Opinion

Painful defeat in Afghanistan

Taliban in Afghanistan

It was clear that the United States had no choice but to leave Afghanistan. Further prolonging its stay would only have served to bury billions of dollars in those untamed lands, in addition to the dead. With the leader of the world that has come to be called the West, his NATO allies are also leaving, including Spain, which should now make an effort to give shelter and refuge to the Afghans who served as interpreters, helpers or assistants, and prevent them from being skinned by the Taliban who are forcibly taking over the reins of the country. 

As in so many other chapters of international politics, the current President Joe Biden has merely followed in the footsteps of his predecessor, Donald Trump. In February 2020, his administration signed an agreement with the Taliban in the Qatari capital to establish peace in Afghanistan. In reality, this agreement was reduced to setting the deadlines for the withdrawal of foreign forces, which in principle should have been completed in April 2021, but which Biden, perhaps to distinguish himself, has set for 31 August this year. It will therefore not be twenty years since President George W. Bush launched his offensive in Afghanistan on 7 October 2001 in retaliation for the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001. 

As many historians have noted, neither the United States at the time, nor the Soviet Union invaders before that, nor the British in the 19th century before that, understood the complexity of Afghanistan. A dry, inhospitable land, guarded by great mountains, behind which a conglomerate of Pashtun, Tajik, Hazara tribes, often at war with each other, but whose hostilities cease if it is a question of fighting a foreign enemy. The French-American journalist and historian Guy Sorman summed up this mosaic with the statement made to him in Jalalabad in 2003 by one of the tribal chiefs to whom he gained access: "I have been a Pashtun for 2,500 years, a Muslim for 1,000 and an Afghan since the Russians and the British tried to colonise us in the 19th century". 

For Sorman, as for many other analysts, it is materially impossible for the Pentagon's documentation services to have ignored the history lessons of Alexander the Great, who, after conveniently anointing the tribal leaders of 325 BC, was able to cross the lands east of Persia, that is Afghanistan, without major mishap, after promising them that his real intention was to reach India, which was then considered the end of the world on the eastern side. In any case, it is clear that if such documented reports exist, both in the Pentagon and in the White House itself they preferred to ignore them, as they had previously done in the Kremlin or at 10 Downing Street. 

Tough sharia on the inside, pragmatism on the outside

Absolutely airtight about their own internal organisation, anything the Taliban might do from now on is mere deduction by hints. They managed to keep us for two years in ignorance of the death in 2013 of their leader, Mullah Omar, the friend and protector of the founder and leader of Al-Qaeda, Osama bin Laden. The current top leader is reportedly Mullah Haibatullah Akhunzada, in reality more of a religious than a military leader. He is credited with decreeing the eradication of a dangerous Islamist offshoot, ISIS (Islamic State of Khorasan), in reality an Afghan offshoot of Daesh. Last July a Taliban delegation, holding talks in Moscow with the Russian foreign ministry, conveyed Akhunzada's message that he would "never tolerate Da'esh settling in Afghanistan". And he seems to be delivering on that message, given the blows he is dealing to ISIS militants.  

If ideologically there is little change between today's Taliban and those who installed their regime of prohibition, punishment and terror at the end of the 20th century, Akhunzada's current followers seem to be opting for pragmatism in their relations with the wider neighbourhood. China has been the first major power to approach, both to try to safeguard its investments and to propose a lucrative trade in the rare earths that have also been discovered in the Afghan deserts. Pakistan aspires to maintain its footprint and influence with the new regime. But for this to happen, the Taliban will have to take Kabul and the shrinking territory controlled by President Ghani and opposition leader Abdullah, which for the moment seems likely to happen only when Afghanistan's weak democracy finally crumbles. 

The latter is undoubtedly the greatest failure of the West's operation, because democracy has not been established, nor has the stability of the central government in Kabul been achieved, the two great objectives that Bush and Obama set themselves in succession. 

This is another of the lessons that should be learned from this long war: that liberal democracy cannot be established, let alone consolidated by decree, in territories that are not only not a state but not even a nation, according to Euro-American parameters. Without renouncing the primacy and superiority of the West, these will have to be the fruit of other strategies, especially those that persuasively demonstrate that the value of freedom goes hand in hand with general prosperity, so that every people believes that freedom and democracy are really worth fighting for against all odds.