As the US called curtains on its ‘forever war’ and evacuated its last soldier, it left behind a country in a complete mess. Even its own coalition partners were dismayed and could make little of Washington’s harried exit.
Many Afghans are now without a ‘home’ and almost half the population needs humanitarian assistance to survive. The country faces the threat of basic services collapsing completely. United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres offered some grim statistics of the looming “humanitarian catastrophe”: 18 million Afghans need aid to survive, one in three don’t know where their next meal will come from, over half of all children under age 5 are expected to become “acutely malnourished” in the next year, and every day people are losing access to basic goods and services. “Amid a severe drought and with harsh winter conditions on the horizon, extra food, shelter and health supplies must be urgently fast-tracked into the country,” he said.
Yet the world is not responding. The current $1.3 billion UN humanitarian appeal for Afghanistan is only 39% funded.
Clueless European Union
As European ministers of defence and foreign affairs gathered in Slovenia last week for talks, also involving NATO and UN officials, to look at ways to improve the bloc’s operational engagement and develop a rapid response force capable of operating in difficult military theatres, a pitch for stronger Europe was visible. The rushed airlift operation laid bare the EU’s dependency on the US. Without American support, European countries wouldn’t have been able to guarantee the safe passage of their citizens or even their troops out of the war-torn country.
“It’s clear that the need for more European defence has never been as much as evident as today after the events in Afghanistan,” EU Foreign Policy chief Josep Borrell said. “There are events that catalyse the history,” he said. “Sometimes something happens that pushes the history, it creates a breakthrough and I think the Afghanistan events of this summer are one of these cases.”
Claudio Graziano, the chairman of the EU military committee, called for a stronger Europe. “The situation in Afghanistan, Libya, Middle East, Sahel show that now it’s the time to act starting with the creation of a rapid European entry force able to show the will of the European Union to act as a global strategic partner. When if not now, later would be late.”
But finding a consensus among the 27 EU member states to create such a force is a tall order. European countries on the border with Russia often oppose the idea of autonomy, for instance Poland and the Baltic nations. EU heavyweight Germany is also a strong supporter of using NATO for security operations and keeping the US defence umbrella in Europe.
The situation in the Sahel has drawn comparisons with the US departure from Afghanistan since the French are preparing to reduce their military presence in the West Africa region where extremist groups are fighting for control.
In June, French President Emmanuel Macron announced the end of Operation Barkhane, France’s seven-year effort fighting extremists linked to al-Qaida and the Islamic State group in Africa’s Sahel region. France’s more than 5,000 troops will be reduced in the coming months.
“We learned very important lessons and that we should not repeat the same mistakes in the Sahel,” Slovenian Defence Minister Matej Tonin said. “It’s even more important for the European Union than Afghanistan. It can have greater consequences.”
To better address any future crises at Europe’s doorstep, EU member nations have floated the idea of setting up a 5,000-member stand-by-force capable of quickly intervening. France and Germany have pushed for years for the creation of such a force, a true European army. “Creating a European army means having a common foreign policy and that we all share the same interests. This is a political leap that still must be achieved,” Spain’s top military official, Chief of Staff Teodoro López Calderón, said
No One’s Child
Nearly 1,30,000 were airlifted out of Afghanistan in one of the largest mass evacuations in history. Many of those people are still in transit, undergoing security vetting and screening in other countries, including Germany, Spain, Kuwait and Qatar.
There are far more who want to leave than will be able to do so. Those who do make it out will face the many challenges of resettlement. At least 13 countries, including Uganda, Rwanda, Costa Rica and Albania have agreed to temporarily house Afghan refugees until they can be resettled.
The scale and speed of this airlift are unprecedented, but the US has a history of taking in refugees from overseas conflicts. The US airlifted about 7,000 people with the fall of Saigon in 1975 at the end of the Vietnam War and ultimately took in more than 1,00,000 refugees from Southeast Asia. In 1996, the US evacuated about 5,000 Kurds and other Iraqi minorities from northern Iraq after then-President Saddam Hussein regained control of the region.
In 1999, about 20,000 victims of Yugoslavian “ethnic cleansing″ against Albanians in the province of Kosovo were brought to the United States as refugees and temporarily housed for processing in Fort Dix, New Jersey. The US has admitted more than 3.1 million refugees since 1980.
The forever wars now are over or ending. But with every country putting its own interests first or at the most paying lip service to common human concerns beyond borders, each country needs to prepare to be on its own. No external help may be forthcoming.
(AP and Agencies)
End for endless wars?
Disengagement from an armed conflict is common US practice in recent decades – since the 1970s, the country’s military has simply left Vietnam, Iraq and now Afghanistan. But for much of the country’s history, Americans won their wars decisively, with the complete surrender of enemy forces and the home front’s perception of total victory.
History of Triumph
The American Revolution, of course, was the country’s first successful war, creating the nation. The War of 1812, sometimes called the Second War of Independence, failed in both its goals, of ending the British practice of forcing American mariners into the Royal Navy and conquering Canada. But then-Major General Andrew Jackson’s overwhelming triumph at the Battle of New Orleans allowed Americans to think they had won that war.
In the 1840s, the US defeated Mexico and seized half its territory. In the 1860s, the US defeated and occupied the secessionist Confederate States of America. In 1898, the Americans drove the Spanish out of Cuba and the Philippines.
America’s late entry into World War I tipped the balance in favour of Allied victory, but the post-war acrimony over America’s refusal to enter the League of Nations, followed by the Great Depression and the rise of fascism, eventually soured Americans on the war’s outcome as well as any involvement in Europe’s problems.
That disillusionment led to the strident campaigns to prevent the US from intervening in World War II, with the slogan “America First.” When the US did enter the war after the attack on Pearl Harbour, President Roosevelt demanded the “unconditional surrender” of both Germany and Japan.
The discovery of the Nazi death camps gave the war its justification, while the Japanese surrender on the battleship Missouri in 1945 became a symbol of unparalleled American power and victory. It was perhaps captured best by the words of the American general who accepted that surrender, Douglas MacArthur: “In war there is no substitute for victory.”
After World War II, the US kept substantial military presences in Germany and Japan, and encouraged the creation of democratic governments and development of what ultimately became economic powerhouses. The US stayed in those defeated nations not with the express purpose of rebuilding them, but rather as part of the post-war effort to contain the expanding influence of the Soviet Union.
Nuclear weapons on both sides made all-out war between the superpowers unthinkable. Over the five decades of the Cold War, the US fought at arm’s length against the Soviets in Korea and Vietnam, with outcomes shaped as much by domestic political pressures as by foreign policy concerns.
In Korea, the war between the communist-backed North and the US- and UN-backed South ended with a 1953 armistice that ended major combat, but was not a victory for either side. US troops remain in Korea to this day, providing security against a possible North Korean attack, which has helped allow the South Koreans to develop a prosperous democratic country.
A Humbling Loss
In Vietnam, by contrast, the US ended its involvement with a treaty, the Paris Peace Accords of 1973, and pulled out all troops. Richard Nixon had vowed early in his presidency that he would not be “the first American president to lose a war,” and used the treaty to proclaim that he had achieved “peace with honor.”
But all the peace agreement really did was create a “decent interval,” a two-year period in which South Vietnam could continue to exist as an independent country before North Vietnam rearmed and invaded. Nixon was focused on the enormous domestic pressure to end the war and get American prisoners of war released. They hoped South Vietnam’s inevitable collapse two years later would be blamed on the Vietnamese themselves.
But the speed of the North Vietnamese victory in 1975, symbolised by masses seeking helicopter evacuations from the roof of the US Embassy in Saigon, revealed the embarrassment of American defeat. The postwar flight of millions of Vietnamese made “peace with honor” an empty slogan, hollowed further by the millions murdered in Cambodia by the Khmer Rouge, who overthrew the US-supported government.
Choice to Withdraw
President George HW Bush thought the decisive American victory in the Persian Gulf War in February 1991 “kicked the Vietnam syndrome.” However, Bush’s 90% popularity at the end of that war faded quickly, as Saddam Hussein remained in power and the US economic recession took the spotlight. One sticker in the 1992 presidential campaign said, “Saddam Hussein has a job. Do you?”
In 2003, President George W Bush sought to avoid his father’s mistake. He sent troops to Baghdad and ousted Saddam, but this decision embroiled the US in a frustrating counterinsurgency war whose popularity rapidly declined.
Barack Obama campaigned in 2008 on contrasting the bad “war of choice” in Iraq with the good “war of necessity” in Afghanistan, and withdrew from Iraq in 2011 while boosting American forces in Afghanistan. However, the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq required Obama to send American forces back into Iraq, and the Afghanistan surge did not yield anything.
Now, Biden has ended America’s war in Afghanistan. But the Taliban’s persecution of women and domestic opponents of the regime, may well produce a backlash among millions of Americans. Just as the brutality of Islamic State executions led US forces back into Iraq, a Taliban carnage may well cast a profound and damaging shadow over the entire Biden presidency.
(The author is Professor of History, Vanderbilt University. theconversation.com)
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