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US debacle in Afghanistan sets limits of superpower

Aug 17,2021 - Last updated at Aug 17,2021

The dramatic fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban will go down in history as the most spectacular military and political debacle for the United States in decades. Even as it withdrew its forces from the country it had occupied for the last 20 years, the US had mishandled and miscalculated as it had done for years. It took the well-equipped South Vietnamese army two years to finally give in after the humiliating US withdrawal from Vietnam, but for the 300,000 strong American trained Afghan army the collapse took less than a month. On Sunday, the Taliban entered Kabul without a fight. By the evening, they were celebrating at the presidential palace and vowing to declare Afghanistan as an Islamic emirate. President Ashraf Ghani and top officials had fled the country. Millions of Afghans were left abandoned by the US and its western allies.

And there were “Saigon moments” on that ominous day: US helicopters hovering over the deserted embassy building to evacuate staff, while thousands of “friendly” Afghan collaborators; translators, aides and helpers, and their families scurried to board planes making their final departure from the abandoned city. Amid the pandemonium most will be left to their fate.

For the Joe Biden administration, there is no clear strategy of what to do next. Like his predecessor, Donald Trump, Biden wanted to end this endless war. But relying on the Afghan army to repulse advancing Taliban fighters, even for a few months, proved to be a big intelligence miscalculation. After 20 years and hundreds of billions of dollars spent and tens of thousands of lives lost, the US was out, defeated, with little strategic objectives achieved. Even though Biden had said that the US was not there for nation building, the reality is that successive administrations had hoped that a western style democracy in Afghanistan would be the only assurance that the Taliban and other jihadist groups will not return to power.

Like in Iraq, the US had failed to understand the complexities of Afghan society and culture. It had failed to appreciate the role neighbouring countries, like Pakistan, had played to provide safe haven for the retreating Taliban in the wake of the 2001 NATO invasion. And just like the defunct Soviet Union, it had failed to draw the lessons of history. Afghanistan had become the fulcrum of a geopolitical power struggle that even the sole superpower of the day could not untangle.

The vacuum left by the US withdrawal will be filled by Afghanistan’s close and distant neighbours. That’s the way it works. Russia and China will step in at one point or another. The Taliban need recognition if they want to survive. It is not clear how they will govern a country that has been at war for most of the last four decades with deep sectarian, tribal and ethnic fissures. Will they share power with local rivals or will they revert to the authoritarian, autocratic and puritanical rule of the past; when they were in power. And what about Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups re-emerging and regrouping under Taliban protection? What does that mean for the west and the region? What about the fledgling democracy, women rights, human rights and freedom of expression? The prognosis is not good and the future of the country looks bleak.

And then there is the ideological backlash at home; in the United States. The fall of Kabul presents a symbolic end to almost two decades of neoconservative view of the world and of the role of the US that was enshrined into a foreign policy mantra under George W. Bush Jr. The interventionist ideology that neoconservative icons had pushed under Bush had finally come to an end. The US is exhausted and the Middle East has become a geopolitical nuisance, a liability, rather than a peaceful sphere of American influence.

Would the Afghan debacle signal a slow embrace of selective isolationism for Washington? It could speed up the pivot to a more stable southeast Asia, to a more strategically vital region like South and Central America and to a more comfortable and equitable relationship with the EU.

The American abandonment of Afghanistan sends a troubling message to US regional allies with their conflicting agendas and more importantly to its traditional rivals; Iran, Turkey and Russia. Without direct US regional involvement America’s allies should feel concerned. One thing is for sure and that is the reverberations of America’s departure from Afghanistan would be felt for years in a region that remains volatile and unsettling, but remains equally important to its immediate neighbours like Europe and Russia as it battles extreme religious dogma, sectarian and ethnic divisions and a desperate search for democracy and egalitarianism.


Osama Al Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman


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