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Ironies of Power

Shortly after the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001, President George W. Bush ordered the invasion of Afghanistan, on the grounds that the Taliban government of that country had sheltered Al Qaeda, the perpetrators of the attacks. Unlike the later invasion of Iraq, the attack on Afghanistan was well-justified in international law, and supported by our NATO allies. We had a right to attack them, but 20 years later it is nonetheless clear that it was ill-advised.

We often forget that the Taliban was one of several guerrilla bands that the US covertly aided in the 1980s, as they fought the Soviet occupation of the country. As the end of the Soviet era approached in the late 1980s, Gorbachev took the only sensible choice he had, to get out and leave Afghanis to sort it out themselves. The result was several years of battles among competing militias (all of them having been aided by the US), resulting finally in the Taliban taking power in the course of the 1990s. Their regime proved to be not only authoritarian, but puritanically Islamist. They were particularly repressive towards women.

For nearly 20 years we have floundered along, propping up a succession of Afghani governments but never achieving complete control of the country.

Ousting the Taliban government proved easy for the fully mobilized US military. But for nearly 20 years we have floundered along, propping up a succession of Afghani governments but never achieving complete control of the country. The Taliban just retreated to the countryside, and to protected havens in neighboring Pakistan, and went back to doing what they do best: guerrilla warfare. In the areas our Afghanis controlled, some semblance of democracy, with women’s rights prominently featured, prevailed, but a regime founded on the US occupation was radically unstable: it never grew roots.

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Donald Trump, compulsively iconoclastic, declared that he would end the “forever war” by pulling our troops out of Afghanistan, over the objections of the military establishment. But it was Joe Biden, the quintessential liberal internationalist, who finally cut the Gordian Knot by ordering all troops out by 11 September 2021, exactly 20 years after the attacks that justified the invasion. That withdrawal is now essentially complete.

It was clear to Biden that nothing short of a permanent, massive and bloody occupation could have secured Afghanistan from a restoration of Taliban rule. This is a country that has been many times invaded, but never conquered. Before the Soviets, the British had a client regime there for a century, but they couldn’t hang on. Before the British, many other invaders had a similar experience: they could invade, they could occupy, but they couldn’t, in the end, prevail.

Now we must consider the consequences of our withdrawal. In the short term, Afghanistan will revert to an ecology of rival militias, with the Taliban the strongest, much like the situation in the early 1990s. This is the bitter fruit of our 20-year war: Afghanistan will be right back where it was. Perhaps a robust, durable program of US aid for the Afghani government and friendly militias could stave off a Taliban victory. The British, after all, hung on for a century without ever having a large force there.

impeachment unavoidable

But these are different times. The Taliban have proved they have solid support among the dominant Pashtun ethnic group. The other militias are rooted in smaller ethnic groups and will have difficulty forming a coherent and powerful opposition to the Taliban. Thus the fundamentals of the situation suggest that within a few years (maybe sooner) most of the country will again fall under Taliban rule. A 20-year occupation will have proved a mere interlude.

Not that Taliban rule will be permanent: they will eventually turn their own people against them. But that will not be our affair.

John Peeler