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US humiliation in Afghanistan could be a turning point in world history

America's giant intelligence failure in Afghanistan will frighten its friends - and comfort its rivals
US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin (L) and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley hold a press conference about the situation in Afghanistan on 18 August 2021 (AFP)

It's just over three decades since the Soviet Union was driven out of Afghanistan in a moment of epic national humiliation. Thirty-two years on and this week the United States has suffered the identical fate. 

US failure to foresee how quickly the Taliban would enter Kabul demonstrates its  congenital inability to understand a country it has occupied for 20 years

In each case the same story: a global superpower defeated by a peasant army from one of the poorest countries in the world. This is a world historical moment.

It raises two momentous questions.

The first concerns Afghanistan itself. Will the nation subside into civil war, as happened after the collapse of Soviet rule? The second concerns the United States. Will victory for the Taliban mark the end for United States global power? 

There are reasons to suppose that the answer is yes, but I want first to examine the more pressing danger of a return to civil war.

Collapse is possible, but there are reasons to hope not.

A different Taliban?

First, Afghanistan has endured more than 40 years of conflict since the Soviet invasion of 1979. Most people yearn for a quiet life, and Afghans have more reason to be tired of war than most.

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Secondly, the Taliban that seized power in Kabul in the mid 1990s, and committed such terrible atrocities, was primitive, sectarian, bigoted, shaped by poverty and suffering.

By contrast, many Taliban leaders are more sophisticated, some with university degrees, and far less sectarian. This helps explain why their consistent message since winning power a week ago has been to reach out to all sides. 

Twenty-five years ago the Taliban massacred Shia Hazara, who constitute Afghanistan's third-largest ethnic group and largest religious minority community.

In the two decades since, the Taliban have developed close relations with Shia Iran.

China, too, will be a key factor. It wants to invest in Afghanistan, and is expected to join regional powers including Russia and Kazakhstan in the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation. China will want political stability in return for its investment.

It is noteworthy that Hamid Karzai, accused of being a US puppet when he became president 20 years ago, is talking with the Taliban.

I noticed that some British MPs have voiced concern about the group harbouring terrorists. One of the Taliban's first acts since capturing Kabul was to execute Islamic State group leader Abu Omar Khorasani, who was arrested by Afghan security forces last year.

Such a move will send out a message to regional powers that the Taliban do not want to foment disorder.

Girls attend their class at a school in Herat, Afghanistan on May 9, 2021 (AFP)
Girls attend their class at a school in Herat, Afghanistan, on 9 May 2021 (AFP)

There are also deep concerns about women's rights, fully justified due to the Taliban's long history of misogyny. Here, too, the Taliban have been making welcome noises about girls' education. Many do not believe them, and we should all be sceptical.

A general problem

Recent history can give us some insight. The Taliban have been ruling large swathes of rural Afghanistan for several years, so we know what their rule looks like. 

A return to the bloodshed of the 1990s is possible, but I hope and believe that the signs are reasonably good

According to an impressive study, Life under the Taliban shadow government, written by Ashley Jackson and financed by Denmark, the Taliban have "sought to correct many of the flaws and shortcomings that undermined their rule in the 1990s. The ban on women and girls attending school has been removed, though most Taliban officials insist no ban existed in the first place, and the Taliban have publicly stated that all women should have access to education."

In practice the report frankly admits: "This research could not identify a single girls' secondary school open in an area of heavy Taliban influence or control." However, Jackson points out this is a general problem in rural Afghanistan and not restricted to Taliban areas.

I guess we will see that the Taliban will not actually close down upper schools and universities for girls and women in cities - though they may become more conservative and restrictive, but I may well be wrong.

There are many Taliban factions and the leadership will find it hard to control them all. A return to the bloodshed of the 1990s is possible, but I hope and believe that the signs are reasonably good.

Future of the empire

I now turn to the future of the United States' empire. Ever since 1945, some would argue before, the United States has been the dominant global power. Last week's humiliation places a giant question mark over that status and may come to be seen as a turning point in world history.

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There are many reasons for thinking this. The failure to foresee how quickly the Taliban would enter Kabul demonstrates (yet again!) the Americans' congenital inability to understand a country it has occupied for 20 years.

This giant intelligence failure will frighten its friends - and comfort its rivals. But US President Joe Biden knows the country he leads has lost the taste for foreign entanglement and war. He may be mocked in foreign capitals and inside the State Department, but Biden is right to think that American voters are tired of war.

What a message this sends to US allies!

Former US president Donald Trump unkindly told Saudi King Salman he wouldn't last two weeks without US support. The events of the last week have shown that the US will cheerfully ditch its allies.

The House of Saud will not be the only regime looking to forge a new set of relationships as the United States backs away. Europe too will need to rethink its security architecture. Meanwhile, the Middle East is slowly turning to West Asia. 

Henry Kissinger once remarked that "It may be dangerous to be America's enemy, but to be America's friend is fatal."

That remark has never seemed as relevant as today. 

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Peter Oborne
Peter Oborne won best commentary/blogging in 2017 and was named freelancer of the year in 2016 at the Online Media Awards for articles he wrote for Middle East Eye. He was also named as British Press Awards Columnist of the Year in 2013. He resigned as chief political columnist of the Daily Telegraph in 2015. His latest book, The Assault on Truth, was published in February 2021. His previous books include The Triumph of the Political Class, The Rise of Political Lying, and Why the West is Wrong about Nuclear Iran.