Thousands of innocent people dead, religious intolerance, the oppression of women, millions of refugees. These are the inevitable results of the fall of the Afghan “government” to the Taliban. For the 38 million Afghans who have suffered decades of war, this humanitarian disaster is only getting worse.
Not so long ago, President Joe Biden declared “America is back.” And it certainly is, but not in the way Biden thought. The complete military collapse of the Afghan “army” means something different in Washington than it does to the people in Afghanistan. Some commentators have come out and suggested that this spells the end of the U.S. as world leader. They emphasize that the loss of Afghanistan will result in the collapse of the system of alliances that constitute an essential part of the global order. To them, the only alternative to a posture of permanent war is crisis. In the past, signs of the imminent collapse of U.S. power have been used to shore up imperial power. Realistically, this loss could set off a chain reaction that results in the U.S. trying to reassert itself as the world power.
Many of those in the halls of power in Washington would fail a history class. The majority believe that the U.S.’ military defeats were the result of tactical errors. The New York Times recently wrote that the Taliban’s victory “follows years of U.S. miscalculations.” But what has happened is much worse than a simple tactical error.
These events are a sound defeat for the project of nation-building, only the most recent example of the pipe dream of neoconservatives and liberals who aim to transform countries by force into “modern, transparent, secular, and above all capitalist states.”* These events also emphasize, yet again, the limits of imperial power in a civil war.
The U.S. has suffered many defeats: Korea in the ‘50s, Cuba in the ‘60s, Vietnam, Nicaragua and Iran in the ‘70s, to name a few. During the ‘70s, some of those in the halls of power learned the lessons taught by the communists’ victory in Vietnam. This defeat showed that no empire, even at the height of its power, has the capacity to dominate the whole world. It was not possible to defeat a guerrilla army that had the support of the majority of the population, especially with corrupt allies who lacked popular support. But the victory of David against Goliath doesn’t necessarily mean that Goliath will lay down the “big stick” he uses to attack his supposed enemies.
Despite the lessons of the ‘70s, after Vietnam, the U.S. intervened in Nicaragua, Lebanon, Honduras, El Salvador and many other countries. The current situation in Central America, the corruption, the poverty, the violence, the drug trafficking and the authoritarian regimes are the products of U.S. intervention in the region. After decades of the war on drugs in Colombia and Mexico, military solutions to social problems continue to be pushed. Not one of these experiences changed the underlying methods of the U.S. imperial system: alliances with centrist or right-wing nationalist forces, the creation of armies modeled on the U.S. Army, integration into the world economy based on free-trade agreements and investment, capitalist consumption and the promotion of “democratic” ideology and now, neoliberal multiculturalism.
During the ‘80s, the end of the Cold War, the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the disintegration of Eastern Europe appeared to confirm what some sectors of the elites believed: that the U.S. had ushered in the end of history, as political theorist Francis Fukuyama proposed in 1989. During the decade dominated by the unipolar moment, the idea appeared that, according to Madeleine Albright, U.S. ambassador to the U.N. in 1998, “if we have to use force, it is because we are America. We are the indispensable nation.”
The attacks of Sept. 11 shattered this smug consensus among the elite. The terrorist attacks of al-Qaida never threatened the global position of the U.S. Likewise, al-Qaida was not a military target against which advanced weaponry could be used. Notwithstanding, the U.S. responded the same way it always had. After the failure of the invasion of the Bay of Pigs (Cuba, 1961), President John F. Kennedy maintained that “now we have a problem in trying to make our power credible, and Vietnam looks like the place.” After 9/11, President George W. Bush decided that U.S. credibility would require more than legal proceedings or a clandestine operation against Osama bin Laden and his associates. War has never been a solution to the challenges posed by nationalist movements, fundamentalist terrorism and even less so, drug trafficking. As many liberals as conservatives voted for the invasion. Only Congresswoman Barbara Lee voted against the invasion of Afghanistan. Where will be the next place the U.S. tries to show off its military might and its sociopolitical vision?
After Afghanistan, Biden, or any other president from either party will face the same challenges and will propose the same solutions as Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Ronald Reagan, Bush, Barack Obama and Donald Trump. Before long, the logic of power, the unification of the nation, and the surge of popular support that follows the beginning of a war, and the use of the nation’s massive military, will once again cause historical amnesia among the elites. Before long, the U.S. and its policy of permanent war will rear its ugly head once again.
Editor’s Note: This quote, though accurately translated, could not be independently verified.