Viewpoint by Jonathan Power
LUND, Sweden (IDN) — I like this. It’s from yesterday’s New York Times. Senator Christopher Murphy, a Democrat of Connecticut who supports President Joe Biden’s withdrawal, said those arguing to keep troops in Afghanistan were the ones who failed to win the war for two decades and perpetually pushed to stay even though “we have been losing for six to eight years.”
“To me, it’s the same game,” he said in an interview. “Everybody’s got a plan. But I’ve been working on this long enough to know everybody’s plans are” awful, he added, using an expletive. “The reality is inescapable.””
In 7 pithy lines Murphy sums it all up. Yet too many Americans and their European allies have tried to call Biden out. While one expects Republicans to attack Biden for “cut and running”, there has been a chorus of centrist critics who are having a go at Biden, arguing that he has dropped the ball in his haste to get out of Afghanistan.
The media have savaged him. Yet the media, by and large, don’t remind their audience of the history of the US intervention—that in the 1980s the US built up the Taliban both politically and militarily in an attempt to drive out the Soviet invaders and undermine the stability of the Soviet Union.
Women’s groups are having a go at Biden, arguing, in effect, that all the progress in the advancement of women in recent years will be thrown overboard by the Taliban once the benign US and NATO troops go home. Does this mean the softer, gentler, more caring, sex is now wedded to war-making? From now on do we conduct the necessary fight against male chauvinism by force of arms?
In truth, Biden has done more than anyone can reasonably expect. To say Biden had not thought the exodus through is to belittle his long-held convictions about the stupidity of the Afghani military mission. In President Barack Obama’s national security circle Biden was the only member who consistently argued for total withdrawal.
In the 12 years since he first took this stand imagine how many US, NATO and Afghani soldiers’ lives, not to mention hundreds of thousand civilians, lives might have been saved if withdrawal had happened in 2009. Obama, who should have known better, got rolled by his generals into a sharp increase of the number of military deployed to fight the war.
We are dealing with massive intellectual dishonesty. These critics are making a souffle with no eggs.
Let’s look at some of the criticisms:
Biden owns this. Definitely not. President George W. Bush, vice-president Dick Cheney and secretary of defence Donald Rumsfeld, along with British prime minister Tony Blair, started this war. We were told it was to get rid of Osama bin Laden and his Al Qaeda movement which was operating out of Afghanistan. After some success with this the goalposts were moved and the US with NATO allies in tow decided to re-build the country in the West’s image and open a war against the fairly popular Taliban, a movement it had supported before.
Biden owns the chaos in Kabul, especially at the airport. Nonsense. An upheaval of such a magnitude was bound to produce some chaos—as is happening with the present storm in New Orleans and its previous one, Katrina that devastated the city, or the fires in Australia. A week after it began the airlift was humming along with a packed plane taking off every 40 minutes. The militaries of the US, the UK and other NATO members have carried out a brilliantly organised feat, despite a massive bombing incident and the photos of a giant C.130 Hercules aircraft manoeuvring to take off with men jumping onto its wing and climbing inside the under carriage. That happened once. But that was the lead story. As cynical newsmen say, “If it bleeds, it leads”. When will the journalistic community ever learn?
The US could have given those in jeopardy more warning? It did. The State Department in April warned that people should leave. When President Donald Trump signed a deal with the Taliban the writing was clearly on the wall. Biden ran for office, saying he would leave.
People will be left behind. Unfortunately, yes. But let’s analyse what the media mean by “people”. All diplomats, nearly all NGO personnel and Afghans who have worked for the invaders have been airlifted out. Some have stayed voluntarily, like the Red Cross. The Taliban are appealing to civil servants, teachers, doctors, and other officials to stay. They have given a pardon to all those who worked for the deposed government.
Taliban control will make it inevitable that Al Qaeda and like-minded groups will return. Maybe, but maybe not. Some splinter groups from the Taliban and Al Qaeda seem to be at work, as the big bombing at the airport showed. But most of them operate at the far end of the country. The Taliban have made it clear that they will clamp down on such activity. Now they run the government they won’t want to be challenged from within.
Why didn’t Biden leave some troops there? Where exactly? The situation is not like Germany or Japan where US troops have stayed on after the Second World War. The US and its allies won that war. This time they were defeated.
Hasn’t the West lost its leverage on a Taliban government? Not at all. In moving from being insurgents to running a government is not easy. The Taliban will know they need all the help they can get, beginning with diplomatic recognition that will enable them to take a seat in the UN and be eligible for World Bank and IMF aid. Bilateral aid from the US and its allies would and should be forthcoming. In the words of ex secretary of state, Colin Powell, “As in a china and pottery shop, if you break it you own it”. The US eventually learnt to be generous with victorious Vietnam after a long war that ended in defeat. But it took a while to bury the hatchet, until President Jimmy Carter came along. Then the restrictions on trade, foreign investment etc. were removed, Vietnam became capitalist and boomed and now leans westwards on many issues.
Aren’t Russia and China going to step in and bend Afghanistan to their interests? So what? That’s good. Russia and China have criticised the US for deciding to go and leave behind Taliban militants in control, militants who have contacts among rebel movements in the ex-Soviet southern states and the Muslim Uighurs in China. As one might expect, China and Russia have been talking to the Taliban. These two great powers have a lot to offer Afghanistan with aid, technical expertise, trade links and investment. Russia and China can no longer leave the “stabilising” of Afghanistan to the US and NATO. They now have a share of the responsibility for good government.
Will the US ever learn? Hopefully yes, but maybe not. It learnt the dangers of invading a country about which it knew very little with Vietnam. After its defeat, a majority of Americans said, “never again”. But then a generation passed, and memories faded. The lessons to be learnt evaporated. Bush and Blair went to war with Iraq. The end result was to demolish a country that before had good educational and health systems and a low crime rate. Also, the war spread the influence of ISIS, an ultra-violent Islamic group. Then, a few years later, followed the destructive intervention in Libya which ended up even worse than Iraq—loss of stability, armed factionalism, gruesome fighting, chaos and the spread of warlordism. The “never ending” wars started to become anathema to a majority of Americans. Obama, facing the dangers of the civil war in Syria overspilling its boundaries, wisely decided not to intervene, despite congressional and media pressure. Trump and Biden have grabbed Obama’s post-Libya baton and run in the same direction.
Can Biden make the US into a peaceful nation? Hard, when the country has rarely not been fighting a war somewhere. The military tradition runs deep. People in Washington are saying that Biden wants to turn his attention to standing up to China, both economically and politically. Surely, he’s not going to pick a fight? Obama started this confrontation, Trump stepped it up, and the Biden camp talks of being even tougher. Don’t do it, Mr Biden! The US has a population of 328 million, China’s is 1,4 billion. The US is outnumbered more than 4 to 1. In the long run it cannot win a military confrontation however superior in arms it is. It is better to make peace now voluntarily than to be forced to in ten- or twenty-years’ time. The two leaders have to sit down in a locked room and only be allowed to emerge when they have forged a consensus on the rules of the road. What both sides need is a Confucian commitment to seeking harmony. Then the boats will rise for both sides. Biden has to run to China not run away from it, as in Afghanistan.
About the author: The writer was for 17 years a foreign affairs columnist and commentator for the International Herald Tribune, now the New York Times. He has also written many dozens of columns for the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Boston Globe and the Los Angeles Times. He is the European who has appeared most on the opinion pages of these papers. Visit his website: www.jonathanpowerjournalist.com [IDN-InDepthNews — 31 August 2021]
Photo: Afghanistan civilians attempt on the airfield as a C-17 attempts to take off from the Kabul airport. Source: USNI News
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