From a strategic standpoint, the 7,268 days of the US-led military presence was never justified beyond its initial kickoff.
The “casus belli” in 2001, the Taliban’s punishment for failing to hand over Osama bin Laden and his colleagues, was quickly met when the group was set to run from Kabul just over a month after the first Anglo-American bombs fell on Afghan soil.
From then on, the administration was a costly failure, as the ten years of hunting down to the execution of Bin Laden just outside Pakistan’s main military academy demonstrated.
Initially, the occupation was seen as an opportunity to structure the so-called war on terror by the hawks of George W. Bush. The US had come from a decade of post-Cold War unipolar domination, and harnessing the tragedy of 9/11 to pursue a forcible reorganization of strategic spaces was at hand.
So there was the farce of the Iraq war, which had nothing to do with al Qaeda, although its failure has given birth to even more radical offshoots of jihadism, like the Islamic State now making headlines with its Afghan branch.
There was also the obvious component of the encirclement of Iran by its two main borders, plus the good deals for Bush’s oil buddies, not to mention the infamous mercenaries and other buccaneers on duty.
This would all be embellished with the pretty discourse of promoting democratic values in places where such concepts were vague, a neocolonialism of the good, so to speak.
Of course, this does not mean that the exposure of Afghans, for example, to 20 years of exchanges with the West has not made a generation more tolerant and less willing to accept being led by mullahs.
The images at the airport in Kabul speak for themselves in this regard, and it is disheartening to imagine the future for the people of the suffering country with the return of the Taliban to power.
But the imposition of Western power structures with no interest in the way politics was negotiated in the invaded countries sealed the project’s dismal fate.
He was a failure, as Biden candidly admitted since announcing he would fulfill Donald Trump’s agreement with the Taliban. The American defeat, which had continued over the years, had lost all meaning in his vision.
This comes at an obvious and high price in this final-chapter humiliation, which the Democrat seems willing to pay, in the hope that the presumed disappearance of interest in the Afghanistan issue will free him to tackle other topics on his extensive laundry list.
Which is not to say that the modus operandi of such a war on terror has disappeared, of course. He will remain firm: the US will not hesitate to bomb targets it deems important against a group like the EI-K, for example, but has simply removed the “war” label from the procedure.
Ironically, it’s a way to perpetuate the eternal wars criticized by every president since Barack Obama. By removing the illusion of “nation building,” another concept dear to the folks who profited from Bush, Biden opts for low-cost pragmatism.
It is a way to keep up with the change in the world over these 20 years, which has seen Russia stop being a tiger in a military role and China rise to the rank of challenger to the US for world hegemony.
In both cases, there are obstacles of different natures in the path of Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping, but reality no longer allows Americans to think that they can destroy and build regimes at their own geopolitical pleasure.
It is the return of such a policy of force, between nation-states with divergent interests, which has been taking shape in recent years in American military doctrine.
Bombs will continue to fall in lost corners around the world, but apparently the idea of war will put aside such asymmetric conflicts with subnational groups. More focus allows for less diffuse resource allocation as well.
Of course, all it takes is for an explosive to be detonated in the US or for an American civilian to be beheaded on video for it to be put to the test, but the context suggests that such incidents would be dealt with more punctually. The damage that the so-called war on terror has done to the world has been priced in for a long time.
This is a geopolitical finding, regardless of the effect or not of the botched withdrawal on Biden’s political plans, which will have a long work to do.
The world will not be a safer place either, on the contrary: not only will terrorists see in the Taliban victory as a sign of Western decadence to be exploited, if the next time an American president declares war the motive is in the Donbass, in the South Sea. China or in Pyongyang, the risks to humanity will certainly be exponentially higher.