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OPINION AND ANALYSIS | 17-04-2021 08:04

Joe Biden sounds the retreat

Biden, like Trump before him, decided that the time had come to pull all his country’s troops out of Afghanistan. The only difference is in the departure date.

Plenty of North Americans think the United States should leave the rest of the world to its own devices, which is why Joe Biden, like Donald Trump before him, decided that the time had come to pull all his country’s troops out of Afghanistan. The only difference is in the departure date: May 1 in the case of Trump and September 11 in that of Biden.

Either way, the US has handed the Taliban a victory which is sure to resonate throughout the Muslim world and far beyond. By sheer tenacity and, let’s face it, personal courage, they have seen off what, on paper at any rate, is by far the mightiest military machine the world has ever seen. Unless the Afghan regular forces do better without the high-tech assistance they are getting from the US and her European partners, fervent Islamists will soon be in power, which is terrible news for women, especially those who are educated, and any remaining atheists, agnostics, Christians, Hindus and Sikhs. Afghanistan is already very nearly entirely absent of Jews; after holding out for a decade, the one Jew remaining in the country, alarmed by what is happening, is preparing to leave for Israel. 

According to Biden, by withdrawing the last of the approximately 2,500 US military men who are still in Afghanistan he will bring to an end a “forever war,” “America’s longest,” 20 years to the day after it was set off by the devastating jihadist attacks on New York and Washington which brought down the emblematic Twin Towers and knocked a hole in the Pentagon. One may quibble about the use of the word “war” for what could properly be described as a “police action” – a term employed by the then-US president Harry Truman for the rather bigger conflict which took place in Korea in the early 1950s – but a war is what the US establishment decided to call it. In politics, words matter.

While many Democrats think of themselves as internationalists, open borders and all that, Biden himself and his foreign policy advisors seem to be as keen on “America first” as Trump. They want their country to continue to be the reigning superpower, but do not think it should entail too much responsibility for what happens in other parts of the planet. Not for them the “civilising mission” the French and, in their peculiar way, the British thought they were involved in when they had the wherewithal to do so. To modern North American minds, such imperialistic pretensions smack of hubris or worse, based as they are on the conviction that Western cultural norms are better than those of, say, Afghanistan.

The Chinese, who hope to replace the North Americans as world leaders, must be watching what is going on in the US with a mixture of pleasure and bemusement. They themselves have few inhibitions when it comes to forcing others to adopt their version of civilisation, something they have been doing, on and off, for thousands of years with quite remarkable success. In the Western region of their country they are strenuously “re-educating” in special camps a million Uighur Muslims, descendants of one of the “barbarian” people who gave them so much trouble in former times. Were they to come to the conclusion that the neighbouring Afghans would benefit from the same treatment, they would have no qualms about administering it.

This looks unlikely to happen because serious demographic problems could soon slow down China’s rise, but the mentality behind such ruthlessness is not about to change. In contrast to ruling circles in the US and other Western countries, the Chinese elites do not suffer from an overdose of self-doubt. In common with most Europeans, before World War I brought them face to face with their own failings, they take it for granted that their ways are best and that others would be well advised to adopt them. 

While fighting the Taliban and other jihadists In Afghanistan, the US and her allies tried to live up to the peace-time standards prevailing in their own countries. Soldiers who did not show enough respect for the human rights of their enemies got court martialed and, had it not been for the US government’s refusal to sign the appropriate treaties, their higher ups would have run the risk of being dragged before some international tribunal. Great efforts were made to avoid harming civilians but mistakes were made and the resulting bad publicity did nothing to improve morale.

Needless to say, the code of conduct of their Islamist foes is radically different; their rules have more in common with those followed by Westerners in World War II when, in pursuit of their overall objectives, the US and the UK put entire cities to the torch, burning alive countless civilians. After hesitating for a while, the people in Washington and London assumed that, given the dreadful alternative, they really had no choice.

The US military may be as fearful as its commanders say it is, but unless they are willing to make full use of its firepower it will be merely decorative. At any rate, this is what many in the “greater Middle East” must be thinking now that Biden, like Trump shortly before him, has admitted defeat. It can be argued that, as in Vietnam, the US did not lose on any distant battlefield but because public opinion at home thought their country’s forces were getting nowhere and, as Biden said, it would therefore be worse than useless for them to continue to pour resources into an intractable war and expect different results.

Such arguments may make good sense in Washington, where both conservatives and progressives have long been complaining about the financial and human costs of foreign entanglements, but they cut no ice elsewhere. For people living in turbulent parts of the world, Biden’s message is that it would be foolish for them to put their trust in a country whose rulers think that, unless a quick fix can be found for a problem, they might as well stop trying to solve it.

Twenty years may be “forever” in the US, where attention spans seem to be far shorter than in most other countries, but for the many Afghans who in one way or another made the probably fatal mistake of “collaborating” with the infidel intruders, or for women, young or not, who want rather more from life that they are now almost certain to get, it was not that long ago. For understandable reasons, such people have little desire to go back to where they were before US-led forces removed the Taliban from power, but it would appear that, as far as most Westerners are concerned, they should left alone to confront whatever fate has in store for them. As W. H. Auden reminded his contemporaries when the Spanish civil war was dividing opinions: “Time is short, and history to the defeated may say alas, but cannot help nor pardon.”

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James Neilson

James Neilson

Former editor of the Buenos Aires Herald (1979-1986).

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