Dear Partners in thought,
My apologies for a long silence since April as I took a break from Desperate Measures feeling that its two drivers, Brexit and Trump, had finally been “done”, even if we feel in both cases that their presence is still vividly felt. If I may be uncharacteristically personal, I was also much affected by a very appalling start-up seed capital investment experience, involving people I respected, and that I am still in the process of digesting in the right way.
Post-Trump and Brexit, two of the most infamous developments of the 2010s that affected the US and Britain, as well as Europe and the world (in whichever order you prefer), I found it hard to focus on a return to more normal times, again as if still suffering from both sad events and also given our Covid “new normal” era. The arrival of Joe Biden in the White House (that hopefully and finally ran contrary, as wished for, to the Orwellian scenario of “2027”) brought with it a certain boredom that was so much needed at so many levels, even if it made reading my daily Financial Times less exciting and the jobs of its famed journalists more challenging. Biden also brought with him a great team of “professionals” and his share of grand projects that are so American in nature, as seen with his much-needed infrastructure and related bills. He markedly rebuilt the ties with Europe and NATO, a key area for me and others living in the Old World. Although he kept the Trump line against China, even becoming harder in many ways, Xi did his best to prevent a US refocus on a mutually productive re-engagement with the Red Dragon. And then came Afghanistan.
Based on a dubious peace agreement engineered last year by the Trump administration, Biden decided in April to leave Afghanistan by the 20th anniversary of 9-11 in a way that was more akin to Hollywood than the White House. As the Taliban rapidly took advantage of a sudden departure embodied by the night-time exit from the Bagram air force base where tons of assets were left behind – as if fleeing from an imminent invasion, Biden stressed he had no regrets as it was up to the Afghan people to defend themselves and, de facto, decide for their future. Indeed, a new turn after 20 years. All at a time when US forces were fewer than 3,000 on the ground, and no casualty had been experienced in years, all the while USD 1 trillion had been spent without the benefit of a clear and decisive Nazi Berlin-like Taliban eradication. In actually no time, and likely to the surprise of the Pentagon and the CIA, the Taliban took over districts and cities on a daily basis, Kandahar being the last trophy, making Kabul a target for takeover. Now Kabul is under takeover threat. In a strange reversal, about 3,000 US troops (a sadly fitting number) were planned to be dispatched to Kabul in short order to avoid the dreadful 1975 pictures of Saigon embassy personnel barely fleeing from the roofs via helicopters.
I took part in a poll on the daily CNN’s Smerconish newsletter about whether the current Afghan departure was a good thing, only to see when I clicked that I was part of only 30% who felt it was not. Clearly that poll is essentially targeting Americans, many of whom have been tired by the “Long War” as it is often described, in a worse depiction than the old Vietnam equivalent. However short-sighted and, putting aside his historical aversion for nation-building abroad, Biden’s decision was of course eminently focused on domestic politics, at a time when he badly needed a bipartisan approach, like with his infrastructure bills. There was a need to find areas where domestic agreement would be reached, this at a low political cost. However, are Afghan women paying for better American roads and the need for post-Trump era solace? And in a political comedy act, the Republicans, led by Mitch McConnell and Lindsey Graham, who supported the Trump Treaty with the Taliban, now scream at the quick withdrawal humiliation for the US and the risk of another potential 9-11. The problem with this departure, putting aside the financial costs involved (and yes, in spite of the endemic local corruption that must exist), is its clear damage to what Americans and America stand for and what US leaders have always used as a natural and differentiating foreign policy tool. It is going to be hard for America to manage, when one looks at what happens to women and free thinking in a thuggishly and backwardly Taliban-controlled Afghanistan – one that could have been relatively easily prevented. The financial cost is not an issue as allies could have contributed, including Afghanistan itself, but also allies and neighbouring countries in need of regional and indeed national stability (who indeed wants a next 9-11?). The human cost is no longer an issue, as winning stability and not war is the objective. The best likely scenario could be that the US, not wanting China, Russia and Pakistan to assert themselves, will keep sending US special forces and lead aerial attacks from abroad in a less efficient and practical way, rendering their departure only a tactical mistake. More would be better of course. At least NATO is now convening, given the rapidly unexpected adverse development on the ground. If they did nothing and kept hoping, fingers crossed, for the best, America will pay a serious price in terms of image and reputation globally, making them just another country, something they cannot afford in a climate of Cold Peace with a rising China. Let’s hope that egos do not prevent a change of mind and practical solutions where the US and its allies are back soon. The girls and women of Afghanistan would appreciate it. As would some of us who always believed in America and what it stood for – and remember D Day. If America is gone, who is left today?