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History Repeats in Afghanistan – But Will it Be Dunkirk or Saigon?

By August 20, 2021No Comments

The war had to end some time, but the way the US withdrawal was carried out has been a disaster. Commentators have made comparisons to Saigon, Suez and Dunkirk, but the long term impact on Western foreign policy will be shaped by what Western powers, including Europe, do next.

When the US invaded Afghanistan in 2001, it was daring history to repeat itself, and now history has answered the call. Following in the footsteps of Alexander the Great, the British Empire, and the Soviet Union, the United States has also been pushed out, and in an astounding chain of events.

Historical parallels are being drawn. British decision-makers have called up comparisons to the Suez Crisis, when the British Empire lost its ability to act independently on the world stage. American commentators have compared this to the fall of Saigon in 1975, or even to Dunkirk in 1940.

The repercussions of the chaotic scenes at Kabul Airport could take a generation to unfold. It is hard to estimate what the impact of recent events will be on the United States’ standing in the world, the attitudes of Western allies towards ‘nation-building’ efforts or of non-Western actors towards the West’s intentions. Which historical comparison will turn out to be the most apt in the end will depend on what leaders do to shape reality in coming months.

The Biden administration, and the president himself, have scrambled to assert that this has all been either inevitable or anticipated, but the bare facts, seen from a distance, simply do not bear this out. If such a rapid Taliban takeover was foreseen, more would have been done to get out the Westerners and allies still on the ground. Stopping this rapid takeover would have presumably required maintaining the Afghan army’s infrastructure, which the US administration gutted when pulling out essential contractors. It is odd to expect the Afghan army to fight when the Americans who provide supplies, ammunition, and intelligence have disappeared. This series of missteps indicates a colossal failure that will keep historians busy for years to come.

We have seen that as far as similar large-scale failures go, as when no weapons of mass destruction were found in Iraq, they tend to have the long-term effect of limiting trust and credibility. This is then conjoined with a lack of ability to exert either soft or hard power. It is reasonable to expect a similar long-term reaction with this chain of events.
In any case, it seems that the collapse of the Western-backed Afghan government lays to rest two foreign policy theses that have dominated global politics.
First, the neo-liberal assumption from the 1990s, that the progress of liberal democracy and economic development is somehow inevitable. Second, the neo-conservative assumption that democracy can be promoted at the end of a gun. In case there was any remaining doubt about their viability, this has been a nail in their respective coffins.

For Europe, this leaves a gaping vacuum and directs attention yet again to the EU’s perennial dilemma on the world stage. Does the EU convene a group of medium-sized and small states to comment on world affairs? Or does it act as a global power in its own right, to seek coherent outcomes based on a coherent agenda?

The European Union was founded on commitments to the universality and indivisibility of human rights

, and a combination of personal liberties and social rights. If the US is not able to protect these values, it is incumbent upon the EU to fill this vacuum. The question is how.

We have seen that democracy and human rights are not inevitable products of economic policy, and cannot be pushed through military intervention. What is needed now is an innovative and values-based approach to a complex new reality. It would need to include ensuring Europe’s ability to act, and supporting those who defend human rights and democracy, in Europe and elsewhere, not through post-colonial calculations and legacies, but through a genuine interest in common sustainability and prosperity. As a wave of Afghan refugees will inevitably head for Europe, leaders must have the foresight to set a new narrative on their arrival in advance.

In Suez, a declining power lost its hegemony, and in Saigon, a reigning hegemon received a painful blow as a result of bad decisions. In Dunkirk, a defeat was turned into an opportunity to rally a nation’s support and to formulate a new strategy. The US occupation of Afghanistan had to end someday. For this milestone to become a modern Dunkirk moment, a new strategy is needed. Not to continue the war but to strive for sustainable peace and human rights. And it appears that it will have to be the EU and its leaders who take this opportunity and heed that call.