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Bitter Lessons From Afghanistan

Bitter Lessons From Afghanistan
 Dominique Moïsi
Distinguished Senior fellow

"We can never win this war. The Afghans know that, unlike the Taliban, we are not here to stay." This is what one of my students, a senior French officer who had just returned from the NATO mission in Kabul, confided to me while I was teaching at Harvard University in 2009.

I have been thinking a lot about him these last few days, as the structure built by the USA and its allies in Afghanistan is about to collapse like a house of cards. Today, the Taliban are a stone's throw away from Kabul. A situation with striking resemblances to the North Vietnamese troops that gathered at the gates of Saigon in 1975. Whatever the Afghan government says, the Taliban are gaining ground faster than the most pessimistic observers could have feared.
More than a thousand Afghan soldiers have defected from their service, leaving their arms and equipment behind to seek refuge in Tajikistan. How are they supposed to withstand the determined Taliban without US air superiority or intelligence support? They lose heart even before they lose on the battlefield. 

"Closing up shop"

Once again, Afghanistan seems to live up to its nickname as "graveyard of empires." Who will be next? Will the Chinese succeed the Greeks, the Mongols, the British, the Soviets, and finally the Americans and their allies? As the US withdraws, Beijing looks at Afghanistan with a mixture of appetite and anxiety. The United States, on their end, are organizing their withdrawal in an ambiance of fatigue and disinterest. The country is taking its distance from the broader Middle East, a region that has cost much but brought little return in the past twenty years. As the fateful date of September 11 approaches, the US feels that it is now time to close up shop in Afghanistan. The US is no longer bothered about leaving an incomplete mission behind. Not this one in particular anyway. 

As the fateful date of September 11 approaches, the US feels that it is now time to close up shop in Afghanistan.

The new parvenu China intends to take over the place left empty by the US, while avoiding making the same mistakes. Will China be able to realize its ambitions? Does it have any other choice? If Afghanistan sinks into chaos, it could become a serious obstacle on the way to a stable and secure "Silk Road", China’s global infrastructure development strategy. Beyond serving as a sanctuary for anti-Western terrorists, unruly Muslim fundamentalists in power in Kabul might be eager to support the Uighur cause in China. 

Rebuilding Afghanistan via Pakistan and with the Taliban as intermediary for humanitarian aid seems to be a better option. But is this a viable arrangement without any military presence? Can a lot of money avoid spilling Chinese blood? Or is China about to experience the cost of its power?

Military interference

Before embarking on this adventure, China should sit back and learn from the mistakes of the Western world's interventionist policies. In 2000, Beijing even commissioned a report about Germany's foreign policy between 1870 and 1914, to study the transition from a policy of low profile under Bismarck, to a policy of asserting power under William II. It seems that China adhered to the wrong model.

The US’ defeat as liberator or invader (depending on who you ask) in Afghanistan fundamentally questions the role of military interference in today’s world. Interventionist policies have been in a constant back and forth since the end of the Second World War, which can be divided into three phases.

During the Cold War, military interference by former colonial and new imperialist powers, first and foremost the USSR, took place in the shadow of nuclear weapons. This provided a breathing space in a world paralyzed by the possible use of ultimate force. Each side sought to extend its influence from Africa to the Middle East, over Latin and Central America to Asia. The resulting power struggles often led to so-called "proxy" wars.

The US’ defeat as liberator or invader in Afghanistan fundamentally questions the role of military interference in today’s world.

With the end of the Cold War, peace was no longer impossible and war became less likely. In the 1990s, the failure of the West to prevent the genocide in Rwanda or the massacres in the Balkans gave fresh impetus to interventionist instincts. Thereafter, the "duty to interfere" became a melting pot for compassion and empathy, post-colonial romanticism or national ambitions.

The status of women

Following September 11 2001, protecting people from despotism and barbarism was increasingly considered a way to protect oneself. With democracy, we brought peace. Nonetheless, this new enthusiasm for interventionist policies overlooked an essential lesson: you cannot save people without their help. For many, the important collateral damage inflicted on civilians is a sign that their lives count less than those of the alleged liberators.

In 2021, the defeat of the West in Afghanistan and - let's face it - the failure of the French in the Sahel open a third chapter in the history of interventions. This chapter resembles the post-Vietnam War order but includes a radically novel element: the arrival of China as a key player.

America's failure is all the more tragic because Afghanistan has made undeniable progress over the past twenty years, in particular concerning education and the rights of women. They will be the main victims of the US’ changing priorities and fierce desire to end its unfortunate adventure in the country.

Beyond Afghan women, there are also 120,000 interpreters and their families who supported the allies over the past years. To abandon them is to condemn them to a certain death. It is our moral responsibility to provide them with asylum and help. An inglorious departure does not necessarily have to be a shameful one.




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