OF TREES AND FOREST
The government of Afghanistan, which the United States helped put up and supported for 20 years, has collapsed. The US has made the decision to withdraw from the country they invaded in 2001 as a response to the horrific 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Barely a month after 9/11, the US military launched Operation Enduring Freedom with bombing campaigns against Taliban and al-Qaeda forces. In late 2001, the Taliban regime collapsed when their leader Mullah Omar fled and essentially surrendered Kandahar and the entire country to an interim government headed by Hamid Karzai.
Interestingly, the Taliban’s emergence in 1994 also happened in the midst of what they perceived to be foreign aggression of their homeland. They were instrumental in driving out the Soviet Union, which invaded Afghanistan in 1979 with the objective of spreading communism. More than four decades later, the Taliban would drive out another superpower.
The withdrawal of the US and the fall of the Afghan government have been dominated by heart-wrenching images of Afghans crowding the airport in an attempt to escape the brutality of the Taliban. The Taliban has been known to inflict violence against its enemies and are particularly known to abuse and marginalize women. Seeing those images on TV — men running after a military plane, crowding the tarmac and the helpless cry for help of men, women and children — are particularly disturbing.
But behind those horrifying images is the picture of a retreating superpower with superior military force and the failure of another attempt at nation-building. This is not the first time the United States has invaded another country and ventured to impose its brand of democracy. The Philippines, Vietnam, Iraq, Chile, Haiti are just some of the examples that come to my mind. The failure of this latest enterprise is a lesson on the limits of military power, no matter its superiority, and the futility of political engineering.
The United States spent more than $2 trillion in Afghanistan yet the government it created in 20 years crumbled in two weeks. The withdrawal of the US was not the surprise, after all, the previous US government had already agreed to a pullout of its forces as early as May 2021. The shock was the speed with which the forces of the sitting Afghan government fell apart in the face of the Taliban’s advance. After US President Joseph Biden’s announcement of the timetable for withdrawal, city after city, province after province fell to the Taliban in days.
I have mentioned this in my previous columns: The idea of one powerful country imposing its brand of government to another country is wrong. It was wrong in Afghanistan and it was wrong in the Philippines. Don’t get me wrong, democracy, for all its imperfections, is a laudable system of government because it places power in the hands of the people where it belongs. But to impose a “brand” of democracy without considering the “recipient’s” political culture and other circumstances is bound to fail. To be fair, President Biden has admitted that when he said: “Our mission in Afghanistan was never supposed to have been nation building. It was never supposed to be creating a unified, centralized democracy.”
And I am not saying that the Taliban should be celebrated as heroes. They remain a brutal militant organization that will impose their will on others. Their views on women and education are particularly appalling. But the reliance of the US on military force — some critics refer to the so-called military-industrial complex — has its limitations. Shock and awe may defeat armies but it will never win the hearts and minds of people.
President Biden seemed to have the right idea when he said that his administration “will not repeat the mistakes we’ve made in the past — the mistake of staying and fighting indefinitely in a conflict… of doubling down on a civil war in a foreign country, of attempting to remake a country through the endless military deployments of US forces.” Whether the US can resist its interventionist proclivity remains to be seen. Right now it needs to rebuild its reputation as world leader.
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