America didn’t just lose a war in Afghanistan, it may have also lost its premise for being the global policeman.

As the Taliban triumphantly walked into Kabul without firing a shot, it didn't just mark the end of the US-backed Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, who fled the country reportedly with suitcases packed with cash.

It also sounded the death knell of the grand US project to fight a 'War on Terrorism' which aimed to end the "Taliban's reign of terror" in Afghanistan and that of other like-minded groups internationally.

The so-called US "War on Terror" (WoT) spawned an attempt by Washington to export liberal democracy around the world through invasion and 'pre-emptive attacks'.

An ecosystem of think tanks emerged that viewed Muslims with suspicion creating an "Islamophobia industry," which increasingly portrayed Islam as a security threat in need of management and reform. And laws were enacted that eroded the freedoms of citizens across the globe, including the US and the UK, two chief architects of such legislation.

Following the 9/11 attacks in the US and subsequent toppling of the Taliban in Afghanistan - American attention shifted to other foes in the Middle East.

A Chinook lands at the US Embassy in Kabul as diplomatic officials flee the compound amid the Taliban advanced on the Afghan capital.
A Chinook lands at the US Embassy in Kabul as diplomatic officials flee the compound amid the Taliban advanced on the Afghan capital. (AP)

Yet even as its occupation in Iraq floundered, the Libya intervention soured, and drone strikes in Yemen, Somalia, Pakistan, Syria and the Sahel region in Africa failed to achieve long term measurable outcomes and civilian deaths mounted, Afghanistan continued to underpin the original rationale for America's global WoT campaign.

The US' WoT was "flawed" from its inception, said Arif Rafiq, a scholar at the Middle East Institutes speaking to TRT World. The WoT narrative was a catch-all term to describe "networks that are transnational but ultimately rooted in local realities."

The routing of Afghan national forces in a matter of days and the local deals it struck reflected the resilience of the Taliban in a society that it ultimately understood better than the US and NATO forces.

In a recent essay, "What about the boys: A gendered analysis of the US withdrawal and Bacha Bazi in Afghanistan," the authors spoke about the Taliban's opposition against the sexual abuse of young boys as a "key factor" in the rise of the group.

Whereas the "predatory and abusive nature" of some US-backed forces towards young Afghan boys and "the lack of concern on behalf of the US military" undermined Washington's occupation of the country.

Such stories offer an insight into how an inability and unwillingness to understand local dynamics resulted in the Taliban coming back to power and the futility of a concept like the WoT.

Rafiq, however, is not optimistic that the WoT has been all together scrapped. Instead, it has been "rebranded" with covert and special operations forces leading the charge, "but the era of large-scale occupations is over," he says

Unwinding the ideological narratives that provided the steam for the WoT will prove difficult, even as the US' global standing is diminished amid a chaotic retreat from Afghanistan.

Taliban forces outside the Afghanistan Interior Ministry in Kabul. August 16, 2021.
Taliban forces outside the Afghanistan Interior Ministry in Kabul. August 16, 2021. (Reuters)

The ghosts of the mujahideen

Far removed from Afghanistan but against that backdrop, the WoT had a "devastating and lasting impact on the discourse towards Muslims," says Farid Hafez, an Austrian academic focusing on the rise of Islamophobia in Europe.

"It has created the idea that Muslims are a threat to national and global security," added Hafez, speaking to TRT World.

Counterinsurgency tactics that were finessed in Afghanistan and Iraq have been described as "liberal forms of warfare" were imported and used domestically in countries like the UK and US towards the country's native Muslim population.

A liberal form of counterinsurgency warfare is characterised as the use of "law, administration, and procedure intended to facilitate the conquest and management of intransigent populations."

The UK's domestic WoT included blanket surveillance of Muslim and state-led targeted propaganda, which blurred the lines between civilians and enemy combatants.

An inability to distinguish who the Taliban were in the civilian population in Afghanistan led policymakers in the UK to conclude that Muslims back home were also potential security threats until proven otherwise.

US drones on Afghan rugs.
US drones on Afghan rugs. (

In his groundbreaking documentary Bitter Lake, Adam Curtis tracked the Afghan war and the impact it has had on the West. 

"Afghanistan has revealed to us the emptiness and hypocrisy of many of our beliefs," said Curtis, adding that the US and the UK were "haunted by the mujahideen ghosts."

Those ghosts resulted in "Western democracies slowly destroying their very own cherished values," says Moazzam Begg, a former Guantanamo Bay detainee who was kidnapped and tortured by US forces in Afghanistan and held without charge for three years until his release in 2005.

Now an Outreach Director at CAGE, a British based human rights group, Begg says that the two-decade-long occupation of Afghanistan and the WoT "will be read in the history books as one of the biggest failures in the western world."

Guantanamo Bay, a living relic of the WoT, remains active and holds 39 people without charge, whereas 9 have died in custody. The vast majority of the 780 prisoners that have been through Guantanamo Bay were tortured by US officials, although no US official to this day has been charged.

"The abuses in secret CIA sites in Kandahar, Bagram and Guantanamo prisons were all part of the ‘shock and awe’ designed not just to terrify the prisoners but to send a message about US supremacy and military might to the Muslim world," says Begg speaking to TRT World.

In an ironic twist, one of the Taliban commanders to give a victory speech in the presidential palace in Kabul vacated by the now-former President Ghani claims to have been a prisoner in Guantanamo Bay for eight years, and had been released as part of the negotiations with the Americans.

That the US occupation of Afghanistan would end in such a way is a noteworthy turning point in the WoT, if not its ultimate end.

But the ultimate legacy of the WoT, says Arif Rafiq, "is the destruction of numerous Muslim-majority countries, the loss of countless Muslim lives, and the radicalisation of European politics."

Source: TRT World