It may have been the last defeat for the United States in its last imperial war; for the Europeans, Afghanistan is a muted catastrophe.
Everything is going wrong in Afghanistan. The historical ghosts that expelled the invaders and embittered the last days of puppet regimes are back. The oldest and most acknowledged regimes later became a geopolitical concept. It was the great game, the rivalry between Russia and the British Empire to dominate this weak place that was Asia, which foreign powers have been unable to control for millennia. The most recent examples might well be called Saigon and Phnom Penh, thorns in the side of American history after the defeats in Vietnam and Cambodia.
The hasty departure from the Bagram base last week evokes the last overloaded helicopter that departed from the roof of the Saigon Embassy on April 30, 1975. There is also the uncertain fate of thousands of Afghan interpreters and aides, and, of course, the entire pro-Western regime, its military and police, deputies and rulers. This reminds us of the letter from a collaborator of the invaders, Cambodian Prince Sisowath Sirik Matak, to the American ambassador in Cambodia on April 12, 1975, in which he felt responsible the single mistake of “believing in you, the Americans.”
The White House has already washed its hands of Afghanistan. Some 650 soldiers will stay to protect the embassy. The Afghan forces trained by NATO will have to get to work. Suddenly, in Kabul there is a friendly government that deserves all the support it can bet, but has been abandoned to all it has to do, to the unstoppable advance of the Taliban, the demoralization of its troops, the despair of its civilians and above all, the fear of women before the reinstatement of Islamist rule.
Donald Trump decided to withdraw from Afghanistan and tried to disguise it as a victory. Joe Biden has given the final order, but without thinking about it very much. It may have been the last defeat for the United States in its imperial wars, but, for the Europeans, Afghanistan is a muted catastrophe. All that it has invested there, in lives above all, has hardly helped trans-Atlantic solidarity, and barely contributed to the fight against terrorism and the freedom of Afghans. Lacking their own military forces, it is not even in U.S. hands to ensure the safety of the embassies in Kabul. The geopolitical engagement and the language of power are still far beyond Brussels’ reach.
No one has explained how the sudden withdrawal of the main U.S. military facility was decided. Suddenly, at midnight, only the 5,000 incarcerated Taliban members remained in Bagram, along with thousands of vehicles and artillery trucks, supplies, computers, weapons and small-caliber ammunition. The lights were turned off, the base was left without power and the looting continued until early morning, when the Kabul government regained control. It is quite an omen.