The Afghan Tragedy and the Age of Unpeace
The end of the US-led “forever war” in Afghanistan will not bring peace, because the methods that countries use to attack each other have changed fundamentally. The world has entered a new age of perpetual competition among powerful states, with the US-China rivalry at its core.
BERLIN – The images of desperate Afghans scaling the perimeter fence at Kabul’s airport in an attempt to flee Taliban rule provide a heartbreaking record of our geopolitical moment. The brutal way in which the West’s former allies in Afghanistan are being left to their fate encapsulates the determination of US President Joe Biden’s administration to shed old international commitments as it embraces a new strategy.
There is much to criticize about the United States’ hasty withdrawal from Afghanistan, not least the lack of concern for the rights of Afghan women and girls, intelligence failures, and the absence of planning. But underlying many of the critiques is an unshakeable nostalgia, even grief, at the passing of an era. The US-led intervention in Afghanistan that began 20 years ago was the last vestige of a different world, defined by the quest for a liberal international order and the stated mission of bringing democracy and the rule of law to far-flung regions. Many in the West who attack Biden’s policy are in fact upset about the return of brutal geopolitical competition.
To understand Biden’s decision, we need to grasp the essence of this new era. The same globalizing forces that brought us together when the Western mission in Afghanistan began are now driving us apart. Global supply chains, mass migration, and instantaneous information flows have accompanied soaring inequality, fueling an epidemic of envy as people everywhere compare themselves to the world’s most privileged. These forces have helped foster a politics centered around grievances, identity, and a backlash against internationalism, epitomized by former US President Donald Trump but repeated in various guises around the world.