The withdraw in August of US and allied troops from Afghanistan saw the return of the Taliban in control of that country. This sadly was always going to be the outcome once the US and its allies withdrew. I opposed the intervention in 2001 and have done so ever since precisely for this reason.
It brings me no pleasure at all that 19 year old me, dragged out of a New Zealand Labour Party Conference for yelling at then Prime Minister Helen Clark, still only a few months out of secondary school, with long flowing hair and an enormous amount of frustration and anger at the world was so completely right. That thousands died in a conflict that ultimately achieved very little is tragic, made so much worse than it was so obvious from the start that this was indeed the only likely outcome of sending troops into Afghanistan. There were many like me who opposed this war, yet we were not able to stop it from happening in 2001 or for the following two decades that it continued.
US President Jo Biden has taken a hit to his approval rating since the withdrawal of US troops especially with the reporting of so many Afghani’s opposed to the Taliban unable to leave the country and the hectic scenes at the airport after the Taliban took control of the country. This is not a post trying to defend Jo Biden or his presidency, but if anyone actually believes that a) there was a way to withdraw from Afghanistan without the Taliban taking control and b) that a more orderly and humanitarian withdrawal of troops whereby any Afghani who wanted to leave could, then you were very sadly mistaken. It was in fact Biden’s predecessor Donald Trump who negotiated with the Taliban and began the process of withdrawing from the country. As I outlined in my 2018 blog on the former US President, the man may be many undesirable things, but he is no fool. Trump, and indeed his military advisors will have worked out that the incompetent and corrupt regime running Afghanistan would not last long once the US left the country and that any withdrawal would result in the Taliban making gains. Further, he no doubt also knew that when the withdrawal finally happened it would be a PR disaster, thus leaving it until his second term or for his successor to face the fallout.
The problem with Afghanistan was from the start, the purpose of going there was flawed. When President George Bush Jr declared his War on Terror after the attack on the World Trade Centre in 2001, the stated purpose was to find and capture Osama Bin Laden. It was on this premise that US troops were sent into Afghanistan in October 2001, based on intelligence that Bin Laden was running his terror network Al-Qaeda from that country. A decade later in 2011, during Barack Obama’s first term in office, that Bin Laden was captured and killed in Pakistan, not Afghanistan. It is not clear whether Bin Laden was still in Afghanistan at the time of the World Trade Centre attacks, but it seems for much of the decade after this until his capture, that he was living in Pakistan. Unlike Afghanistan, Pakistan is a state with nuclear weapons and where there is an extremely fragile peace with India and an ongoing border dispute in the Kashmir region. A potential conflict with Pakistan was not something the US were up for in 2001. Sending US troops into Afghanistan and overthrowing the Taliban after they refused to give up Bin Laden was a way of showing the World US military strength after the 11 September terror attacks. Despite the fact that the US had earlier supported the Mujahideen when opposing the Russian occupation of Afghanistan in the 1970s and 80s, in 2001 they were quite happy to show that they had overthrown a regime that denied women education, destroyed world heritage sites and was brutal and repressive to their population. However, like the Iraq war in 2003, the short term victory of toppling a regime is the easy bit, whereas trying to establish a new government and order as outside foreign power is much much harder. And Frankly, the US history of invading other nations and successfully creating functioning democracies is pretty poor.
In 2011 a friend of mine from university was visiting Wellington having lived overseas for a few years. She at that time was working in a humanitarian role in Afghanistan and had seen a fair bit of the country. I recall asking her what she thought would happen when the west withdrew from Afghanistan to which she quickly replied “it’s fucked.”
This view of my friend was widely held by people who’d been or knew anything about Afghanistan. It is therefore not surprising that Barak Obama, who in his first term had to oversee the withdrawal from Iraq, only to later have to face the rise of ISIS, was not surprisingly reluctant also withdraw from Afghanistan. At the time Obama’s Vice President Jo Biden supported withdrawing troops, having himself supported the invasion a decade earlier as a senator.
There are many who still try to defend the last twenty years of intervention in Afghanistan. Former NZ Prime Minister Helen Clark, the same Prime Minister whose conference speech I interrupted in 2001 continues to defend the decision to go into Afghanistan claiming the western intervention in the country needed to be a “long term project”, akin to the commitment to the United States made after the Korean War, deploying 50,000 soldiers in the country for decades. Clark after serving as New Zealand Prime Minister went on to become the head of the United Nations Development Programme, described the present situation as “surreal and devastating.” The Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair also opposed Biden’s decision to withdraw from Afghanistan claiming it was “tragic, dangerous and unnecessary” and believed the US and its allies had an obligation to fight the Taliban. In both cases, the view seems to be that there needs to be a permanent military presence in the country to stop the Taliban. The question is, if that is the correct thing to do in Afghanistan, then it must also be the right thing to do in any nation where there is no democracy, women’s rights aren’t upheld and where there are brutal regimes in charge. By this logic, a great many other places would also require military presence, including nations currently considered allies to the US.
Those in power in 2001 no doubt wish to protect their legacy, rather than to reflect on the fact that the decision to go into Afghanistan was poorly thought through and was always going to end in failure. This sort of justification of military intervention has however has been the dominant thinking since the end of the Second World War, that the US and its allies have a right to intervene and interfere in other countries they do not know and attempt to change cultures they do not really understand. That doing this, in no small way contributed to the tragic events on 11 September 2001, only to do the same foolish thing again costing more lives and creating far greater instability is indeed “surreal and devastating.”
What has happened in Afghanistan has been “tragic, dangerous and unnecessary,” yet the unnecessary decision was not to withdraw but the earlier one to intervene in the first place.