Richard North, 17/08/2021  
 


At the time of writing, no official transcript was available, although Biden's speech is available on video, and the media have had a field day.

In short, Biden characterises the Afghan adventure as counter-terrorism, not counter-insurgency. It was, in his view, never supposed to be nation-building. And, he said, we carry out counter-terrorism activities where we don't have a military presence on the ground. If necessary, we can do that in Afghanistan.

Reiterating how much money had been spent – over a trillion dollars – the president stressed how much the US had provided Afghanistan security forces in the way of equipment and support. But, he said, "we could not provide them with the will to fight".

In Biden's view, if the Afghan forces were not prepared to fight in what he called their "civil war", he was not going to ask Americans to fight endlessly in another country's civil war. He stood by his decision – the troops were coming home.

Doubtless, this speech is going to be debated until the end of time – or, at least, until next week when a new distraction emerges. And, for the time being, the focus of attention is on the botched withdrawal, leaving many Americans stranded in Kabul and thousands of qualifying Afghanis unable to reach the airport for evacuation.

Biden, however, acknowledged that events unfolded more quickly than "we had anticipated", but has given an unequivocal warning to the Taleban not to interfere with the evacuation. The US response would be "swift and forceful". "We will defend our people with devastating force, if necessary", the president said.

And, as long as US citizens are extracted successfully, it would appear that Biden will not suffer any political penalty - despite the squealing of the media. And there are enough US troops on the ground, backed by substantial military assets, to ensure that any retribution would be swift and bloody.

Taking a broader political perspective in The Atlantic is Tom Nichols, author of the book: "Our Own Worst Enemy: The Assault From Within on Modern Democracy", writing under the heading: "Afghanistan Is Your Fault. The American public now has what it wanted".

Americans, he says. will now exercise their usual partisan outrage for a few weeks, and then Afghanistan, like everything else in a nation with an attention span not much longer than a fast-food commercial, will be forgotten. In the meantime, American citizens will separate into their usual camps and identify all of the obvious causes and culprits except for one: themselves.

Initially, Nichols concedes, "Afghanistan" was a war that was immensely popular, and mostly conducted in full view of the American public. But once the initial euphoria wore off, the public wasn’t much interested in it, especially once a new adventure was launched in Iraq.

Soldiers who served overseas in those first years of major operations soon felt forgotten. "America's not at war" was a common refrain among the troops. "We're at war. America’s at the mall".

Now, with the withdrawal from Afghanistan, Nichols asserts, America apparently has what it wants: some 70 percent of the public supports a pull-out, although there is no great passion in the issue.

Nichols cites foreign-policy scholar Stephen Biddle, who recently observed that the war was practically an afterthought in US politics. "You would need an electron microscope to detect the effect of Afghanistan on any congressional race in the last decade", Biddle said early this year. "It's been invisible".

Americans, Nichols says, had no real interest in adult conversation about the reality of anti-terrorist operations in so harsh an environment as Afghanistan. Nor did they want to think about whether "draining the swamp" and modernising and developing Afghanistan was worth the cost and effort.

With a caustic turn of phrase, Nichols suggests that a "serious people" - the kind of people we once were - would have made serious choices, long before this current debacle was upon them.

Today, they would, he says, be trying to learn something from nearly 2,500 dead service members and many more wounded. They would be grimly assessing risk and preparing both overseas and at home for the reality of a terrorist nation making its way back onto the international map.

But, in a scenario chillingly similar to the UK experience, Nichols observes that, instead, Americans are bickering about masks. "We're holding super-spreader events. We're complaining and finger-pointing about who ruined our fall plans", he says.

Biden was right, he concludes, to bite the bullet and refuse to pass this conflict on to yet another president. His execution of this resolve, however, looks to be a tragic and shameful mess and will likely be a case study in policy schools for years to come.

On the other hand, there was no version of "Stop the forever war" that didn't end with the fall of Kabul. We believed otherwise, as a nation, because we wanted to believe it. And because we had shopping to do and television to watch and arguments to be had on social media.

"Before we move on", says Nichols, "before we head back to the mall, before we resume posting memes, and before we return to bickering with each other about whether we should have to mask up at Starbuck's, let us remember that this day came about for one reason, and one reason only. Because it is what we wanted".

Cynical that might be, but it has a ring of truth. Afghanistan is briefly in the headlines, but once the hue and cry dies down, it will disappear from the public list of concerns as more pressing issues such as transgender pronouns.

The issue will linger on as an adjunct to the migrant crisis but, once the dogs have barked and the caravan has moved on, news from the benighted country will become no more than the occasional curiosity.

Yesterday, Biden asserted that there was never a good time to withdraw US forces. One year more, or five years more would not have made any difference. And, in this, he's right. Collectively, the coalition forces were never numerous enough to occupy the entire country and supress the Taleban, and we were neither physically nor intellectually equipped for nation-building.

Thus, on 17 August 2009 – exactly 12 years to the day - I was writing that the mission could not succeed and our troops should be brought home. We have had enough of futile gestures and the posturing of politicians, I wrote. If we can't do the job properly – and we can't – then we should get out.

It has taken those 12 years to recognise the inevitable and, whether botched or not, Biden's withdrawal is the only real option and much overdue. It would be nice to think that the coalition could suddenly acquire the capability to transform Afghanistan into a stable, peace-loving democracy – something we haven't even managed in the UK – but since we can't, the only sensible thing we can do is to follow Biden's lead.

As our troops and UK citizens now depart under less than favourable conditions, the Telegraph remarks that there is little that can now be done to prevent an inevitable denouement to this unfolding tragedy. But the real tragedy is that we ever went there in the first place.

Also published on Turbulent Times.






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