The arc of imperial hubris, war, defeat and abandonment is not unique to Afghanistan.
The end of the US war in Afghanistan has shaken the American sense of itself as an exceptional nation. The US campaigns in the Middle East that began with “Desert Storm” were supposed to have erased the stigma of Vietnam. But nearly fifty years after the shambolic defeat in Vietnam, and the iconic picture of a US military helicopter evacuating the US embassy in Saigon, comes the harrowing pictures of Afghan civilians running alongside a massive US military C-17 Globemaster as it took off from Kabul airport on a remarkable August day.
A young Afghan football player desperately tried to cling to the plane before falling to his death. Another man was crushed in the landing gear compartment of the same plane. A few days later a suicide bomber killed at least 169 Afghans and 13 US Marines at the airport.
The ensuing recrimination within the establishment in the United States has centered on the morality of abandoning Afghans, and especially Afghan women, to their fate under the supposedly medieval Taliban.
Newspapers from the liberal New York Times to the conservative Wall Street Journal, as well as Republican and Democratic lawmakers, have criticised the nature of the withdrawal as embarrassing and unbefitting a great nation. Lost in this outrage is any attempt to ask the obvious questions: by what right did the US occupy a foreign country for two decades and at what cost? There is even less of an attempt to allow Afghans to answer these questions.
The American mainstream media has resorted to what it does best when it comes to foreign policy questions: it has avoided critical voices, especially from Afghanistan itself, and invited instead a gallery of orientalist American journalists, pundits, foreign policy experts, military gurus, and former or current US officials to talk about the pitfalls of “nation building” in a country whose history and humanity most Americans barely recognise.
The mainstream media has doggedly reframed the story of the coercive US occupation of Afghanistan into a story of American exceptionalism. This story suggests that the US “presence” in Afghanistan stemmed from its exceptional commitment to freedom, especially to Muslim women.
This alleged commitment has been undermined tragically and callously by President Joe Biden, who himself publicly berated Afghans for failing to take care of themselves. Biden at least conceded what few American liberals were willing to admit: “The idea that we're able to deal with the rights of women around the world by military force is not rational."
For two decades, Americans have convinced themselves that, unlike Vietnam, Afghanistan was a good war. Ending the war badly, therefore, was shameful, but not the occupation itself that had cost the lives of tens of thousands of Afghans and several thousand US soldiers and military contractors.
There are many Afghans who undoubtedly benefited from the US occupation.And there are undoubtedly many more Afghans who are deeply worried and terrified about the impending Taliban rule in the wake of a US retreat.
But however brutal and reactionary the Taliban may be, they are an Afghan symptom, rather than the root cause of the cynical great game that has been played by English, Americans, Russians, Pakistanis, Saudis and others meddling in their country for decades. These interventions paved the way for the emergence of the Taliban in the first place during the civil war that engulfed Afghanistan following the end of the Soviet occupation in 1989. This same game has led to the Taliban’s most recent triumph.
The US spent trillions of dollars fighting in Afghanistan and the Middle East during the “war on terror” not to help Afghans or to liberate Afghan women. America waged war first and foremost to satiate a nationalist yearning for vengeance on an underground terrorist group that had taken refuge in Afghanistan and whose leader had fought against the Soviets. It also went to war to assert its post-Cold War claim to global hegemony.
Through a combination of hubris, inertia, militarism and imperialism, the US stayed in Afghanistan long after the rout of Al Qaeda there in 2001. It stayed for two decades, making the Afghan war the longest in US history. The war benefited Afghan women far less than it did the military industrial complex.
For countless defence companies, contractors, officials in and out of government and mercenaries, war means profit. The more endless the war, the better. That the “war on terror” took the lives of tens of thousands of Afghans, Iraqis, Yemenis, Pakistanis — in a word, Muslims — barely registered for most Americans.
That the US massively expanded the use of drone warfare, and even assassinated US citizens overseas, likewise elicited little domestic opprobrium. The US and its allies have dropped over 326,000 bombs and missiles across the Middle East and Afghanistan since 2001.
While the war was being actively waged, its reality, and the fundamentalist Taliban movement it inevitably energised, faded into the background for most Americans. The so-called “Forever War” was more like the Forgotten War, except for those who suffered its direct consequences.
Forgotten too was the Reagan Administration’s support for the mujahideen of the 1980s, who included some of the very men who would found Al Qaeda, to fight Soviet communists. The George Bush Sr. Administration and the CIA quickly washed their hands of Afghanistan after the Soviet defeat there.
The Clinton Administration considered a dalliance with the initial version of the Taliban during discussions of the Trans Afghanistan Pipeline that saw a Taliban delegation visit the oil company Unocal in Houston in 1997.
This was followed by George W Bush’s global torture program during the “war on terror” that had a crucial Afghan node. Barack Obama escalated the unwinnable war against the Taliban before Donald Trump finally sued for peace with the same organisation and Joseph Biden abruptly admitted defeat.
Most of these episodes have been swept into the memory hole of US nationalism and exceptionalism as if the occupation of Afghanistan (and Iraq) reflected an American destiny to free Muslim women from the tyranny of Muslim men. And as if foreign occupation, no matter how benevolent it claims to be, does not inevitably produce resentment and resistance.
The arc of imperial hubris, war, defeat and abandonment is not unique to Afghanistan. The Vietnamese and Iraqis were abandoned by their erstwhile American patrons long before the Afghans. A small minority of these were brought to the United States. The vast majority, however, were left behind in politically, socially, and environmentally devastated and contaminated landscapes.
While the US military can and must end its foreign wars, native peoples and countries cannot simply “end” the war; they will live in and among its consequences for generations.
But so too, in a different way, will ordinary Americans live with the consequences of war for generations. The massive opportunity costs of these forgotten wars will continue to accumulate until the American people begin to defund the grotesquely bloated military budget and overthrow the idea of American exceptionalism that permits and sustains these wars.
No power can wage war indefinitely. And no empire lasts forever— notwithstanding US efforts to do so at the expense of other peoples, and its own citizens.
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