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Chronicle of a fiasco foretold

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Afghans gather on a roadside near the military part of the airport in Kabul on August 20, 2021, hoping to flee from the country after the Taliban’s military takeover of Afghanistan. (Photo by Wakil KOHSAR / AFP)


I was living in New York in September 2001 when two planes – flown by terrorists – rammed into the World Trade Centre’s Twin Towers. Many irate Americans demanded immediate revenge, calling for someone to be given a bloody nose for killing 3,000 American citizens. The United Nations (UN) turned a blind eye, as the warmongering, sanctimonious George W. Bush administration launched a war into Afghanistan: a decision the world body would soon rue when Uncle Sam abused the UN by launching an illegitimate invasion into Iraq 17 months later in search of non-existent “weapons of mass destruction.”
 Onward Christian soldiers: The endless “war on terror”
 
Washington ignorantly declared its military mission “Operation Infinite Justice,” until someone pointed out that this was reminiscent of a Christian Crusade. The global “war on terror” was then renamed “Operation Enduring Freedom.” America unleashed awesome military force on the al-Qaeda-supporting Taliban administration in Afghanistan, and a “regime change” was easily effected within a month. The jihadist regime simply melted into the mountains and the general population. The fact that 15 of the19 terrorists who had flown the planes that attacked the United States (US) were Saudi citizens barely registered on America’s public consciousness. Instead, Washington’s political establishment continued to protect its oil-rich human rights-abusing client. Riyadh is not too different from the Taliban in its maltreatment of women and spreading of global terror, but yet escapes censure and isolation.
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This was a jingoistic epoch during which reactionary scholars like British historian, Niall Ferguson, was urging America to develop a cadre of Harvard and Yale-trained civil servants to run Iraq in the same way that Britain had earlier sent Oxbridge-trained mandarins to run its far-flung empire of black and brown people. The New York Times’ bellicose Thomas Friedman urged Americans to “Give War A Chance.” The same paper eventually fired its reporter, Judith Miller, who peddled Pentagon propaganda. Many of these cheerleading warriors in the fickle Western media are now wringing their hands at the fiasco that is unfolding in Afghanistan. US president, Joe Biden, is embarking on a chaotic withdrawal from a “forever war” after 20 years in which Washington has spent $2 trillion, triggered an estimated 240,000 Afghan deaths, and lost 6,294 soldiers and contractors.
 
The Delusions of Pax Americana
Since its revolutionary birth in 1776, America has often seen itself as a “Shining City on a Hill” despite its genocidal origins and 250 years of slavery. Its foreign policy has been suffused with a naïve messianism that has frequently been contradicted by its support for sordid regimes and killing-squads across Latin America, Asia, and Africa. Its destructive “gunboat diplomacy” in its own hemisphere remains deeply ingrained in its DNA. US president, Barack Obama, who had argued on the hustings in 2008 that Iraq was a “dumb war” and instead backed the “war of necessity” in Afghanistan, felt obliged to deploy 74,000 additional troops as part of a military “surge.” The idea was to defeat the Pakistan-backed Taliban with massive force, as America’s generals took advantage of an inexperienced president.
 
The Ghosts of Vietnam, Iraq, and Libya
Obama eventually declared an end to “Operation Enduring Freedom” in 2014, after 13 years of a “war on terror” which had spread death and destruction, alienating the very people whose hearts and minds America claimed to be trying to win. Obama’s blood-soaked drone warfare caused particular damage to Washington’s reputation.  Like the “war on drugs” and the “war on crime,” this was a cynical shadow game to make Americans feel safer, in the full knowledge that no such war could be successfully prosecuted, let alone won.
 
America’s Vietnam war (1961-1973) had resulted in 365,000 civilian deaths, 58,000 American fatalities, and cost $1 trillion in today’s money. Its intervention in Iraq in 2003 has resulted in about 200,000 civilian deaths, 15,000 American military and contractor fatalities, and continuing sectarian violence. Washington currently has 2,500 troops in the country helping to battle Islamic State militants. America’s lack of planning in Libya in 2011 mirrored that of Afghanistan a decade earlier, while the same obsessive quest for “regime change” was repeated in Iraq. Washington, Paris, and London – having used NATO to assist the assassination of Muammar Qaddafi – did not even bother to make any systematic post-intervention plans, disgracefully leaving the country anarchic a decade later. Biden’s Afghanistan fiasco thus mirrors Obama’s Libya debacle.
 
Farewell To Arms: Abandoning Afghanistan
By 2015, the US had reduced its troops in Afghanistan to 10,000, alongside a similar number of NATO troops. The greatest monument to America’s hubris in Kabul is surely its $800 million fortress-like embassy unveiled by the Obama administration in 2016 as Washington’s largest in the world after Baghdad. Two American puppets – local politician, Hamid Karzai, and World Bank technocrat, Ashraf Ghani – were propped up in power in Kabul through elections of dubious legitimacy. Both predictably proved to be deeply unpopular, abused human rights, and ran kleptocratic regimes.
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So, what is the legacy of two decades of America’s presence in Afghanistan? The Taliban has returned to re-establish an atavistic theocracy in a 40 million-strong country that has not known peace for four decades; the mullahs now inherit $83 billion worth of military assets that Washington squandered on supposedly training an army that has refused to fight; anti-American terrorists linked to Islamic State continue to operate in the country; a stagnant economy has not grown in a decade; two thirds of women remain illiterate; half of the population is still in need of humanitarian aid; and 3.5 million Afghans have recently been  displaced.
 
Afghanistan has traditionally been known as the “graveyard of empires”: from the British in 1839-1919; to the Russians in 1979-1989; and now the Americans. A delusional, interventionist Pax Americana seemed to see itself as a contemporary Pax Romana, rebuilding countries like Afghanistan and Iraq in its own image, while establishing military bases around the globe. Instead, America has suffered its third humiliating military defeat following embarrassing retreats from Vietnam and Iraq. The world’s largest military power – outspending the next dozen countries combined – has been unable to impose its will on a relatively small Central Asian country, and has been ultimately defeated by a motley crew of ill-equipped, largely illiterate, highly-motivated jihadist insurgents.
 
President Biden appears to be pursuing a quixotic strategy of wanting to return to a pre-9/11 era of an American “unipolar moment” when Washington bestrode the globe unrivalled. But the world has changed beyond recognition, and as Donald Trump painfully discovered, China’s economic threat cannot be so easily repelled by turning back the clock. With this Afghan fiasco, Biden has, in one stroke, destroyed his reputation as a reliable multilateralist, sending shockwaves across Europe. Like Trump, the US president has acted unilaterally and failed to consult his allies on this disastrous troop withdrawal. The overconfident bravado of American neo-imperial “nation-building” has been embarrassingly laid bare. British poet, Rudyard Kipling’s century-old call for Washington to take up the “White Man’s Burden” has met an untimely end. As French diplomat, Talleyrand, famously noted about the monarchical Bourbons: “They have learned nothing, and forgotten nothing.”
Professor Adebajo is director of the University of Johannesburg’s Institute for Pan-African Thought and Conversation in South Africa.

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