After a 13-year occupation, the US armed forces are about to start pulling out of Afghanistan. They invaded the country in November 2001 to destroy the core leadership of al-Qaeda. That was a clear and straightforward mission, but it was bungled from the word go.
US President Barack Obama finally made the move, reluctantly and slowly, five-and-half years into his presidency. Even now, the full pull-out is not scheduled to be completed for another two-and-half years – at the end of 2016.
It appears that Obama and his advisers have finally recognised that the nation-building goal in Afghanistan has been a total failure.
Even so, they want to defer a full US pull-out until the president has safely left office. That means that his eventual successor will have to deal with the full consequences of that failure.
Obama was not the author of the crucial decision to stay in Afghanistan after ousting the Taliban, which supported al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden. George W Bush, arguably the most catastrophic US president since Herbert Hoover, did that.
But Obama, urged on by then secretary of state Hillary Clinton and defence secretary Robert Gates, did make the crucial decision to stay the course rather than cut US and allied losses after he took office. Only Vice-President Joe Biden strongly pushed the case for full and rapid withdrawal at that time.
In electing to maintain Bush junior’s nation-building policies in Afghanistan, Obama, Clinton and Gates also chose to ignore the entire consistent course of Afghan history over the past 2 300 years since the time of Alexander the Great. And they proved blind and deaf to the disastrous experiences of the British and Soviet empires in that country.
In their time, Bush, his defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld and their team of “geniuses” determined that it would be better to stay in the country. They had visions of turning Afghanistan into a stable, modern, pro-West and centralised, Western-style state.
After more than 2 700 American lives and countless more Afghan ones have been lost, at a cost to the US taxpayer of more than $1 trillion (R10.6 trillion), the Afghan people are far more anti-American today than they were when they joyously accepted (by and large) liberation from the Taliban in November 2001.
At the time, Bush and his advisers all made much of their reverence for Britain’s World War II leader, Winston Churchill. Almost half a century before that war, Churchill eagerly participated as a young man in the Malakand Field Force, a British military expedition into Afghanistan.
The dream of repeating and improving on Churchill and the British Empire’s exploits in Afghanistan was a powerful emotional force among Bush’s neocon advisers in 2001.
One of them even bought a special bracelet for his wife engraved “Kandahar” to celebrate the supposed “monumental” fall of that city to US forces.
However, the ignorance of US policymakers and pundits regarding central Asian history blinded them to the fact that the initial act of defeating Afghanistan has always been easy. The British did it in 1839-42, 1878-80 and 1919. The Red Army did in only a few days in December 1979.
The problem has never been defeating Afghanistan, it has always come from trying to stay there and to “civilise” or remake the country.
The British tried that in 1839. Three years later, their contingent of 4 500 soldiers and 12 000 support staff in Kabul had been literally wiped out. Only five survivors made it back to Jalalabad.
The entire fiasco and the reasons for it have been memorably recorded in a great work of historical fiction, Flashman by the late George MacDonald Fraser.
Later on, the Soviet Red Army tried remaking the place from 1979 to 1987. The effort completed the bankruptcy of the Soviet Union and led to its collapse.
The lesson was well learnt in both Moscow and London.
For all their gung-ho derring-do, the British Indian Empire commanders of Churchill’s day never made the mistake their grandfathers did – and that the US has tried over the past decade. They prudently stayed away from any attempt at nation building in Afghanistan.
Nor have any Soviet (or Russian) leaders in the past quarter century showed the slightest desire to repeat Leonid Brezhnev’s catastrophic mistake.
Obama, in announcing the last phases of the US military withdrawal, made clear he had finally learnt the same lessons Britain and the Soviets eventually did. The president was right to publicly acknowledge that, after the US withdrawal, Afghanistan would not be a perfect place, and it was not America’s responsibility to make it one.
However, like Richard Nixon in Vietnam, Obama will go down in history as a leader who recognised reality reluctantly and late in the day, instead of making that difficult call at the beginning of his administration, years before.
As for Clinton, a lot of irony may lie ahead. Imagine that, after she is elected president in 2016 – as is still widely expected – she would have immediately to face a serious foreign policy crisis in Afghanistan.
That would be a direct consequence of the wrong course of action she urged and saw adopted eight years earlier. But Clio, the ancient Greek muse of history, is not easily mocked.