The true lesson of Afghanistan is the hubris of nation building

While the withdrawal was bungled, the decision to leave was right. We should have done so years ago

PHILIP JOHNSTON in The (UK) Telegraph, 17 August 2021


The last time Boris Johnson addressed MPs on Afghanistan, he said: “I do not believe that the Taliban are guaranteed the kind of victory that we sometimes read about.” That was just five weeks ago. Tomorrow in the Commons, with the insurgents sitting in the president’s palace in Kabul, he needs to explain why the intelligence was so wrong.

Like Joe Biden on Monday night, he will doubtless concede that planners were surprised by the speed of the Taliban’s advance and the collapse of the expensively trained and equipped Afghan security forces. Yet some observers had been warning of just such an outcome for weeks, so why weren’t we prepared? The debacle that has unfolded is not a function of the decision to leave Afghanistan but of its botched manner.

Since it was hardly a secret that the Taliban were intent on retaking the country – they had already seized several major towns weeks ago – the delays in providing exit visas for those facing danger because they worked with NATO forces, for example, are shameful.

But the unmitigated fiasco of the West’s final days in Afghanistan should not detract from the fact that withdrawing is the right thing to do. It should have happened 15 years ago. We stayed on after fulfilling the initial aims – and after the combat phase had ended in 2014 – because we still thought we could help make Afghanistan better. It was the classic mission creep that led hubristic Western leaders to believe they could reform that benighted land into a democratic state like America or Britain.

In his ill-judged, self-exculpatory televised address, President Biden said the commitment to Afghanistan was never intended to be a nation-building exercise. But while the original motive for the post 9/11 invasion was to punish al-Qaeda and stop Taliban-ruled Afghanistan being used as a terrorist base for attacks on the West, it morphed into a forlorn attempt to re-engineer the cultural and economic verities of the country. It is as though, once we have transferred a great deal of men and ordnance to a country, we are reluctant just to say “job done” and leave without interfering in the way the place is run.

For all that, Western leaders now insist that nation-building was not the aim, they nevertheless justify the length of the deployment in precisely those terms. Thus Mr Johnson in his statement in July: “In Taliban-ruled Afghanistan, virtually no girls attended school … The Girls’ Education Challenge fund, established by the British Government, has helped more than a quarter of a million Afghan girls into the classroom.”

Women who joined the army or became judges and teachers are now justifiably fearful that the Taliban will force them back into subjugation or worse. Having encouraged civil society to flourish we are now leaving it to be dismantled by the forces of darkness. Some argue that the Taliban have changed over the past 20 years and are now likely to be more pragmatic than theocratic in order to seek outside help to rebuild the country. We shall see if such optimism is justified.

But for many Afghans, their futures would have been less problematic had we not imagined we were in a position to “make their lives better” by replicating the political and economic structures of the West. Trying to impose a central government and a democracy on a tribal system unused to either was a mistake. What mattered was to stop Afghanistan being used as a base for international jihadi terrorism. Once Osama bin Laden and his cohorts had been forced out and the Taliban were in disarray, that was the time to leave.

To get sucked into a 20-year involvement that merely united disparate ethnicities against a common foe, however well-meaning we considered ourselves to be, was calamitous. Biden was right to say that we could have stayed another 20 years and it would have made little difference, although a continued residual presence might have stayed the Taliban’s hand for years.

After all, long-term post-conflict commitments are not uncommon: there was a permanent British military deployment to Germany until last year. The US still maintains more than 50,000 troops in Japan and South Korea. But Afghanistan is not called the graveyard of empires for nothing and, unlike in those other countries, a foreign presence was resented.

The cost in blood and treasure has been truly phenomenal. More than 400 British service men and women and more than 2,400 US military personnel have died, along with hundreds of other NATO participants. Some 4,000 contractors, 400 aid workers and 72 journalists have been killed, although most deaths – around 150,000 – have been among Afghans, either civilians, security troops or Taliban fighters. Would so many have died were it not for the West’s intervention?

Figures provided by the US Special Investigation for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) show that more cash has been funneled to Afghanistan than was delivered to the whole of post-war Europe under the Marshall Plan. The Americans have spent nearly $200 billion on “relief and reconstruction” in an attempt to create a functioning state in Afghanistan. Total UK expenditure is officially estimated at £21 billion, although some put the cost much higher.

Among beneficiaries of the intervention were development consultants, Afghan drug lords and international arms companies. Yet despite this massive investment, or because of it, the country remained in the hands of tribal chiefs and corrupt officials.

Western politicians sought to justify the continued involvement in terms of improvements to the lives of Afghans while at the same time denying they were engaged in “nation-building”. Yet it was all done in a piecemeal fashion with no comprehensive plan to guide reconstruction efforts nor any obvious strategy for dealing with corruption, drugs, health, education, gender, rule of law, water and agrarian reform – all of which would have taken decades to entrench.

Worst of all, we created a form of governance that could only survive through the continued presence of Western forces. Once removed, it collapsed. Will we ever learn?