It has every element of an end of an era: the closing down of an American military operation, the evacuation of diplomatic personnel, the abandonment of air bases, the relinquishment of billions in weaponry, the controlled detonation levelling the last CIA outpost – everything but a lonely trumpet blast of farewell.
But the American retreat from Afghanistan may be less the end of an era than the most recent expression of repeated cycles of warfare and withdrawal.
Now – in a fraught fortnight bracketed by the frenzied retreat from Afghanistan and the looming 20th anniversary of the terrorist attacks on Manhattan and Washington – it is increasingly clear that American power, built on the country’s economic prowess and military achievements in the Second World War, has been frustrated. A tragic series of oscillations from engagement to withdrawal have replicated themselves in decade after postwar decade.
“From the creation of the American postwar vision of how the United States relates with the world to now, there has been this notion that other people can become Jeffersonian Democrats,” Cameron Munter, who was U.S. ambassador in Pakistan when American forces killed Osama bin Laden and who repeatedly travelled to Afghanistan, said in an interview. “We wonder why, after giving so much money to the Afghan military, they aren’t like the Marines. Why, after giving all that money to various Afghan provinces, aren’t they turning into Oregon?”
Though foreshadowed more than 18 months ago by an agreement engaged in by Donald J. Trump and by campaign promises offered by Joe Biden, the hurried, and deadly, withdrawal from Afghanistan nonetheless sent shock waves across North America and around the globe.
And yet the end of the American adventure in Afghanistan is but the latest example of thwarted hopes and abandoned plans. From Korea and Vietnam (engagements spanning exactly a Cold War quarter-century from 1950 to 1975) to Iraq and Afghanistan (spanning a terror-era two decades from 2001 to 2021), the United States has been involved in proxy wars and sideshow conflicts, not the great-power struggles that created the strongest economy and military force the world has ever seen.
The lesson is that power does not translate into persuasion and that long-distance engagements do not bring short-term or even medium-term triumphs. In the 19th century and beyond, the players in the “Great Game” – the name given the struggle between the Russian and British empires in Central Asia by a member of the 6th Bengal Light Cavalry who eventually was beheaded – repeatedly have been defeated.
Across Asia and the Middle East, where many of the conflicts that have engaged American forces since midcentury have occurred, the United States consistently has seen its high ambitions and its golden good intentions turn to black dross. That transformation has been especially painful in Afghanistan, where American troops were dispatched to punish al-Qaeda and its Taliban allies for the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 – and where groups such as ISIS-K sent a unmistakable message of lethal resurgence at the Abbey Gate last week even before the end of the 20-year American presence there.
“Now what?” retired Brigadier-General Dana H. Born, former dean of the faculty at the United States Air Force Academy, asked in an interview.
“We need to think about what our role is going forward,” said Ms. Born, who was deployed twice to Afghanistan and now teaches at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. “I feel strongly about Afghanistan and hope it doesn’t become a stronghold for al-Qaeda and ISIS-K. We sacrificed many lives in trying to help build a new Afghanistan with hope and freedom and also in fighting the Taliban. But now we have been relying on them to help get people out.”
History is full of countries turning to their rivals and transforming them into allies. The British government of Winston Churchill, a stolid opponent of communism, embraced Joseph Stalin and Soviet Russia after Nazi Germany abandoned its alliance with the USSR and mounted its Operation Barbarossa in 1941. Both Germany and Japan became allies of the American-led West after their 1945 surrenders.
But the stunning American dependence on the Taliban – “not good guys,” in the characterization of Mr. Biden, who clearly does not have a strong card to play – for both security and evacuation assistance came not after months or years but within actual hours of combat and air strikes against the Taliban, some of whose leaders, including the interim defence minister of the new government of Afghanistan, have been imprisoned at the American detention camp at Guantánamo Bay on the Cuban coast.
The reliance on the Taliban for what General Kenneth “Frank” McKenzie Jr., commander of American Central Command, called a “common purpose” and, in coming days, as a counterweight to ISIS-K – was both a stunning transformation and a measure of American helplessness and hopelessness in its effort to mould Afghan forces and the Afghan government into an effective resistance. In Vietnam, American forces did not depend on the Viet Cong to aid the 1975 withdrawal of its diplomats, its translators and its contractors.
But lost in the frenzy in Kabul may be an important but forgotten parallel with the denouement of American involvement in Vietnam.
“The Vietnamese were surprised when the American flag was taken down at our embassy because they actually wanted a relationship with the United States,” said Thomas Vallely, a Marine veteran of the Vietnam War who established the Fulbright School in Ho Chi Minh City, later part of Fulbright University Vietnam. “Now we have to hope we will have a relationship with the Taliban. There is no other alternative.”
Indeed, American diplomats even now are exploring the nature of the United States relationship with the new Taliban government.
With Afghanistan added to the list of American foreign-policy disappointments, the fear is that, as Republican Representative Adam Kinzinger of Illinois, a veteran of the Afghanistan war and a critic of both Mr. Trump and Mr. Biden, put it in an article he wrote in Foreign Policy magazine late last week, “we will find ourselves at war again, and with this massive blunder on our record, our enemies will no longer fear us, and our allies will no longer trust us.”
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