Vietnam, Vietnam, green ladder of the ruthless.Les Murray
So it ends as it always does. With a scramble. For the last train, the helicopter on the roof, for the other side of the mountain, on cart-rutted tracks. And now for the airbridge. How strange to see the airbridge, that boxy no-space of modernity, repository of mild irritation and tedium, of the commuter hop and the long haul, become a symbol of stark terror.
That’s what history is, I guess, when the elements of the everyday get caught up in the whirlwind, and all is made strange. By the time it happened, one’s dominant feeling was that this day would never come. The US’s Afghan war passed its Vietnam involvement some time ago, and that decade and a half encompassed so many separate passages, so much global struggle and uproar, as to seem to occupy an epoch.
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But that was when history was happening, and the helicopters on the roof, and the tanks of the North Vietnamese army crashing through the gates of the presidency in Saigon, seemed to be part of a global struggle between two vast forces, about what modernity would be, a part of the era’s furious pace. Now, in a world where the technology has become history’s pacesetter, something like a foreign war seemed archaic, part of an eternal present.
The Afghan war disappeared from our screens and our minds for years at a time. The violence and terror we are seeing now had never ceased. The war did what wars of occupation do: make many millions of civilians choose sides, between two undesired alternatives, and then suffer the consequences, with the most lethal possible choice being any attempt to stay apart from the fray.
Hundreds of districts changed hands multiple times as the Taliban rode in, as the US rode out, and vice versa. The place has not become more chaotic. The chaos has become more focused and more visible. It is 10 years, 10 years, since the war was dragged back into the spotlight by Wikileaks “cablegate” releases, and the question posed as to what the hell the war was for. At that point, the war had been going for 10 years.
Or 40 years, if you trace the Taliban’s lineage back to the mujahedin, funded, and to some degree assembled, by the US to fight the Soviets in the 1980s. Or 70 years, if you date it back to the 1954 CIA-sponsored coup in Iran, which installed the shah, and thus stirred to political action the Shiite Islamist critics the shah oppressed.
Yet there’s a curious hollowness to the Taliban victory in global geopolitical terms. Islamic fundamentalism has always been a counterfeit movement, ostensibly anti-modern in its message, yet modern par excellence in its focused totality of mission and its willingness to use all the hi-tech capacities and global structures of modernity to advance its cause.
Al-Qaeda drew on the desert mythology of Wahhabism, the Jacobin/Bolshevik focus of purpose, and the organisational and publicity structures of McDonald’s or Sony. The movement spread, but it also decayed within. Islamic State, also called ISIS, arising from the ruins of Allied post-invasion clientelism in Iraq, was the punk version of al-Qaeda.
Having established a caliphate which abolished the colonial Sykes-Picot borders which had carved out Iraq and Syria, it could have served as a sort of violent Islamist international. But it couldn’t stabilise, and victories elsewhere, such as North Africa, were sporadic.
Though the Taliban victory looks spectacular, it is a product of the US’s decision to withdraw at any cost, no matter how bad the optics, just as al-Qaeda was a product of the Saudi leadership’s reliance on US troops to defend it against Iraq.
Will the Taliban’s victory embolden and revive the movement? Unlikely. Violent Islamism is a global religious-political movement with a post-national message. If they couldn’t advance significantly up to now, the Taliban’s victory — of a hybrid religious-national politics — isn’t going to do much for them.
Unless, that is, the Taliban becomes a base and bank for such. This, too, seems unlikely. But who knows? The victory may serve as a spark for a generation of radicals, out of the control of either global groups or the Taliban.
With the “forever war” concluded in such a squalid fashion, the neocon era of US politics and power comes to an end. Not the US projection of power beyond its borders, which continues with shifted priorities. But the whole vast historical projection that went with it has gone.
Late US neoconservatism was the most extreme form of “exceptionalist suprematism”, the notion that the US was not merely the “last, best” hope of man, but the only possible way to be human in modernity. Now a lot of them have retreated to the “folly” argument — two decades wasted, nothing to show, but a noble cause nevertheless.
Even this is a ploy, ignoring the realpolitik advantages of keeping a meatgrinder war going: to stay in the region, and block China from flooding in (even as Pakistan, an ostensible US ally, was funding the Taliban), and with the vague hope that an Afghan government would get down to digging up the trillion or so dollars of mineral wealth identified by a 2010 US geological survey.
Was the chaos of the end avoidable? Maybe, but most likely not. The Biden administration said it did not expect there to be a chaotic finish, and there would be no scenes like the last days of Saigon. In the end it looked like a Netflix remake of the last days of Saigon.
Was this stupidity and naivete on their part? Possibly. But it may also have been an awareness that the chaos would begin as soon as it was countenanced. The pundits of the right are focusing on “folly” so they can portray Biden as dodderingly incompetent — even though he is enacting an agreement that deal-making genius Donald Trump negotiated in 2020, and which basically handed the joint over to the Taliban anyway.
Will Biden suffer in the polls? Less than Jimmy Carter or even Barack Obama. He has a free hand to act because the Republicans have surrendered Reaganite power projection and US dominance for a foreign policy that’s a mix of clientelism, isolationism and sheer indecision. It’s a huge giveaway, and one that Biden has exploited.
The Republicans retreated to the airport a while ago, hanging on to the wheels of Trump’s last Air Force One flight, trying to get safe passage to Mar-a-Lago.
So it ends, as it always does, with a scramble, with the border camps and reprisals, the betrayals and the firing squads. The moral focus at home swings back to helping those who made their choice for our forces in a time of no good choices, and who are now the butt of shitty jokes by Matt Canavan.
Beyond that we try to begin to work out where we are now, on the cart-rutted track of history, our way forward lit by the cities burning behind us.