Over the last few weeks the world has watched on as the hard-won gains of nearly two decades of NATO intervention in Afghanistan have been undone overnight. Families once again are butchered and maimed in the villages and cities. Girls are ripped out of schools and sealed in their homes by Taliban fanaticism. The US snuck out of Bagram air base under cover of night. The State Department, unprepared, is now racing to extract hundreds of Afghani interpreters and supporters. Not since the infamous images of helicopters crammed with the last survivors from Saigon has the West witnessed such an embarrassing capitulation. Already there is talk of a humanitarian crisis in the making, with the prospect of a ruthlessly totalitarian Taliban, their determination hardened by twenty years of political exile, once more presiding over the mountainous nation.
Well-heeled liberals look on aghast as the BBC and the Guardian hammer home messages of awful regression and human rights abuses. Their horror at the Taliban’s religious radicalism is matched only by their disgust at the scenes of destruction and death that once again plague Afghanistan. Yet they have only themselves to blame. For these are the same bleeding-heart internationalists who marched in jeering demonstrations against the War On Terror two decades ago. It was they who demanded ‘no blood for oil’, who touted each NATO casualty as a senseless sacrifice in a foreign land designed only to bolster the ambitions of Bush and Blair. Now they have got their wish – and it turns out that it was not what they wanted after all.
As a result of their lofty indignation the West has spent twenty years fighting a guerrilla war with one hand tied behind its back. Our public has never been willing to accept the cost of victory, in finances or casualties. As a result the essential yet extremely expensive work of rebuilding has been a consistent story of cut corners and half measures. Rather than driving the Taliban off the face of earth with the force of the greatest military alliance in history, suburbanites with precocious consciences hamstringed the political will of our government. As the Taliban flow forth from their caves and hideaways, I hope the same high-minded moralists appreciate the cost of their principled stance.
For the record I have no objection to the many well meaning and intelligent people who despised Bush’s rakish recklessness and the corrupt cabal of cabinet ministers who lined up behind him. The War On Terror was a lie, perpetrated on the basis of accusations that were patently false. Yet those who had the good sense to understand this ought equally to have appreciated that our interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq were about more than an ideological doctrine. They represented genuine opportunities to rid entire nations of dictatorial regimes and to replace them with democratic governments and liberal values. Our endeavours in these countries may at times have been cynical. To the people we saved, however, they were a lifeline. Our occupations were an opportunity for lights to turn on, for water to flow, for girls to go to school and communities to thrive.
Sadly, then and now, the powerful case for liberal interventionism has been ignored. Liberals, in the madness of the modern world, have found it fashionable to denounce neo-colonialism and to preach the benefits of cultural sensitivity. Armchair commentators liked to opine about the fundamental futility of exporting liberal values to the darkest parts of the Middle East. I can only hope that the reality of the situation, of girls being whipped in the streets for daring to seek an education, leaves a bitter taste on the tongues of their lofty idealism.
Sadly, these jolts of realisation have come too late for the people of Afghanistan. We should not let ourselves deny or forget what that will mean. Even after the smoke clears and the last NATO soldier comes home, life under the Taliban will go on. Religious minorities will be persecuted. Civilians will be stoned and beaten to death. An entire nation will withdraw into the stone ages.
What this must do, then, is to serve as a vital and overdue wake-up call. It has been nearly three decades since Fukuyama penned his ‘End Of History’. Despite its thorough discreditation since, too many well-off liberals have preferred to pretend that its logic still rings true. So long as liberalism is assumed to be ascendant it requires no effort to maintain and gives rise to a narrative of ludicrous hand-wringing whereby we hold ourselves to counter-productive higher standards. The West has become a dog that’s lost its bite, and the predators circling, from Russia and China to the Taliban and ISIS, know it. When red lines are crossed with impunity, when strong words are not backed up with stronger action, history teaches us that dictators and despots run rife. Afghanistan should not only shatter the illusion that liberalism is unassailable; it should remind us why it is so important to defend in the first place. We have grown used to talking loudly; perhaps now it is time to brush off the big stick too. Liberals must learn the lesson of Afghanistan and acknowledge that lofty idealism is a luxury that we can no longer afford. Only once we rediscover a sense of reality – and a backbone – will we be able to begin to wash the blood off our hands.