TWO years after the US completed its chaotic retreat from Afghanistan, and handed the country back to the Taliban, the American general who was overseeing the operation at the time has made public his regrets about the debacle. While speaking to media outlets recently, retired Gen Kenneth McKenzie, who was chief of Centcom — the US military’s formation that supervises operations in this region — described his country’s withdrawal from Afghanistan as a “fatal flaw”. He observed that it was the “wrong decision”, and America’s departure allowed the militant Islamic State group to establish a firm foothold in Afghanistan. There can be little argument with the general’s description of his administration’s botched exit strategy. Yet what Gen McKenzie failed to address was why America and its allies stuck around in Afghanistan for so long in the first place.
What was supposed to be a counterterrorism operation to bring Al Qaeda to justice for its role in the 9/11 attacks turned into America’s longest war, a nightmare that was part-military occupation, part-civilising mission. Needless to say, America failed in all these respects. The US spent over $2tr on the Afghan war effort, while tens of thousands of people died, including American soldiers. Yet by far the biggest victims were the Afghan people: according to some studies, over 47,000 civilians perished during the war. And the final result of this massive loss of blood and treasure is that the Afghan Taliban once again control Kabul, just as they did before the 2001 invasion. Moreover, by the Americans’ own admission IS has been strengthened, while terrorist groups such as the TTP have been emboldened. Billions of dollars’ worth of American military equipment, including weapons, were left behind in Afghanistan, and have made their way into the hands of militants. Though the White House has downplayed this, Pentagon documents provided to Congress paint a troubling picture. The American invasion of Iraq saw similar ‘achievements’, with IS emerging from the smouldering rubble of the occupation, while a functioning country was left shattered. Has the American establishment learnt any lessons? Probably not. Projecting American military might in the name of fighting terrorism and supporting democracy has left numerous states devastated, while bringing no real benefits to the American people. It is this penchant for militarism and exceptionalism that the American system must rectify.
Published in Dawn, September 14th, 2023