As the West looks on in horror as girls are forced into sex slavery, Afghan citizens are amputated and desperate refugees fall from aircraft in a futile bid to escape Taliban rule, the shambolic evacuation of Afghanistan will not just be remembered as an unspeakably tragic event for the nation itself, but as a stark warning to Western powers who have, until now, engaged in interventionist policies and “forever wars”: we can no longer afford to do so.
We (NATO) have been engaged in military operations in Afghanistan for almost exactly two decades. During this time, an entire generation of Afghans have been born and raised in an environment which was of course, by no means perfect, but one that was slowly making progress towards positive change: working infrastructure, an accountable government, basic rights and liberties and opportunities for growth and development.
The footage emerging from Afghanistan now is not just a human tragedy for those on tape; it is reflective of the greater tragedy of the end of this war: the fact that enormous amounts of sacrifice have seemingly gone to waste in a humiliating exit, and the safeguarding of the Western world from terror attacks in the last 20 years is little consolation to the Afghans we have so swiftly abandoned.
It must be remembered why people are fleeing Kabul in such numbers, why roads are packed and families are attempting to escape in any way they can. The Taliban, or the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, are one of the most despicable groups on the planet, enforcing an ideology which will kill many thousands and enslave millions.
The rights which we in the West take for granted will not exist under Sharia, which the Taliban fully intend to implement despite their lies on Western media. For all of our concern over the rights of minority groups and women in the West, we will be able to do very little for women seeking a basic education in Afghanistan, or gay Afghans trying to live their private lives as they wish, or atheist Afghans who dare to question the orthodoxy under fear of punishment and death.
As the new government takes up its place, we must remind ourselves that the Taliban cannot be trusted and should not be negotiated with. We cannot hope to incentivise them to adopt a more liberal and lenient form of Sharia, nor can we expect that paying reparations to Afghan citizens via the Taliban government will achieve anything except British-funded destruction, tyranny and death.
Our only hope in cleaning up the mess left behind and fulfilling our moral obligations to the brave Afghan citizens who have helped us for the last twenty years is to get as many of them as far away from Afghanistan as possible. Their belief in Western ideals of liberty, justice and equality under the law, and their willingness to fight and die in order to introduce those ideals to their government, have more than earned them a seat at our table.
But on a larger and more philosophical scale, we must address our priorities in foreign policy. What are our objectives and how do we seek to achieve them? It is undeniable that as we see the last flights leave Kabul, we must acknowledge that boots on the ground have not worked. We cannot hope to instil liberal-democratic values in completely different cultures with entirely different values unless that liberal-democratic mindset is fostered and supported by Afghans themselves.
Afghanistan’s democratisation must be led by Afghans who believe that a better world is both possible and desirable – we cannot hope to force our beliefs down their throats while dropping bombs indiscriminately over their land.
In the wake of the United States’ increasing isolationism under President Trump, the People’s Republic of China was able to fill the gap left by America’s absence. Their Belt and Road Initiative is a crucial example of the mobilisation of soft power on an international scale in order to expand Chinese influence and control.
We must be willing to acknowledge that if the West is going to continue to play a role on the international stage, it must be through economic and diplomatic shows of force, not military engagement.
We have gained very little from twenty years of war in Afghanistan. The Taliban now controls a larger swathe of territory in 2021 than they did in 2001. Meanwhile, we have left almost $90 billion of military equipment in enemy hands, we have given the Afghan people false hope, and we have demonstrated to the world that our approach to foreign policy has had disastrous and tragic consequences. To ensure that it is not Russia, China and Iran who gain from our failures will require a profound recalibration of our interests and our tactics. We must make certain that the citizens of countries like Afghanistan are never caught in the crossfire again.