Many Israelis who do not follow events beyond our immediate neighborhood were surprised and even shocked by the American pullout from Afghanistan and its abandonment to the mercies of the Taliban, an Islamist terror organization.
Scenes of Afghans fearing for their lives and convoys of refugees pouring out of the country are heart wrenching, indeed, and the western countries who were involved should do their utmost to absorb refugees who are running for their life. However, the events should surprise no one, nor is there any reason to accuse the Biden administration of abandonment (although intelligence forecasts of the immediate repercussions appear to have been flawed). One can however certainly blame those who thought it would be possible to change Iraq and Afghanistan and forcibly impose on them Western values.
Since the 9/11 attack on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon 20 years ago, and the US invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan, most Americans have gradually realized the extent of the fiasco. Despite the heavy loss of life and the astronomic sums it invested, the US failed to achieve sustainable, organic change.
What is more, democratic states operate differently than what countries like Russia, for example, can do in places like Syria. The US cannot adopt such methods, which are incompatible with American values and public opinion.
The US response to 9/11 was justified and would have remained popular for years had it been confined to dealing a significant blow to al-Qaeda and its perpetrators. Bin Laden’s eventual assassination in Pakistan, authorized by Obama, came a decade after the Bush administration ordered the invasion of Afghanistan, plunging the US military into the Afghan swamp.
There is a difference between the presumption of change in Iraq and Afghanistan. The occupation of Afghanistan was carried out by an international coalition and involved many arms of the administration, not just the military. Nonetheless, it was still a failure.
The important lesson of the Afghan saga and previous foreign interventions is the limitations of power and of attempts to “instill order” in other countries. This is a lesson that we Israelis must also take to heart remembering that we left Lebanon and Gaza after a prolonged and unnecessary presence. Amazingly, some among us still want the IDF to retake Gaza and “sort out the mess” there, as if this is a realistic option, and despite the bitter lesson that the cost in lives and resources is totally disproportionate to any benefit.
I want to stress that I am no pacifist. I believe that a strong US military makes the world a better place. Israel, too, would be a lot less secure without the might of the IDF and US backing, while prospects of achieving peace would be reduced.
The US achieved its international standing not only by having the strongest army in the world, but also because of the Marshall Plan and the alliances it forged in Europe, Asia and the Middle East. The US established a system of international organizations and exerted its influence through the soft power of the dollar, Silicon Valley and Hollywood.
We should call on the US to bolster its alliances, especially in our region, where pro-Western regimes are crying out for US leadership to confront Islamists and the Ayatollahs’ regime in Tehran, and with which it can lead a regional approach to resolving the conflict with the Palestinians.
The military has a defensive (the Israel Defense Forces, remember?) and deterrent role, and the use of force is occasionally justified. But it is important to realize that to achieve our long-term goals we cannot rely on military power alone; we must strengthen the muscle that we have allowed to atrophy over the years of diplomacy and soft power.
The article was published on Jpost, August 2021