Afghanistan, the indomitable land
The failure of a foreign power to retain control of Afghanistan is anything but unprecedented. Yet, the unmasking of the profound fragility of the liberal international order that came with it is a watershed in the international panorama
Sunday, 15th August Taliban fighters begin entering the Afghan capital Kabul, the last thus far spared city in their reappropriation of the country 20 years after having relinquished its control to U.S. forces. The siege appeared to the world as an event with no precedence, which could solely be blamed on the past two U.S. administrations’ incompetence and lack of cohesion. Nonetheless, if we zoom out the focus of our lens by a few centuries, we will notice that nothing about this event is unprecedented, and the fact that such a vast territory can slip away from a world hegemon’s hands so swiftly will come to us as little surprise.
However analogous the dark green helicopter evacuation of the American Kabul embassy personnel may seem to that seen in Saigon over 45 years earlier, it is not nearly as historically timeless as the fall of a foreign-governed Afghanistan back into local hands. When looking at Afghan history, it certainly strikes one as remarkable to see that hardly any people, nation or empire could tame the mutinous essence of the territory in a sustained way.
From the British through the Soviet Union to the United States, few world powers besides Macedon led by Alexander the Great and the Mongols under Genghis Khan have managed to go beyond the threshold of invasion and truly conquer Afghanistan. One could argue that this may not be entirely accurate when looking at ancient history or the Middle Ages, which saw great belligerent peoples retain control of the region for a few centuries, such as the Kushans from the I to the IV centuries AD, or the Ghaznavids from the X to the XII centuries. Yet, these peoples merely maintained a loose grip on the territory, to whose local tribes they saw themselves constrained to grant a substantial degree of autonomy.
Since the recent withdrawal of U.S. troops, it has oftentimes been argued that it is precisely in this way that a budget greater than that spent on rebuilding Europe after World War II was sucked into the historical fate, leaving behind no results but the memory of twenty liberal years. However, if it would be unreflective to ignore such a hardly unparalleled historical tradition, it would equally be simplistic and irresponsible to thereby shrug off the guilt of Kabul’s fall and blame it solely on some inexorable destiny.
The fragility of the liberal international order
However implacable the repetition of history that we seem to be so stubbornly reluctant to understand may be, the liberal international order would not have been shaken to such an extent if it was not inherently deeply fragile. The three main pillars of a world hegemon are its economy, its military and its ideals. The fall of Kabul on 15th August represents but the climax of a long series of blows dealt to the latter, which arguably constitutes the most important of the three pillars, especially within the present order.
Twenty years after the outbreak of the longest war that the U.S. has ever conducted, it has progressively become evident that the U.S. alone is incapable of upholding a stable world order. Not only has the war shown the world the unsustainability of U.S. exportation of liberal values, but it has also exposed the hegemon’s ignoble unwillingness to honour its own collaborators.
With the death sentence of local interpreters and other personnel that the U.S. signed with the pen of its chaotic withdrawal, the country has proven to be not so desirable an ally after all. On a larger scale, with the blurring of common values in which the world order is deeply rooted, U.S. allies that used to staunchly fight for global liberalism have now turned into mere means exploited in the dispute over the leadership of the international order. Whether China will stand out to grab the baton by demonstrating the viability of its potential hegemony is beside the point.
Kabul may fall again in the future. This time maybe into the hands of ISIS, which is expanding as I write this article, or perhaps of some other actor. Then it may fall again, and again. Yet, the fragility of the liberal international order has been unmasked and will remain so.