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Hard-nosed foreign policy realists have cause for cheer. Liberal interventionism has been falling out of vogue for the best part of a decade. The manner of the retreat from Kabul has read the last rites. The US is pulling back behind its borders. Afghanistan is again a Taliban state. Without a lead from Washington, Europe has fallen to paralysis.
Joe Biden has defied the bungled nature of the US withdrawal by declaring it the end of the era of nation building. The US president’s defiantly glib mantra is that there will be no more “forever wars”. A few thousand troops brought home and now the US can square up to China. History, Biden seems to think, will be kind. After all, the chilling images of helicopters evacuating the last US marines from the embassy in Saigon have never made a case that the US should have stayed in Vietnam.
Dismayed as they may be by Biden’s Trumpian turn, champions of liberal intervention must offer their own mea culpa. Two decades of western occupation of Afghanistan has shown them to have been naive in their expectations and careless in the execution of their democratising project.
Once the Americans had chased out al-Qaeda and the mission morphed into nation building, the easy assumption was that elections could turn Afghanistan into a shiny new democracy. The writing of a centralised constitution defied at once the fragmented nature of Afghanistan’s tribal society and any real understanding of how democracies work. Elections are the last piece in the puzzle. You start with a scaffolding of the rule of law, impartial national institutions and societal norms.
For all the hundreds of billions spent on the military, the west devoted trivial amounts to economic development. A treasure-trove of documents assembled by the Washington-based National Security Archive shows that even the hawkish former defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld thought the US should be allocating more to building an Afghan economy and less on the military if it wanted to beat the Taliban. Perversely, politicians prefer to spend money on missiles than on development aid.
The failure in Afghanistan was political rather than a military defeat. No serious attempt was made to bind Kabul’s neighbours into a settlement. Instead successive US administrations stood by as their supposed “ally” Pakistan continued to help organise and arm the Taliban. They refused to engage with Iran. During her time as secretary of state, Hillary Clinton gave a good speech calling for a “political surge” to secure a settlement. And then continued as before.
The mistake now would be to believe that America will be any safer for Biden’s retreat. It’s no accident that those cheering loudest at the withdrawal have been the west’s adversaries. Nation building has never been an entirely altruistic project. Stable, open democracies are a bulwark against both the jihadis who will now move back into Afghanistan and the authoritarian states challenging a rules-based international order. If Biden thinks the US is in a global contest with China — a battle between democracy and authoritarianism — he has just ceded an awful lot of ground.
It is easy enough to argue that reshaping broken and failing states requires commitments spanning generations — a “forever” task, Biden would say. The snag is that it is not one that can be sidestepped. Disorder is the friend to autocrats and terrorists. America is about to mark the 20th anniversary of the attacks on New York and Washington. If that murderous episode carried a warning it was that today’s threats are often heedless of national borders.
The realists are right when they say that you cannot build democracies at the point of a gun. And they are wrong to believe that the US can uphold an open, rules-based international order while hiding away at home, picking off terrorists with drones and ceding the world’s ungoverned spaces to authoritarian adversaries. Inaction also carries a price. Look at Syria.
At some point the pendulum will swing back again — perhaps in response to another attack, perhaps to atrocities that, however far they may be from western shores, public opinion cannot tolerate.
The real lesson from Afghanistan is that the purpose of military intervention — and it must always be a last resort — is to provide a space in which politics, economics and diplomacy can do their work. Biden is right about one thing. Confronting the new challenges needs leaders with patience and endurance — more than shown by the present occupant of the White House.