We’ve just hit the 20th anniversary of the Afghan war. But which one?
There were actually two Afghan wars. The first began within a few weeks of the 9-11 tragedy, when the US was attacked by Al Qaeda with the assistance of elements of the Saudi Arabia ruling elite.
In the first war US forces invaded Afghanistan behind the excuse its mission and goal was to capture Bin Laden and deny Al Qaeda a base in that country, even though there is ample evidence the Taliban had offered to kick Bin Laden out in exchange for no US invasion. The Bush administration rejected the Taliban offer because its actual mission and objective was always greater than just capturing Bin Laden, or even occupying Afghanistan.
The first Afghan war was over in a matter of a few months, when US forces drove the Taliban out of government in Afghanistan and into the countryside while sending forces of Bin Laden’s Al Qaeda retreating into the mountains bordering Pakistan (the latter the USA’s erstwhile ‘ally’ but actually ally of Bin Laden’s Al Qaeda as well as the Taliban).
The second Afghan war—the often mentioned 20 year war that Biden just ended—began with USA military forces occupying Afghanistan and remaining there on the ground, beginning in 2002 and continuing until August 31, 2021.
The US may have won the first Afghan war; but it even more clearly lost the second!
On August 31, 2021 President Biden addressed the nation giving his reasons for the pull out of Afghanistan, thus ending America’s second war in that country. However, Biden was announcing much more than the final Afghan pullout.
The mission of the second Afghan war was quite different than the first, and it was never publicly acknowledged by the US imperial elite represented by the Cheney-Rumsfeld-Bush faction of American imperialists at the time. The 2nd Afghan war’s mission was to extend the USA empire deep into the broader region of central asia in order to challenge both Russia and China on their weakest flanks.
Cheney-Rumsfeld-Bush intended to keep US forces in Afghanistan to use as a base for extending USA’s influence and hegemony permanently throughout the entire central asia region.
By 2001 Russia was weakened after a decade of economic depression in the 1990s. Its leadership, under Boris Yeltsin in that period, was willing to do whatever the USA wanted. Putin was not yet fully in charge and US imperial elites likely assumed Putin could be managed in a similar fashion as Yeltsin had. At the time Putin’s ascendance in Russia politics was just beginning and he gave the USA assurances the USA-Russia 1990s relationship of unequals would continue. Cheney-Rumsfeld-Bush envisioned an historic opportunity of penetrating the former Soviet Union empire ‘from the east’, just as it was doing at the time through the Baltics and the Caucasus. USA imperial strategy was always to keep Russia weakened by stoking insurrections and political instability on that country’s periphery. Afghanistan provided the potential for doing so from yet another direction: Russia’s former central Asia partners.
Dominating central asia provided US imperialists a similar useful geographic leverage on China’s far western border, especially with China’s western Muslims. Establishing US hegemony over the region would ensure US strategic advantages on Iran’s eastern border as well. US imperialists had much to gain by occupying Afghanistan, and therefore deepening its influence and hegemony throughout central Asia on behalf of the US global empire.
The USA’s 20-year second war in Afghanistan was thus a war of intended permanent occupation of that country as a base for further extension and deepening of US imperial interests throughout central Asia. On the surface it all appeared as ‘nation building’ in Afghanistan, but in essence it was USA ‘empire building’ with the intent of weakening Russian interests in central Asia permanently, while simultaneously challenging China on its western-most flank and opening a ‘second front’ against Iran on its eastern border. Afghanistan was the strategic lynchpin, but US imperial hegemony in central Asia the real objective.
The USA lost the 2nd Afghan war, however, and it has now been driven out of central Asia altogether, not just out of Afghanistan. The Cheney-Rumsfeld-Bush imperial project has been defeated. That is the real historic significance of the US retreat from Afghanistan.
In his August 31, 2021 address to the nation on the Afghan pullout, Biden referred to the exit as due to the doomed mission of ‘nation building’. But nation building is only the appearance. What was doomed, however, was the Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld imperial adventure and over-reach. What failed was the attempt to expand USA imperial power and hegemony over central Asia—i.e. a much greater defeat than just an exit from Afghanistan.
In retrospect on the two wars in Afghanistan, it is somewhat ironic historically that the USA invaded that country in response to around 2500 Americans killed on September 11, 2001 but then expended another roughly 2900 lives of Americans in Afghanistan over the next 20 years (not to mention hundreds of thousands of Afghan lives in the process). So the crimes of the Saudi terrorists who crashed aircraft into buildings in the USA on September 11, 2001 were no greater than the crimes of Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld who wasted even more US lives in their failed imperial venture into Central Asia (not to mention the hundreds of thousands of innocent Afghans in the course of 20 years).
In order to give justifying reasons for the final pull out, Biden admitted the cost of the 20 year war was more than $2.3 trillion. Just days before in his prior address he referred to a $1 trillion cost. The former, more accurate number is from a Brown University study, to which Biden finally referred. Other total costs of the Central Asia & Middle East military adventure the past 20 years are estimated between $6.4 and 10 trillion, depending on the source.
The most important passage in Biden’s August 31 speech was his statement that “the world has changed” since 2001. In his next breathe Biden then signaled the most important of those changes: China’s growing economic influence, military, and technological capacity as well as Russia’s clearly cybersecurity capabilities evidence. These ‘changes’ are the new threats to USA global economic control, political hegemony, and technological supremacy—not wars to establish USA regional geographic supremacy in central asia. The US ruling elite has come to understand this. That’s why you don’t hear Republicans attacking the fact of the pullout; just the way Biden managed and executed it.
Central Asia—and Middle East wars one might add—have been proven cost ineffective to the extreme for US ruling elites. The USA likely expended around $10 trillion in total costs in those wars. And it has nothing to show for it in the end.
The defeats and pullout in Afghanistan, central asia, and soon the middle east are magnitudes more significant than the US defeat and pullout from Vietnam. The US recovered from the latter by restructuring its global economic empire and hegemony along Neoliberal lines. It quickly checked challenges from Japan and Europe in the 1980s. The Soviet Union began to unravel at the same time, and China was not yet a challenger. The same cannot be said, however, of the current defeat and pullout. China is a significant challenger to the US economically, and increasingly politically, and eventually militarily. Russia has recovered and rebuilt its military, made important advances in new military technology, checked US advances into its periphery, and has begun extending its political influence globally once again as well. Both China and Russia are ascendant once again, unlike the post Vietnam period.
And now $trillions of dollars more must be spent by US imperial interests in order to meet the challenge of the new ‘wars’ with China and Russia, requiring massive economic and military investment at least as great as what the US expended in central asia and middle east.
The USA can no longer afford to have both: military adventures abroad while competing technologically and militarily with China and Russia. Biden said as much directly to the American public in his August 31, 2021 address to the nation.
US imperialist strategy is always first and foremost to maintain its global hegemony economically and politically. However, the Cheney-Bush-Rumsfeld attempt to expand and deepen those US imperial interests geographically into central asia and the middle east. That military adventure has proven an historic failure. Indeed, the Bush regime’s military adventures have undermined USA global hegemony, not expanded or more deeply secured it. The cost of the Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld imperial adventures turned out to be too expensive and unsustainable—especially now that trillions of dollars in investment are needed to contain and compete with China and Russia.
In other words, the costs of maintaining empire have now become greater than the costs of extending empire for the US. It’s a cost of empire and a juncture had never faced by the US empire since 1944-45.
The USA can no longer absorb the costs of both expanding and maintaining empire. That’s what Biden really meant when he said to the American public in his August 31 pullout speech: “things have changed in the last 20 years”.
What’s ‘changed’ as well is that US domestic costs of dealing with an economic crises every decade—first in 2008-10 and now again in 2020-21—have been growing ever greater as well. Those periodic crises add greatly to the costs of financing competition with China and Russia to maintain the empire. Add that’s not all. There’s still further the 3rd de facto ‘war’—i.e. the war with Nature—and the need to finance even trillions more to battle climate change.
The spending and investment needed to technologically, economically and militarily compete with China and Russia, to address chronic growing domestic US economic instability, and to somehow simultaneously pay for the war on climate change all add up to tens of trillions of dollars over the next decade.
To these spending demands on maintaining empire, it is clear US capitalists have become addicted to chronic, massive tax cuts since 2001. That makes financing of empire even even more difficult. Empire cannot be sustained simply by the US State issuing more Treasury bonds and undertaking even more debt financing. Thus growing US revenue generating problems add to the challenges of financing empire add for the US maintaining global hegemony.
The USA is clearly now entering a new era in its imperial project. However, the retreat from empire politically and militarily has only just begun. That retreat will be a protracted process. But the peaking of US global economic and political power is past. The Bush regime’s failed military adventures are largely responsible. As was the Obama administration’s continuation of Bush’s central Asia & middle east failed adventures when Obama had the opportunity in 2011 to pull out but instead went in deeper in Afghanistan, Syria and of course Libya.
History will show the imperial adventures of the Cheney-Rumsfeld-Bush wing of the US capitalist elites—into the middle east and then into central Asia—have all but wrecked the global US imperial thrust which began in 1944-45.
As the costs of financing the new technology ‘wars’ with China and Russia rise in the years immediately ahead, it is inevitable the USA will have to withdraw further as well from Iraq and elsewhere in the middle east: The Trump era buildup toward war with Iran is over. US efforts to slow North Korea’s nuclear development are done. US plans to further disrupt and even invade Venezuela through proxies is finished history, as it instructs its puppet, Guido, to cut the best deal he can with the socialist regime there. New plans to destabilizing Cuba will occur in word only, for domestic US election purposes. Europe will begin looking toward new ways to develop and fund its own military defense, and early indications are it is already considering so. USA allies in northeast Asia will drift toward more neutral relations with China longer term.
Domestically the USA will restructure its military investments and expenditures. And it probably cannot avoid retracting at least some of the $15 trillion in tax cuts for investors, corporations, and businesses it passed from 2001 through 2020 if it hopes to finance the new wars of technology with China and Russia, restore economic stability in the US, and confront the growing costs of climate change.
The USA has not simply pulled out of Afghanistan. Even more important, it is pulling out from central Asia and abandoning its imperial plans for that entire region. The central Asia pullout will be replicated in the middle east, albeit more slowly and less publicly evident. Military adventures elsewhere are no longer on the agenda anywhere.
The US empire can no longer fund imperial expansion, and at the same finance the new defense of its empire in the face of rising costly challenges from China and Russia. The empire no longer has sufficient financial resources.
Perhaps not yet naked, the emperor is nonetheless shedding his clothes. Or at least in the process of changing attire.