Is the US withdrawal from Afghanistan the end of the US Empire?

How does an empire die? Often it seems that there is a growing sense of decay, and then something happens, a single event that provides the turning point. After World War II, Britain was almost bankrupt and its empire was broken, but it continued thanks to a US government loan and the new demands of the Cold War that made it possible to maintain its external appearance as a global player. It was not until the Suez debacle in 1956, when Britain was pressured by the United States, the Soviet Union and the United Nations to withdraw its forces from Egypt – as it had invaded with Israel and France after Gamal Abdel Nasser’s conquest of Suez. Canal – that it became clear that its imperial days were over. Soon the locks for decolonization opened.

In February 1989, when the Soviet Union withdrew its military from Afghanistan after a failed nine-year attempt to pacify the country, it did so in a carefully choreographed ceremony that telegraphed solemnity and dignity. An orderly procession of tanks moved north across the Friendship Bridge, which spans the Amu Darya River, between Afghanistan and Uzbekistan – then a Soviet republic. The Soviet commander, Lieutenant General Boris Gromov, walked over with his teenage son with a bouquet of flowers and smiled at the cameras. Behind him, he declared, there were no Soviet soldiers left in the country. “The day that millions of Soviet people have been waiting for has come,” he said at a military rally later that day. “Despite our sacrifices and losses, we have fully fulfilled our internationalist duty.”

Gromov’s victory speech did not quite correspond to George W. Bush’s “Mission Accomplished” after the invasion of Iraq in 2003, but it came close, and the message that it was intended to pass on, at least to people inside the Soviet Union, was a reassuring one: The Red Army left Afghanistan because it wanted to, not because it had been defeated. The Kremlin had deployed an iron-fisted Afghan loyalist, who was left to control things in its absence, a former secret police chief named Najibullah; there was also a combat-tested Afghan army, equipped and trained by the Soviets.

Meanwhile, the mujahideen guerrilla armies that had been subsidized and armed by the United States and its partners, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, were in a festive mood. Their combat units were assembled outside Afghanistan’s regime-controlled cities, and there was an expectation that it would not be long before Najibullah also succumbed and Kabul would be theirs. Eventually, he persevered for another three years, with his downfall simply leading to a new civil war.

Despite all the talk of internationalist duty, Afghanistan, which the Soviets left behind, was a core place. Out of its population of twelve million people, as many as two million civilians had been killed in the war, more than five million had fled the country, and another two million had been internally displaced. Many of the country’s cities lay in ruins, and half of Afghanistan’s rural villages and villages had been destroyed.

Officially, only 15,000 Soviet troops had been killed – although the real number could be much higher – and 50,000 more soldiers were wounded. But hundreds of planes, tanks and artillery pieces were destroyed or lost, and countless billions of dollars were diverted from the hard-pressed Soviet economy to pay for it all. No matter how much the Kremlin tried to erase it, the average Soviet citizen understood that the Afghanistan intervention had been a costly failure.

It was only eighteen months after the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan that a group of hardliners tried to launch a coup against the reformist Prime Minister Mikhail Gorbachev. But they had miscalculated their power and popular support. In the face of public demonstrations against them, their breathing quickly failed, followed by the collapse of the Soviet Union itself. Of course, far beyond the Afghan swamp of the Soviet Union at the time had conspired to weaken the once powerful empire deadly from within.

Although the two events are humiliatingly comparable, only time will tell whether the old adage that Afghanistan is the cemetery of the empire turns out to be as true for the United States as it was for the Soviet Union. That is the opinion of my colleague Robin Wright, who wrote on 15 August “America’s Great Retreat [from Afghanistan] is at least as humiliating as the withdrawal of the Soviet Union in 1989, an event that contributed to the end of its empire and communist rule. . . . Both great powers withdrew like losers with their tails between their legs, leaving chaos. ” When I asked James Clad, a former U.S. Deputy Secretary of Defense, about his thoughts on the matter, he sent me an email: “It’s a devastating blow, but the ‘end’ of the Empire? Not yet, and probably not for a long time. The creepy ones defeat has hammered American prestige, but delivers the geopolitical equivalent of eggs on our face. Is it a fatal blow? In the wider world, America still retains its offshore power balancing function. And despite some overheated journalism, no irrevocable advantage has gone to our primary geopolitical opponent – China. ”

It is true that America has so far retained its military prowess and economic strength. But for two decades now, it has seemed more and more incapable of effectively exploiting any of them to its advantage. Instead of strengthening its hegemony by using its forces wisely, it has repeatedly wasted its efforts and diminished both its aura of invincibility and its position in the eyes of other nations. The infamous global war on terror – which included Bush’s invasion of Iraq with the aim of finding weapons of mass destruction that did not exist, Barack Obama’s decision to intervene in Libya and his indecision regarding a “red line” in Syria and Donald Trump’s betrayal of the Kurds in the same country and his 2020 agreement with the Taliban to withdraw US troops from Afghanistan – has effectively caused terrorism to spread across the planet. Al Qaeda may no longer be as prominent as it was on 9/11, but it still exists and has a branch in North Africa; ISIS also has subsidiaries there, and in Mozambique, and of course, as the horrific attacks last Thursday at Kabul airport underlined, in Afghanistan. And the Taliban have returned to power, just where it all began twenty years ago.

Rory Stewart, a former British minister who served on Prime Minister Theresa May’s National Security Council, told me he had observed the events in Afghanistan with “horror”:

Throughout the Cold War, the United States had a consistent worldview. Administrations came and went, but the worldview did not change that much. And then, after 9/11, we – America’s allies – went along with the new theories it came up with to explain its response to the terrorist threat in Afghanistan and elsewhere. But there has been a total lack of continuity since then; the way the United States saw the world in 2006 is night and day as it looks today. Afghanistan has gone from being the center of the world to one where we are told that such places pose no threat at all. What this suggests is that all the previous theorizing now does not matter. It is deeply disturbing to see this sling against isolationism that is so sudden that it virtually destroys everything we have fought for together for twenty years.


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