"But how can you live and have no story to tell?" Fyodor Dostoevsky
"A supposedly highly-trained Afghan army melted away without a fight"
How to best sum up the West's war and intervention in Afghanistan; hubris, arrogance, and a complete failure? Yep, that kind of captures the big picture.
Of course, the Americans are taking most of the flak for the bungled withdraw. But, all the same, I must say that NATO countries are equally culpable for this tangled mess.
Today, a ragtag army of Taliban fighters, armed only with AK47's and RPG7s, is consolidating control of the country. Twenty years of battle with the most sophisticated armies the West could field has these medieval fighters as victors.
All the helicopters, jets, drones, satellites, integrated command and control systems and special forces couldn't defeat blokes wearing cheap sports shoes, riding around in pick-up trucks.
Meanwhile, a supposedly highly-trained Afghan army melted away without a fight. It never had much of a stomach for battle, and with the West gone, the smell of defeat hung in the air. Soldiers abandoned their posts, changed into civilian clothes and headed home.
Why did it come to this? Undoubtedly, the military staff colleges and think tanks will dwell on that question for decades to come. Pundits will earn PhDs, books will come forth, as reputations get polished and trashed in equal numbers.
These assessments will throw in Sun Tzu (孫子) — 'know your enemy, understand yourself and win a thousand battles', plus a bit of 'winning without fighting'. Supplement that with some Carl von Clausewitz and a smidgen of Machiavelli, and you've got intellectual heft.
Nonetheless, in the end, it comes down to a complete lack of comprehension and commitment.
No amount of rumination by professors and soldier-scholars will change that assessment.
Because, at its core, the mission was unclear. Moreover, holding a few remote compounds does not constitute a victory. Likewise, sitting inside a secure 'green zone' or at guarded airbases gives one the false impression of control. Still, the Taliban waited with patience outside the perimeter.
Even a meagre understanding of Afghan history and past wars should give pause for caution. Perhaps they don't teach Kipling at school anymore, him being too colonial and imperial.
I have no idea if the Taliban are adherents of Sun Tzu. What is clear, they've followed his guiding principle; make time your ally. They waited, knowing the West would grow tired of the war.
Yet, the biggest failing is political. For that, Biden is in the direct firing line, along with Johnson and the NATO leaders. Other culprits are Bush, Blair and much of the Western establishment for gamely going along.
The politicians sowed the seeds of this debacle decades ago with a failure to plan. What was the ultimate aim of the campaign? Was that goal achievable, and did anyone have an exit strategy? Because fleeing in the night doesn't work as a confidence builder for those you leave behind.
To all these questions, the answer is clear. The initial mission to rout Al-Qaeda from its Afghan base succeeded. That was the time to leave. Instead, the mission morphed towards nation-building, a fraught prospect in a country that runs on tribal loyalties. Anchoring all this was much talk of getting girls into school — a worthy initiative but not enough. So the only conclusion to draw is that a failure to plan led to a failure!
People scramble to Kabul airport as helicopters lift off from a U.S. Embassy once again. No matter how many times U.S. secretary of state Blinken rejects comparisons with Saigon 1975, the imagery defeats him.
Whether Afghanistan reverts and becomes a base for terrorism is one worry, the other is the fate of the people who put their faith in the West. Unfortunately, the signs are not promising.
If Afghanistan descends into chaos, you could argue this serves the West's geopolitical interests by stirring trouble on China's border, especially as Afghanistan abuts the sensitive Xinjiang region.
Leaving also removes a distraction for the forthcoming U.S. mid-term elections. Biden would like the weight of Afghanistan off his shoulders, although Iraq may yet prove a heavier burden.
All of this is at the cost of allies questioning whether they can trust the West to stay the course. As I've previously discussed, countries in Asia are treading a careful line between China and the U.S.A. as that 'cold war' escalates. So what conclusions will they draw from this sudden departure?
Also asking questions are families in the West, who sent their sons and daughters, mostly from post-industrial towns, to die in this futile effort. They deserve answer. But, as the media swirl goes on, where is Tony Blair and Alistair Campbell? Always so ready to offer their sage advice, these charlatans stand damned by their silence.
A mea culpa from Blair would be a start, but I'm not holding my breath.
Walter De Havilland was one of the last of the colonial coppers. He served 35 years in the Royal Hong Kong Police and Hong Kong Police Force. He's long retired.