by the Afghan people. Our role is to help facilitate that solution in any way we can.
The West needs to avoid thinking about this in terms of implementing “democracy” as we know it. The western style of democracy is fundamentally broken – to implement this system elsewhere is guaranteed to result in future failure. Countries such as Afghanistan are not capitalist countries in the West. They are their own country with a fantastic culture and deep history in the East. The identity of the Afghan nation and the structure of the government should be reflective of that.
As the main stream news coverage of the situation in Afghanistan starts to slowly decline over the coming days and weeks, it is our responsibility to make sure the Afghan people remain at the forefront of our thoughts and actions. The cameras will soon stop rolling, and the eyes of the world will move on, but the Afghan people will remain engaged in their battle for survival and a brighter future. I urge anyone reading this to help in any way you can.
Please don’t forget about Afghanistan.
Charities & NGOs
Here are some links to charities and other organisations who are providing support to Afghan people, both refugees and those still in Afghanistan;
And here are some links to charities and other organisations who are providing mental health support to service men and women who served in Afghanistan;