…What we are witnessing now is no more than the final, largely pre-destined act of an attenuated tragedy.
To better understand this, we need to rewind to the events that immediately followed 9/11. On the day of the attacks America possessed an established military/political doctrine jointly authored by the former Secretary of State, Colin Powell, and the former Defense Secretary, Caspar Weinberger. The doctrine made clear that US forces would only be deployed in overwhelming strength, in pursuit of clear objectives and with a clear route to exit. In this it showed the legacy of messy engagements in Lebanon and Somalia and the long shadow of Vietnam. It was a sound, intellectually coherent approach — and completely inadequate to meet the unprecedented requirements of 9/11.
That natural iconoclast, the late Donald Rumsfeld, immediately abandoned its every precept in favour of a campaign with the speed and agility to match the operational conditions. The solution comprised huge volumes of indirect fire from invulnerable American aircraft, ships and submarines; CIA agents playing a 21st-century version of The Great Game; a ready-made infantry in the shape of the Northern Alliance; and an urbane and – at least then – compliant political leader in waiting in Hamid Karzai. In a seminal example of asymmetric engagement, this improvised force completely shattered the Taliban and drove its remnants into Pakistan or back to their villages.
At this point, America completely dominated the strategic situation in and around Afghanistan. The Taliban had ceased to exist as a coherent entity. Pakistan, having been bluntly asked if it was “with or against America”, was proving an amenable partner, as the capture of Khalid Sheik Mohammed and the purging of the ISI — the state intelligence agency — showed. Within Afghanistan, the sense of a better future was palpable. In the words of Jason Burke, Guardian correspondent and close observer of Afghan affairs: “everywhere one travelled…one found the expectation of a new era of security, stability and prosperity was dawning”. The scene was set for America to maintain the momentum of its success, install and bankroll a Karzai-led government, hand over aid, development and security responsibility to the United Nations et al, walk away and accept the laurels of victory…
Had America declared victory against terrorism and quit Afghanistan in 2002 the West might never have spent its power on unwinnable wars, it might have kept a far more wary eye on the rise of China and the strategic terms of engagement of the early 21st century might have been different. Indeed, America itself might be a less rancorous place. The eternally fissiparous Afghans might have made a mess of their new-found freedoms, but it would have been their mess and with much less scope for the bitter recriminations now raining down on the US President. In context, this might be seen as America’s Suez moment where the limitations of its power are revealed to both the watching world and to history.