Doomsday scenarios abound, now that the Taliban have exploited the withdrawal of American troops and taken over Afghanistan.
These gloomy prospects contain the following components: a horrific future for the people of Afghanistan, likening it to the revolution in Iran in 1979; the end of America’s global leadership, allowing the dictators, notably Putin and Xi, to take what they want; the creation of a new global terrorist hub, threatening Europe and the Asian countries on Afghanistan’s border; a massive surge in the number of migrants seeking refuge that could overwhelm the European Union; and the end of Joe Biden as US President.
Yet, when Biden announced in April that American troops would be leaving Afghanistan, his decision was supported by 69 per cent of the US population. So what has changed?
First, he didn’t say that the Taliban would immediately fill the vacuum. That was because he didn’t know that would happen, which argues for an astonishing lapse in the American and Allied intelligence systems.
It also demonstrates remarkable White House complacency in failing to ensure that America’s friends in Afghanistan – interpreters, spies in the field, sources in the government, the country’s 3,000 special forces, who have worked closely with the US military – would be given a rapid route to safety. Biden’s self-proclaimed “competence” now looks absurd.
But my doubts about that opening scenario concern America’s future role in the world. They are still the world’s biggest economy and they are still growing. The number of people of working age is set to increase by 20 per cent in the coming decades while the working-age population in China will decline by 40 per cent.
The US electorate may come to accept a global step back by America as desirable, confirmation of the Trump policy of “America First.” The fall of Kabul, once the dramatic headlines begin to fade, may not turn out to be the electoral disaster some commentators are loudly predicting.
Much the same was said about the defeat in Vietnam in 1975, a much bigger disaster (58,000 US dead, mostly conscripts, compared with 2,500 in Afghanistan, all volunteers). The US recovered in time to invade Iraq.
America has effectively abandoned Afghanistan because it believes it is in America’s interests to do so – or rather, that it would be against America’s interests to go on sending in troops to fight and die there, for no obvious end result. Their judgement of American interests might still involve them in situations elsewhere. No US President who wants to be re-elected is going to give up on Israel, for example.
The world still has a desperate need for global leadership on issues like the pandemic and climate change and the US can still meet that need.
The doomsters might be right in the short term and the situation in Afghanistan may well get worse before it gets better. Likewise, the immediate global impact might be alarming.
But the world has not stopped turning on its axis and has a habit of correcting its mistakes, even if it takes a long time. As we saw at the Olympic Games, Americans don’t like to be second.
Tracing the pirates’ footprints
Most of the expats I know can get by in Spanish – some, mostly women, can do much better than that. Few, if any, could address a Spanish audience in their own language for more than an hour.
But Michael Pietroni managed that, to the great pleasure of a big audience at Club Nautica in Puerto Pollensa, with a lecture to mark the club’s 60th anniversary. Some people had to be turned away because of Covid limitations.
Michael, who retired to Majorca many years ago after a distinguished career in the UK as a surgeon, is an expert on maps – he gifted a great many to the town of Pollensa and has since given talks about them. His theme at Club Nautica was “Footprints of the Pirates,” illustrated by a number of ancient maps.
He pointed out that piracy can be traced back to the 13th century BC. The Sea People even threatened the Pharaohs of Egypt, and later Julius Caesar was himself captured by pirates.
In the 16th century it became hard to distinguish piracy from warfare between nations. The war ships of the Mediterranean were “fuelled” by up to 200 galley slaves (up to five slaves per oar). Because they needed two tons of drinking water every day, they had to skip between the isles to collect it, limiting their field of operations.
By the end of the 16th century the English and the Dutch had perfected the Great Galleon, with square-rigged sails and cast-iron cannons, as well as “castles” in the poop and prow. As Michael demonstrated with many fascinating maps he has collected, the “footprints of the pirates” can now be traced by a scholarly detective like himself.
England go mad at Lord’s
ENGLAND’S surrender on the last day of the Lord’s Test match was one of the most extraordinary lapses I have ever seen. Having removed the captain Virat Kohli and Rishabh Pant, the threatening hitter, it looked certain that they would bowl out India’s tailenders and leave themselves about 150 runs to win in the afternoon.
Then came in Kasprit Bumrah, a fast bowler with a Test batting average of 5, to join another fast bowler, Mohammed Shami, whose batting average was 12. All England had to do to get them out was to continue bowling a good line and length with a strategically placed field.
The reason they didn’t do that was because Bumrah had bowled some aggressive, even vindictive bouncers at England’s last man, Jimmy Anderson, the night before, hitting his helmet and body several times. There was really no point to that aggression because Anderson was no threat with the bat (Test average 9) but he had taken five of their wickets.
Bumrah’s appearance at the wicket led to verbal assaults against him, led mainly by Buttler, the vice-captain and wicket-keeper – so much so that the umpires and the England captain, Joe Root, had to calm Buttler down. Mark Wood, England’s fastest bowler, was brought on to give Bumrah and Shami the sort of treatment Bumrah had dished out to Anderson.
It was a disastrous tactic because the two tailenders put on 89 runs together, and finished unbeaten, both men responding to the challenge by scoring their highest Test innings.
What seemed extraordinary to me was that in that mad, emotional hour of play Anderson, England’s greatest bowler - and the man at the centre of the storm - was not called upon to send down a single ball to them.
In the end England were set 272 runs to win, which they hadn’t time to do, and they simply collapsed to a score of 120, while the exuberant Indian bowlers, inspired by the their tailenders’ batting performance, lined up to execute the dejected and defeated England batsmen.