Why the west will learn no lessons from the fall of Kabul

Show caption ‘The fall of Kabul will be another missed opportunity to reflect on a default setting of retaliate in haste and retreat at leisure.’ A Chinook helicopter above the US embassy in Kabul on 15 August. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images Opinion Why the west will learn no lessons from the fall of Kabul Nesrine Malik From Sudan to Iraq to Afghanistan, self-righteous US and UK policies have more to do with power than people Mon 23 Aug 2021 06.00 BST Share on Facebook

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In August 1998, two weeks after a little-known terror outfit called al-Qaida announced itself to the world with bomb attacks on the American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, the US president, Bill Clinton, retaliated with missile strikes against a pharmaceutical factory in Sudan. Central Khartoum was rocked in the middle of the night by the impact of a dozen Tomahawk missiles, which destroyed the plant, killing a night watchman and wounding 11 others. The US claimed that the factory – which was the largest provider of medicines in a country under sanctions – was secretly producing nerve agents on behalf of al-Qaida, but it didn’t take long for American officials to admit that the “evidence … was not as solid as first portrayed”.

The attack, in other words, was simply an act of retaliation against a random target, without any connection to the crime purportedly being avenged. I was a university student in Khartoum at the time. I can remember the confusion the day after the explosions, then visiting the shattered site of the factory with other students. What was suddenly clear to us then, standing in front of the ruins in a sleepy city that had supposedly become the centre of Islamic terrorism overnight, was the real logic of the “war on terror”: our lives were fodder for the production of bold headlines in American newspapers, saluting the strength, swift action and resolve of western leaders. We, on the sharp end of it all, would never be the protagonists. Those were the policy and opinion makers far, far away, for whom our experience was merely the resolution of an argument about themselves. The operation was chillingly, but appropriately, called Infinite Reach.

There was never any admission of this error, no apology given or responsibility taken. Individual Clinton administration officials conceded here and there that the intelligence was maybe not exactly right, but nobody suffered the slightest punishment for getting it wrong. The owner of the factory, which was never rebuilt, brought a case against the US in an American court. The case was thrown out.

For more than two decades, this has been the governing logic of the war on terror: US and British leaders make the “difficult and brave” moral decisions, and then someone else worries about the consequences. The chaos in Kabul is simply the latest instalment in a long-running drama whose protagonists never change. There is no closure and no responsibility.

This may be why public feelings are as raw as they were 20 years ago, and today’s arguments are even more furious and vexed, as we rehash the same positions – on the one hand invoking the moral responsibility to defend “western values”, and on the other pointing out the inevitable failures of intervention. Nothing has been resolved, no lessons have been learned, no meaningful assessment of the war on terror has been passed. Suddenly it is 2003 again.

That reckoning never happened partly because the very purpose of the war on terror was always being modified and revised: what has just ended with Joe Biden’s cold and steely realpolitik began with sweeping moral claims about liberating Afghan women and building an inclusive democracy. Biden insisted last week that this was never the mission – but that would be news to Laura Bush, who in 2001 became the first First Lady to deliver an entire weekly presidential radio address, dedicating it to the plight of women in Afghanistan. The truth is that the only consistent element in all the justifications for the war, be they moral or geopolitical, was the imperative tone. Whatever was done had to be so, and we could debate the reasons later on.

In that climate of certainty, voices of doubt were easily dismissed as timid and fearful, lazy and disloyal. Consequences be damned – we had our convictions. The small print, of course, was that those damning the consequences had no risk of encountering them. “The result is irrelevant,” Daniel Finkelstein declared in a 2011 Times column as his friend David Cameron’s intervention in Libya started to show signs of failure. “We were right to attack.”

As the reasons for intervention changed, so did the benchmarks for its virtue. And so the war on terror became an issue that was only argued through its symbols of success or failure, in moments of crisis or high-octane action. The arguments over the past week, in parliament and the papers, have been so intense not simply because the fall of Kabul seemed so sudden, but because the subject was studiously ignored for so long. Administrations changed, a muscular liberal consensus in the US and the UK gave way to populist challenges from the right, and those two countries became preoccupied with their own volatile politics, turning inwards and losing the taste for international projection. The reality of the war hibernated in the places that mattered to its resolution – in policymaking and media circles. When it was prodded awake, its wounds were as raw as ever.

The fossilisation of those very influential circles, in ideology and cast, has ensured that there will be little honest reflection on the many failures in Afghanistan. So many of the same dodgy salesmen who peddled the faulty war decades ago are still here, trying to sell us spare parts to keep it on the road. Within a month of invading Afghanistan in 2001, the influential New York Times foreign affairs columnist Thomas Friedman was already pleading with his fellow Americans to “give war a chance”. Twenty years of columns later, he is now lamenting that “America tried to defend itself from terrorism emanating from Afghanistan by trying to nurture it to stability and prosperity”, but “too many Afghans” rejected the gift.

The fall of Kabul will be another missed opportunity to reflect on a default setting of retaliate in haste and retreat at leisure. You will instead hear a lot in the media about what this says about us, about the fall or “defeat” of the west – always the main character in the tragedy that has befallen only others. There will be more in the fine tradition of oratory in the British parliament that flourishes with the moral purpose of intervention, and you will hear a lot about betrayal of Afghan women. But you will hear little from those establishments about the reality of a war that, in the end, from Sudan to Iraq to Afghanistan, was about high-profile revenge enacted on low-profile soft targets. It was not about ending terror, or freeing women, but demonstrating Infinite Reach.

Nesrine Malik is a Guardian columnist