America backed donkeys in Kabul, we should check our Somali horses

Author: Daniel K Kalinaki. PHOTO/FILE. 

What you need to know:

  • Afghanistan shows us that a donkey, even one that is fed and trained well, can never be turned into a racehorse. 

America’s withdrawal from Afghanistan is a military humiliation. America’s longest war has ended in defeat. More than 2,400 U.S. soldiers were killed, on top of close to 4,000 U.S. civilian contractors, before adding aid workers, journalists, and Afghan fighters or civilians.

The Taliban control more territory and are more politically entrenched today than they were 20 years ago when the war started. They also have more weapons and materiel, most of it simply taken off the so-called Afghan National Army. After the Soviet Union, another superpower has bitten the dust here.

Yet, as humiliating as it is, retreat is America’s least-worst option. The attack on Afghanistan was premised on its support for al Qaeda, which had orchestrated the attacks on the U.S. in September 2001. The war was meant to erode al Qaeda’s capabilities, shift the theatre of war away from Kansas to Kandahar, and enhance America’s overall security and hegemony.

Al Qaeda has been decimated and a series of leaders, including Osama bin Laden, put to the sword, but it has, over the past two decades, birthed, catalysed or energised the emergence of off-shoots including the Islamic State, Boko Haram, al Shabaab, among others. 

The conventional war on terror seen in Iraq and Afghanistan has morphed into guerrilla ‘whack-a-mole’ warfare in smaller theatres all over the globe. The result is asymmetric warfare in which the conventional capabilities of a superpower can be more of handicaps than assets.

In addition, violent extremism has found new converts with new ideologies, including racial ones, and created new theatres of conflict. 

The typical American citizen is today probably more likely to be killed by a home-grown extremist shooting up a school classroom, than by a religious zealot-turned-kamikaze pilot. The war shifted from Kansas to Kandahar, and back to Kansas.

One in four Americans today were not born when the war started. Sandwiched between mass-shootings in Columbine, Ohio and San Jose, California, or Boulder, Colorado, or Indianapolis, Indiana and so on, the war in Afghanistan was increasingly to many a distant, expensive and hard-to-justify venture. 

The war was long over, bar the shooting. President Biden, with more political career miles behind rather than ahead of him, simply had the courage to pull the plug. 
Here are two important take-outs from this debacle. First, the ignominy of military defeat conceals deeper political and economic damage to America. 
The country’s military-industrial complex has, without doubt, benefitted from the $2 trillion spent on the war in Afghanistan.

But the opportunity cost now shows in America’s crumbling public infrastructure, ever-growing debt, and the narrow gap with rivals in cutting-edge areas like renewable energy, e-commerce and artificial intelligence. 

Distracted by unending conflicts in the Middle East quagmire, America now faces a plucky China emboldened by two decades of robust growth and political, economic and diplomatic in-roads into key territories. And unlike Soviet swagger, Chinese chutzpah is built on stronger economic fundamentals.  

Empires rise and fall on the back of war but America can now see, in its rear-view mirror, a rising power which, in the words of Sun Tzu, knows that the best way to win is not to fight at all – especially a long, expensive and unwinnable war that offers no strategic geopolitical rewards. 

Having seen the limits of hard military power, America must rediscover its soft power to persuade – and renew its highest considerations with long-standing but recently-ignored allies. 

The second lesson is more relevant to Uganda, given our own long-term military adventure in Somalia. Whatever military gains the U.S. made on the battlefield, Afghan politicians wasted through corruption and narrow ethnic chauvinism. They failed to build legitimacy and support. In the end, no one was willing to fight for them. 

External interventions can tilt the balance in favour of progressive local groups, but they cannot clothe them with legitimacy. Many Afghans chose austere Taliban rule over the corrupt decadence of their so-called government – or at least did not consider the latter worth fighting to keep.

About 15 years after our troops went into Somalia, is this not a good time to ask whether the military gains are being translated into political legitimacy by the authorities in Mogadishu? 

Afghanistan shows us that a donkey, even one that is fed and trained well, can never be turned into a racehorse. 

Mr Kalinaki is a journalist and  poor man’s freedom fighter. 
[email protected]; @Kalinaki

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