Hong Yuan: Failure in Afghanistan Predestined
11 Sep, 2021  |  Source:China Daily  |  Hits:1078


The Taliban took over Kabul airport after the United States pulled out its last batch of troops on Aug 30, marking the end of its almost 20-year war in Afghanistan. The US' withdrawal from Afghanistan was not part of its strategy to deal with the "threat from China and Russia" but the failure of the "war on terror" started by former US president George W. Bush.

Washington spent more than $2.3 trillion, deployed more than 130,000 troops and lost thousands of them to avenge the Sept 11, 2001, terrorist attacks by overthrowing the Taliban regime and establishing US-style democracy in Afghanistan, but ended up withdrawing from the country in utter haste, leaving behind chaos and uncertainty and the Taliban in power once again.

The failure of US hegemonic policy

First, the withdrawal shows the failure of the US' hegemonic policy. After the 9/11 attacks, the US did not reflect on its foreign policy and instead bypassed the United Nations to make its "war on terror" a global war to cover the country's political failure by trying to achieve victory through military means in Afghanistan and Iraq.

In The Art of War, Sun Tzu says: "The skillful fighter puts himself in a position which makes defeat impossible and does not miss the moment for defeating the enemy." The US should have established an honest political order and promoted law-based politics to reach that "position" in Afghanistan. But it didn't.

Prussian military strategist Karl von Clausewitz once said that "war is nothing but a continuation of politics with the admixture of other means". Peaceful politics is also a continuation of war politics and the two forms of politics complete the circle of war and peace. No matter how powerful a country is, its political failure at one level will inevitably lead to its military failure at the next level.

A major historical event always has an impact on the future, when people are expected to formulate policies by learning lessons from the event so that they don't have to revisit the tragedies of the past.

But instead of learning the right lessons from the 9/11 attacks and the initial military success in Afghanistan, the US administration and the American military industry made the reckless decision of continuing the war to fulfill their own interests. The US' failure in Afghanistan will have a huge impact on the global situation, which incidentally could force the US to launch another war in another country or region.

Enormous defeat on military front

Not winning the war in Afghanistan, and therefore any war in a long time, was the second failure of the US-an enormous failure on the military front. The war in Afghanistan was a military defeat for the US, with the suicide bombing at Kabul airport that killed at least 170 people, including 13 US soldiers, on Aug 26 reflecting the irony of the "war on terror" on whose pretext the US troops entered Afghanistan in the first place. That the US military, the most powerful in the world, couldn't eliminate the Taliban even after two decades shows how wrong US politicians were in their assessment of the ground realities in Afghanistan.

The US kept moving away from success as its troops continued to kill civilians by mistaking them to be terrorists and even bribed the very Taliban forces they were supposedly fighting to ensure the smooth transportation of their supplies and personnel. On the other hand, the Taliban succeeded in mobilizing some Afghan people in their support and won many a guerrilla battle against the US forces in the mountains and countryside, which helped them take hold of major cities.

Former US secretary of state Henry Kissinger said during the Vietnam War that "the conventional army loses if it does not win. The guerrilla wins if he does not lose". This is exactly what happened in Afghanistan.

Despite its extensive surveillance network, intelligence-gathering system, and technological superiority, the US' intelligence analysis was often off the mark in Afghanistan and made it the object of ridicule in the eyes of many. For example, after the suicide bombing at the Kabul airport, the US forces killed 10 members of one family, including seven children, in the retaliatory drone strike because military intelligence mistook them for suspected terrorists.

The US military's power and capability seemed to be ineffective in the face of the sudden attack and retreat tactics of the terrorists in Afghanistan, with poor planning and implementation of battle tactics making matters worse. For instance, had the US used the Kandahar airport and the Bagram airbase, too, to pull out its forces, the evacuation could have been smoother and less chaotic.

During the peak of the evacuation, thousands of people flocked to the Kabul airport to get a seat on one of the many flights, and some US citizens had trouble reaching the airport. And after the US completed the withdrawal on Aug 30, between 100 and 150 Westerners, including Americans, were still stranded in Kabul. In other words, the US did not have a comprehensive list of people that it needed to evacuate from the country.

In fact, the US' withdrawal from Afghanistan, similar to its withdrawal from South Vietnam in 1975, was humiliating for its military.

Frustration of geopolitical strategy

Washington's decision to enter the "Graveyard of Empires" to spread Western values and democracy signaled its third failure, the failure of its geopolitical strategy.

To make a success of the ambitious "Greater Middle East" initiative to consolidate the US' maritime hegemony by including Central Asia into its sphere of influence, the Bush administration, along with US allies, launched the war in Afghanistan in 2001 and invaded Iraq in 2003 in the name of "war on terror".

But the US overestimated its military power and technological superiority to achieve victory in the "war on terror". Afghanistan is a landlocked country with unique topography, which makes winning a war there almost impossible, even for the US. And since the US had no reliable ally country around Afghanistan which it could use to transport supplies, including food and ammunition, and personnel to the battlefields, the economic (and political) costs of the war escalated. But the US took almost 20 years to realize this.

The US will feel the impact of its failure in Afghanistan for a long time to come. It could signal the waning of its military power and global influence. And it raises the question of whether the US can penetrate 500 kilometers into the Eurasian continent despite enjoying advantages in sea and air, and makes the US' Indo-Pacific strategy less convincing.

(Hong Yuan, a research fellow at the Institute of American Studies, the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.The views do not necessarily reflect those of this platform.)