Afghanistan – The Graveyard of Empires

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Civilians prepare to board a plane during an evacuation at Kabul Airport – Source: U.S. Marine Corps photo by Staff Sgt. Victor Mancilla on Wikimedia Commons

After 20 years of war in Afghanistan, the Presidents Trump and Biden have ordered the withdrawal of U.S. troops – without any meaningful consultation among its NATO allies. For the UK, the hasty withdrawal constitutes the end of its third war in Afghanistan – after 1839-1842 and 1878-1880. After the defeats of the British empire, it is now NATO’s first and decisive humiliation.

Let us not forget: After “9/11”, the NATO allies, for the first time, invoked Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty, declaring Al Qaida’s attack against the USA as an attack against all member states and invoked the UN Charter’s Article 51 – the right of collective self-defence.

USA goes it alone

It was President Trump who negotiated the withdrawal agreement with the Taliban – without any real involvement of either the Afghan government or the NATO allies. His successor, President Biden, just implemented that agreement in haste – without taking into account Afghanistan’s increasingly fragile situation. Even before August 2021 there were clear indications of the Taliban warriors taking more and more territory. However, from the NATO allies’ point of view, the US’s unilateral action was not only a bitter offense, but a breaking away from the agreed collective action. President Biden, mostly concerned with the US domestic recovery, has to be accused of betraying his allies. NATO constituted the military backbone of the “Western Empire”. US unilateralism has now undermined its future existence. Significantly, despite his warm words for his NATO allies after becoming President, Biden has just implemented his predecessor’s course of “America first”.

What does this mean? Obviously, the “leader” of the Western world is now in such a dire situation that it no longer seems able or willing to take its partners’ interests seriously into account. If you have read my article last year in West England Bylines about the end of the West, you perhaps will agree that the Afghanistan debacle is another proof of this statement.

After 20 years of NATO’s war in Afghanistan, sooner or later this engagement had to be terminated. The question is why the Western leaders were not capable of finding a better outcome.

What can History tell us?

Ten years ago, in 2011, I ended my teaching career at the University of Jena with a seminar, titled “The Bundeswehr in the Afghan War”. In my introduction I reminded my students of Afghanistan’s history, in particular of foreign powers’ futile attempts to conquer and rule Afghanistan. Not only the British Empire in the 19th century, but also the Soviet Union in the 1980’s, had to learn the truth about the ”Graveyard of Empires”.

If one would search for a historical analogy, one could take the European Thirty Years War of 1618-48 which took place predominantly on German soil. Because of the complex, fragmented internal situation, with numerous competitors in endless struggle, no foreign power was able to decisively win that war. Afghanistan never has become a real “state”, but has remained more or less a conglomeration of various ethnic groups in constant conflict. Since the borders of Afghanistan never reflected the ethnic reality, no ruler in Kabul was able to truly govern that country. The British should take particular note, because these borders were decided in London!

To give just one major example of the ethnic realities: the Pashtuns (or Pathanes as the US calls them) not only live in Afghanistan, but also in western Pakistan – a fact which explains Pakistan’s constant involvement. Tribes in the West and North have affiliations to other neighbours – be it Iran or several post-Soviet republics (like Tajikistan or Uzbekistan). This CIA map from 2005 (US Library of Congress) shows the complexity of Afghanistan’s ethnic make-up.

Afghan Ethnic Groups – Source: US Library of Congress No. 2005631117

The ongoing bloody conflicts during the last 40 years have demonstrated the impossibility of finding an internal and regional balance of interests. No wonder that NATO also had no chance of succeeding!

And what about the future?

It remains to be seen whether the Taliban really can end the internal conflicts and rule the country effectively. The regional powers – Iran and Pakistan in particular – will continue trying to influence developments around Kabul.

Russia and China, on the one hand, will celebrate NATO’s defeat. China will regard the US withdrawal as another indication of the US abdication from its “world leadership”. US allies in Asia – South Korea, Japan and particularly Taiwan – will wonder how reliable US security guarantees will be in the future.

On the other hand, there are also reasons for Russian and Chinese to be concerned. The Taliban want to create an ultra-Muslim regime in Afghanistan, implementing the Sharia. Not only do the southern post-Soviet republics have large Muslim populations, but so do parts of the Russian Federation (eg Tatarstan). For a long time Russian experts and politicians have feared the spill-over of Islamic revolutionary fervour. In the Western province of China, the Communist regime in Beijing has systematically and brutally suppressed the Uighurs, a Turkish Muslim population. It remains to be seen how the Chinese can reconcile their domestic policies with a successful approach toward the Taliban in Afghanistan.

One commentator on Afghanistan, whom generals and presidents listen to, is Martin van Creveld whose latest blog tries to answer the many questions raised by this debacle.

For the USA and its allies, the terrible fate of many Afghans will remain a shameful reminder of their arrogance and follies. A new wave of refugees will let the West pay another high price – on top of their military casualties and huge financial investment.


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