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LETTER | Joe Biden dismounted the Afghan tiger when predecessors couldn't

LETTER | The sight of thousands of Afghans swarming the airport, and pushing and shoving to get on board departing airliners, the sight of those clinging on to taxiing US Air Force transport aircraft and other distressing sights are reminiscence of the events taking place during the chaotic US withdrawal from Vietnam in 1975.

Like Vietnam, it was certainly not a mission accomplished moment.

Nixon’s decision to quit Vietnam, however, was relatively easier to make and its aftermath was less painful to endure as his administration was under tremendous pressure from the American public to do so.

The situation then, however, was almost similar to the current situation in Afghanistan. The US was engaged in a war that it could not conclusively win. Billions of dollars were wasted to prop up an unpopular and corrupt regime whose sole justification for their existence was their willing support for the US. Under the circumstances, it was seen as a strategically necessary move, given the US perception of the geostrategic situation at that time and the need for the US to pursue its Cold War containment strategy.

The US went into Afghanistan almost immediately after the 9/11 attack by Al-Qaeda on the World Trade Centre in 2001. It was declared as a retaliatory action against the Taliban ruled Afghan government, which harboured and allowed Al-Qaeda to train its fighters on its soil.

Added to this was the compelling need to soothe its wounded pride and to remind the world that the US, as the sole superpower at that time, is a power not to be messed with.

The Al-Qaeda attack was an ignominious blow to US pride. It was the first successful and massively destructive attack on the US mainland. To rub salt in injury, it was carried out by a ragtag terrorist group which logically was no match to the technologically superior US military.

The decision to go into Afghanistan was easy. So was the move to legitimise the invasion and to get NATO partners on board. The US war against Al-Qaeda was swiftly and craftily turned into the global war against terrorism.

The US chose the wrong local allies

Twenty years down the road, Afghanistan continued to be the elusive neighbourhood, which has been proven throughout history, that is not susceptible to foreign domination.

In hindsight, the US could have left Afghanistan immediately after the successful elimination of Osama bin Laden. It could at least triumphantly celebrate its “mission accomplished” moment.

The problem is, Afghanistan is a proverbial tiger that you cannot dismount once you mounted it.

The previous successive US presidents were aware of this and considering the political implications, none were brave enough to make this tough decision.

Despite the heavy financial cost involved, they would rather continue to ride this untamed tiger. To control the tiger, they assumed that it needs to be continually fed, with the hope that one day it could eventually be subdued. It was a wastefully and expensive strategy. The strategy of merely feeding the tiger without making any plan to rein in, control and eventually dismount it was a fatally wrong strategy.

Biden, according to his detractors, may have made a mistake in making an arguably ill-considered and naïve decision to quickly quit Afghanistan. But the painful outcome, no matter how unpleasant it was, has relieved the US of an enormous financial, strategic and political burden.

The US had spent about two trillion dollars and sacrificed thousands of American lives in a war that they could not win. It had nothing to do with the quality of its troops nor the efficacy of its military technology. Like in Vietnam, they had chosen the wrong local comrade in arms.

Believing that democracy is the path that Afghanistan should take to achieve domestic peace and stability, the US failed to realise that the scourge of corruption is a lurking threat that can easily undermine this effort if it is not effectively reined.

The Afghans, like the Vietnamese under the Thieu regime, were resentful of their corrupt government. The corollary to this was the negative perception that goes with it, that the US was actively propping up these corrupt regimes.

The swiftness of the Taliban take over due to the lack of resistance put up by the Afghan forces, the number of defections that have taken place, and billions of dollars of military hardware being handed over to the Taliban forces testify to the fact that the Afghan regime was never a popular choice of its people, despite their cravings of a better political and social environment.

A new beginning for US-Afghan ties?

With the major burden of occupation being off-loaded from US shoulders, the Biden administration would still have to deal with some residual burden of its twenty years presence in Afghanistan.

The US will still have to deal with refugee issues which could possibly rise to a scale similar to that of the post-Vietnam withdrawal era. It is heartening to note that they have been assured by the Biden administration that they will not be left high and dry.

Also reassuring was the pledge made by the new Taliban government that it would not take any retaliatory action against those who were working with the previous regime or the US government.

It is hoped that the Taliban would keep to their promises. This would facilitate smooth and peaceful management of refugee relocation efforts by the US and other international agencies.

The Biden administration should now be actively planning to engage the new Afghan government. The developments that took place recently may positively suggest that the new Taliban regime is markedly different from the old Taliban regime of twenty years ago.

The new Taliban appears to have adopted a conciliatory approach in its march to return to power. It has also openly declared that its interests lie within the Afghan border and will not get itself involved or engaged in the international jihadist movement.

This is indeed a reassuring development. The twenty years spent in exile in a vibrant and dynamic Muslim nation must have motivated and inspired their leaders to adopt a pragmatic approach to governance and in dealing with matters related to the international community.

It could be expected that there will also be gradual changes to their internal social and political landscape. These changes are likely to be slow with occasional hiccups now and then. With positive encouragement, especially in the area of women and other human rights, the Afghans should be allowed to maintain the progress at their own comfortable pace.

Forty-five years ago, nobody would have thought that Vietnam, hastily abandoned by the US in the environment of intense hostility, would one day be one of its closest strategic and economic partners in Southeast Asia.

We can pin similar hope for the future of Afghan-US relations. The signs that favourably point toward the possibility of a reset in relations are already there to be explored. This opportunity would not have come to the fore had the US decided to continue to ride the tiger that is Afghanistan.

Joe Biden may be harshly castigated for his relatively unpopular decision to withdraw from Afghanistan. The US, throughout its history, has had a number of, by common definition, brave leaders. Leaders who were ever ready to flaunt and utilise the US military might with impunity.

By quitting Afghanistan, Biden took the risk of making that highly unpopular, painful but logically right decision which his predecessors did not have the nerve to make. Unwittingly or otherwise, Biden has displayed an uncommon set of wisdom and bravery which arguably sets him apart from his predecessors.

AHMAD GHAZALI ABU-HASSAN is a retired Malaysian army officer and a former professor in strategic studies and international law. TEH YIK KOON is a professor at the National Defence University of Malaysia.

The views expressed here are those of the author/contributor and do not necessarily represent the views of Malaysiakini.

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