The graveyard of empires
Exactly two decades after the United States (US) invaded Afghanistan, it will end its military presence in the country by August 31. After 9/11, a wounded US decided that it was time to teach the Taliban-ruled Islamic Emirate — the base of al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden — a lesson. As the US ends the war, it has lost over 2,500 of its own citizens and left a much greater trail of destruction all around. According to a Brown University study, by April 2021, 241,000 people, including 71,000 civilians, had died as a direct result of the war in Afghanistan and Pakistan. These numbers have only increased.
The US vacillated between two objectives during the war. The first was to weaken and destroy al Qaeda and kill bin Laden. The second was to reorganise Afghan society, address root causes of extremism, and create a liberal democratic polity. By the end of the 2000s, al Qaeda had become a weaker, more diffuse and decentralised network finding other theatres to advance its objectives through terror. The US located and killed bin Laden in 2011, unsurprisingly in Pakistan. The war, however, did not end because the second objective, of nation-building, persisted. Eventually, war fatigue in the US; the desire to concentrate on domestic challenges (Covid-19, economy) and new external strategic threats (China); the belated recognition that Rawalpindi had played Washington all along by pretending to support the war while covertly encouraging and arming Taliban; and a desire to wash its hands of domestic complexities of the Islamic Republic, led an overwhelming consensus in the US in favour of withdrawal. Donald Trump initiated the process, Joe Biden (always skeptical of the war’s more ambitious objectives) is concluding it. All the US has effectively got in return is a commitment by Taliban that Afghan soil won’t be used against the US.
And so here is the scorecard. The Taliban is back, already in control of much of Afghan territory and within striking distance of power in Kabul. Afghanistan’s democratic governance structure, armed forces, and civil society are too weak to resist. The Republic is headed to becoming an Emirate again. Gains of the last two decades, particularly in terms of women and minority rights, are about to be lost. Pakistan, the actor most responsible for the violence in Afghanistan, has returned as the victor. Others, including India, stare at a new security threat. And just like the British in the mid-19th century and the Soviets in the late-20th century, the US has gone back home, after its longest war ever, in defeat.