No, the Defeat in Afghanistan Is Not Bitter

The Western withdrawal does not mean that its capability to respond to geopolitical changes is weakened. It remains the only force in the world that can effectively intervene to save peoples in danger.

Everyone sees a geopolitical shift in the Taliban’s return to power: “It signifies straightaway a bitter strategic defeat for the United States and its NATO allies with long-term implications for their credibility and capacity for action,” opined political commentator Alexandra de Hoop Scheffer in an Aug. 24 editorial in Le Monde.

It is clear that the American withdrawal from Afghanistan is a defeat, but it is not a bitter one: It was planned, announced and negotiated months in advance. It was done to conclude an unwinnable war and stop the hemorrhaging of human life, with 2,400 American soldiers dead and over 20,000 wounded. There was also the financial cost, with America spending over $2 trillion in Afghanistan since 2001, including over $83 billion to train the Afghan army.

A Healthy Catharsis

The American disengagement signals a strategic defeat and a gigantic waste in human and financial resources.* This shock, along with the acknowledgement of a long list of strategic errors, is having a healthy cathartic effect that will probably result in the restructuring of Western strategic thinking in conjunction with a reconsideration of politico-military intervention of any kind around the world.

The American retreat especially indicates the need to rethink the principles of military engagement and disengagement and to finally realize that no military intervention can be purely military and apolitical, since any intervention is unavoidably political for the country being aided. For NATO allies, it is time to stop building their foreign policies around America’s and counting indefinitely on American resources.

Inspired by the Chinese and Russians?

We must no longer attempt to aid and rebuild states whose institutions are gradually decaying without first identifying their predominant community ties and diagnosing their internal divisions, especially within their security forces.

Without a sense of the realities on the ground in the country, Western humanitarian and pro-democracy sentiment always ends in chaos and humanitarian crises when they withdraw. The Western powers might employ a little of the cold pragmatism of the Chinese and Russians in restoring stability to troubled regions.

This strategic defeat, however, does not spell the end of American credibility or capacity to act; fortunately, it remains the most powerful Western force for intervention.

Furthermore, aside from bearing the burden of international security, the West is practically the only place in the world that intervenes on behalf of endangered peoples who are victims of political systems that maltreat them, who fight for democracy and women’s rights, etc.

Little does it matter that it does harm with its maladroitness in trying to defeat the Taliban for 20 years if its intentions were good. It means to do well, and no one else is willing to try! Can anyone imagine the Chinese, Russians, Turks, Iranians or Pakistanis bringing assistance to peoples struggling for democracy?

After Pearl Harbor or Dunkirk

Are those who love to condemn America willing to wager that its Afghan retreat is an irredeemable check on its credibility and future ability to act? Remember how America responded to the bitter strategic defeat of its fleet at Pearl Harbor and the humiliating debacle of its rout in the Philippines at Bataan and Corregidor in early World War II, when its Army was destroyed and Gen. Douglas MacArthur fled.

Also, did NATO’s greatest ally, Great Britain, lose its credibility and its ability to act following the bitter defeats of its expeditionary forces in France and Norway in 1940, with their disastrous retreats from Dunkirk and Narvik?

Their enemies of that time proudly believed that the Allies’ goose was cooked when they fled the battlefield with their tails between their legs. However, repeated defeats failed to hinder the Allies’ resolve and ability to act.

Today, the imitation Marshall Plan for Afghanistan proves that the Western powers, especially the Americans, have lost none of their means and willingness to act.

Action, Self-Deception, Correction and Improvisation

It is therefore necessary to fully accept the political nature of any international assistance, since neutrality is impossible given the risk to young soldiers’ lives, and to clearly announce the objectives of any such politico-military intervention, such as the eradication of terrorist groups, reconstruction, stabilization, democratization, training security forces, etc. These would allow the erasure of the contradiction between withdrawing troops as quickly as possible and the necessity of a continuing troop presence, and thus pave the way for the project of “nation building.”

In sum, let’s proceed on the assumptions that a) it’s illusory to believe that most interventions are temporary and b) it’s a reality that any military, humanitarian, food, medical or financial aid will negatively impact the political sphere of the receiving country.

And in the context of the “global war on terror,” action, self-deception, improvisation, adaption, domination and turning inside out are indeed the true indicators of strategic and diplomatic dynamism and of the West’s ability to react to geopolitical changes.

*If these $2 trillion had been invested in repairing American social services, every American would today enjoy free medical and dental coverage better than those of Europeans.

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