Make no mistake about it, President Biden’s humiliating Afghanistan scramble is one of the defining moments of the 21st century. The ramifications of this inevitable yet disastrously mismanaged climbdown will ripple across the globe for decades to come, reshaping the international order and ushering in as yet unknown alliances and rivalries.
As we approach the 20th anniversary of the World Trade Centre attacks, it’s difficult to avoid the conclusion that the much-lauded War on Terror has been an ignominious failure for the West.
What has all this squandered blood and treasure really taught us?
For one, we really should have seen the warning signs long before now. The failures in Iraq, Syria and Libya were hardly subtle hints as to how this would all end, yet still the Western liberal democracies persisted. Just a little more money, just a little more freedom, just a few more rights enshrined in law and all would be well. Just one last push…
The sudden outpouring of introspection within our political class confirms that the jig is up and we can’t just return to business as usual. Even Tony Blair has been forced to admit that nation building with a bomb in one hand and a pallet of cash in the other has been an abject disaster. Such a naively reductionist view of our human world has left us poorer, at greater risk and more insecure than we were on that bright September morning two decades ago.
The main lesson, that will be studiously overlooked by our elites, is the inescapable idea that nations and cultures are real. Contrary to the materialist view that defined the 20th century, a nation is so much more than simply the sum of its parts. We can no longer deny that countries and their attendant cultures are real, in the same sense that a human being is more than just a collection of chemical and biological reactions.
Afghanistan demonstrates the limit of what technocracy and materialism can achieve. After all, if nations were merely a fortuitous balance of institutions, Brexit would not have been necessary and the Middle East would now be that shining city on a hill.
The hubris of the West’s interventionist adventures leaves us with no option but to place nations and cultures into the same abstract, yet peculiarly real category as mathematics and morality. The fact that we cannot isolate or reduce these qualities without recourse to some invisible realm of existence does not render them meaningless. In fact, quite the reverse.
Clearly there is more to our world than science, politics and technical expertise can be expected to fully encapsulate. The sooner we begin to understand and respect these intangible yet self-evident truths of our existence, the sooner we can begin to embrace a more useful and realistic view of both ourselves and the world we inhabit.
Above all else, Afghanistan reminds us that there are more things in heaven and earth, than are dreamt of in our philosophy.