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GettyImages-1234745859 Wakil KOHSAR / AFP

The Great Collapse

The implosion of Afghanistan’s government, propped up for two decades by the United States and its allies, recalls Ernest Hemingway’s description of how someone goes bankrupt: “Gradually and then suddenly.” Now that the Taliban have returned to power, observers are scrambling to understand why it happened and what it will mean for Afghans and the world.

In this Big PictureRichard Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, faults US President Joe Biden for not recognizing that avoiding defeat in Afghanistan had become more important than attaining victory. Likewise, Brahma Chellaney of the Center for Policy Research in New Delhi blames Biden’s decision to withdraw all US forces for the Afghan military’s inability to resist the Taliban’s advances, and notes that this was the second time in two years that America abandoned a besieged ally.

But Charles Kupchan of Georgetown University says that Biden was right to pull the plug on the Afghan government, and that the entire Western strategy was flawed from the outset, insofar as the goal was to establish a unitary, centralized state. For Bill Emmott, a former editor-in-chief of The Economist, the problem was less a bad strategy than a bad neighbor in Pakistan, and America’s failure to turn it into a benign one. More radically, Columbia University’s Jeffrey D. Sachs sees in Afghanistan a longstanding pattern of dubious US military interventions in developing countries, arguing that American priorities once again betrayed policymakers’ contempt for the local population.

Now, however, few doubt that America’s global credibility has been badly dented by the humiliating outcome in Afghanistan. As Fawaz A. Gerges of the London School of Economics notes, the harrowing scenes of panic and desperation that accompanied the fall of Kabul foreshadow a humanitarian catastrophe for which the US and its allies will be blamed. And Jim O’Neill, a member of the Pan-European Commission on Health and Sustainable Development, asks what waning trust in America could mean for the future of the dollar and the “exorbitant privilege” the US enjoys by virtue of issuing the world’s main reserve currency.

As for Afghanistan, China and Russia, both of which have good relations with the Taliban, will now be the key players in the country’s reconstruction. And with America out, notes Djoomart Otorbaev, a former prime minister of Kyrgyzstan, the vision of a more integrated Central Asia, with open trade and better infrastructure, could begin to take shape.

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