The manner in which occupying superpowers exit foreign soil usually depends upon the circumstances surrounding their presence in the first place. European withdrawal from overseas territories in the post-war era was often prompted by the economically challenging strain of running Empires in the wake of global conflict; fighting for the mother country in WWII gave colonial subjects an extra bargaining chip in the clamour for self-determination, and most imperial overlords were too exhausted, broken and bankrupt to resist for much longer. Moreover, independence movements were rarely conducted in a non-violent fashion, and warring factions that placed the colonial masters in the unenviable role of permanent peacekeepers could lead to an ignominious flight from the colony in question. Palestine and India were not exactly dignified departures on the part of the British, and the less said about what happened in the Congo when the Belgians bolted the better. The painfully protracted battle for Algerian independence almost provoked civil war in France, with rebel French-Algerian generals pointing their warheads in the direction of Paris at the height of the crisis.
However, these distant examples were all the legacies of 19th century expansion by the European powers, staking a claim on land that was either taken by force, ceded from one power to another, or gradually occupied after the establishment of maritime trading posts. By the middle of the next century, attitudes were beginning to change and the first two or three decades following the end of the Second World War saw the previous century’s global conquerors in gradual retreat back to first-base. Military interventionism as we have come to know it is a different issue compared to Empire-building, but it can provoke the same indignation and aggression in the native population that characterised the final fractious years of colonialism. Of course, military intervention is never embarked upon without both an official motive and an ulterior one, even if the latter is something Western powers generally deny. But what’s really remarkable about many of the military interventions of the past 50-60 years is how they repeat the same mistakes that were often made in the very same countries before.
Operation Barbarossa, Nazi Germany’s invasion of the USSR, was testament to Hitler’s misplaced belief that his war machine was capable of doing what Napoleonic France failed to achieve in 1812; indeed, one might argue Bonaparte’s Russian invasion was a success in comparison, for the Emperor and his army at least occupied Moscow, even if what they found when they got there was an empty shell of a city abandoned by the Tsar. Whilst the infamous French retreat from Moscow was already legendary by the time Nazi Germany suffered its own devastating defeat on cold Russian soil, the fact Adolph dismissed the lessons of history because he believed he was on the right side of it set a precedent that seems to have become the blueprint for military interventions ever since. The American adventure in Vietnam followed the French one, and the American expedition to Afghanistan followed the Soviet one. Neither previous example served as a warning or deterrent. It’s almost as though past disasters are never taken into account, as though the new army preparing to launch itself onto an old battlefield always believes it has the copyright on victory denied its predecessor.
When the USSR invaded Afghanistan on Christmas Eve 1979, the Soviet Union was already living on borrowed time as a superpower, but the fact the Russians swiftly became embroiled in a conflict that spanned all-but 10 months of the next decade probably contributed in no small measure to the USSR’s collapse shortly thereafter. Stats for the number of casualties and losses on both sides in the war are (as is often the case) inconsistent, though it’s estimated over 14,000 Soviet troops lost their lives as well as 18,000 Afghan forces fighting alongside the Soviets; in total, around 80,000 Afghans are alleged to have been killed during the Soviet occupation, with the ‘lucky’ survivors reduced to refugees totalling 5 million. Bearing in mind just how prescient an example Afghanistan has become as a cautionary tale to superpowers contemplating intervening in another nation’s affairs, perhaps it’s no real surprise that Afghanistan is a country with something of a history when it comes to this.
The British had a go a couple of times when ensconced next-door in India – 1838 and 1878 – and neither could be classed as successful from a British perspective. A Russian presence in Afghanistan predates 1979 – indeed, the two British interventions in the 19th century were provoked by it; and the Russians returned in 1929 and 1930, when the Raj was still on the doorstep. The war that began in 1979 was the longest-running Russian intervention in Afghanistan, yet even the fact its disastrous legacy was well-documented didn’t prevent American troops touching down on Afghan soil just 12 years after the Soviet withdrawal.
Following 9/11 and confirmation that Osama Bin Laden and his gang were based in Afghanistan few were surprised when the US launched an inevitable invasion of the nation in October 2001, a military intervention backed by several NATO allies. There wasn’t much in the way of an alternative option when such a grotesque crime had been committed. That said, the Bush administration probably didn’t envisage it would take another decade (and another President) before 9/11 would be ‘avenged’ in the good ol’ fashioned American way by taking out Bin Laden; but by then America had become bogged down in another Middle Eastern conflict to which there seemed to be no end. Instigating one war in the region may be regarded as a misfortune; to instigate two looked like carelessness – and whichever way one studies events in Iraq, success is not a word that immediately springs to mind. When it came to Afghanistan, however, the first few months of the US presence saw a grateful population liberated from a gruesome regime that the world had barely paid attention to up to that point.
Post-Soviet, Afghanistan had fallen under the brutal rule of the hardcore fundamentalist Taliban, who first made an international name for themselves with their philistine approach to the antiquities of the Middle East, committing the cultural crime of destroying the ancient gigantic statues known as the Buddhas of Bamiyan early in 2001. As knowledge of their other activities became more widespread following the US invasion, the grim extent of their ‘Year Zero’ approach emerged; few who can recall seeing the joy on the faces of ordinary Afghans, dancing in the streets and gleefully shaving off their compulsory beards as Taliban strongholds swiftly collapsed, could dispute that – at least in the beginning – this military intervention had the look and feel of a necessary humanitarian mission. With the support of the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance, coalition forces swept the Taliban from power by the end of 2001 and there then followed attempts to establish a democratic political system.
Presidential elections took place in 2004, with Hamid Karzai elected President for the first of two five-year terms; but the Taliban hadn’t gone away. They were especially strong in Helmand province, where British troops were dispatched in 2006 – officially part of the reconstruction project, though quickly drawn into combat. Although the NATO involvement in Afghanistan officially ended in 2014, the Taliban continued to wreak periodic havoc on the people, routinely staging the most unwelcome comebacks since Jedward; they are currently on the rise again – right at the very point when the remaining Western forces are winding up operations. President Biden last week announced the American military presence in Afghanistan will finally end next month, almost 20 years after US forces arrived. The body count in that time period is difficult to determine with accuracy, but some estimates reckon as many as 170,000 civilians alone have been killed. The one question it’s hard to avoid posing is was it worth it? Then again, has any intervention in Afghanistan ever made the country, the region or even the world as a whole a better, safer place? Anyone who has lived through the past couple of decades can only answer no.
© The Editor