It was doomed from the beginning. Afghanistan, as former Mexican Ambassador to Washington Martha Bárcena puts it, has been the graveyard of superpowers.
Neither the United Kingdom nor the Soviet Union were able to solve the Afghan crossword, and both are today shadows of better times. To many, Afghanistan was key in eroding the power of London and Moscow.
Today it seems history repeated itself one more time. The United States has departed – after a war of 20 years, the longest it has conducted – the Afghan territory, leaving behind destruction, despair and a very bad reputation as “problem solver.” Compared to that Vietnam looks like a foreword or, to paraphrase Gabriel García Márquez it was the introduction to the “Chronicle of a Disaster Foretold.”
No major power in the past has learned the lessons from the risks of imposing their interests in Afghanistan. Without a proper knowledge and understanding of its communities, traditions, history, the result could never be positive. Yet the difference between the American intervention with respect to Britain’s and Russia’s is the war on terrorism. Discrepancies after the 9/11 attacks about state-building to prevent Afghanistan from becoming a hub for global terrorism prevailed for 20 years and are still being debated. Since the main objective of the U.S. and its ally’s presence in Afghanistan was primarily counterterrorism, state-building was never properly supported. Peace building or rather sustainable peace demands an active involvement not only of directly concerned parties but also external actors capable of fostering reconciliation, institutions, prosperity.
I spoke recently with Peter Wallensteen the Uppsala University guru of peace research and conflict resolution (the interview is available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w3NYwond3sM). He explained the difference – and the risks – between imposing versus fostering peace. Sadly, the United States has a reputation of imposing conditions to conflicting parties so that they agree on a settlement. Of course, the United States has a very important leverage, as seen in Camp David and the Dayton Agreements, just to mention some examples. Yet, this “mediation with a muscle” runs the risk of failing once the sponsor country leaves or losses interests for whatever reason.
It should be mentioned that the war in Afghanistan at some point became a less important priority during the George W. Bush Administration once the decision to fight Saddam Hussein starting in March 2003 was made. Two wars happened at the very same time with different objectives, demanding human and material resources and conflicting the U.S. and its allies. Whereas the war in Afghanistan got a lot of support from America’s allies, the war in Iraq was highly criticized and divisive. The political capital and international empathy gained by the U.S. as a result of the 9/11 events in the entire world – even Cuba’s Fidel Castro condemned the hideous and cowardly attacks against the U.S. – was lost to the invasion of Iraq whose purpose was never clear – initially it was said it was intended to prevent a terrorist attack from Hussein to America; then the issue of the hidden weapons of mass destruction was invoked; and ultimately, when it was clear no such arms existed, Bush claimed the war was justified as a way of deposing a dictator like Hussein.
Machiavelli suggested that a leader needs to be feared, but also respected. In today’s world, the erosion of U.S. power is visible. Twenty years ago, America was not able to even take care of itself. This contradicted the triumphalist speech about the indispensable nation made by Madeleine Albright as a result of the end of the Cold War. She defended coercion against Iraq for not cooperating with the United Nations inspections of forbidden weapons and said “If we have to use force, it is because we are America; we are the indispensable nation. We stand tall and we see further than other countries into the future, and we see the danger here to all of us.” It was 1998 when Albright used those words. Three years later the U.S. was attacked in its own territory. The indispensable nation was clearly losing control.
As time went by it became evident that the U.S. was no longer the “puppet master.” Yes, Saddam Hussein was captured, accused of crimes against humanity and hanged at dawn on December 30, 2006. Yes, Osama Ben Laden, the mastermind behind the 9/11 attacks was killed in a raid conducted by a team of 23 U.S. Navy Seals on May 2, 2011. Yet it is fair to ask whether these events made the world a safer place. Have the deaths of Hussein and Ben Laden reestablished the preeminence of the U.S. in the world? And if the answer is “no”, why?
The fact that the 21st century has witnessed major threats beyond terrorism, may be part of the answer. Global warming, epidemics and pandemics, hurricanes, earthquakes, famines, draughts, forest fires, economic crisis and such do not seem easy to fight. War on terrorism has prevented the U.S. and the world from looking at the so much more complex agenda of threats. By emphasizing “hard security” actions – say the use of force – against terrorism, the U.S. has failed in having a better assessment about the well-being of societies and the quality peace they need to arrive to a prosperous and stable environment. After all a prosperous and safer world is good for America.
Twenty years later, the war in Afghanistan puts the U.S. at a difficult crossroads. It needs to work together with the international community to build a better world at a time when nationalism and lacking trust in multilateral institutions prevail. Although it is no longer the dominant power, it is a country whose expertise and knowledge is useful and Joe Biden may be able to foster a dialogue with concerned countries all over the world in a wide range of issues of common interest. One may argue there are still some leaders around – although for instance, the departure of Angela Merkel leaves the world a little bit orphan and short of prominent and experienced politicians. Maybe world leadership has changed, and it may be exerted not by one country but a group of concerned actors willing and capable of compromising to build a prosperous and safer world. The pandemic has shown us after all, that no one is safe until everyone is safe. That applies to most challenges we face.
Editor’s Note: The above guest column was penned by María Cristina Rosas, a professor and researcher at the Faculty of Political and Social Sciences of the National Autonomous University of Mexico in Mexico City. The column appears in The Rio Grande Guardian International News Service with the permission of the author. Rosas (pictured above) can be reached via email at:[email protected]
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