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For the people of Afghanistan the return of Taliban rule is a tragedy and a betrayal of trust. For the US the flight from Kabul is a strategic defeat. And for Europe it is a jolting description of the world as it has become.
Historians will recognise in this week’s grim events a metaphor for the geopolitical upheavals of the opening decades of the present century. When US troops arrived in Kabul after the al-Qaeda attacks of September 11, 2001, the ruling assumption was that global US pre-eminence would go unchallenged for as far as the eye could see. In truth, the post-cold war unipolar moment was already passing.
The challenge to the old order has not come solely from the great power ambitions of an emboldened China. Turning economic and military might into global power requires political will. And leadership carries a price. Defeat in Iraq, stalemate in Afghanistan and economic troubles at home have left Americans weary of paying it. President Joe Biden may have been embarrassed by the television images, but the voters wanted out.
The west could never “win” in Afghanistan. The dreams of nation-building that marked the high water mark of liberal interventionism were well-intentioned enough. What’s wrong with promoting democracy and the rule of law? But the west’s template defied the realities of a fragmented, tribal society that has never accepted rule from the centre.
The records show Afghans have long repulsed foreigners seeking to impose a new settlement. But then if anything has united the west’s recent crop of leaders it has been a disregard for history.
For all that, Biden could have opted to sustain an albeit imperfect status quo. The glimpses of modernity, a semblance of democracy and fundamental rights for women came at a sustainable cost, and one the US shared with its allies in Nato. Pretty it wasn’t — until, that is, you measure it against the likely tyranny of the Taliban.
The US president is unapologetic. Cutting and running was Donald Trump’s instinct, but its now been embedded in the Biden doctrine. The boundaries defining US national interests are to be tightly drawn. America will act to defend itself when directly threatened, but will not risk blood and treasure to uphold something called international security.
All this sits uneasily with Biden’s “America is back” rhetoric, and it positively jars with his idea that the US can recast itself as the champion of freedom and democracy. In deciding to devote all its energies to the contest with China, the US has left behind the moral high ground. America will no longer fight for those who do not fight for themselves. No room here for values. But then this is what realpolitik always looks like.
Realism carries its own price. The US needs allies in the competition with China. The Afghan retreat scarcely gives America’s friends cause to place their trust in Washington. How sure can Nato allies be that, if it comes to the crunch with Vladimir Putin’s Russia, the White House will judge the defence of Europe’s borders a vital US interest?
And yet there is also something faintly pathetic about the wailing and gnashing of teeth now heard in Europe’s capitals. The Europeans, after all, might have recognised a certain symmetry. George W Bush’s administration did not consult them about toppling the Taliban. Biden has similarly ignored them in deciding to withdraw.
No one can honestly complain they were taken by surprise. Biden is following in the footsteps of Barack Obama as well as Trump in signalling that America has had its fill of military entanglements in Central Asia and the Middle East.
Europe wants to pretend the world is otherwise. True, France’s president, Emmanuel Macron, often calls on fellow Europeans to start making their own choices. The trouble is he too often sounds as if he wants the Americans to go. Boris Johnson’s post-Brexit “Global Britain” has absented itself from the international stage. And Angela Merkel’s Germany simply refuses to admit that liberal internationalism has made way for great power realpolitik.
The continent’s leaders spent at most a millisecond considering how they might prop up the Afghan government without the Americans. Serious deliberation may well have concluded there was nothing to be done, but at least it would have marked a small step away from fatalistic dependency. One day Europe will have to admit that the old order has passed, and understand that in an era of great power competition relationships with allies as well as adversaries are going to get a lot rougher.