The deeper gavage of the American dream began at the end of the Cold War in 1989-91 when American pundits proclaimed the “End of History”—and that it was time to seize the “unipolar moment.” It was not long before the belly of the already obese North American empire began to distend toward eastern Europe and beyond…
The North American Empire had begun to take on even greater weight in 1979, when the political situation in Afghanistan provided the opportunity to set up a giant mousetrap designed to draw Moscow into invading the country. At that time, President Carter’s National Security Advisor, Zbigniew Brzezinski, had hoped to provoke the almost equally obese Soviet empire into military intervention. Zbig could not guarantee that Moscow would intervene in Afghanistan, he just wanted to make it “more likely.”1
On July 3, 1979, six months before the massive Soviet invasion in December, President Carter approved clandestine CIA operations in Afghanistan that were not only intended to assist the Islamist mujahideen forces opposed to the Afghan government, but that were also intended to draw Moscow into a cesspool.
Once Moscow leapt belly first into the vortex, Washington was able to put together an alliance of Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, the UAE that would back pan-Islamist Afghan movements against Moscow. Bringing Pakistan into the struggle, however, did not come without a major price. The Reagan administration was able to pass a bill that would waive prohibitions on U.S. financing of nations such as Pakistan that had active nuclear weapons programs. Once U.S. sanctions were lifted on Islamabad, the CIA was then better able to assist Pakistan’s anti-India Inter-Service Intelligence agency (ISI) to support those who Reagan called Afghan “freedom fighters.”
In the long run, the waiver of sanctions on its nuclear program permitted Islamabad to develop a nuclear weapons capability by 1998, if not earlier. And in the shorter run, the change in U.S. policy toward Pakistan ultimately permitted the Taliban, the so-called students of Islam, who were assisted by Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), and backed financially by Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Al Qaeda, to seize power in Afghanistan. The civil war continued seven years after Gorbachev withdrew Soviet forces on 15 February 1989, almost a decade after the Soviet intervention in December 1979. The pro-Soviet Afghan government of Mohammed Najibullah then fell in 1992—in large part due to Bin Laden’s financing of the mujahideen. Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE would be the only states that would recognize the Taliban once the latter came to power in 1996.
Here was Washington’s first error. The U.S. refused to engage in UN Security Council Contact Group diplomacy with Mikhail Gorbachev, and then with the neo-liberal nationalist Boris Yeltsin, in an effort to put an end to the ongoing “internationalized” Afghan civil war. As the U.S. and its Allies, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, had refused to deal with the corrupt, repressive, Communist, anti-Islamic and pro-Soviet Najibullah government, there appeared to be no way toward political compromise.
Yet American global strategists could care less what happened in Afghanistan. What was important was the fact that Moscow had its own gastrectomy—suffering in a whimper and not in a gastro-nuclear miasma, once the overextended Soviet empire broke up in 1991. U.S. Cold Warriors finally had their revenge against Moscow for supporting the fall of Saigon. No one foresaw the days when Kabul would fall to the Taliban in 1996 and again in 2021.
The September 11, 2001 attacks
The threat by Bin Laden to continue the Islamist revolution against the United States after the Taliban victory in Afghanistan was well known to U.S. authorities. Yet even after a number of significant attacks by Al Qaeda against U.S. and Allied targets, only a few policymakers in Washington D.C.’s “deep state” took Bin Laden seriously. Bill Clinton had purportedly called off at least two chances to assassinate Bin Laden before the September 11, 2001, attacks took place on the watch of George W. Bush.
And Bush, when he took office, was much more concerned with Saddam Hussein, who had purportedly threatened to kill his dad in 1993 in Kuwait, than with Bin Laden. To his credit, Bush’s father, however, had correctly warned that a major U.S. military intervention against Iraq in the effort to engage in “regime change” would result in a long-term occupation. The Son should have listened—but he was surrounded with self-righteous neo-cons (his so-called “brains”) who believed they knew better.
After the Al Qaeda attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon using commercial jets in a new form of nomadic or hybrid warfare, the Bush Jr. administration fell directly into the mousetrap set by Bin Laden. Just before the September 11, 2001 attacks, Bin Laden had ordered the assassination of the leader of the Northern Alliance, General Masoud in an effort to undermine U.S. efforts to support Masoud’s forces against the Taliban.
Then he attacked the American empire in the sinews of its heart. While Bin Laden might have hoped that the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon would turn the American people against the U.S. government (the attacks did the opposite), he also believed (more correctly) that a U.S. “crusade” against Islamist “terrorism” could be politically manipulated to build up pan-Sunni Islamist movements against the U.S., Europe, Russia and China and in all countries who Al Qaeda saw as false believers in Islam, such as Saudi Arabia, and the Gulf monarchies.
After the September 11, 2001 attacks, the U.S. Congress voted unanimously to use military force against the “nations, organizations, or persons” or whoever President George W. Bush had determined were behind those attacks. In also passing the Patriot Act, the U.S. Congress accordingly gave the Executive Branch a blank check to engage in “forever wars” and to engage in domestic surveillance without any significant Congressional oversight.
The new “Short War Illusion”
Instead of focusing on eliminating the differing cells of Al Qaeda, which did not exist in Afghanistan alone, the U.S. opted for a military intervention that was aimed at eliminating both Al Qaeda and the Taliban. While U.S.-led forces rapidly overthrew the Taliban, they did not eliminate Al Qaeda which moved its “base” (the meaning of Al Qaeda in Arabic) to Pakistan and elsewhere.
The rapid U.S.-led victory over the Taliban helped to exaggerate expectations that “democratic” governance could be achieved, that a new “nation” of Afghanistan could be “built.” The rapid victory fostered a new form of “short war illusion” in which the military intervention was short, but the NATO peacemaking and peacekeeping would prove to be very long.2
As soon as Washington backed the new government in Kabul, the banished Taliban, Al Qaeda, and other pan-Sunni Islamist movements would propagandize against the U.S. and NATO “occupation” in order to re-build the pan-Islamist resistance both in Afghanistan and elsewhere.
Moreover, the task of “nation-building” for the whole country was largely mission impossible from the very outset given the socio-political circumstances and the huge costs involved. This is in large part because the December 5, 2001 Bonn Agreement that established the new Afghan government was primarily determined with the consent of the minority Northern Alliance—which had been significantly weakened by Al Qaeda’s assassination of the charismatic General Masoud.
The Northern Alliance was predominantly Tajik and represented (or really controlled) roughly 25%-30% of the population—before the U.S. intervened militarily against the Taliban in late 2001. The problem was that the new Afghan government primarily represented Kabul and other major urban areas and it did not include significant representation from the Pashtun population, roughly 42% of the Afghan population.
Even after their defeat in 2001, the Taliban were thus able to gradually re-gain support among the Pashtun population in Afghanistan, in addition to obtaining sufficient support from the Pashtun communities in northern Pakistan, plus aid and logistics from the Pakistani Inter-Services-Intelligence—somewhat like the Soviets and North Vietnamese had supplied revolutionary forces fighting in U.S.-backed South Vietnam through neutral Cambodia.
Although President Biden claimed in July 2021 that the U.S. never went into Afghanistan to “nation-build” that is not entirely correct. In fact, in October 2001, Joe Biden, then Head of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, prepared the first laws to authorize reconstruction aid to Afghanistan and the region even prior to the November 2001 U.S. invasion—sums that were expected to be on the level of Marshall Plan.
Later, in October 2004, then-Senator Biden argued for a troop surge in Afghanistan (and in Iraq) in the name of democratic elections; he argued that U.S.-troop support had led to “a surprisingly successful election in Afghanistan.” Yet by 2008-09, Biden, as Obama’s Vice President, suddenly took an about-face and unsuccessfully argued against the proposed U.S. troop surge that was then implemented by Obama. Despite his election promises to withdraw U.S. forces from the country, Obama opted to increase forces from 30,000 in 2008 to 100,000 by 2011, before reducing forces significantly.
Biden: urging U.S. withdrawal
At that time, in internal White House debates about the Afghan war, Biden reportedly urged Obama to consider the option of counterterror measures based on Special Forces and drone strikes, with much less boots on the ground. Before becoming president, Biden was thus moving away from GWOT and counter-insurgency and advocating “remote” or “over the horizon” warfare.
Biden’s position may have flipped against counter-insurgency because he had become disillusioned with Afghan President Hamid Karzai. In a meeting with Biden and other Senators, Karzai had refused to openly admit the reality of Afghan governmental corruption and the Afghan government’s own role in flourishing drug trade—a large part of which was allegedly controlled by Karzai’s own brother in addition to the Taliban.
As Biden realized, the already overextended American empire, much like the Soviet Union, could not win a war by supporting an extremely corrupt and unreliable government. Moreover, it was also not possible for the Afghan “national” government, heavily dependent upon American aid and assistance for its survival, to sustain the loyalty of Afghan forces. Without any real loyalty to a “national” government built by the Americans, these forces, whose regional and ethnic identities had largely been forged over the course of decades of conflict since the Soviet invasion in 1979, would largely dissolve several months before the Taliban take-over in August 2021.
The U.S. intervention and trillions in assistance to the Afghan government did not ensure enough confidence in the government so as to prevent the outflux of Afghan refugees to third countries as the conflict intensified. By 2020, there were some 2.6 million Afghans abroad while some 2.9 million people had been displaced inside the country. This has set the stage for a new tragedy to come after the U.S. and NATO withdrawal in August 2021 accompanied by the U.S. freezing of Afghan government financial assets and cut off of aid.
Another factor making it more difficult to “nation build” in Afghanistan was the Bush administration decision to fight two regional wars simultaneously by engaging in “regime change” in Iraq in 2003. This decision represented a major factor in overextending global U.S. capabilities. And it worked to prevent the establishment of a viable, stable and (pro-American) systems of governance (democratic or not) in both Afghanistan and Iraq. Moreover, it opened broad new fronts in the “global war on terror.”
With over 200,000 foreign troops and foreign military contractors, and an estimated 350,000 Afghan military and security forces, plus the deployment of the most advanced military technology, the U.S. and NATO could not defeat a rag-tag army of roughly 60,000-80,000 which were nevertheless able to obtain the support of as many as 200,000 other militia groups and supporters.
And now the outrageous costs of the Global War on Terrorism have reached over $8 trillion since GWOT began in 2001, while overall Pentagon spending has totaled over $14 trillion with one-third to one-half of the total going to the military-industrial complex. GWOT has done nothing but produce thousands of alienated Bin Laden replicas in a war that has “metastasized beyond Afghanistan” in Biden’s own words—thus destabilizing and terrorizing much of the wider Middle East.
The U.S. has now intervened in at least 85 countries. Over 920,000 people have died due to direct war violence and as many as 38 million have become war refugees and displaced persons, among other causalities. If one accepts the arguments of St. Augustine, GWOT is not even close to representing a proportional response to the initial wrong of the September 11, 2001 attacks … GWOT is definitely not a “just war”— if there can be such a thing…
Afghanistan and the future
The U.S. and NATO retreat from Afghanistan opens the mineral-rich landlocked country to Russia and China and sets the stage for the establishment of a potential Eurasian Axis. Both Russia and China appear to have made deals with the Taliban leadership in order to prevent the new Islamicist government from backing Sunni Islamicist movements inside the Russian Federation and from backing Uighur Islamicists in China’s Xinjiang province. Iran may also hope to make deals with the Taliban unless the latter persecute the Hazara Shi’a community.
And even though Pakistan continues to back the Taliban, there is a possibility that the Taliban could eventually support Pashtun militants in northern Pakistan to the dismay of Islamabad. In response, the latter could try to divert Pakistani Islamicist militants against India, while India may seek to back Tajik and other groups alienated by the Taliban if a power-sharing arrangement cannot eventually be implemented. The situation forewarns of renewed India-Pakistani (plus China) conflict.
While the Taliban say they strongly oppose those who want to export the Islamic revolution, such as Daesh (dubbed Islamic State-K due to its presence in the Afghan province of Khorasan), the question remains as to whether the Taliban will support international acts of terrorism such as that engaged in by the Haqqani network (versus India’s interests, for example) or again by Al Qaida with which the Taliban purportedly remains aligned—despite their promises of peace.
On the domestic American level, the rapid Taliban seizure of Kabul appears to have strengthened the hand of Trump and Trumpists, as well as neo-conservatives, who strongly criticized the Biden administration. Trumpists have argued that the situation in Kabul paralleled the 1975 fall of Saigon—a parallel disclaimed by Secretary of State Tony Blinken. As Trump himself had set a much earlier date May 1 date for U.S. withdrawal, it is dubious that his administration would have done a better job.
On the international side, Secretary of State Blinken has been pushing for a concerted UN-backed Contact Group of the major and regional powers that will include Russia, China, Pakistan, Iran and the United States to deal with post-war political and economic reconstruction and that will try to moderate Taliban behavior.
Ironically, Pakistan is key to peace given the clandestine support that the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency has given the Taliban over the years, while Qatar, which helped to mediate the U.S. and NATO withdrawal, is the major intermediary. How India reacts to the rise of this new Islamicism, plus a more significant role of China in Afghanistan and Pakistan, remains to be seen. Most likely, very negatively.
In sum, the Biden administration’s withdrawal from Kabul opens a new phase of the Afghan tragedy, while the American over-reliance upon military power as means to resolve geopolitical and socio-economic disputes has raised profound questions about the reputation of American imperial power and leadership.
Will still obese and distended American empire now become somewhat leaner, but militarily meaner, after its humiliating Afghan gastrectomy? Or will Washington finally learn from its failures to “democratize” and “nation build” by force and begin to engage in a truly concerted diplomatic peace offensive to settle numerous disputes with its rivals?
Just because Mikhail Gorbachev had failed to succeed in his strategy of diplomatic “new thinking” in reaching out for peace with Soviet rivals after withdrawing Soviet forces from Afghanistan does not necessarily mean Washington will fail if it tries to engage in a similar strategy, after withdrawing from Afghanistan as well, and really strives to establish global peace—that is, in the assumption that the American body politic is not so inflicted with hypertension, diabetes, and other ailments that it can still function adequately enough to radically change diplomatic course.
1 Hall Gardner, American Global Strategy and the ‘War on Terrorism’ (Ashgate, 2005).