Afghanistan Crisis: US President Joe Biden knew what British Prime Minister Clement Attlee knew in 1947…

Ian Buruma reflects on the Afghan Crisis. He says US President Joe Biden knew what British Prime Minister Clement Attlee knew in 1947:

On February 20, 1947, Clement Attlee, the socialist British prime minister, informed parliament that India would become independent no later than June 1948. Attlee could not wait for the British to withdraw from a country whose leaders, Muslim and Hindu, had long been clamoring for independence. But India was seething with violent unrest. Muslim leaders were afraid of Hindu dominance. Worried that a civil war might land the British in an uncontrollable situation, Attlee decided to end the British Raj even earlier.

Indian independence began on August 14, 1947. Pakistan broke away. Horrendous violence between Hindus and Muslims claimed a half-million lives. Many more lost their homes. The wounds of partition are yet to heal.

Attlee was widely blamed for getting out too soon and leaving the former colony in chaos. If only a better police force had been organized. If only the army could have kept order. If only the British could have left once the country was stable.

US President Joe Biden now finds himself in the same situation. American troops have left Afghanistan in a bloody mess. Critics of Biden’s decision to withdraw claim that the United States should have stayed longer. In the opinion of Robert Kagan, a well-known American promotor of robust military policies, the US should have promised to stay at least 20 years, instead of being non-committal. After all, the US military presence was minimal and could easily be afforded. But in that case, why just 20 years? Why not 40? Why not forever?

The question is whether Attlee, or Biden, could ever have left India or Afghanistan in a stable condition. At least Attlee knew that India, and even Pakistan, would be governed by responsible, mostly moderate men. Jawaharlal Nehru and Mohammed Ali Jinnah were nothing like the Taliban. Both were widely regarded as legitimate leaders – and still there was a civil war. Biden didn’t even have the luxury of leaving Afghanistan in capable hands.

It is easy to blame Attlee and Biden for the violence that followed their decisions. Perhaps they made mistakes. In hindsight, it may be possible to see how they could have mitigated some of the damage. But both leaders were caught in the same colonial trap that ensnared so many other imperial powers. Once you make local elites dependent on the power and money of a foreign occupier, it becomes almost impossible to leave without causing mayhem. And the longer the foreign power stays, the worse the mayhem often becomes.

Leave this to historians to discuss where these two episodes have parallels or not…

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