The debacle in Afghanistan triggers a fusillade of furious questions from all sides of our Western democracies. How could we, in the old Western world, have blown it so badly? What were we thinking, investing blood and treasure (a ghastly phrase in my book) to such little effect? Who is to blame for abandoning so many brave Afghans, and for the shameless failure to save them?
Deng Xioaping’s leadership spoke with bullets and tanks
Maybe because I no longer live in Washington, DC or London, and maybe because I’ve worked “enemy” capitals at moments of their crises, but the self-flagellation in our Western hemisphere over Kabul seems futile and missing the big picture. Fact is: the West lost in Afghanistan, badly. We betrayed millions who stood with us. Game over, tragically.
When will we realise that, thirty years on from the end of the Cold War, the West’s supposed “victory” back then made our leaders believe they could shape the world in our likeness? We missed the fact that those “enemies” were far from defeated.
Back then I was based in Moscow, seeing first-hand the implosion of the Soviet Union as Mikhail Gorbachev tried to drag the Communist Party, kicking and screaming as many members did, into a capitalist future that might work. Back then I travelled to Beijing at the height of China’s confrontation with a new generation demanding freedom from the diktat of the Communist Party. Demanding a voice out there in the public square. A square called Tiananmen that is etched on the minds of all of us who saw what happened in 1989.
China’s then leader, Deng Xioaping, may have told us what we wanted to hear, like Gorbachev, but come that student insurrection in Tiananmen Square, his leadership and his army spoke with bullets and tanks. If we are now haunted by the men and women in Kabul, truly terrified of the Taliban, then I carry alongside them the memory of young Chinese students talking to our Western TV cameras. Correspondents like me were fearful that appearing on our screens would condemn them to death, given executions shown nightly on Chinese state TV in the days after the Tiananmen uprising.
Point is: China was not on the ropes. When Bill Clinton made a state visit to Beijing in 1998, and was obliged to watch a military parade in the same Tiananmen Square, I at last understood that the Chinese leadership had emerged stronger from its crisis, in time producing a President Xi who brooks no dissent whatsoever. At the same moment the reformers were losing the battle in Moscow, and one Vladimir Putin was becoming the go-to leader.
Yet when I reached Washington, DC in the early 90s, to be a White House correspondent, the sense of triumph at the end of the Cold War was writ large on the infamous Beltway, the DC nexus of Government, Congress and business. Inside the team of George Bush the First (remember we had two of them as President), Cold War victory was the thought of the day.
“Help us understand what the Soviets misunderstood, got so badly wrong,” I remember being asked by Condoleezza Rice, then a Presidential adviser on Soviet affairs, later Secretary of State, when she invited me to visit her on my arrival from Moscow. Little did she realize how US foreign policy grandees would be forced to ask the same question of themselves after the meltdown in Kabul.
You might think that the Afghanistan invasion, the twenty-year attempt to rebuild that country — in our likeness — was all about 9/11 and the carnage wrought by Osama Bin Laden and Al-Qaeda, but as a journalist reporting Washington, I can tell you: No. It was born out of a belief that we had triumphed in the Cold War. Ergo, we could mould, shape, sculpt the peace. Export democracy. Nation-build.
George the Second told us that — or rather his Dad’s old friends (think Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld) told him to believe that. Either way, triumphalism ruled. How else to explain a bizarre moment in 2003, which I watched up close, of President Dubya flying a fighter plane himself (he’d been a fighter pilot, trained for Vietnam, but dodged the draft) on to an aircraft carrier off California, to declare mission accomplished in Iraq, and by extension, Afghanistan? Our latter-day Napoleon in cockpit would have been wise to remember Bonaparte’s line: “the most dangerous moment comes with victory”. Within weeks of that theatre, allied forces in Baghdad and Kabul faced the nightmare of making nation-building work.
There’s none so blind as those who don’t want to see
In the years after, as a Washington adviser to the UN Secretary-General, I accompanied those who led the sizeable UN mission in Kabul to meetings with President Bush and Condi Rice and yes, Joe Biden, then chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee in the US Senate. My memory is of those UN interlocutors warning, time and again, that at the ground level, the mission in Afghanistan was most certainly not being accomplished.
They pointed to two factors, no surprise: One, the rampant corruption of the Afghan government created by the United States, where billions of dollars did not translate into development, hope and a future for millions of poor Afghans, but lined the pockets of a few. Two, the weakness of the Afghan army being built by the Americans and the Brits. One UN boss from Kabul, making the rounds with me in Washington, used to joke darkly: “maybe I’d get their attention if I told them they’d be better off giving Afghan women the guns, the humvees and the money”.
I recall such meetings as a dialogue of the deaf. Or maybe the blind. From President Dubya at the White House, to Joe Biden in the Senate, Condi Rice at State, the UN message played to silence. There’s none so blind as those who don’t want to see, right? None so deaf, too…
What we need to see perhaps is that, far from being losers, Cold War winners turned out to be those we saw in crisis thirty years ago: China and Russia. The authoritarians, not the democrats. Those who crush all, not those who listen to many. The battlefield now is not Kabul, or Kandahar — no way the Chinese or the Russians venture there. No, the field of battle lies in China’s ruthless quest under President Xi to be the world’s number one economy and brutal enforcer, already subjugating a Hong Kong, even a Taiwan in their dreams. It’s writ large in Russia’s blatant use of cyber-attack under Vladimir Putin, meddling not just with our elections but working towards the day when hackers in St Petersburg can turn off the USA’s power grid and trigger chaos within.
“If you know your enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles,” according to Sun Tzu, the ancient Chinese General who wrote the first guide to the Art of War. Enough of the hand-wringing and the self-flagellation; the West needs to look itself honestly in the mirror post-Afghanistan, see itself clearly for the state it is in — and wake up to the new battleground, chosen by its rivals-cum-enemies, in Cold War Round Two.
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