US and Afghanistan: War Lost, Empire Prevailing?
Unless the U.S. can accept a more modest role in a multipolar world, more Afghanistan-type misadventures are inevitable.
- Identifying the cause of the Afghanistan debacles is useful. But the frenzied search for scapegoats is driven by US elites’ political need.
- The Afghanistan War was not a success. But in the context of the U.S. insistence on maintaining world hegemony, neither was it a failure.
- The war cost the U.S. $2.3 trillion over 20 years - less than 1% of its cumulative GDP. In contrast, the fighting has left Afghanistan an economic basket case.
- Taliban cannot get the capital they need from an American-dominated global financial system and remain hostile to the United States.
- After every setback, the U.S. political class reaffirms its commitment to promoting peace, human rights and democracy with bombs, bullets and killer drones.
- Inconvenient history – such as the U.S. support that brought the Taliban to power in the 1980s – is edited out of the current debate.
- Biden’s vision of building a prosperous future is not compatible with the increasing costs of maintaining imperial privileges.
Yes, America’s pull-out from Afghanistan was ignominious and clumsy. So it is not a surprise that it has generated a sandstorm of domestic recrimination and handwringing over why the war was “lost.”
Plenty of blame to go around
Republicans blame Democrats and Democrats blame Republicans. Pundits blame the lies and self-deception of three presidential administrations, military incompetence, Afghan government corruption, Pakistani duplicity, an inept CIA, Americans’ ignorance of local culture etc., No doubt all contributed.
Identifying the particular cause of the Afghanistan debacles is obviously useful. But the frenzied search for scapegoats is driven by US elites’ political need.
They must now explain why, after 20 years of fighting – and equipping, training and subsidizing its Afghan allies — the world’s most powerful, and expensive military was defeated by an outnumbered collection of religious fundamentalists who don’t even have an air force.
The answer can be found in a wider number of realities:
Reality #1: Empires do not have to win peripheral wars
The Afghanistan War certainly was not a success. But in the context of the U.S. governing class’s insistence on maintaining world hegemony, neither was it a failure.
To see why, one must start with the basic fact that the United States of America is a global empire.
The U.S. military budget is larger than that of the next 11 highest spending nations combined. It has at least 800 foreign military installations around the world.
In 2016 it had “special forces” operating in almost 140 countries. In many foreign capitals, the most important political figure is the U.S. ambassador.
Like all empires in history, the U.S. does not have to “win” every war on its periphery. Its military’s primary geopolitical purpose is to demonstrate the empire’s capacity and willingness to inflict murderous punishment on those at its edges that who challenge it.
Reality #2: The price of empire
From that imperial perspective, the 20-year war was “worth it.” Yes, it cost over 6,000 American lives. But in Afghanistan, roughly a tenth the size of the U.S., at least 250,000 people – including women and children — were killed. And hundreds of thousands were dislocated from their homes and communities.
The war cost the U.S. $2.3 trillion over 20 years. But that was less than 1% of its cumulative GDP. In contrast, the fighting has left Afghanistan an economic basket case.
The lesson will not be lost on the “victorious” Taliban, now faced with the enormous task of rebuilding their devastated country. Neither Russia nor China will bail them out.
As the Communist Vietnamese understood before them, they cannot get the capital they need from an American-dominated global financial system and remain hostile to the United States.
Reality #3: We win some, we lose some
As with all empires, our heavy-handed presence around the world is creating an inexhaustible supply of people who hate us. Empires also tend to create a political constituency of local elites and U.S. military contractors who profit by our presence and engagement.
Under these circumstances, the U.S. is always choosing sides in local disputes, and being drawn into civil conflicts.
Our military has intervened in other countries some 190 separate times since the end of World War II, with the bulk of interventions coming after the disappearance of America’s only imperial rival – the Soviet Union.
We win some — as in Panama, the Dominican Republic and Granada. And we lose some — as in Vietnam, Somalia, Lebanon, and Iraq.
Reality #4: Empire? What Empire?
And yet, after every setback, the U.S. political class reaffirms its commitment to promoting peace, human rights and democracy with bombs, bullets and killer drones. And promises to do better “next time.”
There is always a next time.
So far, our delusional political discourse saves both the politicians and the public from facing reality. Thus, inconvenient history – such as the U.S. support that brought the Taliban to power in the 1980s – is edited out of the current debate.
Reality #5: Complicit U.S. media
Words like “empire” and “imperialism” virtually never appear in the U.S. mainstream media. Journalists instead opt for comforting euphemisms — “exceptional,” “unique,” “indispensable.” And the ever- popular, “leader of the free world.”
“The great thing about the American empire,” wrote Niall Ferguson, an outspoken supporter of U.S. imperialism, “is that so many Americans disbelieve in its existence.”
Reality #6: Imperialism’s mounting domestic costs
But the political and economic cost of our national self-delusion is starting to pinch.
It undercuts America’s own internal re-building needs, as well as the need for international cooperation with the empire’s adversaries, like Russia and China, in order to address global warming, pandemics and mass migration.
Moreover, America’s ability to impose crippling sanctions on recalcitrant states is waning as its economic importance in the world shrinks.
At home, voters have become skeptical about the value of playing policeman, judge and executioner to the world. By 62% to 35%, a majority say the war in Afghanistan was not worth it.
History teaches that elites do not give up the privileges of empire easily. But Joe Biden’s vision of building a prosperous and green future is simply not compatible with the increasing costs of maintaining imperial privileges.
Biden has said that there will be time after the withdrawal is complete to debate the lessons of the Afghan experience. Fair enough, but so far, there is little indication that Washington is ready to question its commitment to global hegemony.
Unless it can accept a more modest role in a multipolar world, more Afghanistan -type misadventures are inevitable.
Meanwhile, America’s economic future and the future of its own democracy are increasingly at risk