Within minutes after it was taken, the photo of US Major General Chris Donahue boarding a C-17 plane in Kabul went viral. The 20-year war had ended in a humiliating defeat and the retreat of the world’s most powerful army. That image evoked memories of the summer of 1962 when the French army – then the fourth largest in the world – was brought to its knees and driven out of Algeria.
There were other images from Kabul airport of equal significance; they, however, did not make it onto the front pages of newspapers or television screens. Apart from Al Jazeera, none reported the pillage of the civilian airport by the departing US forces. Taliban officials estimated the damages to be around $23 million.
Even after their gratuitous trashing of the civilian airport, the US maintained its freeze of an estimated $9.5 billion belonging to the Afghan Central Bank. Yet it had the audacity to call for the swift and safe passage out of Afghanistan for its remaining citizens and those Afghan allies who worked for them.
The Americans, it seemed, had taken a page from the playbook of defeated settler colonials in Africa. When the Portuguese settler colonial regime was finally defeated in Mozambique in 1975 they took with them all the goods and capital they could. As for the property which they could not carry such as buildings and tractors, they destroyed them.
In Algeria, a similar picture emerged. During their departure, the French took hundreds of thousands of maps and historical documents from the colonial period (1830-1962) and others dating back to the Ottoman era (1518-1830). Today, the Algerian authorities are locked into a bitter diplomatic battle to retrieve the documents from France, which refuses to return them on the grounds that they are classified and subject to national defence secrets.
Apart from the historical documents, France is also refusing to return the skulls of resistance fighters who were killed and then beheaded during the war of independence. These apparent colonial trophies are now on display in the Homme Museum in Paris.
Like in Algeria, the defeat of the US in Afghanistan has left in its wake a mad rush to the exits of Afghan collaborators, professionals and people with technical and managerial skills. It remains to be seen how long their welcome will last in the West. Despite their initial pledges to receive all those seeking refuge, several European countries have begun to express concern over the numbers.
It must be recalled that it was only after intense international pressure did the government of Charles de Gaulle agree to resettle 40,000 Algerians who had fought alongside the French in the war of independence.
Regardless of the promises of integration and support, the multitudes fleeing Afghanistan will have to exercise patience before their individual hopes and expectations are realised. A lot will depend on personal ambition, drive and good fortune. In other words, they can either take charge of their own destinies or allow others to do so.
As for the Taliban, who have inherited a state apparatus that was broken and dysfunctional, they now have an opportunity to prove their detractors wrong. They can, with the right leadership and resolve, lift Afghanistan from the ashes of war and civil strife.
At the height of the Eurozone debt crisis in 2008 the economies of Portugal, Italy, Greece and Spain (derisively called PIGS) were worst hit. Astonishingly, thousands of Portuguese nationals turned to their former colonies, Mozambique and Angola, in search of a brighter future. In a stunning reversal of roles, Angola, after 400 years of colonisation, was buying everything from banks to real estate and telecommunications in Portugal.
Afghanistan, with its abundance of natural and human resources, can now chart a new course in its history.
Unsurprisingly, the era of US occupation failed to ‘remake’ Afghanistan. A January 2021 report by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction uncovered what the real priorities of the US in Afghanistan were. Of the $946 billion that was invested in the country, $816 billion, or 86 per cent, were allocated for military operations. The report further revealed that less than two per cent of the overall US spending actually reached the Afghan people in terms of infrastructure and development projects.
Surely, if the US and its allies had spent more on health care Afghanistan would not have been left with a life expectancy of 63 years, a maternal mortality rate of 638 per 100,000 births, and a child stunting rate of 38 per cent.
After two decades, the US fiasco in Afghanistan had become unsustainable, costing too much not just in terms of lives and money. In the same way that the defeat of France in Algeria diminished its status as a world power, so too the US defeat in Afghanistan has undermined its standing on the world stage. The era of attempting to ‘remake other countries’ through military intervention is over. Afghanistan has proven that it was always a delusion.
Note: This page was updated at 18.06 BST on 4 September 2021 to replace “Ireland” with “Italy” in the list of PIGS countries.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.