Saturday March 25, 2023

Lessons learnt?

September 15, 2021

The past few weeks have been tumultuous for the US. The abrupt and ill planned withdrawal from Afghanistan after 20 years of war, and the rapid takeover by the Taliban, sparked soul-searching in the US – what exactly was accomplished by the tremendous loss of life and treasure?

The project to modernise a deeply traditional and tribal society turned out to be futile in the end. Of course, a section of the Afghan society was touched – and perhaps Kabul was transformed – but most of the Afghan society saw little benefits from the vast sums of foreign money that flowed into the country over the past 20 years.

As the lessons of the Afghan war and the US exit were being debated in the US, we marked the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. It was 20 years ago when the sense of invincibility of the country was shattered. Many theories were spun as to the motives and identity of the attackers who had left no direct message about their motivation. Finally, the Bush administration found a reason: “they hated our freedoms”. And most Americans were satisfied with that. The feeling was that a lesson should be taught to those who attacked the US, and indeed a lesson was taught. Now, Americans are wondering how much of the lessons from the post-9/11 actions is for America itself.

The cost of post-9/11 wars runs into trillions – over $8 trillion – according to the most recent estimates by Brown University. The cost of these wars in countries that were at the receiving end of US actions is immeasurable. Iraq, which had nothing to do with the 9/11 attacks, may have paid the highest price. Millions of Iraqis were displaced, and tens of thousands – possibly hundreds of thousands – died in multiple US attacks and its aftermath.

The destabilisation of Iraq led to the rise of ISIS, which is the most extremist organisation to have emerged out of the Middle East, has enveloped Syria, and may destabilise other Muslim-majority countries.

While there is deep dismay in the US about all that transpired over the past 20 years, there are a lot of questions that should be asked – but rarely are. Leaving aside the impact that the 9/11 attacks had on parts of the Middle East, the US itself needs to come to terms with how the American political system dealt with the event. Why is it that the US invaded a country that had no role in the 9/11 attacks? Why is it that the Afghanistan war that had met its original objectives within a few weeks, continued for two decades at great cost to American taxpayers and Afghan civilians? How is it that the war’s mission – to get the perpetrators of 9/11 attacks – turned into an impossible nation-building project? There are many, many more questions that analysts will be grappling with in the years to come. What exactly will be learned by the US from the war remains to be seen.

Then there are those within the US political establishment who feel all was going according to plan in Afghanistan, and the mission indeed would have been accomplished had the US stayed a bit longer. How much longer one must ask – another decade or two or five? Even those who believe this would be hard-pressed to define exactly what the ‘mission’ was.

Most Americans do not know that theirs was at least the third attempt over the past century to modernise Afghanistan. The previous two were led by Afghan King Amanullah Khan and his wife Queen Soraya Tarzi in the 1920s, and King Zahir Shah from 1940-1960s. All of these efforts rubbed against the instincts of a majority of a deeply traditional society, and ultimately failed.

The next few months will show what kind of a country the newly victorious Taliban will try to create. And the next few years will tell how the US used this event: for just partisan political gains or for learning valuable lessons.

The writer is a freelance contributor based in Washington DC.