The message from the Afghan hills says that the Taliban is a reality whether one likes them or not. The other part is that the US sun is sinking, Russian is stalled and China's is rising. There is nothing glorious about it but historically, this always happens as the world power balance changes over time from one foot to another.
The US rose to global prominence after WW 2 as Europe was depleted and the US reigned supreme. But it was already growing despite the crash of the 30s. It began in the US but went global. The US recovered but the world took longer and among other things it angered German people who were more receptive to Hitler after that. But globally the US was the triumphant power.
Europe had supported Hitler in the early days at least in the interim period, hoping that the German army would crush the Soviet Union, Europe’s main enemy. So it was not averse to the war if it ended socialism. But the Soviets resisted when war broke out and at Stalingrad put up a resistance which stopped the marching Nazi army on its tracks. The war however also destroyed Europe and not only did that end its global domination through colonialism and other methods which were already in decline, the US and Soviet Union both rose making Europe a subsidiary power.
The cold war’s finest and final years
This Soviet Union grew from strength to strength and ultimately became the biggest challenge to US global domination. The US also conducted its wars – the Korean and the Vietnam wars- but the first showed its strength but the second marked the era of its beginning of decline as it pursued its enemy.
The Soviet Union took over much of Europe –East Europe – after WW 2 and established what used to be called – socialist imperialism- which basically meant that it was running a string of colonies in Eastern Europe. These countries too began low key resistance and the states were slowly crumbling when Soviet Russia encountered Afghanistan and through a series of events invaded it.
That action immediately produced resistance and Afghanistan’s tribal society produced the Taliban and other groups who fought back with massive backing by the US who wanted Soviet Russia to fall. The Soviet Union duly did and the war‘s cost was historical. The internal crisis of the socialist world was compounded by the military defeat in Afghanistan. It crumbled and died to produce a Russia which is very different from its past.
The US basked in the glory of Soviet Union’s demise but the Taliban gained power and the Mujahedeen, - Middle Eastern and Central Asian Muslim groups- became powerful and took on the US. The 9/ 11 was symbolic and the US led a “war of terror’ against them and also took over Afghanistan from the forces it had initially supported. Soon it had also got involved in Iraq as well producing the IS and more groups.
Afghanistan and China next?
Twenty years later the US has left basking in a rather inglorious departure scene with the Taliban returning. This group is no longer as powerful as it was before and its military and economic inability is clear. It’s a propped up group with China in the lead aided by Russia and Pakistan following orders in pursuit of its own agenda- the permanent Indo-Pak war . Biden has basically accepted who the real power behind the Taliban is and thinks they will find a way to deal with both China and the Taliban.
What is obvious is that no permanent power remains and today’s aspiring to be supreme China too may look like the ramshackle US that stares at the world now. The dried up Taliban is another example of the same phenomenon. It’s hardly dreaded as a régime changing force anywhere. It’s not feared as before and its first few weeks has shown that without being propped up by its new friends, it has no chance of surviving.
Lessons from history?
The age of a few powers deciding the fate of the rest is over globally is gone. It had begun in the days of WW2 but much of that world is gone. No power seems able to continue for long without a shift of power elsewhere. The death of the cold war has not seen the end of bi-polarity or a hostility based “camps” fighting each other because the play space now is economic not political or military.
China’s rise has not been linked to military strength but economic growth. China’s economy is also based on market capitalism but with significant differences in regulations and supervision. It’s also a dramatic challenge to European ideas of both capitalist and socialist or command economy models as China uses party command structure to run its open market economy. That itself shows how the world has changed and is capable of changing from the days of the post WW 2 world.
The world now sees the rise of many full, half, quarter and micro-powers which are not under any ideological system that is global. It is a world of multiple powers, not one paramount power. To survive the “Us and Them” model –made popular during the cold war won’t work now. Power is permanent but the powerful are transient. It’s this lesson that the world needs to learn to survive.