A Long Shame
The Taliban victory over the US will, for a very long time to come, cast a shadow of shame over US foreign policy
On the twentieth anniversary of the horrific 9/11 terrorist attacks on the US by Al Qaeda, the United States is hurting inside. Instead of holding her head up and basking in a victory over global terrorism, she is hanging it in shame over her defeat by a rag-tag group of Islamic fundamentalists, the Taliban.
In October 2001, US President George W. Bush ordered an attack on the Taliban in Afghanistan to force them out office after they failed to handover Osama Bin Laden and other leaders of Al Qaeda. The US was supported by the Northern Alliance, a former alliance of anti-Taliban Afghan groups, and 57 countries, including the United Kingdom (UK) and other NATO countries, although not all of them engaged in combat operations.
Although the Taliban offered to hand over Bin Laden the US government well before the 9/11 attacks, and surrendered to the US forces in December 2001, the Bush administration ignored those gestures. Instead, President Bush announced in April 2002 that the US would help with nation building in Afghanistan, in keeping with the best traditions of General George C. Marshall, the architect of the Marshall Plan which helped revitalize Europe after WW II.
The US and its allies spent huge resources fighting the Taliban. The US alone had over 100 thousand troops in the country, after President Obama ordered an increase (the “surge”) in US troops in 2010. Similarly, the UN-created International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) at its peak had 130,000 troops from 42 countries (including the US), and more bases (400) in the country than the Afghan National Security Forces.
Despite these efforts the Taliban, for various reasons, steadily gained the upper hand in the war. In particular, the US under-estimated Afghan nationalism, did little to develop rural areas which suffered the brunt of US attacks, and failed to curb the corruption in the Afghan government which limited their credibility.
The war on the Taliban cost the US dearly: an estimated $2.26 trillion (far more than what it spent on the Marshall Plan for Europe), 6,384 US military, DOD civilian staff and US government contractors were killed and 20,662 were injured. Afghanistan, on the other hand, suffered approximately 164,000 deaths, almost 29% of them being civilians. Sadly, the financial costs will keep rising well after the US departure from of Afghanistan. After all, the last beneficiary of pension payments related to the US Civil War died in 2020–155 years after it ended!
The incredible victory of the Taliban over the US and its allies has profound implications for US foreign policy. First, the US now must struggle to claim the mantle of leadership in international affairs. Although US Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced that the US has begun a “new diplomatic mission” in Afghanistan in which it will lead with its diplomacy, the going will be tough. In the wake of the chaos of the withdrawal from Afghanistan, calls for European strategic autonomy from the US are getting louder.
It will also be more difficult, if not impossible, for the US to build coalitions of countries willing to fight alongside it in the future. This is especially so given that US defeat in Afghanistan was preceded by the realization that the war it led to rid Iraq of weapons of mass destruction was based on flawed intelligence. It is now obvious that few will believe US government hype anymore, and as such, not surprising that President Biden announced that Afghanistan marks the end of US “military operations to remake other countries.”
The US further damaged its credibility and reliability as a partner in the way it negotiated with the Taliban, and by botching its withdrawal from Afghanistan. First, the Afghan government was sidelined by President Trump in negotiations with the Taliban. Furthermore, the February 2020 Doha Agreement to end hostilities between the Taliban and the US government called for the Afghan government (which was not a party to the agreement) to release of Taliban prisoners. Similarly, NATO countries were not consulted by President Trump about its negotiations with the Taliban to end the war, or by President Biden about the exact date for withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan.
The Taliban’s defeat over the US and its allies will certainly inspire and embolden anti-US terrorists, and has proven to them that world’s only Superpower can, over time and with determination, be brought to its knees. Despite the US threat to use its over-the-horizon (airstrikes and drones) capabilities to, if necessary, attack the Taliban, chances are this would not deter terrorists who are determined to make their point. The new Taliban government is populated by former Guantanamo Bay detainees, and it would be interesting to watch how much, if at all, they heed US warnings about the consequences of their supporting terrorists.
The US ability to lead the global fight for human rights will also suffer immensely following its defeat by the Taliban. In its blind obsession with getting rid of the Taliban, the US partnered with Afghan groups such as the Northern Alliance which abused human rights. The US also opposed the International Criminal Court’s efforts to investigate human rights abuses by all parties in its war against the Taliban. In addition, its extraordinary rendition program (which is illegal under both international and US law), the detention of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay in contravention of international law, and perennial racism will continue to make US government’s talk about it being a champion of human rights sound hypocritical.
The images of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan will forever be etched in the collective memory of humanity. From pictures and videos of Taliban fighters sporting US-made guns, driving US military vehicles, and showing off US military aircraft, to videos of desperate Afghans clinging to, and falling off a US aircraft, this Taliban victory is the first military defeat of a superpower that got global multimedia (especially social media) coverage. There is no doubt that this defeat will cast a long shadow over US foreign policy for a very long time to come. What a shame.