American retreat from the region is symbolic of a broader trend of waning western influence on the world stage…
Written by Johanna Ross, journalist based in Edinburgh, Scotland.
It was America’s longest war, and a war which ultimately it has lost. The US withdrawal from Afghanistan has begun, and will be completed by 11th September this year. It will be exactly 20 years to the day after the Al-Qaeda attacks on the World Trade Centre, planned from Osama Bin Laden’s base in Afghanistan, which provoked US retaliation in the form of invasion and regime change.
The regime change operation to remove the Taliban initially went quite well. After only two months of allied intervention, the Islamic regime was collapsing and by 2004 the US-backed government was in power. But the Taliban was not defeated. Pushed towards Pakistan, it continued to flourish, generating hundreds of millions of dollars a year from the opium trade, mining and taxes. Since then, particularly after NATO troops withdrew in 2014, the Taliban has only gained momentum. Now, as western forces leave, it claims to control an incredible 85% of Afghanistan, a figure so far undisputed. With a death toll of 241,000 in the region since 2001, including several thousand allied soldiers, many in the West are now asking whether it was all worth it.
The official US position is that it’s time for Afghans to assume control of their own destiny. The State department’s John Kirby has played down the Taliban’s advances -“Claiming territory or claiming ground doesn’t mean you can sustain that or keep it over time” he professes, adding it is now up to the Afghan army to take charge. But despite PR attempts to dispel concerns about the allied withdrawal, some figures in the western defence and security establishment are worried about what the future holds.
One such sceptic is former UK MI6 head Sir Alex Younger. He recently voiced his concerns about the allied retreat from the region, stating it would be an ‘enormous mistake’ for the West to neglect Afghanistan. Younger fears the withdrawal will result in civil war between the Taliban and Afghan government. Criticising the West’s strategy in dealing with the country, Younger admits the nation-building operation was ‘unrealistic’ and ‘not supported by a political plan’. The ex-security head says attempts to bargain with the Taliban were made too late.
Clearly, the attempt to transform Afghanistan according to the western model of democratic society, failed miserably. And the defeat holds wider significance, beyond the poppy fields of Afghanistan. For the US retreat from this region is symbolic of a broader decline of western influence on the world stage. A series of catastrophic attempts at regime change by successive US administrations in, for example, Iraq, and Libya have led to disastrous consequences with these countries now in a worse state than prior to western intervention.
Joe Biden’s words therefore, in his speech on 8th July, were significant. For he essentially admitted that America had given up on Afghanistan and had no hope of ‘achieving a different outcome’ in the country. I’m not sure what’s more astonishing for those familiar with US government rhetoric; this brutally honest expression of hopelessness or Biden’s words that ‘it’s the right and the responsibility of the Afghan people alone to decide their future and how they want to run their country.’ Neither statement sounds like the America we know. It’s an America in decline.
As the US withdraws from the region, Russia and China will be ready to step up to the plate. Russia is already aiding Tajikistan in defending itself against Taliban insurgents on the border with Afghanistan. Only last week 134 Afghan government soldiers crossed the border into Tajikistan after they came under attack by the Taliban, and President Putin has vowed to provide his Tajik counterpart with all the ‘necessary support’ to control the border area, in line with its responsibilities as a member of the Collective Security Treaty Organization.
While Joe Biden was giving his speech on US withdrawal from Afghanistan, China, on the very same day was calling for Pakistan to aid it in stabilizing the war-torn nation. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said that Islamabad should work together with Beijing to ‘defend regional peace together’, stating that ‘problems in Afghanistan are practical challenges that China and Pakistan both face’. China already has an economic platform in the region and is looking to expand it further by placing the Afghans on its Belt and Road Initiative.
Strategically, Afghanistan is important for the Chinese, providing access to Iran and the Middle East, and a pathway to the Indian Ocean and on to Africa. According to reports, a deal is already being negotiated with the Afghan government which would extend the $62 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor which began in 2013.
Indeed China’s ascension to being the US’ No.1 economic competitor in recent years runs parallel with successive botched western military interventions in the Middle East region and the overall decline of US influence on the world stage. We are therefore witnessing a decided shift in the global balance of power. This is slowly being reflected in the rhetoric of western politicians; we are beginning to hear acknowledgements of the ‘multipolar world’ for the first time by western leadership (Armin Laschet, tipped to be the future German chancellor has spoken of it and it was referred to in the UK security review published earlier this year). Joe Biden’s words that the Afghans should control their own destiny, and that America didn’t set out to ‘nation-build’ is a significant shift for a country that, until recently, didn’t see any problem with regime change operations.
In addition, there are signs that the West is following the pattern of decline outlined by US historian Carroll Quigley in 1961. Amongst the various indications of a decaying civilization, Quigley included ‘a growing reluctance to fight for the society’ together with the fundamental issues of moral decline, cultural suicide and political disunity, as well as economic and demographic problems. As a society becomes weaker, it leaves itself open to attack: ‘when the civilization, no longer able to defend itself because it is no longer willing to defend itself, lies open to barbarian invaders’ who often come from ‘another younger, more powerful civilization’. Quigley predicted that the western world would collapse around 2500, with China and India becoming the dominant players globally.
As one reads Quigley, and thinks about the modern world in which we live, much of what he prophesied half a century ago is recognizable. The western project of ‘spreading democracy’ around the globe has failed, fundamentally because at home, society has become more polarized and fractious, and is lacking a clear sense of direction. Without a strong ideology and internal unity, the West has nothing to promote overseas. The abandonment of Afghanistan is a symbolic moment, for it signifies the point at which the West gave up; when it realized it had nothing more to offer; when it had nothing to fight for. It was the moment when it conceded defeat and the door was opened to China. Ultimately, it represents the sun setting on western hegemony.
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