Author`s name Peter Baofu

Three Historical Lessons from the Afghan Moment

To call the humiliating U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan (after more than 20 years of costly involvement) in August 2021 the “Afghan moment” and to sadly compare it with the “Vietnam moment” (after more than 10 years of massive U.S. involvement) in April 1975 can distract us from seeing the larger picture of a new world order in the making, in a way which does not fit in the two opposing (Leftist and Rightist) narratives in Western mainstream mass media. 

The rise and fall of world empires in history share similarities in some ways but diverge from each other in other ways. In the case of the U.S., three essential lessons from the Afghan moment can be learned.

First Lesson: An Empire Declines and Withdraws over Time

The first lesson is that an empire can well afford costly foreign adventures in its hey day but can ill-afford to do so in its declining years. Political pundits are recently quick to target the usual suspects of the U.S. foreign policy failure in Afghanistan: “short-term [greedy] thinking,” “cultural hubris [over-optimism],” “corrupt local [Aghan] government,” “incompetent local [Afghan] armed forces,” the “better motivated militants [Taliban*],” “unrealistic [wishful] imperial goals,” “inadequate on-the-ground intelligence,” “poor communication,” “insufficient coordination,” “non-existent emergency planning,” and so on. All these criticisms can equally be directed against previous U.S. foreign policy failures in Vietnam, Iraq, Syria, Somalia, Libya, and so on. 

In the late 1970s, after the fall of Saigon (in South Vietnam), there were the repeated calls for “No More Vietnams!” (no less by Richard Nixon himself), but it did not take long before the U.S. indulged itself in “endless wars” again. Will it be different this time around? Don’t bet on it, as it won’t be long before the U.S. will engage in foreign wars again. 

Yet, as history has time and again shown us, the resources of an empire are not unlimited and do not last forever, so it has to withdraw, little by little, from its foreign adventures over time, especially in its declining years when it is consumed by massive socio-economic and political problems at home which have been neglected and accumulated over the decades (no less due to its “imperial overstretch”). Bluntly put, Pax Americana reached its heyday after WWII , but the world is a different place in 2021 (just as Pax Britannica enjoyed its peak in the 19th century, before it collapsed in the 20th century). 

Second Lesson: The Fall of an Empire is the Rise of a New One

The second lesson is that the fall of an empire often means the rise of a new one. The rise of China (to replace the U.S.) is a geopolitical theme much discussed in our time, although it was already predicted long ago in my 1999 book The Future of Human Civilization. 

From a historical perspective, the U.S. surpassed the U.K. as the world’s largest economy in the late 19th century. In its turn, China surpassed the U.S. as the world’s largest economy in 2014, when adjusted for purchasing power parity; and by 2020, China’s GDP (adjusted for PPP) was already $24.14 trillion, whereas the U.S.’s GDP (PPP) was $20.93 trillion. In addition, the gap between them will further widen in the coming decades, when China and India will become the two dominant powers on Earth in the second half of this century (as already predicted in my 2007 book Beyond the World of Titans, and the Remaking of World Order). In this way, the two Asian giants will regain their former dominant place in history which they had occupied for millennia before the rise of the modern West in the Age of European Colonialism.  

The U.S., as a declining empire with its outdated “end of history” hubris (over the fall of the U.S.S.R.) after the end of the Cold War, cannot give what Afghanistan really needs in the long term, namely, the exploration of its vast mineral resources for sustainable socio-economic development. This is not as an after-thought of an imperial project by a foreign occupier but as an indigenous empowerment of its poor folks so much trampled upon for so long by outside powers over the centuries (starting from the Greeks and the Persians through the Mongols and the Mughals to the British, the Soviets, and now the Americans). 

The Taliban* are not as dogmatic, stupid, and ignorant as they are demonized in Western mainstream mass media.  They have come a long way from their ultra-conservative Islamic rule in the 1990s through the forced expulsion from power after the U.S. invasion in the 2000s to their latest recapture of Afghanistan in August 2021. During all these years (both in exile and in fighting), the Taliban* have painfully learned the harsh reality that what they need the most now is stability and development to raise their poor country from abject poverty and backwardness with the help of Afghanistan’s massive mineral resources (though within the limits of Islam). 

Precisely here, China (as the new superpower) and the Taliban*, much as they differ from each other in other ways (like the fear by many that the Taliban* may use Afghanistan again as the staging ground for Islamic terrorism around the world), clearly see the silver lining (after the U.S. withdrawal) for stability and development to benefit both sides, as this is exactly what the Taliban* spokesman Suhail Shaheen told Chinese state media on August 19, 2021 for China to play a “constructive role in promoting peace and reconciliation in Afghanistan” for the “rebuilding of the country” after the U.S. withdrawal. This fits well with China's Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) without military invasion and without political interference into the affairs of other countries (as a new world model of foreign relations based on mutual respect and equality). This can both contribute to Afghanistan’s much needed socio-economic development and meet China’s need of mineral resources for its gigantic economy.

Third Lesson: The Alliance of an Empire in Decline is Fickle

And the third lesson is that the alliance of an empire, especially in its declining years, is essentially fickle. An empire, at its peak, is often feared and admired, so its friends (and foes) have no problem to kiss its ass (when needed). But when an empire declines, its friends (and foes) have much to quarrel about, so abandonment (and betrayal) can easily occur on both sides, as a ruthless race for survival. 

For instance, President Biden hastily withdrew from Afghanistan without consulting its allies, as they were (and still are) treated as “junior” partners, contrary to what he promised them in his “America is Back” inaugural speech:

“We will repair our alliances and engage with the world once again….We will be a strong and trusted partner for peace, progress, and security.” 

But the Afghan moment reveals just the opposite of Biden’s fable, as Matthew Karnitschnig thus reported for Politico on August 17, 2021: “Across Europe, officials have reacted with a mix of disbelief and a sense of betrayal. Even those who cheered Biden’s election and believed he could ease the recent tensions in the transatlantic relationship said they regarded the withdrawal from Afghanistan as nothing short of a mistake of historic magnitude.” German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron took the opportunity to repeat their call for Europe’s “strategic autonomy” from the U.S., as Europe must learn to depend more on itself for its own security, instead of relying on a superpower which treats them as nothing more than “junior” partners to be bossed around (and not consulted as equals), in spite of Biden’s verbal reassurance in his “America is Back” rhetoric. 

On the other side of the world, without delay, many in the Afghan government and armed forces quickly abandoned all they had inherited from the U.S. (after all these years of spending $2.26 trillion on the war in Afghanistan) and surrendered to the Taliban* without a fight, just as Afghan President Ashraf Ghani quickly fled Kabul (right after he left a recorded message to his own people the day before of how much he cared about them) and was given asylum in Dubai on “humanitarian grounds,” with “$169 million in his cash-stuffed helicopter on August 18, 2021” (and Afghan Vice-president Amrullah Saleh had also fled the country in a hurry), which led the critics to call them “cowardly” and “corrupt” beyond repair.

The words “betrayal” and “abandonment” were fired like missiles against each other on both sides of an once much celebrated alliance.  

Conclusion: Who Lost Afghanistan?

So, who is to blame for the loss of Afghanistan, as one is tempted to ask? To say that the U.S. lost Afghanistan is an imperial condescension towards other countries as something to be conquered, controlled, and owned. There were many examples of this imperial rhetoric in the past: “Who lost China?” “Who lost Cuba?” “Who lost Iran?” “Who lost Vietnam?”

The answer is: The U.S. did not lose Afghanistan, just as it did not lose China, Cuba, Vietnam, Iran, and so on. Neither did Afghanistan, China, Cuba, Iran, and Vietnam lose the U.S. It is just a power game played by empires over the centuries, and small countries (with opposing groups pursuing conflicting interests among them) have to fight for their survival as they are sandwiched between competing powers in the imperial game.

If Afghanistan is lucky enough this time around, the Taliban* can move on to concentrate more on internal socio-economic development with the help of others (including China and other countries) without being drawn into endless wars again, from which the country had so much suffered in its long history of being conquered and occupied by outside powers. Time will tell to what extent this is also a wishful thinking.

But then, there will be other countries which, for better and (not or) worse, take the place of Afghanistan to become part of the imperial game in the future. The world will move on, so to speak, but “the show must go on,” as the old saying goes. Well, it will not be the same show but still a different show to entice empires for future historical “moments” to come. The difference is that they will not be called the “Afghan” moment again but new moments in history by different names.

*terrorist organization, banned in Russia

About the author:

Dr. Peter Baofu is an American visionary and author of 171 scholarly books and numerous articles (as of August 2021) to provide 137 visions (theories) of the human future in relation to the mind, nature, society, and culture -- and had been (or lived) in more than 110 countries around the world (as of March 2020) for his global research on humanity. He was interviewed on television and radio as well as by newspapers around the world about his original ideas and visions of the human future. He received more than 5 academic degrees, including a Ph.D. from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (M.I.T.), was a summa cum laude graduate, and was awarded the Delta Sigma Pi Scholarship Key for being at the top of the class in the College of Business Administration, with another student.  

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