Since the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, I have received questions from a number of journalists, both American and Arab. They have asked what the withdrawal means for the region, for American leadership in the world, and which countries will now fill the void left by the absence of the US from the scene.
I have no doubt that these questions have been prompted, in no small measure, by the messiness of the withdrawal, the nightmarish and chaotic scenes at the airport, the tragic human stories of those left behind, and the speed with which the American-friendly government collapsed followed by the Taliban’s takeover of the country.
I have cautioned those who asked these questions to take note of the fact that America’s problems in the greater Middle East didn’t begin with the withdrawal. The decline began 20 years earlier with the reckless, costly, and disastrous decisions of the Bush administration to invade both Afghanistan and Iraq followed by the decision to occupy them and attempt to create “democracies” that would support US interests.
These wars were reckless because in both instances the Bush administration was advised by experts in the intelligence community and career-level State Department and military officials that these were not wars we could win or governments we could fashion to our liking.
Bush ignored those who knew Afghanistan and Iraq and listened instead to influential neoconservatives who had become the dominant force in his cabinet. Because these ideologues did not know the culture, makeup, or histories of either country, they allowed ideology to trump reality. As a result, these efforts were, from the outset, doomed to failure.
Both wars were also costly in lives and treasure for the US, Afghanistan, and Iraq.
The Iraqi and Afghan losses were incalculable and devastating. The US lost more than 6,000 troops, with tens of thousands more left physically and/or mentally maimed for life.
It’s also important to note that in each year since the end of active combat in both Afghanistan and Iraq, the US has lost more than 6,000 more veterans to suicide – an average of 20+ per day!
There are tens of thousands more who’ve joined the ranks of the homeless and those addicted to drugs – all the result of war-induced trauma. The morale of the military has been affected. These two wars and the treatment of veterans, those maimed, affected by PTSD, and addicted, has so far cost more than three $3 trillion. This is one key reason why the US military leadership was loathe to commit significant ground forces to fight in Syria.
And these wars were disastrous because they accomplished none of their goals. Extremism wasn’t defeated. Instead, it has metastasised into more lethal forms and spread to many more countries threatening the security and stability of countries across the greater Middle East and North Africa and even taking root in some European countries as well.
Another disastrous byproduct of these wars is the fact that Iran has now been unleashed on the region and become emboldened to meddle into the affairs of others. The prestige of the US has been weakened. And while the goal of the neoconservatives was to decisively win these wars, demonstrating American power and resolve, thereby ensuring a century of US hegemony in a unipolar world, instead we now see the emergence of a multipolar world with regional and other global powers playing out their strategic ambitions in country after country across the Middle East.
So, whether the US stayed in Afghanistan or not, a new reality has already taken hold across the Middle East. Other powers are already either replacing the US or competing for influence, and some key regional allies, wearied by American blunders and miscalculations, are pursuing their own interests independent of Washington’s.
As a result, the US leverage is more limited than it was. That said, the US cannot be written off as a “has-been” power. It still has influence in the Middle East – economic, military, and cultural. It remains the world’s most successful economy, it still has significant deterrent capabilities that can defend allies, and its too often underestimated “soft power” remains its most important asset.
As disastrous as the US departure may have been, it had no option but to limit its loses and leave Afghanistan and end active combat role in Iraq.
But making these decisions in no ways means the US is abandoning the region. It simply means that it has recognised the realities neoconservatives tragically ignored.
What is needed now is a clear-headed examination of the damage done by both the wars and a recalibration of America’s regional posture that realistically matches its needs with its capacities so that it can best protect its interests and those of our allies.