Not even the most pessimistic observer of the US involvement in Afghanistan would have predicted that the country would be overrun by the Taliban in a matter of weeks as American troops pulled out.
Like pieces of dominoes, provincial capitals fell, mostly without resistance, to the advancing Taliban forces. Hundreds of Afghan army personnel surrendered without a fight or fled to neighbouring countries. If this is not the most spectacular US foreign policy debacle in decades, then what is?
As Taliban forces surrounded Kabul — the capital could fall within hours — the US and its western allies scurried to evacuate diplomats and personnel from embassies. Contrasts between what is happening in Kabul today and images of the last US helicopter leaving the abandoned embassy building in Saigon in 1975 could not be avoided.
Back then Vietnam was America’s longest and costliest war and in the end the US had to recognise the stark reality that it had been defeated. In the end and just like now the US abandoned its allies to their fate.
Collapse of Afghan army
President Joe Biden defended his decision to withdraw from Afghanistan after 20 long years. As the Taliban stormed through cities and towns, surprising Pentagon and CIA analysts, questions were raised about the speedy collapse of the Afghan army. Tens of billions of dollars were spent to train and equip an army of 300,000 and yet one crucial thing was missing; the will to fight.
It is chillingly ironic that the Taliban were able to survive two decades of war against a US led coalition. Biden had to admit that the United States did not go into Afghanistan to build a nation and that it found itself caught in an endless civil war. But the reality is that the US had wanted to build a western style democracy in Afghanistan.
The fall of the Afghan government is a sad reminder that foreign interventions rarely work and that even a superpower nation can fail to change the cultural genetic make-up of another nation.
What follows next in Afghanistan is anyone’s guess. Kabul has fallen. Will the Taliban adhere to the Doha agreements? Will they repeat the mistakes of the past or will they try to guide the country towards a fresh beginning? The most likely scenario is that they will not share power and the country’s nascent democratic experiment will be buried. That is bad news for many.
The continuation of the civil war might take a new shape as tribes could fight among each other to maintain control of ancestral territory. The country could face many years of chaos. There is also the sectarian time bomb that is ticking. Afghanistan’s neighbours, chief among them Iran and Pakistan, will have to make sure that the violence and anarchy do not cross the borders.
The geopolitical vacuum
And then there are America’s primary foes; Russia and China who will try to fill the geopolitical vacuum. Afghanistan remains an important country in western Asia with huge potential.
The end of America’s adventure in Afghanistan signals a major shift in America’s view of the world; one that was enforced by neoconservative icons under President George Bush Jr. That view of American interventionism with the aim of spreading western ideals and containing foreign enemies had failed in both Afghanistan and Iraq.
It is likely that Biden is implementing Donald Trump’s policy of gradual isolationism. Biden’s declaration that “America is back” should be examined from that perspective.
America’s Afghan debacle should be heeded by its regional allies as well. The Middle East remains a volatile region with civil wars raging and failing states collapsing. The United States view of the region is changing and its interests are shifting.
The Afghan model could be repeated in Iraq with some nuances. Just like Afghanistan, the US has attempted to build a western style democracy only to see the country imploding. There is every reason to believe that Biden would want to end America’s adventure there as well. But that would mean handing most of Iraq to the Iranians and their proxies.
The fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban is a watershed moment for America’s interventionism doctrine. The US is unlikely to repeat the mistakes of the past in the near future and that is the message that its allies must understand.
Osama Al Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman.