At midnight on Monday local time in Kabul, it was curtain fall for America’s war in Afghanistan and curtain up for Afghans bracing for what comes next after the Taliban, twenty years in the wilderness, officially reassert their control of the country.
Maybe it also time for us, now in the cold light of hindsight, to ask if there are lessons to be learnt here, edifying us about the odyssey of a big power that waged an ambiguous war 7,000 miles away from its mainland in an inscrutable country with a long history of antipathy to foreign intruders.
Are there lessons here, perchance, about why in modern history big powers have always lost small wars?
To be sure, there’s no record of a people anywhere on the face of this planet who ever welcomed the storming of their acre by foreign intruders, no matter how putatively benign the intentions of these intruders were, or who ever hesitated to put up a fierce fight, in one form or another, to one degree or another and at one time or another, when the intention was malign.
Let us not underestimate, let alone ignore, what is awakened at the core of the human being of a people who are invaded, colonised, occupied or otherwise victimised on their turf.
The will to repel and outlast in stamina those who encroach on your patrimony and hearth is a life-force that has been wired into the universal archetype — into our neurological system, if you wish — ever since humans became human.
That marvel of teleological engineering was fully explained in anthropologist Robert Ardery’s 1966 influential (and widely read) work, The Territorial Imperative: Origins of Property and Nations, which looked into the meta-phenomena of land-attachment and nation-building in human evolution.
Fine, let’s do a gestalt switch here and move to Robert Gates, secretary of defence under Barack Obama’s administration, who writes in his recently released Memoir, Duty, that President Joe Biden is “a man of integrity whom it is impossible to dislike”, but a man nevertheless who was in his long career as a politician “wrong on nearly every major foreign policy and national security issue over the past four decades”.
That may be so. But the fact of the matter is that virtually every American chief executive who ever occupied the White House since President John F. Kennedy has been equally wrong, albeit in different ways, in executing America’s foreign policy.
They all rigidified the pervasive notion, inherited unconsciously from the White Man’s Burden and La Mission Civilizatrice, that it’s a cakewalk (you remember American Secretary of Defence Ronald Rumsfeld using the term days before the US launched its war in Iraq in March 2003) for a big power to conduct a small war against peasants in black pyjamas in Vietnam, regressive militants in Afghanistan and passive citizens in Iraq happy to see their incumbent political leaders overthrown.
And where there’s resistance by “restless natives”, well, the big power’s superiority in military capability and technological sophistication will, at the end of the day, most decidedly translate into victory.
A more reductive view of the world, of human nature and of the art of war could not have been thought up by anyone in their right mind.
The French ruled Vietnam as a colonial overlord for sixty years. Things came to a critical mass in 1954, when the Vietnamese people, who had taken up arms in guerrilla struggle, forced French troops, at the decisive battle of Dien Bien Phu, to lift anchor and sail away, humiliated at their defeat by a people they had considered a lower species of men — peasants in black pyjamas The French, who seem to love their punishment, then confronted their other subjugated people in Algeria, peasants in white thobes, where they met a similarly ignominious fate.
When the US took up from where France had left off in 1954, they too clambered to leave as the futility of it all became apparent.
After America went to Afghanistan twenty years ago to avenge the 9/11 attacks, destroy Al Qaida network and hunt down its leaders, we went along. After it hung around to nation-build, “introduce” Afghans to democracy and establish in their country a Norman Rockwell lotus land, while on the side locking horns with the Taliban, we knew things were going awry.
And they did, culminating last week in that unspeakable Daesh-K attack outside Kabul’s international airport, horrifying image from which were evocative of Peter Bruegel’s 1562 triptych painting, The Triumph of Death.
It is clear that this column is not holding a brief for the Taliban, whose resume most assuredly does not recommend them as enlightened leaders.
But it is just as clear that one need not have consulted the work of Carl von Clausewitz to have known all along that those wily, ferocious folks would end up having their day and America its eclipse in Afghanistan.
Heavens, a street fortune-teller in Kabul could’ve told us that.
— Fawaz Turki is a journalist, academic and author based in Washington. He is the author of The Disinherited: Journal of a Palestinian Exile