Whistling Past the Graveyard of Empires

by Ali Minai

The events in Afghanistan over the last week are being seen as yet another “hinge moment” in history. The images of helicopters evacuating personnel from embassies and people chasing aircraft in desperation to get on them have been seared into the memories of all who have seen them. As a person from the region (Pakistan), a student of history, and as someone interested in the current state of the world, I too have watched these events with a mixture of amazement, trepidation, horror, and perplexity. It is not clear yet whether “hope” or “fear” – or both – should be added to that list. The things I say in this piece are just the thoughts and speculations of a non-expert lay person trying to make sense of an obscure situation. As will be obvious from the rest of this piece, for all the pain and suffering the new situation in Afghanistan will bring to people in Afghanistan, I think that the American decision to withdraw was the only rational choice. The alternative of staying on for years – perhaps decades – to build a better Afghanistan would just be another exercise in paternalistic colonialism. However, the way the withdrawal is happening is a great failure of American leadership and the blame for that lies mainly with the American policies of the last two decades. Perhaps its biggest failure was in not preparing Afghanistan for this day that was sure to come sooner or later. Now the Afghan people – especially women – will pay a price for that failure, but it may also come back to haunt the United States and other great powers. It has happened before….

It is tempting to see the fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban as a bookend with the events of 9-11. What happened that fateful morning in the US began a series of world-altering events that, it seems, have come full circle in Kabul today. The Taliban, ousted shortly after 9-11 by the US and NATO, have now ousted the US and NATO from Afghanistan to retake control. The wreckage of the intervening period lies scattered all over the world in broken societies, shattered lives, and altered states of mind. But are we done with all that? Has the humiliation of another great power – and it certainly is a humiliation – by another guerilla force broken the fever? Almost certainly not. Yes, Afghanistan seems to have returned to an approximate status quo ante. Yes, the United States seems to be turning inward to its own problems and westward to look warily at emerging Chinese power, seemingly writing off the regions that previously engaged its attention. But if there’s one lesson that can be learned from the events of this week, it is that the plans even of great powers are built mostly on hope and prayer. History always has other ideas.

Nor should it be taken for granted that what we see on the ground in Kabul today presages any sort of stability. The Taliban are the dog that have caught the car. It is far from clear if the car will stop, though it may slow down briefly. Afghanistan’s history over the last several decades – indeed, over the last two centuries – should make us skeptical. But that famous rhyming of history that is supposed to inform our surmise does often lapse into blank verse. Sometimes, things are different. To that end, consider two things. First, when the Taliban came to power in 1996, they were literally a ragtag Lord of the Flies bunch conquering the devastated landscape of a long civil war. This time, they are returning as a politics-savvy, battle-tested, well-organized group with a distributed leadership, a PR operation, and – very importantly – a rolodex worth of international diplomatic contacts. This is unlikely to turn them into benign liberals, but it can turn them into much more polished autocrats, which is a very dangerous species. Second, they are going to inherit the fruits of all the infrastructure, organization, and workforce development that has occurred – however imperfectly – under the US and NATO occupation in the last fifteen years or so. The Kabul the Taliban are walking into is a functioning modern city. If they just have the wisdom to exploit this gift rather than destroy it, they will start light-years ahead of where they began in 1996. But does any of this guarantee that their hegemony will last? Not at all! The other forces who have tasted power in the preceding decades are already gathering to regain some of it. The world should keep its eye on cities like Mazar-e-Sharif and Herat, and on the Panjshir Valley. The embers of resistance are surely alive in such places, and you never know where a wind might come from to fan them into a fire. That is why the moment at hand is not necessarily a hinge moment in history. It may turn out to be one in retrospect, but it is far too early to conclude that.

The Choice

Let there be no doubt on two points. First, that the US and President Biden had no option better than the choice that was made. And second, that because of the way the withdrawal has gone, it is an utter humiliation for the United States and for President Biden. Both are diminished in the world, and in the zero-sum game of geopolitics, that means that their adversaries are strengthened.

It is now clear that, while twenty years of occupation at an immense cost of life and treasure did help stand up a more open civil society in Afghanistan, it made no difference in terms of weakening the grip of the Taliban. If anything, it accomplished the opposite: Giving them the time and practice to organize into a more sophisticated force. When Biden took office in January 2021, Trump’s agreement with the Taliban was a fait accompli, and a huge drawdown of forces had already taken place, leaving only 2,500 US and NATO troops in Afghanistan. Biden faced a simple choice: Stay or leave. But each of these had their nuances.

Those who support the “stay” option give two reasons for this: a) Preventing terrorist organizations from using Afghanistan as a base, and b) Continuing to help build a free, democratic Afghanistan. The claim is that either or both could have been done by keeping a small number of American troops in the country. The relative calm in Afghanistan since Trump’s troop withdrawal is presented as evidence of that. What is not mentioned is that the calm occurred precisely because a withdrawal date had been set, and the Taliban could afford to bide their time until all US troops were out. Had the US rescinded the decision to withdraw, the Taliban would have renewed full-scale hostilities, requiring the US to put in more troops, and the war would just have resumed. The “stay with the small footprint” idea is just a fantasy, or a ploy by those who prefer perpetual war. And there is absolutely no public support in the US for a longer war.

Then there are those who agree with the “leave” choice but criticize Biden for how the leaving was done. There is clearly much to criticize, but some of the criticism is absurd. One is that the US should have used its troops well in advance of the departure to gather up all who would need to leave the country, process their visas, get them out, and then withdraw the troops. There is a glaring logical problem with this. Beginning a massive evacuation in May or June would be to signal that the Afghan government was not expected to survive the US departure in August. That would have caused the Afghan government to fall immediately as a self-fulfilling prophecy. The 2,500 troops that could not prevent its fall in August could not have prevented its fall in May or June either. Preventing that would again have meant surging US troops all over the country to gather up the evacuees over several weeks or months, bring them to Kabul or Bagram, and get them out. Throughout the process, these caravans of evacuees and soldiers (or helicopters full of them) would have been ripe targets for Taliban attackers and others. In effect, this recipe calls for restarting the war to end it!

Basically, Biden’s options after Trump’s troop reduction and agreement were to either reignite the war or to leave by a deadline, relying on Afghan troops to provide enough space to do the evacuation. The chaos we see now is partly the result of the Afghan forces’ inability to withstand the Taliban. But it is also the result of poor planning and political calculations by the Biden team – especially the symbolic but arbitrary decision to withdraw before September 11 and the slow-walking of the special immigrant visas for Afghans. The latter policy was apparently driven more by fear of anti-immigrant sentiment in the US than by security considerations. There should also have been better planning for the contingency of a rapid Taliban advance – though, of course, we cannot know if such plans do exist and may yet be deployed. A big question that remains unanswered on that last issue is whether US intelligence anticipated the Taliban’s lightning victory. There have been contradictory reports on that, but there was clearly a problem somewhere. Indeed, there were a lot of other problems too, as discussed in the next section. Failure to address these in time is a big reason for the images being seen around the world. Setting the strategic failure aside, the most powerful country in the world should not have to be in the tactical position it finds itself in today.

Explaining the Afghan Collapse

Two critical questions are of immediate interest at this time: 1. Why did the US and NATO fail in their mission? and 2. How could the Taliban take over the country so easily?

The first question was, in fact, being addressed long before the American failure became final, and will, no doubt, elicit many thousands of pages of expert analysis in the future. This is not the place to get into that. The second question is new, and it is interesting to dwell on it briefly, though most of what needs saying – and a lot besides – has now been said by many.

US leaders from President Biden down had assured the world that the Afghan military of 300,000 American-trained and equipped soldiers would withstand any Taliban onslaught, but when that onslaught came, the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF) were not up to the task, though the popular notion that there was no resistance is incorrect. For a takeover of a country by a militant group, the Taliban’s takeover has been remarkably bloodless. Why? There could be a hundred different reasons for this, but the most plausible explanation is that it was the result of collusion, calculation, and fear.

Collusion refers to the possibility that some understandings had been reached ahead of time between the Taliban and some Afghan commanders. There are tantalizing indications that, even when ANDSF soldiers resisted the Taliban, orders came from higher up the chain of command to capitulate. How deep and how far these understandings went is impossible to guess, but it was likely based on a calculation that, with the Americans gone, it was better to be the Taliban’s partner than their adversary. In the thirty years since the Taliban first entered the picture in Afghanistan, they have become a major part of the country’s political and social fabric. They also have a prior record of defeating the warlords that emerged from the anti-Soviet jihad, and the warlords of today – many of them the same ones – might well have calculated that mounting a jihad against the Taliban would be futile. And that, surely, was driven in part by fear of what the Taliban might eventually do to those who resisted too much. The Taliban seem to have used the old Mongol tactic of giving cities a choice between peaceful surrender and annihilation. That worked at least in Kabul, when the President fled citing risk of bloodshed if he stood and fought.

Other plausible explanations have been offered by analysts. One is that, while the Afghan security forces were trained extensively by the US, they were poorly led and equipped, still critically dependent on American intelligence and tactical air support. The lack of advanced equipment was probably driven by the American fear that it could fall into the hands of the Taliban – a fear that seems well-justified now. But this meant that, with the abrupt American withdrawal and the disappearance of tactical support, the ANDSF were unable to put up a fight on their own. Another factor may have been an optimistic estimate of the size of the Afghan forces. And finally, there is no doubt that general demoralization among Afghan soldiersmany of whom apparently had not been paid for months while the leaders accumulated fortunes in bribes – was a major factor in their capitulation. Abandonment by the US was the final straw in this process.

A more interesting and subtle explanation has been advanced by the Pakistani strategic analyst, Major A.H. Amin. It is based on the insightful assertion that militaries cannot be created by consultants; they must emerge organically from within a society through a martial tradition developed over generations. Based on this, he suggests that the forces comprising the ANDSF were not the traditional Afghan military with deep historical roots, but an artificial thing put together through what he terms “a shallow exercise”. The reason he cites for this is that the real Afghan army with centuries of history behind it had been the fighting force of the Soviet-client Afghan state in 1978, and was destroyed by US and Pakistan-supported Mujahedin in the anti-Soviet jihad between 1978 and 1989. The implication seems to be that the vacuum left by that destruction has been filled more by the locally-rooted Taliban than by the artificially concocted ANDSF in the service of an artificially installed puppet government. Whether this analysis is correct or not, it has the ring of plausibility – and matches well with what happened in Iraq when the US disbanded Saddam Hussein’s army.

All these explanations are plausible, but they add up to one thing: The failure of American leadership to address the underlying problems. This applies not just – or even mainly – to the Biden Administration, but to the prior administrations that had allowed these problems to build and fester for years, often lying to Congress and the public in the process. The American defeat in Afghanistan may have occurred on Biden’s watch, but its origins run deep into the last two decades. Biden’s failure is not seeing that, or, having seen it, not accommodating to it with flexibility, empathy, and better planning.

The Wider Context

In hindsight, the Taliban capture of Afghanistan is not difficult to explain. A more interesting question is how the other powers involved might see the situation, and how this might shape things to come. This will, of course, become clearer over the coming weeks and months, but here are a few facts to consider:

  • The Americans, in their “wisdom”, did little to resolve the traditional ethnic rivalries of Afghanistan, leaving in place local power centers throughout the country with warlords and their ilk in charge of many things. This seems to have emerged from a neo-colonialist conceptualization of Afghans at large as irredeemably backward tribal people living in “the graveyard of empires” (more on this later.) Ashraf Ghani’s government in Kabul was seen – even by many of its supporters – as a hyper-corrupt, ineffectual US puppet, with no roots in the society. As such, the only transregional, well-rooted power in Afghanistan today are the Taliban.
  • In recent years, China has developed a lot of important assets in the region – notably in Pakistan with the CPEC project and a host of others. Their security requires stability in the region. The fact of Afghanistan’s mineral resources has surely not escaped Beijing’s eye either. China has also had a long-running problem with separatist sentiment in the Muslim-majority Xinjiang province, which has recently come to a head with the issue of the Uighurs. Any further injection of jihadi sentiment into this area from neighboring Afghanistan would be intolerable to China.
  • Pakistan, in addition to being the origin of the Taliban movement, has long seen them as a way to achieve its dream of “strategic depth”, i.e., a safe western buffer behind it in case of an assault by India from the east. Unfortunately, the Taliban have not been a docile asset, and, among other things, have created extremely violent spin-offs within Pakistan.
  • India has cultivated relations with Afghanistan for decades as a way to pressure Pakistan from the west, thus putting it in a vise for geostrategic purposes. Virtually every present and past power center in Afghanistan has had a pro-India tilt, other than the Taliban. Thus, for all their hazards, they are the power that is strategically most acceptable to Pakistan as long as they do not export their ideology over the border.
  • Russia does not border Afghanistan but its sphere of influence still does. It has had a longstanding problem with jihadist elements in the Caucasus but has managed to suppress them quite well of late. It also has an increasingly adversarial relationship with the US, and is certainly interested in keeping the US off-balance. As such, Russia probably sees the Taliban as a promising strategic knob to turn in its machine of mayhem, but is also wary of any jihadi sentiment they might inspire.
  • The memory may have faded, but when the US first invaded Afghanistan in 2001, many speculated darkly that it had something to do with getting oil from Central Asia piped to the Arabian Sea via Afghanistan and Pakistan. The name “Unocal” was often muttered under the breath. While the US invasion was surely driven most by the 9-11 attacks, the fact of Afghanistan’s utility in bringing oil to convenient ports – and even to India – is still there, and this time the Taliban seem interested in it.
  • Finally, the political climate in the US has become increasingly hostile to the Afghan adventure. It is America’s longest war, and though the number of deaths has been relatively low by the standards of past wars, the human and financial cost has been catastrophic. Both Trump and Biden were, thus, understandably committed to departing Afghanistan. The only question was how to do it in a politically viable way. Trump decided to do this abruptly, and Biden concurred. The calculation may well have been that a slow exit would always get bogged down in politics at home.

Given these facts, it is quite plausible to think that the powers with interest in Afghanistan might be willing to accept a Taliban government in Afghanistan for now as the best of many terrible options – and one with intriguing payoffs if played well. The US was already negotiating with the Taliban in Doha, and the first statement from a US official after the Taliban took Kabul was Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad telling the Taliban to be good boys if they wanted international recognition. Perhaps even more interesting was the very high-level Taliban delegation that was received in Beijing by Foreign Minister Wang Yi with smiles all around on July 28 – even before the Taliban began their blitz. And that came full circle on August 19 with a statement by the Taliban inviting China to “contribute to the rebuilding of Afghanistan”. All one can say is “No kidding!” Russia too has made friendly noises and, like China, kept its embassy in Kabul open. Clearly, neither power sees any need to fear the Taliban, which could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

What does all this portend for the near future? For one, it shows that the Taliban are looking to settle in and try to look like a normal government that schmoozes with foreign potentates. A lot of people – especially in the West – are hoping that this also means a less cruel government with no public beheadings and lashings, respect for women, and keeping terrorist organizations out of Afghanistan. There is also some hope that, to consolidate their legitimacy, the Taliban may form an “inclusive” government with some of their former opponents. Significantly, both former President Hamid Karzai and former Foreign Minister (and Chief Executive) Abdullah have stayed visibly in Kabul, probably expecting to be included in the new regime. At the very least, this suggests some very artful prior diplomacy by the Taliban. Another interesting development is the arrival of a non-Taliban Afghan delegation in Pakistan to meet with Prime Minister Imran Khan, Army Chief Qamar Javed Bajwa, and Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi. By all accounts, they came to bury the hatchet, not to hone it. Positive noises were made, and it was decided that peace was to prevail. The clear signal is that everyone involved would like the American withdrawal to be followed by a stable Afghan government, and everyone is resigned to the fact that the Taliban are the only group that can lead it for now.

Will this hope bear fruit? Who can say, but my gut feeling – and the lesson of recent Afghan history – is that any fruit that appears will rot very soon – either because the Taliban will revert to their true nature, or those left out of power will start another insurgency. Also, as pointed out earlier, the Afghanistan of today is very different from that of 1996. The Taliban can expect at least initial pushback from civil society. Indeed, there have already been demonstrations that the Taliban have had to break up violently. Of course, internal and external adversaries of the government will also promote destabilizing activities. Given the ideology and culture of the Taliban, they are very likely to respond to these challenges with brutality, thus unraveling any semblance of benign governance.

Yet another factor is that the new Taliban government begins its term destitute. Almost all the funds of the old regime were in Western banks, and have already been frozen, leaving the Taliban with access to a miniscule amount of money. Some resources could probably be rustled up from the land and some found in the next poppy crop, but not the kind of money that can run a state and pay salaries. Iraq has already demonstrated what happens to governments that cannot pay their soldiers and bureaucrats. Unless they can submit to a sponsor like China, Russia, India, or Pakistan, the Taliban may find themselves in the same crunch, and lash out as they are wont to do.

Implications for the United States

For the US as a global power, this defeat in Afghanistan means that its rivals and opponents will take it even less seriously than they have after the debacles in Iraq and Syria, and the presidency of Donald Trump. It was assumed that the former Chair of the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee and former Vice-President would turn out to be a formidable player on the world chessboard. Justifiably or not, that fiction is gone. America today may be more rational and normal than that of Donald Trump, but does not seem any smarter. Brash incompetence appears to have been replaced by fecklessness. Strongmen from Beijing to Brasilia have surely taken note. So too militant groups all over the world. The Soviet Union actually disintegrated after its defeat in Afghanistan. The United States is infinitely stronger and more stable, but its enemies will doubtless be emboldened and its partisans deflated. Analyses will be written comparing the US to Rome in decline – a power on its last legs. Pro-American world leaders – a jittery group in the best of times – will become even less confident in its leadership, perhaps even tempting Boris Johnson to attempt a tinpot coup for world leadership. But America will recover in time – if necessary, by firing off a couple of hundred cruise missiles at some shacks in a desert somewhere. It remains the indispensable power against an ascendant China, and everyone knows it. But this American defeat is a big strategic win for Beijing, and everyone knows that too.

Or almost everyone. There is, curiously, an alternative idea afoot in regions closer to Afghanistan – that the US departure is some sort of brilliant strategy to plant a ticking time-bomb for regional powers and retire to safety behind two oceans. A recent cartoon in a Middle Eastern newspaper captures the idea perfectly: It shows a huge grenade on the ground and the American eagle, Uncle Sam’s hat on its head, flying away with the grenade’s pulled pin. While this prediction may turn out to be correct, ascribing it to the Machiavellian strategic genius of the Americans is far-fetched. This is the country that elected Donald Trump, and almost re-elected him.

Implications for Biden

For Joe Biden, the withdrawal is not a failure of analysis – where he was correct – but a failure of leadership and, more importantly, a failure of temperament. His rigidity and overconfidence in making the decision as well as his initial dismissive defensiveness in justifying it afterwards are alarming. He was elected on competence and empathy, but both seem to be lacking in this instance. This may be unfair (it is), he may have had no better choices (he didn’t), but words, images and the style matter in leadership, and on that he has failed.

However, things may be quite different with respect to Biden’s political fortunes. Right now, he is under withering assault in the press, but, as Trump’s presidency showed, that can be an asset as much as a liability. For better or worse, the vast majority of American voters do not care about Afghans or Afghanistan, and just want the war to be over. Joe Biden has given them just what they wanted. If a few thousand Afghans out there die at the hands of the Taliban, why then, as Joe Biden himself said once to Richard Holbrooke, “Fuck that, we don’t have to worry about that. We did it in Vietnam, Nixon and Kissinger got away with it.” Of course, “we” also did it in Iraq and Syria and Yemen and Libya and in various other countries that no patriotic American should be able to find on a map. This simplistic view of the world is especially prevalent in some demographics such as the Obama-Trump voters who populate critical swing states and are so attractive for NPR reporters haunting diners in “the Heartland” to solve the mystery of Trumpism. Trump was their man, but in many ways, so is Joe Biden. Some of them even abandoned Trump to vote for “Joey from Scranton” in 2020. Not for them – and not for Joe Biden – the snooty cosmopolitan internationalism of the Harvard-Princeton-Georgetown crowd, of which Richard Holbrooke was a quintessential example. These people work hard, love their families, go to church and ballgames, and don’t think much about distant regions of the world. People “over there”, they believe, should take care of their own shit. Biden’s decision to withdraw from Afghanistan was perfectly rational, but the way it was made came from within this mindset – what Yascha Mounk has perceptively called “foreign policy for the middle class”. And if all Americans can be extracted safely from Afghanistan – a big if – Biden may actually gain more political support among these voters than he loses among those in thrall to Wolf Blitzer and Tom Friedman. But if things go badly – for example, if there is an attack on American soldiers at the airport – that will be the end of Biden’s political career. Republicans are already beginning to talk about impeachment if they win the House next year. But Joe Biden is confident that, in the end, his decision will be vindicated. The next few weeks will show whether he is a savvy politician or whistling past the graveyard – speaking of which…..

The Graveyard of Empires – Not!

Now a pet peeve. Throughout the war in Afghanistan, we have heard incessantly that the country is a rude land populated by brutal tribes who have turned it into “the graveyard of empires” and never allowed outside powers to conquer it. Nothing could be further from the Truth. For one, the country called “Afghanistan” is a recent thing – going back to the unification of the area by Ahmad Shah Durrani (nee Abdali) in the mid-eighteenth century. Before that, most of Afghanistan was part of Khorasan – without doubt one of the most historically important regions in the world. Far from being a barbaric backwater, this was a jewel of human civilization for fifteen centuries. Two of its cities – Balkh and Merv – have been called mother cities of civilization. Zoroaster lived and died in Khorasan, as did Omar Khayyam and Ferdowsi. Rumi was actually born within the boundaries of modern Afghanistan. A great Buddhist civilization flourished here for centuries. And far from being the graveyard of empires, it is more like their emporium, having been ruled – wholly or partially – through most of history by outsiders: the Achaemenids, the Greeks, the Mauryans, the Parthians, the Hephthalites (White Huns), the Kushans, the Sassanians, the Umayyads, the Abbasids, the Tahirids (who were Iranians), the Saffarids (who were also Iranians), the Samanids (also Iranian), the Ghaznavids (who were Turks), the Seljuqs (who were Turks as well), the Mongols, Timur (also a Turk), the Mughals (who were Turco-Mongols), the Safavids (Turco-Persian), and the Afshars (Turks). It was conquered by Cyrus and Alexander. Darius, Asoka, Akbar, and Nader Shah ruled here. Babur is buried here. Indeed, few significant regions of the world have been ruled more consistently by outsiders than today’s Afghanistan. Before the Durranis, arguably the only indigenous dynasty to emerge from Afghanistan were the Ghurids, though modern scholarship suggests that even they were of Iranian origin and, of course, the empire they established – the Sultanate of Delhi – was ruled mostly by Turks. In addition to the Sultanate, this region also exported at least three other great empires – the Abbasids (whose revolution was based in Khorasan), the Ghaznavids, and the Mughals – though none was led by what we today would call an Afghan.

The only invading powers that have failed in Afghanistan are three Western ones: The British; the Russians; and the Americans. Indeed, even the British did not really fail. After the Second Anglo-Afghan War, they successfully installed a friendly ruler of their choice (Amir Abdur Rahman Khan) and controlled the state with minimal effort for decades.

Final Thoughts

This article has focused mainly on description and analysis, but I will conclude with a few personal thoughts on the whole episode.

First, it seems unlikely to me that the hope of a stable, relatively competent, Taliban-led government in Afghanistan will be realized. There are several reasons for it, foremost among them the nature of the Taliban as an organization. They are fundamentally an insurgent guerilla force, not an organization capable of governing a country with vast problems and limited resources. While they had an adversary to fight, they remained relatively cohesive, and their decision-making processes were sufficient for the goal of creating mayhem for the occupiers. True, they are a savvier group than in 1996, but governance requires skills that they are unlikely to possess. To this inherent limitation, one can add the possibility of internal armed opposition and the certainty of international pressure. And both of these are likely to build as the Taliban infuse more of their extremist ideology into their governance.

There are other geopolitical factors that may also come into play. What sort of relationship – if any – develops between the new Afghan government and China remains to be seen. Can the Taliban have the self-discipline needed to maintain such a relationship? Another interesting question is the role that Pakistan and India might play in Afghanistan. In the worst-case, it could turn into the locus of a proxy cold war between the two rivals, though this is unlikely. Pakistan will certainly try to exert strong influence, and this may well elicit pushback not only in Afghanistan but also from the Taliban offshoots in Pakistan who are already making threatening noises. The US too will put pressure on Pakistan if the Taliban become a problem, and some of this will be deflected onto the Taliban regime. Back in the 19th century, Afghanistan was at the center of the so-called geopolitical Great Game between Britain and Russia. A new, more complex Great Game has been underway in Afghanistan for fifty years now, and it is likely to heat up again now that the field is clear of American presence.

Much will likely be written on why the US failed in Afghanistan. Some excellent analysis is already underway. But few will ask whether there is some fundamental reason why the United States has failed so often in its neo-colonial enterprises. That is an analysis beyond the scope of this piece and beyond the ability of this author, but it might be instructive to look at history to understand the problem. Empire-building and maintenance is a very onerous and expensive exercise, requiring a great deal of human suffering on all sides. The suffering of the oppressed is obvious, but the oppressor also bears great financial, human, and psychological costs. Every empire in history has dehumanized those it occupies but all too often has also turned its own functionaries – soldiers and administrators – into monsters. Even more, all previous empires have been willing to push immense numbers of its own rank-and-file soldiers into the maw of death to maintain power. It’s worth noting that none of the significant empires in history was a democracy where the rulers needed public consent for their policies. Britain and France might seem to be exceptions, but both were practically oligarchies rather than liberal democracies until very late in their imperial periods, and both lost their empires rapidly as they became more democratic. The US is the first imperial great power in history that: a) Seeks to dominate the world; b) Wants to be loved for it; and c) Is run by leaders on 2, 4 and 6-year election cycles. Perhaps a power that has this configuration just cannot muster the support for the challenging task of controlling dangerous regions of the world for long periods. Yes, it can oppress others, but it cannot long tolerate the costs this imposes on itself. Vietnam established that, and the risk-averse way the US has fought its recent wars is a direct result of that. Tens of thousands of American deaths year after year are no longer acceptable to the public, and that should be seen as a good thing on balance. The democratically-induced friction that prevents a country from making these “hard” choices is exactly what also precludes catastrophically bad choices that have sunk autocratic empires in the past. Of course, one never knows when the American experiment with democracy might be subverted by authoritarian forces, as they have been trying to do of late.

No one can predict what the long-term effects of America’s longest war will be – though that won’t stop anyone from trying. But one can look at where things stood on the eve of the war and compare them with today. Afghanistan in 2001 was a vast ruin smoldering from two decades of civil war and governed by the worst possible group of ruffians. Today the country is back in the hands of the same group, but at least some of the country and society have been rebuilt. More women have had an education. More people have tasted a degree of freedom in their personal lives. The arts have made a comeback of sorts. Considerable infrastructure has been built. Some room for modernity has been reclaimed, though still not even to the degree that Afghanistan enjoyed back in the 1960s and 70s. And, one hopes, the Taliban are a bit less extreme. So, without justifying the toll exacted by the terrible war, one can say that things are not back where they started in 2001. At the cost of tens of thousands of lives and trillions of dollars, they are slightly better – for now.