As the last, desperate evacuees scramble aboard planes in Kabul, as suicide bombers threaten to kill yet more blameless people, as a vast tide of refugees inundates the border with Pakistan and as the remaining population cowers, trapped and in fear before a resurgent Taliban, all those in the west who fought for 20 long and bloody years to shape this country’s future must pause, stand back and ask themselves: what have we done?
Since the al-Qaida attacks on US cities on 11 September 2001, which triggered a global convulsion, remote, impoverished Afghanistan has touched, influenced and tested every great question, every big idea and movement – ideological, religious, geo-strategic – of our times. Many, for example, will view this staggering defeat, which is how history will surely judge it, as primarily a defeat for the problematic western concepts of humanitarian intervention and a rules-based world order.
It’s undeniable that significant, even inspirational advances were made as the Nato allies acted out their theories of nation-building. Generations of young Afghans gained an education. Careers opened up to girls and women. Healthcare was available to rural villages where none previously existed. Free media and free speech flourished. A crude, vital democracy took shape. These are proud achievements.