Taliban resurgence and America’s policy failures

Syed Badrul Ahsan

The resurgence of the Taliban is but the latest chapter in the litany of American policy failures abroad in modern times. It is immaterial that President Joe Biden has blamed everybody but himself and his administration over the chaos in Afghanistan. There can be no gainsaying that America’s precipitate withdrawal from Afghanistan is a good reason why the Taliban have been able to retake the country with such alacrity.

The irony is obvious: When America went into Afghanistan in 2001, the Taliban were in power. 20 years on, with America departing, the Taliban are back in power. With more than 2,400 Americans dead in Afghanistan, with hundreds upon hundreds of Afghans dying in these 20 years, with so many billions of dollars spent in building a 300,000-man Afghan defense force that simply melted away before the advance of 75,000 Taliban fighters, it was a catastrophe that will be searing for America’s collective conscience for decades to come.

But history remains proof that successive American administrations have hardly drawn any lessons from past policy failures. There is the instance of Cuba, where for decades US presidents went out on a limb to foment a revolt or coup against Fidel Castro. Innumerable strategies, including poisoning the Cuban leader, were deployed against what was surely one of the best governments in the western hemisphere. Again, there are the memories of the Bay of Pigs invasion, supported and financed by the Kennedy administration, in 1961. The invasion force, consisting of Cuban exiles opposed to Castro, ended in abject failure. It was decimated by Castro’s loyalists.

The Cuban misadventure was certainly not the first instance of American policy failure around the globe. The history of US dealings, or an absence of them, with China forms a significant aspect of modern diplomacy. For decades, American policy-makers went around propagating, after 1949, the fiction of the island of Formosa representing the people and government of China. It did not matter that China had passed under communist rule.

At the Geneva conference in 1954, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles refused to shake Zhou Enlai’s hand, disdainfully turning away as the cultured Chinese leader moved toward him, hand extended in goodwill. Not until 1971, when Formosa had been ejected from the United Nations and the People’s Republic of China took its rightful place in the world body — and earlier Henry Kissinger had made his ground-breaking journey to Beijing — did American policy on China undergo a change. President Nixon went to China in February 1972.

Iran has been a significant theatre dramatizing the failure of American policy in the region. In 1953, the Eisenhower administration, through the CIA, played a pivotal role in overthrowing the nationalist government of Prime Minister Mossadegh and restoring the Shah to his throne. Years of support for the Shah’s increasingly repressive regime followed. A mere few months before protests against the Shah broke out in Tehran and indeed all across Iran in 1978, President Jimmy Carter waxed eloquent about the Shah’s dynamic leadership of his people. By early 1979, the Shah had flown off to exile, Ruhollah Khomeini was in power, and America was being referred to as the Great Satan in Iran.

Americans have not quite forgotten the humiliation that was the success of the revolution in Iran. One has only to think back on the folly of the Trump administration in walking away from the Iran nuclear deal, a messy job that is yet to be corrected by the men and women who run Washington today. And now return to the 1950s, when America’s role in the creation of two anti-communist regional bodies, CENTO and SEATO, were to prolong the Cold War and lead to grave consequences for such regions as Asia.

The two organizations do not exist anymore, but they remain a good instance of the short-sighted foreign policy long pursued by the United States. The Johnson administration’s policies in Vietnam, the Nixon administration’s emphasis on Vietnamization, and the Ford administration’s frantic presiding over the evacuations of people in Saigon clearly — and until Afghanistan came along — will forever be images of how a powerful nation, led by arrogant men intent on policing the world, can easily bite the dust.

American policy in Iraq has pushed a beautiful, secular country down the drain. George W Bush, in tandem with Tony Blair, pushed the lie of Saddam Hussein’s possession of weapons of mass destruction and then went into committing brazen aggression against Baghdad. All these years later, 18 as a matter of fact, Iraq is a broken country, with sectarian politics and incompetent governance occupying space that once had been symbolic of a society proud of its centuries-long heritage. Iraq today is a mess, just as Afghanistan has been and is, just as Libya is. 

French President Charles de Gaulle was one of the few statesmen unwilling to give space to America in global affairs beyond what it deserved. Europeans, he concluded, would conduct their own business without the US taking upon itself the role of a guiding force for the continent. It was De Gaulle’s belief in European sovereignty, insofar as the making and working of diplomacy was concerned, that led him to take France out of the Nato defense structure in 1966.  

The legacy of American foreign policy is not a beautiful sight to behold. Policy-makers in Washington have, down the years, spawned or encouraged dictators in Chile, Pakistan, Indonesia, Bangladesh, and other nations. Yet the lessons arising out of these terrible realities have not been learned in Washington. That is the pity.