A wounded giant retreats
America spent, bribed, killed and bungled on a massive scale. Daniel Lazare assesses the consequences
There is no doubt that America’s Afghan withdrawal is a stunning defeat not only for the 20-year ‘war on terror’, but for US standing in general.
So many bizarre elements in the debacle stand out that it is hard to know where to begin. There is Joe Biden’s outburst in early July, as the normally obsequious White House press corps bombarded him with questions about a military situation that was fast going downhill. “I want to talk about happy things, man,” he said in frustration. “Look, it’s Fourth of July … It’s the holiday weekend. I’m going to celebrate it. There’s great things happening.”1 Biden thus barbecued, while Afghanistan burned.
Then there is the ‘me, me, me’ narcissism. One of America’s last acts in Afghanistan occurred on August 29, when a Reaper drone rocketed a car in the heart of Kabul that may or may not have been transporting explosives (“Possible to probable” is how the Pentagon characterised the odds).2 As many as 10 civilians may have died, seven of them children, yet Biden said nothing about the atrocity, even while travelling to Dover Air Force Base in his home state of Delaware to receive the bodies of 13 US troops, who had died in a suicide bombing a few days earlier. It was yet another reminder that some lives are valuable in America and some, plainly, are not.
There is also greed. Military contractors like Lockheed Grumman and Raytheon raked in billions. But in a smaller, but still striking, example of political malfeasance, a trio of Democratic congressmen worked overtime to force the Pentagon to cease buying cheap and durable Russian-made Mi-17 helicopters and substitute Black Hawks, manufactured in their home state of Connecticut, instead - this despite the fact that Black Hawks are more expensive and more difficult to maintain, have less lift capacity and cannot fly at altitudes encountered in Afghanistan’s remote mountain regions.3 But who cares about military capability, when there are constituents to be placated and campaign coffers to be filled?
Finally, there is an almost tsarist level of incompetence. Throughout the war, the same complaints were heard over and over - that corruption was out of control, that opium production was shooting through the roof, that efforts to bring the Afghan military up to grade were going nowhere, and that the Taliban controlled more and more territory, even as the US military continued pumping out phony statistics saying the opposite. As many as a third of the Afghan military consisted of ‘ghost’ soldiers, who had deserted, died or never showed up in the first place, yet who remained on the rolls, so that commanding officers could pocket their pay.4 When an army captain complained about an Afghan militia leader keeping a boy chained to his bed for use as a sex slave - a practice known as bacha bazi (literally ‘boy play’) - the captain was relieved of his command, while the militia leader carried on.5 Indeed, one military contractor used US money to pay for ‘dancing boys’ to entertain Afghan police trainees, yet nothing was done.6
When Afghan politicians, officers and police called in the Americans to eradicate poppy fields, journalists meanwhile noticed that they made sure they eradicated their enemies’ fields and never their own.
“Are you destroying all the poppies or just my field?” a farmer in Helmand province asked during a raid in 2007. “You will be afraid when the time comes,” warned another. A US anti-drug contractor joked: “Good thing I’m an idealist - I’m just here for the money.”7
Afghan poppy cultivation zoomed as a consequence from near zero under the Taliban to a record 328,000 hectares under the US in 2017 - enough to generate an estimated 80% of the world’s supply.8 Yet nothing was done in this case either, even though the trade was a boon to the Taliban, whose taxes on producers were a major source of revenue, and to Afghan officers and police, who routinely collected bribes for looking the other way.
Afghanistan was thus a kind of Ponzi scheme, in which problems were put off in the belief that there would always be a bigger fool to take them over at some future date. Presidents came and went, generals rotated in and out, and consultants reaped fat fees, as an estimated $2.3 trillion disappeared down the drain. Some 70,000 Afghan soldiers and police died along the way, as did more than 2,500 US troops, plus more than a thousand from Britain, France and other Nato members, as well as an estimated 46,000 Afghan civilians. Yet the situation only grew worse.
Ashraf Ghani, Afghanistan’s much-lauded president until just a few months ago, is a picture-perfect example of just how dysfunctional the system had become. Ghani was not some ordinary politician whom the US plucked out of thin air to replace an increasingly rebellious Hamid Karzai in 2014. Rather, he was a rising star. Armed with a doctorate from Columbia, he helped administer shock therapy in Russia on behalf of the World Bank, founded a Washington think tank known as the Institute for State Effectiveness and co-authored an award-winning book entitled Fixing failed states: a framework for rebuilding a fractured world (Oxford 2008) - with blurbs from Francis Fukuyama, Hernando de Soto and Goldman Sachs vice chairman Robert Hormats no less. Ghani picked up plaudits from the Brookings Institution, which hailed him as an “economic wizard”, and from the hawkish Atlantic Council, which appointed him to its international advisory board.9
This was the man whom Joe Biden urged to work on image management, as his government began to totter. Biden told him in a July 23 phone call:
I need not tell you, the perception around the world and in parts of Afghanistan, I believe, is that things are not going well in terms of the fight against the Taliban. And there is a need, whether it is true or not, there is a need to project a different picture.10
Not only did Ghani fail to project that “different picture”: he fled to the United Arab Emirates with $169 million in cash, just as the Taliban were closing in.11 Reportedly, he needed four cars and a helicopter to transport the money to a waiting plane.12 Washington’s golden boy turned out to be a mega-thief.
It takes not just a few people to wreak disaster on such a colossal scale, but an entire milieu - indeed an entire ideology based on ‘anti-terrorism’ (code for bombing Muslims to smithereens), neoliberalism and the belief that there is no problem that the ‘indispensable nation’ cannot fix by sending in the International Monetary Fund and the 82nd Airborne.
Given the sweeping nature of the collapse, what are the implications for Afghanistan, the region and the world beyond?
In the case of the first, the upshot is likely to be a broad economic and social collapse, as America puts Afghanistan’s foreign assets in a deep freeze and shuts down access to the World Bank, the IMF and other agencies. More than half of Afghanistan’s 33 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance just to survive, according to the UN. One person in three is “food insecure,” meaning they have no idea where their next meal is coming from, and more than half of all children under the age of five are facing acute malnourishment as well.13 Yet, with international health agencies now running for the hills, little aid is likely to be forthcoming. Despite the Taliban’s disapproval of the opium trade, ironically, one effect might be to step up production of what is virtually the country’s sole remaining source of foreign revenue.
The same goes for ‘terrorism’. Given that Islamism is also the Taliban’s sole political asset, the new government has an incentive to make peace with Islamic State, the al Qa’eda spinoff that is currently challenging it from the right, and place itself at the service of Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and other such players. If it does not, then the alternative might well a Libyan-style descent into civil war, as the Taliban and Islamic State battle for control. With Biden promising to send Reaper drones into a country that he plainly regards as a free-fire zone, the situation can only grow more volatile.
Poverty, starvation, terrorism or civil war - the US has not left Afghanistan in very good shape. For the region, there is no question that Russia, China and other countries in central Asia are now startled to find a ticking Islamist bomb on their doorstep. Russia, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan have held joint military manoeuvres along the Afghan border as a show of strength. China is trying to reach an accommodation with the new regime, while keeping Islamic fundamentalism from leaking over the border into restive Xinjiang - a western province in which Muslim Uyghurs account for nearly half the population.
Pakistan, whose prime minister, Imran Khan, congratulated the Taliban for overthrowing the “shackles of slavery”, faces a similar problem of how to prevent Islamist unrest from washing over its borders. Its goal is to use the Taliban to its own advantage, while avoiding the blowback that will likely follow - but it certainly will not be easy. With the Taliban voicing support for Kashmiri Islamists, India cannot help but worry as well. As for Iran, it is obviously thrilled that a US puppet has fallen. But it still has to deal with a militant Sunni state next door - not to mention the continued inflow of Afghan refugees on top of the three million it has already taken in.
As for Europe - a region that for generations was content to follow America’s lead in foreign policy - it is plain that the long-awaited separation is finally at hand. Armin Laschet - leader of Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union and her chosen successor as German chancellor - has described Afghanistan as “the biggest debacle that Nato has suffered since its founding” and a sign that “epochal change” is on the way - even though no-one in the centre-right CDU has a clue as to what that epochal change actually means. Josep Borrell, EU chief of foreign affairs, describes the pullout as a “catastrophe”, while Emmanuel Macron has called for “strategic autonomy” in the wake of the debacle - a phrase that, again, no-one is remotely able to define.
As for the United States, it is a wounded giant. To be sure, the US eventually bounced back from defeat in Vietnam, so it is not impossible that it will do so again. But this is not ‘your grandfather’s America’, to paraphrase a famous US car commercial. Near-civil war rages in Washington, basic political institutions are in disarray, while an over-frothy economy is obviously headed for a blow-off. With Republicans jubilant over Biden’s political travails, the rightwing offensive can only intensify, as conservatives declare war on abortion, ‘critical race theory’ and voting rights. Democrats are hoping that voters will agree with Biden that the US had little choice but to pull out. But it is hard to see how he will escape punishment for the shambolic way in which the pullout was conducted.
Biden is America’s Konstantin Chernenko - the weak and wheezing Soviet leader, whose death in 1984 after just 13 months in office paved the way for the Soviet collapse.14 For a president nearing his 80th birthday, the task at hand is to prevent a similar fate from befalling the US. The next few months will show whether he will be able to pull it off.
Statement by Senator Richard Blumenthal, D-Connecticut, November 18 2016: https://www.blumenthal.senate.gov/newsroom/press/release/after-efforts-by-blumenthal-murphy-and-delauro-defense-department-seeks-to-end-reliance-on-russian-made-helicopters-for-afghan-forces. See also www.rotorandwing.com/2018/06/15/report-switching-russian-u-s-helicopters-undercuts-afghan-capability.↩︎
UN Office on Drugs and Crime, ‘Last year’s record opium production in Afghanistan threatens sustainable development’ (May 21 2018): www.unodc.org/unodc/en/frontpage/2018/May/last-years-record-opium-production-in-afghanistan-threatens-sustainable-development--latest-survey-reveals.html.↩︎
BBC reporter Kawoon Khamoosh tweeted out the sum on August 18: twitter.com/kawoonkhamoosh/status/1427907632040398849.↩︎
See ‘America’s Chernenko’ Weekly Worker March 25 2021: weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/1340/americas-chernenko.↩︎