What is left of America (and its experts) in the Taliban era?
Why is it that a superpower so rich in experts, scholars, pundits and policymakers keeps messing up in the Greater Middle East?
Profesor of Politics at Doha Institute for Graduate Studies
Even by the usual American standards, the collapse of the US-built and generously sponsored Afghan army in the face of the Taliban’s walkover victory into Kabul is a fiasco of mega proportions. The habitual post-mortem (who “lost” Afghanistan, how, and why?) hardly scratches the surface of what actually happened.
When a ragtag movement, supposedly crushed into oblivion by the most powerful military alliance on the planet, and bombed and re-bombed to smithereens for over two decades, rises from the ashes, walks into the very presidential palace built by the “terminators” – who were incidentally still around, watching as if in a trance – to manage its terminal absence, it is not Afghanistan we should be discussing here. It should be America itself and what is left of it as a world power.
Hitherto, the standard answers being offered included: how the “good war in Afghanistan” (unlike, God forbid, the bad one in Iraq!), turned bad as well; how better logistics and timing could have helped, how strategies could have been different, etc.
This focus on largely technical issues, such as the internal command problems within NATO, weak planning, corruption and incompetence in the Afghan leadership, the failure of President Barack Obama’s 2009 “surge”, missed opportunities for peace-making, etc, is more of a distraction than a insightful analysis.
Even the persistent accusations against Pakistan of supporting the Taliban are irrelevant; even if those are true, its involvement would be no match for the over 40 other advanced countries backing America, and the strong support from tribal-ethnic forces that did most of the ground fighting initially.
Here, we have the world’s mightiest, ultra-modern war machine, failing dismally in a war against a marginal, almost alien, military-political force, in one of the poorest countries in the world. This dream alliance, generously funded (to the level of over a trillion dollars) and backed by United Nations leadership and guidance in civil affairs, spent two decades amassing “victories” and “achievements”. Then it watched in stunned impotence as bare-foot villagers walked in, or rode in on motorbikes, to wipe out all those “achievements” within a couple of weeks.
That was no technical or logistical mishap. It was a thrashing, a defeat in all the senses of the word, an abject failure. Even in the wake of the most violent colonial wars of liberation, never have we seen an occupation that had to rush to take all its “human achievements”, including the translators, home with it. As routings go, this was epic!
A few critics raised the fundamental issue of whether the idea of the war itself was sound, reminding us of the questionable justifications, given that none of the perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks came from Afghanistan, and America has harboured more of them than Afghanistan. Al-Qaeda chose Afghanistan because of its statelessness, not because it had a “terror-sponsoring” state. So, the war did not address the root cause of the conflict.
Afghanistan had remained exceptionally resistant to foreign invaders – and very effective in keeping them out, unlike Iraq, which had a formative colonial experience. The invasion was thus both unhelpful and unwise. Many deemed it unjust and illegal.
However, Western support for this “good” and just war remained strong overall, apart from a small section of sceptics. In October 2019, Foreign Affairs asked a group of “authorities with deep specialised expertise” on the Afghan case whether the war was a mistake. Only a handful questioned its legitimacy, even after all that had happened or become known.
In the post-9/11 trauma, US leaders felt they had to do something violent, and soon. It was more an act of seeking catharsis than a rational response. Like Osama bin Laden, George W Bush also chose Afghanistan, the apparent weakest link, as the site of his retaliation spectacle.
Nonetheless, the consequences of such a rash indulgence were not that hard to predict. The question is: Why was foreseeing the disaster so difficult in this “advanced” country, with a limitless supply of pundits, scholars, experts and veteran policymakers?
The Afghan debacle was not the only major occurrence that had caught “experts” by surprise. So did the Arab Spring, the Berlin Wall, the Iranian revolution, the rise of Islamism – you name it. There is something problematic about “experts” who always appear the last to know.
Some scholars had contended that historical developments are inherently unpredictable, even to the actors involved in them; many of the latter engage in “preference falsification” (the deliberate hiding of intentions). However, this is not the whole story. There is often a reluctance by “experts” to see the obvious.
I have spent the past few decades responding to wishful thinking about the “end of Islamism”. In the late 1990s an American friend sent me for comment chapters of her book, which predicted the end of Islamism. I sent her an article I had published a decade earlier, criticising the methodology for similar conclusions reached by State Department analysts.
They had based their conclusions on “election” results from five countries, all autocracies! I warned in that piece that continued oppression by US-backed regimes will radicalise Islamists, not eliminate them, as some seem to aspire. I think we all now know how things have evolved since then.
Edward Said’s deep critique of “Orientalism” has shown us these errors were part of a broader pattern of distortions. Ironically, Said’s work faced a backlash that triggered a “sectarian” polarisation in Middle Eastern studies in the US. Opponents of his views, including an alliance of neoconservatives and pro-Israel lobbies, launched multiple crusades against fair-minded academics, including campaigns of defamation, lobbying to cut official funds to universities deemed anti-Israel, or even anti-America.
These ventures included the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, set up in 1995 by Lynne Cheney and Senator Joe Lieberman, and described by critics as a form of New McCarthyism for its systematic targeting of progressive academics as “enemies of the American civilisation”.
In 2002, the pro-Israel lobbyists launched Campus Watch, dedicated to targeting academics deemed hostile to Israel’s agenda. The group published a “black list” of “offending” academics, and urged students to snitch on their professors!
Given the already mentioned problems of “expertise” in foreign policy analysis, the advice of these campaigners looks like a prescription for the poor-sighted to wear blindfolds. Enhanced since then by Trumpism and its hostility to anything rational, this approach threatens American society as a whole, and not just academia and rationality.
The Afghan question needs to be seen in this broader framework. Faulty analyses (or plain prejudice/bias) often produce disastrous policies, which in turn generate more misguided analyses. There is the background issue of Israel, and the irrational decision in Washington to indulge whatever absurd and dangerous policies Israelis propose, oblivious of the consequences, even to Israel itself. As a result, it is not Israel, but America that is the gravest threat to stability in the region.
But the immediate roots of the current crisis go back to 1990, when President George Bush Sr decided to exploit Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait to assert US hegemony in the post-Cold War era. Instead of using diplomacy to resolve the crisis, he took the opportunity to show off American firepower, shore up friendly despots, secure oil supplies, and show everybody who the boss was.
Senior British and US officials dismissed warnings of serious consequences, boasting after the war about how right they were: nothing happened. Then, of course, 9/11 happened, and the same people were asking: where did this come from?
What happened in 1990 in the Middle East was similar to what happened in Afghanistan in 2001. In both cases, a conservative society was traumatised by a disruptive foreign presence (more violently in the case of Afghanistan) that tore it apart and provoked violent defensive reactions that spilled over into America.
The intrusion into Saudi Arabia in 1990 was the original sin, producing al-Qaeda; the 2003 invasion of Iraq produced ISIS; then the invasion of Afghanistan created a more viable Islamic emirate.
Simultaneously, the regional balance came unhinged. Ironically Iran, the supposed enemy, was handed multiple victories; the US neutralised its Iraqi (and later Afghan) enemies, and practically handed over Iraq to it. Simultaneously, Saudi Arabia, Iran’s nemesis, was destabilised by the disruptive presence of US troops on its territory.
As I have pointed out elsewhere, followers of Iran’s late Supreme Leader Ruhollah Khomeini would be forgiven to regard this as a divine intervention: Heaven sent Iran’s archenemy to subdue its local adversaries and hand Iranians the spoils. The US acted practically just like one of the pro-Iranian militias in the region, doing its bidding from a distance, only for free.
In the same vein, instead of taking serious action to stop Bashar al Assad’s genocide of the Syrian people, the selective intervention against ISIS made the US and NATO the complimentary air force of the Syrian regime and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard’s Qassem Soleimani, this time handing over Syria to Putin and Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
America’s most dependable ally, Turkey, was left carrying the can, hostage to the Russia-Iran alliance. Even good old Machiavellianism appeared elusive. Ethics is not the only casualty here, but pragmatism as well. By continuing to let down its allies through its fickleness and faithlessness, and helping its enemies prosper through its incompetence, America will be without allies next time it decides to face up to China or Russia.
Only a decade ago, the question asked would have been: How long could extremists survive in the era of American unipolarity? I think now the question would be: how long can America last in the era of the Taliban?
In this, so-called “experts” are as guilty as the blundering politicians.
A few years ago, a taxi driver who drove me to Sky News studios in London for an interview, asked about the topic I was going to speak about. When he learned it was the war in Iraq, he remarked wryly, “I think the intelligence agencies should be sued under the Trade Descriptions Act.”
Maybe they are not the only ones.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.
Profesor of Politics at Doha Institute for Graduate Studies