Afghanistan has fallen due to America´s complete disconnection from reality. The impact on the World will be fundamental, we must learn to rely on ourselves, says Maçães

The events in Afghanistan, that we could have watched in the past weeks when the country has fallen into the hands of the Taliban militants, should be a lesson for the whole World and should serve as a turning point to reevaluate our values and the perception of how the world actually works. According to the Portuguese ex-secretary of state and one of the most prominent faces among today´s political analysts Bruno Macaes, the reason for the fall of Afghanistan is Americas´s complete disconnection from reality, which only gets confirmed with the speech of president Joe Biden. The lesson, that we all should learn and without which we will be lost in the transforming world, is, according to Macaes, being able to rely on ourselves. "We should always keep in mind that the World is becoming more and more chaotic. We can´t rely on existing institutions and norms, because tomorrow, they might be gone. We have to rely on our own powers," says Maçães. 

Hello Bruno, nice meeting you again and it’s great that you are back from your Afghan trip in one piece; safe and sound. It’s great to have this opportunity to discuss how you see this super-fast development in the Middle East and in Central Asia during the last few weeks.

Hello Jan and nice to meet you again. Also hello to all the readers.

I probably shall start our debate by asking about your raw impressions from Kabul. You spent the last few days there, meeting people, politicians, military... so you have seen the situation on the ground with your own eyes. You really lived what we just see online. 

I'm still under the very deep impressions from my trip. From Kabul. There are so many people who are desperate. People that invested their lives in a certain vision for Afghanistan, people who believed in western democracies. People who believed that we were committed to the future of Afghanistan. I know many of those personally, so it touches me deeply. And I feel a bit angry because it's not just that U.S. and NATO are leaving. It's the way how they are leaving without giving Afghans any possibility to fight for themselves.

You know, not only soldiers but also all the security contractors were forced to leave. And they took everything with themselves, literally everything, even the software necessary to operate airplanes. They took all the surveillance, all the intelligence capabilities. So, when you see President Biden saying, why don't Afghans fight for themselves? Actually, they are very much being prevented from doing so. Not much has been left.

How do you assess this discrepancy between the reality on the ground and speeches of president Biden, Secretary Blinken and politicians in Europe?

I think the present moment is a moment of deep crisis of the western ideas about how they project power and how they try to transform the world. This has already been in crisis for a few years, but Afghanistan is kind of a dramatic moment when we realize that our plans for other societies don't work anymore. I understand “The Project Afghanistan” as a comprehensive failure. It’s not a failure of the last 2 months, it’s a failure of the last 20 years.

Do you see any learning coming out of it? Should we, as Westerners, start doing things a bit differently?

I do hope it will be a moment of rethinking how western democracies shall project power worldwide. It surely has to change. We need to be more receptive to other societies, more receptive to other ways of doing things. To be more rooted in other societies also.

From this perspective, what I saw in Kabul was that western power was in a way absolute, overwhelming, but also very disconnected and superficial. It was so separated from Afghan society, that there were in fact two worlds: the world of Afghanistan, and the world of embassies and military bases. And they were not connected whatsoever. These two separate planets lived in Kabul next to each other and what happened now is that the second planet, the Western one, imploded. And it not only left the country but left it in this chaotic disordered way, which I think is quite humiliating.

Who is responsible for this, as you put it, implosion?

This is where President Biden is obviously responsible. And his speech just underlined that, because it - in some grotesque way - addressed only non-issues. That too much money was spent, that Bin Ladin is already dead for more than ten years, that people back home don’t like the US commitments in Afghanistan and so on. And it didn’t address at all the question of why there are still thousands of Americans being left behind and thousands of Afghan allies. It didn’t address why there is complete chaos at the Kabul airport. People falling down from planes. Biden’s speech also didn’t address the intelligence failure to assess real Taliban capabilities and why nobody prepared for well-run withdrawal. All of this is very embarrassing.

Why do you think Kabul and the whole country have fallen so quickly? How is it even possible that western intelligence and military didn’t anticipate this strategic shift and change of momentum?

It's because of complete disconnection between American power in Afghanistan and Afghanistan itself. Americans didn’t understand what the Afghans wanted, why they wanted it, and what were their drivers. That's what shocked me personally during my last week´s stay in Kabul. This complete misunderstanding.

Maybe a bit of narrative here is needed: there was no respect whatsoever for the local government. Local people didn’t like them at all, Kabul included. It was seen by everyone, literally everyone, only as an American puppet. And thus, it didn’t have a chance without external support. Which was brutally obvious to anyone, who just “tried to look, think and understand.” No magic here.

Is there something like “Afghan nation”?

Afghan society is not a centralized state, it has never been. It is a network of regional powers that come together. None of those regional powers had any interest whatsoever in fighting for a president Ghani and his administration that they regarded as imposed by America. Secondly, this administration was perceived as utterly corrupt. By the way which it truly was, and there is no question about the vast amounts of money that were extracted from Afghanistan by Ghani, his brother, his nephew, and so on. So, for the last twenty years, American powers stood behind something that was just reviled and despised by Afghans. And anyone would tell them if they would just ask.

So Taliban victory was inevitable?

Well, not exactly. Afghans definitely wanted to get rid of corrupt, dysfunctional government imposed by foreigners. But surely they didn’t want to replace it with the Taliban. But Taliban was all that was available. It filled the gap.

If all of this had been so visibly “on the table,” why nobody tried to gather the data, analyze them and give possible conclusions to politicians in Washington and elsewhere?

That's where you have to raise questions. Really serious questions. Also, where did all the money go? 2.4 trillion dollars and a lot of it went into the pockets of different officials in Afghanistan and not only...

So it's a very, very sad story of intelligence failures, strategy failures, country-building failures. If we don't want to embrace any conspiracy, which I don't want to do, I think the conclusion has to be that the American intelligence agencies have become quite dysfunctional, quite separate from political realities. They have become more similar to very large think-tanks, captured by conventional thoughts, captured by internal fights and rivalries. We've seen that in previous years, but again, this is a moment where things that we suspected become completely clear. Now, I guess it will be time for other powers to try on their own. And we'll see quickly how China moves into Afghanistan.

...and Russia.

Yes. They are already showing the kind of pragmatism that America didn't have. They are both, Russia and China, reaching out to the Taliban without any ideological preconceptions. Very pragmatically. That is a typical Chinese approach. You try different things, and you're happy with what works and you don't bring your theories and preconceptions to the table. Something like “whatever works, works.” So we'll see it's going to be different strategic thinking from them.

And what's happening in Afghanistan is also a kind of competition of power and value models. How you project power abroad, how you play with it, how you influence, and so on. And therefore China is now going to have a test to see if they can do better than the U.S.

Another big question of today is the one about the Afghan military. How it was possible that 300,000 soldiers have disappeared so quickly. We know that Afghans are proud, street-smart and experienced soldiers. Let's just remember for example Ahmad Shah Massoud. And now they have disappeared like a fog...

You are absolutely right that Afghanis are superb soldiers. So that was very shocking for me to hear President Biden essentially calling Afghans cowards. And that is not the history of the past 200 years. They have successfully defeated the Brits, the Soviets and now the Americans. So military cowardice is not something that would come to your mind when you think about Afghanistan. So there was something else...

And here I would like to say that your 300,000 soldiers, were not 300,000 soldiers but only 300,000 salaries paid. There were no soldiers. Corruption was so widespread that what happened is that you had personnel on paper, let’s say a battalion, but their salaries didn't go to them but to certain officials. And thus soldiers only existed virtually. The number was there on paper to justify transfers of funds, many coming from abroad and many from the U.S.

Did U.S. know about this by the way?! Of course it did! Corruption is not something that can be understood only by looking at those who receive the funds, those who pay the funds also know where they go. It's a very troubling problem.

How did this “game of machinations” worked in reality?

First, the state as a well-functioning entity, didn't really exist. It existed only on paper, because of the widespread corruption.

Second, the state didn't exist also because there was no allegiance and loyalty to the state for the reasons that we have already discussed. President Ghani was not respected, he was seen as a foreigner, seen as an infidel and non-Muslim. So why would people want to die for him? And I think that's basically why the Afghan military collapsed so quickly.

This is a bit depressing...

I published a piece quoting an Afghan former official about the number of policemen in Kandahar. On paper there was supposed to be 13,000 of them, but in reality there were only 900. And then, naive observers believed in the official numbers, but everyone in Afghanistan, included ordinary taxi drivers in Kabul knew the official figures were not real. The Taliban knew that. To wrap it up, there wasn't 300,000 good soldiers, but it was maybe 30,000.

Obviously people in Washington knew all of this as well and it might be good to be honest and say: well... this wasn't real army, this wasn't real state and real government. The whole thing was rotten from inside. And it's not surprising that the Taliban moved with such confidence because they were the ones best placed to understand that they were not fighting an army, they were not fighting a state they were fighting some kind of ghost. Projected from Washington onto the screen of Afghanistan.

Let's now move forward and discuss the possible implications. I think there are two buckets of them: first one is geopolitical; how the region will evolve. And the second one is more about us, our ethics and values. What happened and might happen to them, because of the failure of such magnitude.

Let me start with our western values. It's a big crisis. I think it's not only a huge factual crisis, but it is even a fundamental problem in the way how you think about our values and what they represent.

You know, our problem is that we think about values as abstract entities with no connection to the real world. And in Afghanistan these abstract entities just exploded, collapsed, and we have to go back to the drawing board and rethink them. Because values need to have a meaning and also a connection to the reality. Connection to us, to our neighbors and to other cultures. Because there is not one set of values that would be accepted globally.

So, we as Westerners, we believed and told everyone that we were in Afghanistan to help the locals. But then, what we have seen during the last few days, it was purely “each man for himself.” - U.S military running out, while accusing Africans of being cowards. But in reality they were running out in a very cowardly way. Then the military transport planes dropping Afghan bodies from the sky. Absurd.

What shall be our response? How we shall amend and correct our approach to the outside world to strengthen our values?

I think we have to learn a little bit from Asian societies, how they think about values. Asians believe that values are not abstract entities. They are very real for them. Values are about connections to other people, but not the human bring as an abstract category, or human rights as abstract entities. Values are about relating to the real person in front of you, with whom you have a real life relationship. And what I saw on the streets of Kabul was not that. And unfortunately, there were no Americans on the street. The only America that existed in Kabul was abstract America, its power and might. But there were no real Americans on the street. And how you can understand values when you don't include meeting Afghans, real Afghans on the street, into your equation?

If there weren’t any Americans, who you saw on the streets?

I did see convoys driving around Kabul, yes. But they were the Turkish convoys with the Turkish flags. The idea that you'd have an American convoy there with the American flag is just laughable. And that’s another fundamental problem: when you are so powerful, but at the same time, you're so completely unable to connect to the society over which you exercise your power.

If you, during the last months, would tell the embassy staff, or NGO worker in Afghanistan: go out and click with the local people and understand them truly, they would laugh into your face. The idea that we could learn from Afghanistan was laughable to many of these people, but obviously, you cannot connect to other countries if you think you have 100 % of the truth and they have zero.

So to put it simply when you ask me about values. I believe we need more humility. More of an awareness that we don't have the whole truth. And thus, we would come back to earth and place our feet on it rather than on our dysfunctional abstract concepts.

Unfortunately, I don't think there will be too much learning and we're going to see other disasters like Afghanistan in the near future.

What will be the geopolitical implications then?

There will be serious ones. That's one of the reasons I traveled to Kabul. To understand this better. And here I believe Afghanistan, very similarly to Covid, is an important trigger. And I do believe that in terms of the crisis of western power, perhaps it will be even more significant than Iraq or the global financial crisis in 2008. Because it essentially shows that the United States now have very great difficulty operating in the world. As I wrote in my previous book, America has become a fantasy land. In a way if you are inside the perimeter of the theme park that is wonderful. But there's a slight problem that the theme park has an outer wall, and then there's the rest of the world that is not so nice and so wonderful.

Could you elaborate a bit more on that?

I do think that the US are disconnected from the rest of the world and events. And what you saw in Afghanistan real-time was, that even with all this money, all the power, all the resources, you end up 20 years later with the Islamic Emirate controlling the whole country.

And you end up even, to underline the irony of it all, you end up – again - with a photograph of a man falling from the sky. Last time, during the 9/11, it was a man falling from the Twins and this time it is a picture of a man falling from a departing American airplane. This is symbolic.

Btw, all of this would had been unthinkable 70 years ago, because the America of 1950´s a 1960´s was an incredible power with extreme ability to shape events, other societies, both materially, but also culturally and intellectually. And the ability of the American society to attract other people doesn't exist anymore.

How you then see the US soft power now?

The soft power is a power of cultural attraction. And this have disappeared. Previously people all over the world were attracted to Elvis Presley, Marilyn Monroe, Hollywood and Coca-Cola. But can they be attracted to this woke nonsense? Does this "wokeism" attract anyone outside America? I don't even think people from outside understand what's happening in America anymore or have any interest in it. And that's also a problem. The US is very self-centred, very unable to shape the rest of the world.

So I see very clearly a crisis of American power, and Biden’s Afghan speech didn’t help. That he just said “Well...we'll go home.” Because if you want to be a superpower, you have to be present in the world. You can make mistakes, everybody does them. But then, you shall ask yourself how can you correct them rather than “We made mistakes so we're going back home.”

But more practically, there will be questions now about American commitments, right, and particularly in Eastern Europe, Ukraine, the Baltics, the Balkans, and so on. I think many people are worried today because they think: “Ok, so if the domestic politics in the US will become unfavorable, then all these commitments will disappear?” That's for Ukraine, Kosovo, Baltic countries. And people are discussing it even in Israel and Taiwan. Well, I don't think Taiwan or Israel should be particularly worried, especially Israel. But let’s not forget that Israel, in a way, learned the lesson long ago that it has to rely on its own forces.

Saigon in 1975 became quite a scar inside the U.S. It was so-called Vietnam trauma. How will the scar and trauma look like this time?

So far, it doesn't look very encouraging. That's also, I think a difference between the America of the 1970´s and today. Back then, it was real trauma, which created the opportunity to rethink, evaluate and become better and stronger. Vietnam was very seriously taken in Washington. And very quickly America was back on track and much stronger.

Now there doesn't seem to be a serious, genuine attempt to examine and to understand what you did wrong. Biden’s speech...I’m very critical especially because there was no attempt to evaluate and think for a future. There wasn't a single sentence of self-examination and recognition of mistakes and how to move forward. He was all about blaming Afghanistan. So not very encouraging. I think many people actually believe the U.S. didn't make any mistakes. Many people believe that it was all Afghan responsibility for what happened

There was not only a speech from President Biden, but also from president Macron. He was talking about, “Yes, we need to help our Afghani collaborators, friends, allies.” But on the other side, he warned about the grave danger of an immigration wave coming from Afghanistan, that shall be prevented and stopped. What do you think about it? About Macron’s approach?

It was a good speech. And as you said, there was actually quite a bit about our responsibility towards Afghans. And then there was a warning about how destabilizing the refugee crisis can be. And I think that's just realistic, that it can be. And that we shall get ready for it, because I do think this has the potential to be extraordinarily destabilizing for European societies and for European governments. Plus public opinions everywhere, your Czechia included, is very much against supporting any “immigration welcoming.”

Isn’t this just a populist cry? To show the ghosts of immigrants to the electorate?

We shall not forget that many EU politicians made promises that the immigration wave from 2015 won’t happen again. Real promises. Therefore, if it happens again, public opinions in many parts of Europe will feel betrayed, and will be very angry. And the result of that is going to be a real shock to the political system, bigger than we've ever seen before. Then we will see real populism.

And I think that's an entirely plausible course of events for the next 6 months. When you try to think about it, 1 or 2 million Afghan refugees going to arrive in Europe. Obviously it depends on certain political decisions and states are not completely powerless to stop refugee waves. We'll see what happens with Turkey, I think that probably the critical decisions are going to be made in Turkey. Is Turkey going to be able to secure its border with Iran? Walls and borders are being built already, but it's a very long border in very difficult terrain. You should probably also include Iraqi Kurdistan as a possible transit route for refugees coming from Iran. Certainly Iran is not going to be able to stop the wave. Therefore, we have to look to Turkey.

How you assess Turkey’s willingness to prevent this wave from coming to Europe?

There's no tolerance in Turkey to receive another wave of refugees from Afghanistan. So I think that if this refugee wave enters Turkey then it will eventually find its way to Europe. Whether Turkey is going to be capable and willing of transforming its border with Iran in a highly secured place? Let’s see...

So the alternatives are all very difficult, either to accept that Afghan refugees will be able to move and that will have destabilizing impact on Iran, Turkey and Europe. It is going to be tremendous.

Or we will make the decision that they should not be allowed to move anywhere and then we will have a humanitarian catastrophe somewhere in the mountains on eastern Turkish borders or somewhere in the border between Afghanistan and Iran. One of these options looks inevitable right now.

So you feel certain that Afghan people won’t stay at home?

I don't believe that the Taliban regime is going to be able to offer guarantees to Afghans that they will be safe at home. There seems to be some attempt by Taliban to offer those guarantees. But I think large parts of Afghan society are too terrified to take that seriously, both in terms of individual freedoms, and also in terms of reprisals for past actions. You know, everyone that has been associated with America or western or democracies or NATO is going to have, sooner or later, very, very difficult life under Taliban. And then also the economic landscape is going to be destroyed. I was in the Kabul Market, and it just doesn't seem plausible to me, that Kabul Market will be allowed to operate under the Taliban; selling cell phones, radios and television sets. Therefore, I can't see how we can avoid a refugee wave in the next 6 months.

The world is clearly changing. You have been writing articles about it since the beginning of Covid. We already live in the new norm. Eternal liberal peace is lost and gone. The world is becoming multi-polar, the deglobalization is here also... And if I am not mistaken, this will basically be the topic of your new book that is going to be released in 2 weeks. This “moment of transformation.”

Basically, all my books are about the “moments of transformation” that are happening right now. And I feel that now we're going through series of historical transformation, a transformation that happens only once in a century or maybe once in three centuries. They are important in a magnificent way.

In the first two books I am talking about the rebalancing of global power, from unipolar to multi-polar. I am talking about the rise of China, rise of Turkey, and so on. Then the third book is about the transformation happening in America itself. Not that the system of nations is being transformed, but that the nation at the very center of international system is being transformed too. Not that the world is becoming less liberal, but actually that America too is becoming less liberal.

And now the fourth book that's coming out in 2 weeks deepens the meaning of the transformation even more. Now, it's not just a transformation of the system of states, it's not just a transformation in the most important state. It's a transformation that goes beyond the system of states and introduces something from outside.

So what is the new ingredient?

What's happening now is not just that power relations between states are changing, but that we are now operating in a new natural environment. That we have suddenly rediscovered that we don't exist inside the state, that we don't exist inside a global or international system of states, but that there is another actor, kind of a hidden actor, that is now coming to the surface. That actor is Nature itself. And it turned out to be extraordinarily powerful, more powerful than the United States or China combined. The real superpower in the world today is not the United States or China, but Nature. Nature is real omnipotent power.

Covid definitely showed us what Mother Nature can do...

Yes. Single virus with overwhelming power puts shame on powers in Washington or Beijing. And every government started to take instructions from it! Not from Washington or Beijing, but from the virus! And all our institutions, all our certainties were shaken to the core as a result of its appearance.

But the virus is not the only representative of nature. We now have climate change and I do believe that this climate emergency has become an everyday affair for all of us. With the clear warning that things are going to get worse. Some of the numbers are just extraordinary, we just had the highest temperature ever recorded in Europe 48C in Syracuse, Sicily. And beating those kind of records every day and realizing that the climate emergency is not a matter for Hollywood movies, and it's not about cities collapsing into the ocean. All of this is radically new. Radical in the way that we cannot prepare ourselves, to have countermeasures ready and at will.

Is it really such a paradigm shift? There have always been disasters...

We’ve always had fires. But now fires are bigger, more out of control than ever before. We always had floods, but the floods are now different from the floods in the past. We always had hot days in Europe, but now suddenly we have days that are exactly like a day in Dubai. And all of this is happening much quicker than experts expected. So, this also changes everything, state competition included. Even the competition between China and the U.S. will become a lot about who is able to deal better with a chaotic natural environment.

We saw that with Covid that the competition between the U.S. and China became, not about who has the larger army, but about who is better able to cope with the pandemic.

With climate change it will be similar. It could have a devastating impact on supply chains, we’ve already seen it. Who's going to be the country that is able to salvage its economy from climate change, can even benefit from it. If Some countries are able to react to climate change better, they will attract business, they will attract talent. Other countries who are not able to cope with it through institutions and through policy, and through technology, they will lose economic fabric. So competition between states will change as well.


To cure the climate change, there's no vaccine available. There is no miracle solution. Climate change is going to resemble a lot more the pre-vaccine phase of pandemics, where you have to use social and political measures of control. And the ability of the West to use policy, institutions and social measures to control the pandemic was practically non-existent. It was all about the vaccines, the West relied a hundred percent on the vaccine. As we move to the next crisis, the Climate change crisis, it won’t be able to use some magic vaccine. And we underestimate that and we are unprepared.

So now I introduced my new book a bit.

Exciting. I am looking forward to reading it in fortnight! And I definitely agree that the world is clearly changing. And it is starting to be much more difficult to operate in this complex environment. So, maybe the very last question might be what would you recommend to a small country from the middle of Europe like the Czech Republic. How shall we operate – as the country - inside this new norm?

I think actually that the Czech Republic is a good example of what I would recommend to do. All what we have been talking about for the last 60 minutes is about importance of self-reliance. Relying on your own resources and your own power and not closing yourself to the world in the same time. Be connected, be a part of the community, but knowing that you have to rely on yourself.

And to always have in mind that the world is becoming more chaotic. You cannot rely on existing institutions, existing structures, existing norms, because all of them could disappear tomorrow. You have to rely on your own power.

Do you have any other examples?

I already said that a country that does this well, is Israel. Also Singapore. But in the European context, I think the approach I would recommend is this one: you don't have to be anti-EU. It's good to be obviously connected to the rest of Europe and the rest of the world. But don't assume that you can rely on others or the EU to solve your own problems. Because very quickly, if a massive crisis arrives, we're going to realize that many of these institutions are in place, many of the norms are in place, many of the commitments of solidarity that are in place are going to disappear overnight and you're going to be left only with your own resources and your own power.

And when you try to think about countries that are open to the outside, committed to EU and at the same time they understand that they have to rely on themselves...two countries that come to mind are actually Czechia and Slovakia. They are not radically anti-EU like Hungary or Poland and they don’t have naive views that the EU is going to solve all the problems. This feeling is quite common in Portugal, in Greece or in few others. So think that Czechs are well balanced and I actually think Czechia provides a kind of model for the world that I describe in my next book.

Thank you very much for your thoughts and for the time you spent with us. Today we spoke with doctor Bruno Macaes, former secretary of state in Portuguese government, who is univerzity professor, celebrated writer and speaker and whose new book is coming out in a fortnight. Thank you, Bruno.

Thank you Jan. It has been a pleasure as always.

Bruno Maçães, PhD

Bruno Maçães, PhD is a senior fellow at Hudson Institute and a senior advisor at Flint Global in London. He was the Portuguese Europe Minister from 2013 to 2015 and was decorated by Spain and Romania for his services to government.

Dr. Maçães received his doctorate in political science from Harvard University in 2006. His dissertation was awarded the Richard Herrnstein prize for the best dissertation in the social sciences. Then, he has taught at Yonsei University in Seoul, Bard College in Berlin, and Renmin University in Beijing. In 2008 he was a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, DC, where his work focused on the political implications of the biotechnological revolution. He is the author of several books on international affairs, including The Dawn of Eurasia, Belt and Road and History has Begun.

Bruno is a regular commentator on the international media and has written for the Financial Times, Politico, The Guardian, and Foreign Affairs.

PhDr. Jan Ruzicka, MBA

Jan is a Chief External Affairs Officer at the Home Credit Group, the world’s leading consumer finance provider. Based out of Hong Kong, Jan runs company networks in the US, Asia and Europe. Before that, he used to live in Beijing, Cambridge and Prague. He even spent ten years working for the Czech Government, advocating and shaping the health reform as the Director-General at the Ministry of Health.

Jan teaches Behavioural Economy and the Disruption of Finance and Healthcare at universities in Asia and Europe. He is especially interested in how innovation can create financial inclusion and health equality.