Monday, 28 June, 2021
Ghassan Charbel Ghassan Charbel is the editor-in-chief of Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper
Did George Bush commit a sin two decades ago similar to the one committed by Leonid Brezhnev four decades earlier when he sent his army to Afghanistan to wage an unwinnable war in a country that cannot be controlled? Was sending the American army to topple Saddam Hussein a similar sin that ended two decades later with the narrowing down of the military presence to a few bases that are targeted by Iranian factions in Iraq?
Was the US too preoccupied with the crises in Iraq and Afghanistan to pay attention to Mao’s heirs, who were doubling their output in the “factory of the world” and attacking countries with loans and contracts to recruit them to the Silk Road? Have the human and financial losses in Afghanistan and Iraq weakened America’s ability to maintain its top spot in the world in spite of fierce competition, especially from China?
It is clear that the Joe Biden term will not only suffer from the cost of the coronavirus pandemic and the debate over its origins. It will also suffer from the near return of troops from the Afghan trip that started as part of a major disciplinary campaign launched after the September 11, 2001 attacks.
The American withdrawal from Afghanistan cannot be compared to its withdrawal from Vietnam as the world is now a completely different place. However, the country, which cost the US over 2,000 casualties and 20,000 injuries, will return to live under the shadow of those who embraced al-Qaeda and the plotters of the attacks on New York and Washington.
The master of the Kremlin will anticipate the upcoming September 11 anniversary with a smug grin. The American and NATO forces would have completed their withdrawal from Afghanistan and left it to a fate that is virtually known. In all likelihood the Taliban flags will again flutter in Kabul, which Ibn Battuta had visited eight centuries ago and noted the austerity and misery of its people.
Vladimir Putin will feel vengeful. It is not odd for the czar to feel wounded. This country, which endures a long snowy winter, worries over siege whenever the West approaches its borders. Who knows, the Russian generals may draw up elaborate scenarios.
In the 19th century, the British Empire futilely tried to tame Afghanistan and admitted defeat after much bloodshed. Some people have looked back at history to draw up significant conclusions: Afghanistan is the “graveyard of empires”. It is a country that does not show mercy to its invaders or its own people. Its people are fierce against outsiders and fierce also when regional, ethnic and sectarian tensions mount. They fight without holding back and without forethought. The graveyard of empires is also the land of endless funerals.
The hatred Russian generals harbor to the West may lead them to believe that the American army will retreat to their home country, which in a few years will be forced to come under the Chinese age and which will no longer have the first and final say in the affairs of the global village.
The truth is 1989 was fun for American generals and their peers in the NATO armies. Some images were unimaginable a few years ago. The year started with the Red Army withdrawing from Afghanistan. It was obvious that the Soviet Union had lost the war and that Kabul would lie in the hands of those who had dealt blows to its forces. The scene did not lead many to believe that that nuclear-armed military would be returning to its home country, which was on the brink. The generals in Washington were hoping that the images of the wounded retreating Soviet army would lead the world to forget the image of the American army as it fled Saigon and left Vietnam to confront its “red” fate alone.
Another development shook the world that year. On November 9 the winds of freedom blew down the Berlin Wall. Two years later, the NATO generals were witness to a sight that went beyond their wildest dreams and wishes: the collapse of the Soviet Union.
I don’t want to say that the military intervention in Afghanistan was the main or sole reason for the Soviet collapse. The causes were many, including economic failure, the cost of the arms race, the widening of the technological gap in favor of the West and issues related to freedoms and beliefs. However, Brezhnev’s sin in deciding to intervene militarily in Afghanistan had dire consequences.
Two decades after the New York attacks, Biden is insisting on completing the withdrawal from Afghanistan because it is a war that cannot be won. In fact, the Afghanistan war confirmed what was already established by the Iraq experience. The US is a major power that boasts history’s most advanced military. This power can strike any target on Earth. It can break apart and paralyze armies. However, this major power cannot build viable substitutes for the regimes it topples. The greatest evidence is that Iran was and still is the greatest victor from the ouster of the Saddam regime.
In Afghanistan, the picture appears more complicated. Ashraf Ghani’s regime appears incapable of withstanding Taliban attacks and the group’s experience in breaching states and bases.
In all likelihood the vacuum left behind by the American pullout will be enticing to several players. Pakistan is a natural actor on the Afghan stage, especially since the Taliban was born from the Pakistani fold. Iran, also, has prepared for this stage and has employed its Afghan relations to form militias that it has even sent to Syria. Turkey is trying to gain favor with Washington by expressing a readiness to play a role in Afghanistan that would lead the US to ignore its purchase of the Russian S-400 system. Moscow is also concerned with the pullout because it cannot overlook the security in Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.
It is complicated scene. Afghanistan is China’s neighbor and Pakistan has something to offer Beijing, which in turn will not neglect the precious metals Afghanistan has to offer and the complex transit point this difficult country poses. Moreover, when Pakistan and China are in the picture, India has to worry. It won’t be too long before the flames in Afghanistan are fanned.
This does not mean that peace will return to Afghanistan. Peace here is an unusual habit. This a country that expels so-called invaders so that it can occupy itself with its own grinding civil wars. The “graveyard of empires” has grown addicted to funerals – those of outsiders and its own people. This is what history – long past and recent – has shown and history does not lie.