Afghanistan shows Uncle Sam's role as world policeman wearing thin

Struan Stevenson
U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad (L) and Taliban co-founder Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar shake hands during the signing ceremony of the U.S.-Taliban peace agreement in Doha, Qatar, on February 29, 2020. File Photo by EPA-EFE
U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad (L) and Taliban co-founder Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar shake hands during the signing ceremony of the U.S.-Taliban peace agreement in Doha, Qatar, on February 29, 2020. File Photo by EPA-EFE

Aug. 24 (UPI) -- Korea, Vietnam, Cuba, Iraq, Afghanistan. The list of wars the Americans have lost continues to grow.

Uncle Sam's role as the world's policeman is beginning to look a little threadbare. The cost in blood and treasure of American involvement in all these conflicts has been enormous -- millions of deaths, including tens of thousands of lost American lives.


The latest debacle in Afghanistan has sparked a chain of international fire and fury aimed at U.S. President Joe Biden. A debate in the United Kingdom's House of Commons on Wednesday saw speaker after speaker, from every political faction, condemn the U.S. president over America's "shameful" withdrawal. Cabinet ministers, members of Parliament and leaders of the British armed forces heaped their criticism on the Biden administration for unilaterally pulling troops out of Afghanistan in a badly planned action that led to chaotic scenes in Kabul last week.

The anger in London was understandable. The return of the Taliban to power in Afghanistan after 20 years has been denounced as a catastrophic failure by the West. During two decades of deployment in the country, there have been 457 deaths of U.K. armed forces personnel. More than 2,200 U.K. military personnel were wounded in action, many of them with life-changing injuries. The families of the dead and injured are now asking what their sacrifice was for.

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The United States and Britain went to Afghanistan to drive out al-Qaida and the Taliban following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. They succeeded, and slowly but surely, a sort of stability and return to normality was created. The capital, Kabul, was transformed. Women, who had been brutally repressed under Taliban rule, were free to attend school and university and to seek jobs. Now they nervously await the deliberation of so-called Taliban "scholars," who will decide on their future rights.

Reports from some of the outlying towns and cities captured early by the Taliban indicate that marauding gangs of Taliban fighters have hunted for girls as young as 12 for sex slaves. Women have been ordered to wear the burka, while teenage girls have been forced to marry Taliban fighters against their will, and female students have been sent home from schools and colleges.

Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, who only three years ago was languishing in a Pakistani jail for terrorist offenses, returned in triumph to his homeland last week after 20 years in exile. He was greeted by hordes of Taliban fighters in Kandahar, the cradle and spiritual home of the Taliban. Baradar, who was chief of the Taliban office in Qatar and led the negotiating team in talks with the Trump administration, looks set to become the next president of Afghanistan.

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There will be no attempt to restore any form of democracy, however. The Taliban's spokesman, Waheedullah Hashimi, told journalists: "There will be no democratic system because it has no base in our country." He said, "We are not going to discuss what kind of political system we should apply in Afghanistan because it is clear. It is the sharia [Islamic law] and that's it."

In an Islamic emirate that in many ways will mirror the system in Iran, Baradar and the Taliban's superiors will be answerable to Haibatullah Akhundzada, the Taliban's supreme leader. Akhundzada is known as a hard-line religious figure who was responsible for most of the fatwas (religious edicts) proclaimed by the jihadists, which decreed the public execution of murderers, the stoning of women guilty of adultery and the amputation of hands and feet of those found guilty of theft. Since taking over the supreme leadership of the Taliban in May 2016, Akhundzada has strengthened the group's finances through drug trafficking. He will find a plentiful supply of opium in the abundant poppy fields of Afghanistan, and the West can look forward to a surge in heroin addiction.

Meanwhile, despite assurances of moderation and "humility in front of Allah" by Baradar, there are confirmed reports of the capture, assault and murder of a well-known Afghan comedian Nazar Mohammad, who had made jokes about the bearded jihadists. There are reports that militants are going door to door in Kabul, searching for interpreters and Western allies, who many fear will face execution. Britain is trying desperately to fly out those who are at greatest risk, with priority given to women, but Taliban roadblocks on all routes to the main airport in Kabul have made it almost impossible for people to escape.

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The British government has pledged to take 20,000 Afghan refugees, although during the debate in the House of Commons, many MPs said that was not nearly enough. Prime Minister Boris Johnson has encountered sharp criticism from all sides of the political spectrum for the failure of MI6 to realize that Afghanistan was on the brink of collapse, with many claiming that the country could became an extremist base again and the United Kingdom could face terrorist attacks. The CIA must share that blame.

The fact that a plethora of terrorist groups across the Middle East like al-Qaida and Hamas have rushed to congratulate the Taliban for their capture of Kabul bodes ill for the future. As the chaotic scenes in Afghanistan dominate news coverage of the crisis, Biden and his Secretary of State Antony Blinken may pause to reflect on their disastrous decision to rush to the exit door without any coherent plan. It was a decision that will have dire consequences for the beleaguered Afghan population and for the world at large. It was a decision that will also have a lasting impact on America's "special relationship" with Britain.


Struan Stevenson is the coordinator of the Campaign for Iran Change. He was a member of the European Parliament representing Scotland (1999-2014), president of the Parliament's Delegation for Relations with Iraq (2009-14) and chairman of the Friends of a Free Iran Intergroup (2004-14). He is chair of the "In Search of Justice" committee on the protection of political freedoms in Iran. He is an international lecturer on the Middle East and president of the European Iraqi Freedom Association.

The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

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