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Civilization as intervention

  • 24 August 2021
  The New York Times editorial on 15 August was all about tragedy in describing the fall of Kabul to the Taliban. ‘Tragic because the American dream of being the “indispensable nation” in shaping a world where the values of civil rights, women’s empowerment and religious tolerance rule proved to be just that: a dream.’

That view, in some form or rather, was repeated among Washington’s allies, many critical about the perceived forfeiture of the Western project. Norbert Röttgen, chairman of the German parliament’s foreign relations committee, assessed the withdrawal by Coalition forces and personnel as a calamity for ‘the political and moral credibility of the West’ and believers ‘in democracy and freedom, especially for women’. Conservative UK parliamentarian Tobias Ellwood considered the decision to withdraw from Afghanistan ‘appalling’. ‘Our exodus allows dictatorship to replace democracy.’

Such views do much to ignore that most important lesson of history: foreign interventions in defiance of local conditions, and missions inspired by civilizational change, tend to fail. Afghanistan provides no better instance of this.

President Joe Biden, for his part, never agreed with the civilizational project. As he explained in his August 16 speech, the invasion of Afghanistan had only one purpose: counterterrorism. It was never, in his mind, a ‘counterinsurgency or nation building’ mission. He also scorned those ‘political leaders’ who had given ‘up and fled the country.’

The US-armed Afghan military of 300,000 strong and ‘incredibly well equipped — a force larger in size than the militaries of many of our NATO allies’ had ‘collapsed, sometimes without trying to fight.’ That very fact convinced him ‘that ending US military involvement in Afghanistan now was the right decision.’ US troops ‘cannot and should not be fighting in a war and dying in a war that Afghan forces are not willing to fight for themselves.’

The speech received much criticism. US Representative Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, a member of the Senate Armed Services and Foreign Relations committees, issued a plea to the administration for ‘swift, decisive action’ lest Afghan civilians ‘suffer or die at the hands of the Taliban.’ Massachusetts Democrat Rep. Seth Moulton lamented the fact that the Coalition occupation had not been prolonged. Democrats and Republicans had ‘failed to hold the votes for re-authorizing this conflict for the last two decades since we invaded to find Osama bin Laden. For that, all of us in Congress should be ashamed.’   

While Biden’s comments on the unwillingness of the