The Afghanistan Defeat Should Shatter Our Illusions About US Imperial Might   

The US military has lost enormous legitimacy because of its humiliation in Afghanistan. We will need to remind people of that humiliating defeat every single time the Pentagon tries to sell us another war.

Taliban fighters on a pickup truck move around a market area in Kabul on August 17, 2021, after the Taliban seized control of the capital following the collapse of the Afghan government. (Hoshang Hashimi / AFP via Getty Images)

The sudden collapse of the US-created government and army of Afghanistan, with resounding echoes of the communist victory in South Vietnam in 1975, is being blamed by centrist and rightwing journalists and politicians on President Joe Biden’s unwillingness to maintain a few thousand troops in Afghanistan in perpetuity. The speed with which the Afghan army collapsed came as a surprise to the Biden administration and to the Pentagon, both of which repeatedly predicted that the government could hold on against the Taliban for at least a year after the last US troops left.

We need to be careful not to ignore the realities of the Taliban and of the US invasion and twenty-year-long occupation. The Taliban’s success in defeating the United States means the reestablishment of a brutal, authoritarian, misogynist regime. We shouldn’t let the United States’ opposition to the Taliban and professed support for women’s rights and elections in Afghanistan obscure the destruction and death the American military inflicted on Afghan people. We should remember that today’s Taliban are descendants of the mujahideen that the United States armed and guided after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 — and that, until the September 11, 2001, attacks, the Bush administration was moving to reach an accommodation with the Taliban government of that era.

US military alliances and wars are the results of imperialist calculation, and we shouldn’t let the fact that America’s opponents are sometimes terrible regimes — and that, in the process of cementing control over other countries, the US government occasionally adopts policies that do some good — obscure the overriding reality that imperialism, whether that of the United States today or of Britain or other European powers in previous centuries, was and is evil. The most important question we need to ask about the Taliban victory is what effect it will have on America’s capacity to launch future imperialist wars or to intimidate other countries by means short of invasion.

Following defeat in Vietnam, the United States developed a military strategy that allowed it to dominate countries around the world and suppress many (though not all) insurgencies in the Global South. Rather than sending large numbers of American troops into combat, many of whom were reluctant conscripts, as in Vietnam, the United States relied on allies to field proxy armies that would be “advised” (more accurately, commanded) by US officers. More recently, drones have allowed the United States to kill enemies without endangering US troops.

For such a strategy to work, local allies need to be recruited. The difficulty is enticing enough locals to, in essence, betray their own country by serving US interests rather than their fellow citizens. The most successful imperialists, such as the British, managed to sustain locals’ loyalty by offering sufficient material rewards, which in turn allowed the imperial power to lead locals to assume they would remain under foreign rule forever; therefore, their only path to material well-being and career success was through serving the colonial regime. In some cases, most notably South Korea, long-term foreign dominance allowed local collaborators to construct a regime that not only endured but launched the country on a path of genuine economic development.

Afghanistan and Iraq were never particularly successful imperial ventures. The costs of controlling those countries always vastly exceeded the actual or even the potential revenue that could have been generated by exploiting local resources. The United States recruited a thin layer of officials whose loyalty to America was bought by allowing them to engage in massive corruption. That is why, as has often been reported, both the Afghan and Iraqi armies (which, on paper, were far larger than the insurgents they were supposedly fighting) were made up largely of “ghost” soldiers — men who were put on the US-financed payroll but didn’t really exist, whose salaries were collected by their commanders, who then kicked up much of that money to higher officials in the government.

As long as the insurgents didn’t win significant local support, such pretend armies, combined with a few thousand US troops and drones, were enough to keep puppet governments in power in Baghdad and Kabul. But in the twenty-first century, few people in the world are willing to be ruled by foreigners, and when the corrupt puppet governments fail to deliver any social benefits or to develop the economy, even the most brutal opposition groups will gain ever more adherents. When that happens, the political calculus within the US government changes.

For presidents, the political price of the minimal American casualties generated by proxy and drone warfare is less costly than being pinned with responsibility for losing a war and then being perceived as having, by withdrawal, made the deaths of all the Americans who fell in that war meaningless. Donald Trump was fortunate that, during his presidency, US casualties remained low enough in Afghanistan and Iraq to ensure that most of his voters wouldn’t notice Americans still were deployed in those and other countries. (For almost all Americans, news that four US soldiers had been killed in Niger was the first and last time they became aware that troops were deployed in Africa.) Trump was doubly lucky that the United States retained the ability to block a decisive victory by insurgents during his four years in office, allowing him to avoid having to reach a decision to end the Afghan or Iraq wars.

When Biden came into office, it became clear that America’s string in Afghanistan had run out, and the Taliban soon would be able to totally defeat the US puppet government and endanger the remaining US troops and diplomats. At that point, Biden had no choice but to announce and fully complete a withdrawal. Unfortunately for Biden, the Taliban victory came faster than he and his military advisers anticipated, and the bad optics of a panicked evacuation (including real suffering by many Afghans on the ground) — though not of a massacre of any remaining US troops — occurred. For now, Iraq is more stable; Biden is continuing that war.

The rapid and spectacular collapse of the Afghan army after the United States’ massive twenty-year investment in building that military force will shift the calculations of both future insurgents and those who aspire to become puppet rulers for the United States. It also could affect the US government’s willingness to fight future wars, if Americans opposed to US imperialism mobilize effectively.

The US defeat in Afghanistan, and its inability to achieve significant control over the Iraqi government — which refused to privatize its oil sector and has banned the US from using its bases in Iraq to attack neighboring countries and remains closely aligned with Iran — are even greater blows to the image of US military preeminence than was defeat in Vietnam. After all, southern Vietnamese communists were backed by an established government in the north, while the Iraqi and Afghan insurgents were largely on their own, with only limited support from Iran and Pakistan respectively. Vietnamese communists were aided by the Soviet Union, the rival superpower, while no major power aided the Iraqi and Afghan insurgents.

For the US military to be shown to be so ineffective against small and isolated opponents will embolden peoples throughout the world to dare to challenge US military threats or interventions.

Perhaps even more subversive of US imperial strategy is what this defeat demonstrates to would-be collaborators in other countries. Afghanistan shows that only a tiny cohort of top leaders can expect to get rich during a US occupation. Most of the soldiers, translators, and others who served the US occupation will get scraps at best and will then be left to the mercies of victorious insurgents when the war ends. Any rational person considering collaboration with the United States will not make plans that assume they will be protected over the long term or that they can build careers in a puppet government. Instead, they will seek to grab as much money as they can as quickly as possible.

We saw the effects of such calculations in both Afghanistan and Iraq. High-ranking officials appropriated money that was supposed to pay ordinary soldiers and build facilities to provide electricity, water, health care, and education to the population that would then be loyal to the government that provided such benefits. When little development happened, Iraqis and Afghans (not surprisingly) gave support to insurgents, and the same will occur, but even more rapidly, in future wars.

The United States was able to inflict enormous damage in Iraq and Afghanistan in spite of, and in part because of, the fact that it was unable to win sufficient popular support in those countries. For those of us in the United States, our efforts must be directed at preventing any future wars.

Just as the US defeat in Vietnam made it impossible for decades to send large numbers of American soldiers into war, and ever since has forced the Pentagon to adopt strategies that allowed only limited war, so the US defeat in Afghanistan will make the American public ever more skeptical of claims by the American military that it can attain strategic or humanitarian goals through war of any sort.

The ever more blatant corruption by US puppet governments will make it impossible to convince the US public that the next invasion is bringing democracy or development to the targeted country. We need to challenge the US government’s repeated claims that counterinsurgency wars are battles between good governments the United States is trying to install or maintain versus cruel and reactionary insurgents. We need to show, as antiwar activists succeeded in doing for Vietnam, that life under the US puppet regime can feel just as brutal and unacceptable for average people under occupation as under its opponent. The example of Afghanistan will make that easier.

Many Americans are open to principled arguments against war, and we should continue to try to grow that sentiment. But all militaries lose legitimacy when they are defeated, and this new defeat for the US military is one we will need to remind people of whenever the Pentagon presents plans to use its enormous lethal power to bring or hold other countries within the US empire. By reminding the public of the unfortunate fact that thousands of US soldiers and hundreds of thousands of Afghan and Iraqi civilians died for nothing, we can shatter the fantasies that will be used to justify the next war the US government will try to foment.