Let us celebrate Biden’s ending of a brutal war

Armed Afghan men

Armed Afghan men, supporting the Afghan security forces against the Taliban, walk along a road in Bazarak, Panjshir province, on August 18, 2021. 

Photo credit: AFP

What you need to know:

  • Biden resisted relentless pressure from military and intelligence chiefs as well as the powerful media to continue maintaining a small military force in Afghanistan.
  • Hailing Biden’s ending the war cannot nevertheless hide the enormity of the humiliation dealt to the US by the Taliban.

Amid the disastrous and lightning end to America’s longest war, and the inconceivable lack of preparedness for this very scenario, the most important outcome of the Afghanistan conflict is being overlooked by the media: a brutal, 20-year war and occupation seems to be drawing to a close. 

Of all the violations of human and other rights we condemn, nothing is more destructive than war, which kills thousands of innocents, plants internal hatred and sets back the invariably weaker nation for decades without any accountability for the aggressor. And yet few have made eradicating war a priority, even though the UN was founded for this explicit purpose after WWII. 

The war in Afghanistan has ended because President Joe Biden recognised there was no other alternative unless the US wanted to fight there forever. He resisted relentless pressure from military and intelligence chiefs as well as the powerful media to continue maintaining a small military force in Afghanistan, which of course was not acceptable to the Taliban.

Biden’s determination was not new. He has been arguing for this pullout for more than a decade. I am not a fan of Biden’s foreign policy, particularly fanning a new Cold War with his needlessly confrontational and even abusive approach towards Russia, China and Cuba. So convinced was he that US interests would be served in pulling out of Afghanistan that he readily followed in President Donald Trump’s footsteps, even though his rationale for seeking the White House was visceral opposition to all that Trump stood for.

In any case, the Taliban had in effect won this war a long while back. Afghan support for the regime had been plunging as corruption mushroomed and presidential and other elections were routinely rigged. 

The disaffection was indubitably demonstrated in the Taliban’s almost effortless 10-day sweep of the provincial capitals and Kabul, many of which surrendered without a fight. Some $2 trillion and thousands of lives were extinguished in vain, and a country demolished.

No wonder, Biden broke diplomatic protocol by openly excoriating the Afghan leadership and armed forces. He said they had not been prepared to defend their regime despite vastly outnumbering the Taliban foot soldiers (by five times!) and being “as well equipped as any army in the world,” while the insurgents were lightly armed and had no air force. However, the Taliban were armed by a powerful cause – fighting occupiers.

Foreign policy disaster

Richard Fontaine, the head of the Centre for A New American Security – an influential think tank – captured this dichotomy by saying that “everything depends on the will to fight for the government. And that, it turns out, depended on US presence and support”.

But Fontaine did not explore a bigger truth – that in this poorest of countries, “support” for the occupation was significantly built by the hundreds of billions of dollars that the US poured into the economy, which provided unheard of incomes to thousands of Afghans serving the vast needs of mighty occupying powers. The same was true of the Iraq occupation, where the US in the first year handed over $12 billion in cash to the new government.

The other significant source of Afghan support came from women and other marginalised groups who had exercised their rights in a way they had never been able to under the Taliban or even earlier.

Hailing Biden’s ending the war cannot nevertheless hide the enormity of the humiliation dealt to the US by the Taliban, as the Washington Post said in its editorial. 

In the UK, Thomas Tugendhat, the chairman of Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee, termed this collapse the greatest foreign policy disaster since the failed UK-French attempt to seize the Suez Canal in 1956.

The global and domestic reverberations from the Taliban victory will haunt Biden’s presidency. He had enjoyed overwhelming media and Democratic party support despite a flawed overall performance, thanks to the lurking Trump. But now, even senior Democrats are criticising him, fearing that the scale of the debacle could lose them the presidency as well as the Senate and the House in 2024.

Biden is clearly not the only offender in this mess. How could the military, national security and intelligence agencies, with their vast networks built over 20 years of occupation, been so out-of-touch with ground realities and utterly unprepared for what unfolded? 

Iron fist rule

Afghanistan has revealed a profound US military and security weakness. The disaster is reminiscent of the devastating, across-the-board failure of multiple American institutions to deal with coronavirus last year. There are many other weaknesses – as well as arrogance – which would be America’s undoing were it not a superpower able to routinely project force in all corners of the globe. 

What will come next? Taliban ruled with an iron fist in their five years in power and revoked numerous core freedoms, especially for women and girls, with their extremist interpretation of Islamic law. In their 20 years of exile and global exposure, their pronouncements this week indicate they have seemingly come to an awareness about the importance, and advantages, of more enlightened and inclusive governance. 

They have publicly forgiven those who fought them and said women will be allowed to work and dress within sharia principles. Taliban leaders are engaging with governments and international organisations, with one leader going to a Unicef office and asking that the agency stays and continues teaching girls.

That many women leaders have expressed scepticism about their real intentions is hardly a surprise, and the thousands trying to flee the country show that only actions will reassure the population. 

It’s not at all easy to predict how the Taliban will rule, but British Chief of Defence staff Nick Carter was right to urge that we give the group space to find out it governance priorities.

Russia and China are cautiously optimistic and working towards negotiating formal ties.

In the US, many in the media are using extremist language, which is wrong and entirely counter-productive. CNN’s Jake Tapper, one of America’s most senior anchors, was the worst offender, calling the Taliban “barbaric, enslavers of women and rapists”. 

Way to govern humanely

On August 14, the New York Times twice used the term “brutal” in describing the Taliban’s successful campaign. The paper did not provide evidence of brutality. Ironically, the New York Times also said that “the Taliban greatly reduced mass casualty attacks,” which many other neutral media also reported.

I wonder how many American journalists characterised as brutal or barbaric the killing of civilians in US drone strikes and the massive bombing of Afghanistan after the 9/11 al-Qaeda terror attacks. 

The main international concern is the Taliban’s treatment of women and keeping terrorist groups out. 

It is crucial they find a way to govern humanely as they will again become pariahs if they return to their old ways.

But we need to recognise that the Taliban have the right to rule by Islamic law, as most Afghans are religiously conservative. It is possible to do this without straying from globally enshrined norms. 

After their 20-year struggle to seeming victory against overwhelming odds, the world has an obligation to engage the Taliban and press them to rule humanely.

If they do not, the answer is not to bomb them but to continue to engage them, and if needed, penalise them.