To be wise after an event, particularly one of disastrous consequences, is a natural human reaction. The amazing speed at which the Taliban swept through Afghanistan to recapture power from foreign forces led by the United States was looked upon with horror by the Western world including many other countries not in the Western power [...]

Sunday Times 2

Cause for the Afghan debacle: Biden or clash of civilisations


Women take part in a protest march for their rights under the Taliban rule in Kabul on Friday. AFP

To be wise after an event, particularly one of disastrous consequences, is a natural human reaction.

The amazing speed at which the Taliban swept through Afghanistan to recapture power from foreign forces led by the United States was looked upon with horror by the Western world including many other countries not in the Western power bloc.

The US President Joe Biden is being held responsible for this gross debacle which resulted from his decision to withdraw US and allied NATO forces by August 31.

Biden can be considered one of the most experienced watchers of the scene in Afghanistan, both as a Congressman, Vice-President of Barack Obama and now the incumbent president.  Yet, he stands condemned by many of his fellow Democrats, certainly by the Donald Trump-enamoured Republicans, British politicians, most media strategists and the worldwide TV audiences — now turned foreign policy pundits watching the tragedy in Afghanistan.

Biden may have partly contributed to the success of the Taliban onslaught with his assurances that all American troops (and with it other troops of NATO alliance) will be out of Afghanistan by August 31. But what were his options after his predecessor, Trump, held ‘peace talks’ with the Taliban, asked the Afghan government of Ashraf Ghani to release 6,000 captured Taliban prisoners and indicated that they would be going along with conditions stipulated by the Americans to establish peace? But the Taliban kept flouting all such conditions, attacking President Ghani’s government forces while participating in Peace Talks at Doha.

As the Taliban kept capturing city after city what was Biden to do with about 5,000 American soldiers left in the country? Resist the Taliban onslaught and send fresh US troops back again into the country? Is the American public prepared to send their boys back into battle to a country far away in which they have little or no interests now? That was neither Biden’s election pledge nor that of Donald Trump.

Some may say the power of American diplomacy should have been attempted.  The diplomatic options were obviously limited as much as military options.  Diplomacy does not work with fanatical leaderships of either the LTTE or the Taliban although that seems to be the only American hope now for a more moderate Taliban regime than before.

When George W Bush declared his global war on terrorism and vowed to uproot all forms of it, root and branch everywhere, he had many cheerleaders among world leaders including those in the media. This writer was one of them.

Fanatical Osama bin Laden brought down the Twin Towers killing around 3000 civilians, attacked the Pentagon and failed in his attempt to level White House to the ground. He was holed up in the inaccessible remote Hindu Kush mountains and he with his Al Qaeda members were guests of the Taliban government. All ‘infidels’ in his eyes were grist to the mill. When the Americans blasted him and Al Qaeda out of the Hindu Kush and drove out the fundamentalist Taliban from power and proceeded to establish — according to their hopes — a vibrant liberal democracy — there were a few detractors.

Could a country with an ancient history and culture whose people have resisted invasions over two millennia be transformed overnight into a modern democracy, they asked. Islamic countries, in particular, had strongly resisted such western influences.

Afghanistan by its geographic location was destined to be invaded by the most powerful empires in the course of its history. Persian emperors were followed by Alexander the Great, later the Guptas of the Indian Mauryan Empire, the Mongols like Genghis Khan, Timur (Tamerlane), the Sikh empire and in the 19th Century subject to influences of the British and Russian empires which came to be known as the Great Game.

The British were concerned about Russian advances in Central Asia, West Asia and in Persia. There were three Anglo-Afghan wars. The British at one stage gained control of Afghan foreign policy but relinquished such control
in 1919.

The Afghans periodically had powerful monarchs. In the 19th Century under King Amanullah Khan, the country ended its traditional isolation and established diplomatic relations with most major countries. King Amanullah Khan brought in several reforms in education such as education for women, abolition of the traditional Muslim veil.  These reforms alienated tribal and religious leaders and led to revolt and civil war ending in Amanullah Khan being deposed.

In the 20th and 21st Centuries Afghan men unlike those in any other country were seen always carrying guns. Even today the Taliban are strutting about the streets of Kabul with automatic weapons, some probably being those of their American invaders. This, it is said, is a development of being subject to invasions for over two millennia.

The hope of the West in making the new regime adopt more accommodative policies is the supposed ‘leverage’ they have over the regime in the imposition of economic sanctions and granting international recognition. But with China and Russia adopting a different policy towards the new regime, the Taliban may find it possible to survive economic sanctions and be in near diplomatic isolation like North Korea and what the new military junta of Myanmar is attempting to do.

The Taliban is an organisation committed to fundamentalist economic laws and has shown no reluctance to indicate its desire to implement Islamic Sharia law. What variety of Sharia law they would choose is to be seen.  Implementation of Sharia law in countries such as Malaysia, Indonesia, Saudi Arabia, Iran and Syria — to cite a few examples — differs very much. The economic challenges faced by this regime in building up a new Afghanistan would be a key factor in the directions it will take.

The 21st Century appears to be the twilight of colonialism and its offshoot neocolonialism.  There are no countries today under their former colonial masters. Iran, Iraq and Syria are seen by some as those countries that have spurned American influences — identified as neocolonialist forces. Afghanistan appears to be the last.

Is Afghanistan going through the process of clash of civilisations as identified by the late Prof Samuel Huntington? The end of the Cold War ended the division of the world into two ideologies and gave rise to forces of nationalism. But the rise of nationalism has given rise to dictators, powerful as well as those potty little ones.

Will Afghanistan go that way?

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