Afghanistan: Another Reminder for Withering Britain

Yves here. Richard Murphy looks at what the sudden fall of Afghanistan means for Britain’s and America’s global aspirations.

I have to confess that it seems bizarre to me to have Afghanistan depicted as an epic US defeat. We wrecked Iraq, did not get to exploit its oil, and its government very loudly has said it wants us gone. Syria is still standing despite our best efforts and Russia has run rings around in the region. We’ve tried to sanction Russia and Iran into submission and that hasn’t gone so well either. And if you’ve been fighting a war for ten years and haven’t won, it looks pretty bloody clear that you aren’t going to win. So why all the hysteria about a concession to reality?

Afghanistan is much more like what happened in the financial crisis. Those who were paying attention knew that subprime mortgage related assets and exposure held by banks were overvalued, even more so when it became evident that guarantees by monolines and AIG were going to be worth little to zilch. Marking those to their actual value would result in catastrophic losses. That day of reckoning was inevitable. The only thing in doubt was the timing and the ultimate level of the damage.

By Richard Murphy, a chartered accountant and a political economist. He has been described by the Guardian newspaper as an “anti-poverty campaigner and tax expert”. He is Professor of Practice in International Political Economy at City University, London and Director of Tax Research UK. He is a non-executive director of Cambridge Econometrics. He is a member of the Progressive Economy Forum. Originally published at Tax Research UK

There are events in seemingly far away places that have significance way beyond their immediate implications. Suez in 1956 was one, and saw the end of the myth of the UK as a superpower. Afghanistan 2021 feels the same, although we cannot know as yet, of course.

The similarity is in the blow that events can deliver to the perception of a state, its power, and the over-arching policy it has pursued. Even if the UK long ago ceased to be a power, its actions in the shadow of the USA under the guise of a supposed special relationship let it perpetuate its wish that it had its previous status and influence, and the US went along with the game, having learned the cost of isolation in the 30s.

But now not only has the UK been defeated in Afghanistan, as is very obviously the case, so too has the US fallen, and in a way that feels more significant than the failure in Vietnam. That was a proxy war, where the East and West fought out their ideological disputes in a country where the local populace were considered expendable. The defeat in Afghanistan is nothing like that. Intensely unpopular as the Taliban are with many – including vast numbers in Afghanistan, I am sure – such movements cannot exist unless they are sheltered and supported within communities. That is the way of all movements of this type. In that case, this was not a move in a proxy war. This was a defeat. With that consequences will occur.

No longer will the US feel invincible. It is not.

No longer will it also seek to march into states to impose its world view, as it has done so often.

And no longer should it expect others to coalesce around its view when it has so obviously failed to consult its supposed partners on the fall of Afghanistan.

This then is a massive moment for the role of the US in the world. It does not create a vacuum, but the risk that one might follow – which China will all too willingly seek to fill – seems very real at present.

And where does Britain fit into this? In a sense it does not. The US did not consults us, and is still not apparently telling us what it is doing in Kabul. We were not a player. There was no special, relationship. Our opinion was not worth having. It did not matter to the US. The pretence is over.

With that the vestige of British power, built on the coat-tails of the 1940s and the mutually advantageous myths formed since then, has gone. We are now just a rather remote, small, and fairly insignificant state who is just one amongst many. The delusion that we are otherwise has to go.

But will the delusion disappear? Will we, with its demise, stop building aircraft carriers that were strategically useless decades before they were designed? Will we stop thinking ourselves exceptional? And will an England thwarted become ever more aggressive towards its last vestiges of empire – those states it subjects to its rule within the supposed United Kingdom, which increasingly feels anything but that?

These are big questions. Only time can provide the answers. But I have a feeling that everything has changed. The image of British power has withered away. If all involved now deal with the reality for the these islands and their future that might be for the better. If at the same time we stop hectoring and abusing the world and actually learn to live with and work alongside it, so much the better too. But will we do that? That’s anyone’s guess. The wise will hope that we do.

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  1. vlade

    Everybody knows the fight was fixed
    The poor stay poor, the rich get rich
    That’s how it goes
    Everybody knows
    Everybody knows that the boat is leaking
    Everybody knows that the captain lied

    1. Questa Nota

      Advice to British soldiers, in this case SAS, as noted by various sources, at various times, dating at least to the 19th century Af adventures, so here is a modern one.

      In that prior time, one spectre was of the Afghan women but modernising has changed perspectives.

  2. PlutoniumKun

    I’m sure David has something to say about this, but my distant perception of the UK’s position was that it suffered a huge blow in credibility in both Basra and Kandahar, when British troops had to be bailed out by the US. This seems to have led to the UK turning from a genuinely valued ally to something akin to the way Germany viewed Italy and Spain in WWII. Useful on occasion as enthusiastic allies (if a little too enthusiastic sometimes) but usually more trouble than they were worth.

    I’m not sure the UK’s delusions will be fatally undermined by this – I’ve a feeling the Tories are getting ready to send Boris off to a no doubt lucrative retirement ,and they’ll put in a fresh skin (preferably ethnically Indian, just to show how open minded they are) and things will continue on just as they were before. There is a very obvious change of tune in the UK media right now where all the problems with Covid, Afghanistan, and Brexit are being tied to Johnson in the hope that the label sticks with him as he’s pushed out the door.

    My suspicion is that Afghanistan will be removed from the headlines pretty quickly and I don’t see it as changing things much at all. I think Biden has made a terrible miscalculation in taking full responsibility for the decision. This leaves him open to the attack from the Blob and the neocons that they were stabbed in the back and if only he’d stayed a year more everything would be dandy. He should have used the opportunity to put the blame firmly where it belonged – it may well have strengthened his presidency. If anything, I think this might weaken the powers of POTUS even more relative to the security establishment.

    1. Susan the other

      Biden surprised me. He has conviction. He isn’t even stuttering. This might well show his true colors – he’s as fed up with the Mess as the rest of us are. This ignominious retreat will not “weaken” the US Presidency, it will actually make it come to mean something. It has meant absolutely nothing for decades. But Biden, on the verge of senility but with a sense of the whole sweep of history, is standing up on his own wobbly old legs and saying We Are Out. Over and out. Good for him. I guess Boris couldn’t talk sense to Biden… no wonder Boris looked so dejected when his little chat to the House of Commons was taken over by Theresa May, of all people. She wouldn’t shut up.

      1. voteforno6

        More Americans were killed during the Capital riot on January 6th than have been killed so far during the Afghanistan withdrawal. Things could be a lot worse right now. After all, the only other real choice was sending more military forces, and starting the war back up again. I don’t think the American public would care for that. Some people just have difficulty with knowing when it’s time to cut your losses.

        1. J.P Turtle

          That is pretty odd since it has been demonstrated that nobody was killed during the Jan 6 protest. Some people died, strictly of natural causes eg the Washington Police have finally conceded that the cop who died, died of natural causes. I’ve no time for trumpists but as long as the blob pushes out easily disproven untruths, the more their cult will prosper.

          1. Lambert Strether

            > Some people died, strictly of natural cause

            Including Ashli Babbitt, who was whacked by the cops. I seem to recall that in the summer of 2020, cops whacking people was bad. Now it is apparently good. So good we can erase that it was done.

  3. NotTimothyGeithner

    In regards to the gnashing of teeth over Afghanistan, I’ve long thought a sinking navy ship due to combat would have a profound psychological impact on Americans. With the finality of Afghanistan, all that happened from the US citizen perspective is Northern Virginia was rebuilt with even worse traffic. It’s punctured the invincible bubble, and the elites who brought us here were old 20 years ago.

    Then there is the long term threat of accountability. Where did all that money go? Obama protected these people, but if Biden could just leave Afghanistan, there isn’t anything to stop him from telling the DoJ that they may need of work past 4 pm against the Eric Holder precedent. You can’t trust Biden now.

    1. Susan the other

      My sense of Biden is that he has always been tight with the military. I’d be more inclined to believe that he took their advice on this one.

      1. NotTimothyGeithner

        The stories of Biden telling Obama he was getting rolled by the brass have been around for a long time. I wouldn’t be surprised if between Taliban threats and the reported stories of the brass shrugging when asked if they had a new strategy, Biden pulled the plug. If the Taliban launched an offensive and we there, we would have to up our game to stay, and even Biden can see promises to be out in 2014 will be hard to lie about as that is the period when most of his primary voters learned his name. When he was a relatively anonymous senator, it was easier to lie about his record because many people have a hard time a senator could be so awful. I think he knows the 2014 claim would hurt him especially with Trump not fading into oblivion.

      2. NotTimothyGeithner

        We can’t underestimate “trillions for Healthcare and no Healthcare Reform during covid”. Dividing people on forgiving student debt and so forth is easier because there are winners and non winners which wouldn’t matter if the Democrats tried to do everything, making everyone winners, but the winners in Afghanistan don’t trumpet because it’s a far great moral hazard than the most preposterous argument about the feelings of people who didn’t take out student loans line.

    2. Purdom

      “I’ve long thought a sinking navy ship due to combat would have a profound psychological impact on Americans.”

      You talking about “our only allies” machine gunning and attacking the U.S.N.S. Liberty? Killing out sailors?

      1. caucus99percenter

        If ever the remembrance of a historical event involving the Middle East was stuffed down the memory hole by all U.S. institutions acting in concert, it’s that one.

        1. The Rev Kev

          It helps when you tell those swabbies and anybody else involved that if they ever talk about what happened, then they can look forward to a very long stint in Club Leavenworth.

        2. hemeantwell

          Agreed. But I’d like to point out something about these comments. No one has said “the Israelis” or an equivalent to identify the attackers. If I didn’t know the history I might wonder if the French or Spanish had been up to something. Is this a demonstration of one facet of the memory hole’s functioning, even among people who are calling it out?

  4. JTMcPhee

    So you Brits, or your rulers, have a couple of hundred nuclear warheads, and a “revised and expanded” doctrine on when the would deploy them.

    Rough parity, then, with the Israel ites, who have a couple of hundred nukes too. The Likudniks there have similar imperial ambitions, under the rubric of “Greater Israel.” And Mossad and Shin Bet play in the same league as MI-6 and MI-5.

    Every nation with a military of any significant size has officers and hangers-on with big ambitions. And you have your MI-x’s and we have our CIA and related alphabet agencies all staffed up with “lean and hungry men (and women)” whose skill sets are all about fomenting monetizable chaos.

    We talk about nations as monoliths, individual actors in the Greater Game. Seems pretty clear to me that individuals, like Allen Dulles and Kissinger and Brzezinski and Cheney and even Bolton, have and will continue to move the larger structures of the economy and the military and policy elements of those monoliths. Nations, I would argue, do not have agency, and Game of Risk! ™ thinking has led to a lot of the horrors of the modern world…

  5. The Rev Kev

    After 9/11 there was a shift in one US policy. Before, like in the 1st Gulf War, it would try to go through the UN but after 9/11 it seems that the US would depend more on temporary Coalitions of the Willing. That is what we saw in Iraq rather then a UN force and even now we see the same in the recent attacks on Venezuela in which a temporary coalition of countries align with the US to go after another country. Even with Afghanistan this policy will still probably be seen to be workable in Washington but more and more countries will be reluctant to join these ad-hoc coalitions. There has already been resistance to have NATO nations involve itself in disputes with China in their front yard so with the fall of Afghanistan, those countries will see even less incentive to join another Washington-based coalition. But for the UK? At the moment, they are betting the bank of aligning themselves with the US which is why they built those two new carriers. Not for their own defence but to take part in American expeditionary forces around the world. So this resistance is seeping into the UK Parliament. Some Parliamentarians, who were vets in Afghanistan, wanted the UK to go back in and form a new Coalition to do so but even Boris was wise enough to say that not only would the UK not be going back in but that no county has any interest whatsoever in going either.

  6. Susan the other

    It is always possible that we are done footing the bill for the EU. For NATO. Else why would we have been able to convince Germany (who maintains military neutrality impeccably) to fire up a destroyer and go patrol the South China Sea? It’s like we finally said, OK, if you want our protection against Russia you’ll have to pay for it now that you’ve contracted to buy their natgas. And Germany complied. Stunning, really. And to read a few more tea leaves, it would seem that we are done interfering in the development of Eurasia. Too expensive and futile. We are going to focus on the Americas (which are already turning against us in a big political wave) and the Pacific. Japan. Mexico. Canada. Australia. So 50 years ago when we went into Vietnam the French sent us a two-word message: “Goodbye America.” Today we might be sending Europe that same goodbye.

  7. ilpalazzo

    I would like to recommend what Adam Curtis’ wrote on his BBC blog about Afghanistan as a very wide background. I know commentariat here has mixed opinion of his work and I do too (his error seems to be mostly the use of “we” pronoun where there were in fact certain defined persons doing the malfeasance).

    Also some excellent stuff on Libya & Qaddafi on his blog, sadly many links to archive BBC material broken.

  8. David

    I don’t think the British public greatly cares about Afghanistan, and, to the extent that it does, it regards it as yet another American disaster. On the whole, criticism in the UK media seems to be of the “so they died for nothing” type, rather than any animus against the policy itself.

    At the elite/political/military level, this debacle will confirm some prejudices and perhaps (I hope anyway) spark some new thoughts. The British relationship with the US has never been based on affection or respect, but on a cold-blooded appreciation of relative benefits. The UK has received much more from the relationship than it has provided, but on the other hand much of what it has received has been invisible and intangible (in the intelligence and nuclear areas for example) and difficult to actually demonstrate. By contrast, the UK has been obliged to publicly follow the US into some fairly uncomfortable areas My hope would be that the limitations of this policy will now be more obvious. The UK has a number of advantages, and its armed forces, although not what they were in the past, are good enough to allow it to play an independent and useful role in the world. Whether a semi-detached policy from a failing US is now possible, I don’t know, but I would like to think so.

    One element which is important but hardly gets a mention is the idealistic element in UK policy. remember, these were the early Blair years, of the UK as a “force for good” in the world. A huge proportion of the British effort in Afghanistan went into development and nation-building, and of course it’s all been wasted. I’ve seen people suggesting that the debacle is the effective end of this (neo-imperialist) policy. I certainly hope so.

    1. Ignacio

      Yep. Nation-building gives me the creeps. To be sure, nation-building could be readily done but it would require an immense effort, a lot of good will (sorely lacking), respect, or absence of disrespect (sorely lacking) and an effort to bring in the task all the countries in the region, strong diplomacy (sorely lacking) and true interest apart from extractive.

      Your analysis sounds to me truer than Murphy’s or at least closer to planet earth.

  9. Tom Pfotzer

    For a very well-written and authoritative review of Afghan culture over the past 40 years of invasion, occupation and civil war. Written by sociologists living in Afghanistan for part of that period.

    This piece does a good job of explaining why there was so little resistance to the Taliban’s sweep.

    It also touches on the future of women’s rights in Afghanistan, and provides excellent insight into who and what the Taliban are.

    Afghanistan: The End of the Occupation

    Well worth the 15 mins to read it.

  10. Tom Pfotzer

    The significance of Afghanistan isn’t that it’s a poor country that “defeated us”. The significance is based on what Afghanistan is: gateway to central asia.

    Someone is going to make enormous amounts of money in central asia, and it’s not going to be the blighters that run the U.S. and U.K. and most of the west’s financial systems.

    This is a massive strategic defeat of Empire, and it happened in front of the whole world.

    I am delighted with the withdrawal. I wrote to President Biden, and all my Congressional representatives, congratulating them for their good judgement.

    This exit represents another major step away from Empire and toward a new relationship with the rest of the world.

    This is _not_ a defeat for us, the people. This is a huge victory for us. Yay!

  11. Alice X

    Clinton, W and subsequent POtUS to the Hague for wars against the Peace…. hmm – I’d go back further but they’re dead. Well, there is Carter.

  12. KurtZ

    For you Brits, this should mean a lot more than the End of the Fifth Afghan War. (Wiki will tell you how the other four Afghan Wars went if you need a brush up on your history)

    Afghanistan is a place you have been adventuring in since you decided to play the “Great Game” against Russia back to the turn of the 19th century. Since America is rife with the half-wit descendants of the Anglo aristocracy, they have been nursing the Anglo Empire slights in proxy, in places like Iran and Afghanistan, hoping to check Russia in some shadow “Great Game.” Wow, talk about history repeating itself.

    No rhyming, just endless repetitions. It is really pathetic that it was done to protect a whole opium operation, ‘cept this shit didn’t go to keeping China in-line, it went to the American heartland (Mackinder would chuckle at the use of the term) and the money went into the pockets of the CIA, as if they needed more, to run all of their dirty operations.

    The playbook copying is beyond pathetic. Only thing is that 2+ centuries of the “Great Game” ends in exactly the same way, the Anglos hightailing it out of town.

    1. Mary Bennett

      Zbigniew Brzezinski was not one of the “half-wit descendants of the Anglo aristocracy”. Much of the central European diaspora, with its’ unreasoning hatred of Russia, is complicit also. Speaking of people being “haters”, the transplanted MittelEuropeans of whatever faith community would seem to lead that list.

      I don’t know just how widespread you think said half-wit descendants are; most of us whose families came here from Great Britain, Scandinavia, Germany, and the low countries are descended from European peasantry. Not that a lot of us were not also at that time all in for the guy we want to have a beer with is going to lead us to victory rah rah. Now a lot of those same folks have become Trumpists and non-interventionists. Better late than never, I guess.

  13. Sound of the Suburbs

    No one has ever successfully defeated Afghanistan in a war in its home territory.
    The country is so spread out, it’s impossible to control.
    They can just fade into the background, regroup and then start fighting again at any time.

    As soon as he Americans had gone, they came out of hiding.

    What was supposed to happen?

    Former US ambassador, Chas Freeman, gets to the nub of the problem.
    “The US preference for governance by elected and appointed officials, uncontaminated by experience in statecraft and diplomacy, or knowledge of geography, history and foreign affairs”

    1. bold'un

      “What was supposed to happen”: Did we expect Kandahar to see a repeat of the ‘liberation’ of Raqqa, Mosul, Faluja? The problem is not that we let the Afghans win; it’s that a small but determined group from the countryside has held as hostages its fellow-citizens who dwell in towns.
      The Taliban may find (as in 1996-2001) that governing is more difficult than carrying out a coup, especially in this age of mobile phones. They are also anti-opium, which may not be so popular with the local mobsters. While terrorism is an effective way of mounting a war of attrition against a foreign occupier, it rarely brings good governance after terrorists are victorious in a civil war

      Re Suez, it was not Nasser but Eisenhower that told the Brits and French to abandon their canal.

  14. JTMcPhee

    An opening for the CIA, yet again, to repeat their “success” of 2001? As documented in that happy self-congratulating book, “ First In: An Insider’s Account of How the CIA Spearheaded the War on Terror in Afghanistan,” All it takes is a few pallet-loads of shrink-wrapped Benjamins, some Viagra, and some ‘covert’ weapons deliveries. And maybe a resumption of “smart bombing” by the Coalition US forces, who are always Ready, Willing and Able…

    Looks like a few warlords aren’t happy with the potential loss of power and money from corruption and theft. So the fractious tribesmen “mujahedeen” of Panjsir have possibly fought off the Taliban tidal wave,

    And of course the usual screechers in the punditocracy are taking new hope that the idiocy can be stirred up again…

    “Charlie Wilson! Please pick up the red-white and blue courtesy phone!”

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