But they aren’t unprecedented.
The United States has a long history of abandoning people it said it would safeguard.
Its willingness to decolonise itself remains one of the most perplexing features of the world’s most powerful nation. It is an empire founded on anti-imperialism, an experiment in the universality of unalienable rights which won’t enforce them universally.
It is an anti-power.
The Afghanistan retreat captures these contradictions in full force. While we are seeing the end of a twenty-year mission there, missions unaccomplished litter the American empire.
In the last 150 years, America has recurrently started military campaigns only to desert the field. Its ideological opponents denounce its warmongering.
Properly understood, America has been insufficiently war-like.
In the 1870s, Union forces quit their occupation of the defeated Confederate states. By ending Reconstruction early, this left African Americans prey to southern Democratic racism for a century.
In the 1920s, having declared its globalist credentials at the end of World War One (joining the fight late in 1917), a series of Republican presidents determined to isolate America from the power politics of Europe.
Boom and bust and the ‘low dishonest decade’ of the 1930s ensued. While US troops policed its hemispheric neighbours, communism and fascism rose across Europe and Asia. American troops spent the 1940s cleaning up the disaster of this initial omission.
In the 1970s, fuelled by military failure abroad and social unrest at home, another Republican administration decided to turn tail on its ally. This time in South East Asia.
The ignominy of the final helicopter to leave the US embassy compound in Saigon is etched into south Vietnamese consciousness. But it was Cambodian Prime Minister Sirik Matak who captured the sense of betrayal.
Offered asylum by the US ambassador, Matak told him:
“I cannot, alas, leave in such a cowardly fashion. As for you, and in particular for your great country, I never believed for a moment that you would have this sentiment of abandoning a people which has chosen liberty... I have only committed this mistake of believing in you.”
Matak was killed by the communist Khmer Rouge a month later; between 1.5 to two million Cambodians were to follow him.
In the 1990s, the cut-and-run syndrome repeated itself.
Having expelled Saddam Hussein from Kuwait, George H. W. Bush urged his domestic opponents to rise and topple the Iraqi dictator. When they tried, America forsook them.
US generals watched as Saddam’s helicopter gunships flew over their heads en route to the killing fields in the north of Iraq.
A few hundred miles away the pattern recurred. Through the 1980s, covert American support had enabled the Afghan mujahedeen to resist a Soviet occupation. The movie Charlie Wilson’s War, starring Tom Hanks, is an entertaining retelling of this bizarre alliance.
When the USSR quit, so did the US. The Afghan people, especially its women and girls, were left to endure the misery of rule by the sons and nephews of the mujahedeen – the Taliban.
The consequence of this omission was 9/11– an attack plotted in Islamist, America-abandoned, Afghanistan.
But even that lesson was quickly unlearned.
In 2001, America displaced the Taliban using fewer troops than a large US city like Chicago uses police to keep order.
This fetish for military minimalism reached its greatest tragedy in Iraq. In 2003, another Republican administration decided to liberate Iraq with too few troops. It spent the next eight years trying to rectify this original sin. In 2011, it quit Baghdad with only slightly less drama as it has just quit Kabul.
Barack Obama, the great cosmopolitan-in-chief, was subject to the same syndrome in Libya. Its people have spent the last decade mired in conflict because his military quit the scene ASAP. Donald Trump, likewise, left the Kurds, one of his nations’ staunchest allies in the region, swinging in the wind.
How do we explain this?
Why does a state that won the Cold War, that was the victor at ‘the end of history,’ that can count in its corner prosperous states like the UK, Germany, and Australia – Russia has Belarus and China has North Korea – so derelict in pressing home its military advantage? Why can it not colonise consistent with its hard and soft power resources?
Indeed, why does it persist in decolonising itself?
While ‘decolonisation’ seems a fad of the American campus, it actually captures an enduring feature of American political character.
The United States was born against empire. Abraham Lincoln waged a civil war (1861-65) against Southern notions of a slave empire.
Its highest grossing movie franchise – Star Wars – science fictionalises a war against an evil empire. In the 20th century, Washington (a capitol named after a man who made war on George III) was a chief catalyst of the demise of the British empire. Ditto the Soviet empire. And before that the German Reich and Japanese empire.
Americans don’t do empire.
While the retreat from Afghanistan has myriad local causes, not least the crude but effective resistance of the Taliban patriarchy itself, an enduring bad faith in American imperial power should not be underestimated.
President Biden is the 45th man to lead an experiment in the organised distrust of power. We call it the US Constitution. That document established not individual rights – they predate the contract – but the appropriate limits on governmental power. A checked and balanced imperialism is no imperialism at all.
Its detractors have created a straw man.
America turns away from imperial occupation far more than it embraces it. Its ‘occupation’ of Germany, Italy, Japan, and South Korea endure because these governments demand America stay; Trump put the fear of God into EU leaders by threatening to withdraw U.S. power from their theatre.
Faced with a military insurgency, as in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan, US leaders and voters inevitably lose heart. Presidents look for the exits. The United States decolonises itself.
The abject fear of Afghani translators and democrats, of students and teachers, and, most concerningly of all, of women and LGBTQ+ people on the airfield at Bagram is what decolonisation looks like.
Professor Tim Lynch’s book In the Shadow of the Cold War: American foreign policy from George Bush Sr to Donald Trump, published by Cambridge University Press, is available now online or wherever books are sold.
A version of this article was first published in the Herald Sun.
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