After Afghanistan

Last Lesson From Vietnam, Part II

The advent of the Biden Administration presaged many changes in US foreign policy. 

Better weapons, same war. F-16 and Predator drone, US Air Force.

Making nice with the EU, getting hard on the Russians, returning to climate change agreements. So far, those are the big differentiators from Trump.

The Mideast aspect is a bit more complicated.

Restoring aid to the Palestinian Authority and UNRWA, announcing a review of US weapons sales to Saudi Arabia, resurrecting the Iran nuclear deal, all sound good on paper.

But, it’s unlikely Washington will ultimately change tack with the Saudis, in spite of Biden’s March announcement that his administration was withdrawing support for its war in Yemen.

Jimmy Carter, and his human rights arms embargo policies, are indeed not back.

The $23 billion arms deal Trump signed with the UAE is going through, likely with some congressional modifications, and Israel is going about its business with Iran and the Palestinians, without restraints.

Though Biden has made clear his preference for a two-state solution, it’s unlikely he can or will do anything to advance it given the lack of a new government to work with, in Israel.

Most commentators concur that irrespective of such details, the Biden Administration has far bigger fish to fry.

Taking Afghanistan and the so-called ‘forever wars’ out of domestic politics is a policy objective with tangible benefits, both for his Democratic base, and Republicans eager to exploit the issue, like Trump.

Besides, given the increasing automation of American warfare, with the use of AI, drones and loitering munitions, and deepening reliance on private contractors, the days of mass beach landings are over.

Why continue to risk US lives when such options are available? There is no profit to be had, so the thinking goes, from keeping troops in Afghanistan. 

The end of the American presence in the country, if it ever comes to fully pass, will be one more step in the integration of drones in the US military.

The assassination of Iranian Revolutionary Guards chief Qassem Soleimani is a good example of what to expect.

The cultural effects on American society have been equally profound. 

The fetishisation of the military has spawned armies of wannabes whose collections of internet-acquired swag (from reinforced gloves to body armour to flex ties) were prominently in evidence at the Capitol Riot.

Hardly any public event in this country can begin without ritual obeisance to the troops and the flag, perhaps followed by a flyover or some parachutists. It’s like the 1950s all over again, but on stun.

The irony is that enlistment in the US military – an all-volunteer force – is down. In 1989, the armed forces numbered 2.2 million. The current level is just over 1.3. million. 

Although it has grown slightly in the last couple of years, the likelihood is that the government would prefer to keep things as they are, in order to pay for new weapons systems aimed at China.

And so the United States leaves Afghanistan, where, ironically, Beijing may seek to fill the vacuum, and become the next foreign power to try and impose order on the anarchic country.

Washington may be leaving a mess behind. But, there have been some improvements in the Hindu Kush since the US invaded two decades ago.

GDP is between four and five times higher and women are far better off, particularly in big cities like Kabul, than they were under Taliban rule.

But, the ultimate vindication the Americans sought – political stability – for which so many lives were needlessly lost, both NATO and Afghan – seems as remote as ever. 

Indeed, the Taliban have never been stronger. Whether they live on, like Vietnam’s communists, or get removed from power once and for all, like the Khmer Rouge, is hard to predict. 

That is likely up to China, more than anyone else, which will want to forestall the growth of yet another Islamic state in the region that could influence its own Muslim population.

But, as loathsome as the Taliban is, would it be worth the human cost? China’s genocide against the Uighurs does not bode well for any campaign it might undertake in Afghanistan.

Biden has said that he will “hold the Taliban accountable” for its conduct after the troops leave. How this is to be accomplished remains unclear, unless the idea is that it will be done remotely, from the air.

Israel’s campaign in Syria is one example of how that might be accomplished, through near-daily precision airstrikes using increasingly high tech weaponry. 

But to what end? Protecting women’s rights and Buddhist historical sites? It’s hard to imagine the actual objectives of conducting such a campaign in the absence of military occupation and regime change.

One can only surmise the US prefers that whatever Aghanistan turns out to be, that it remain confined to Afghanistan. As every imperial power that has tried to vanquish it has failed, it’s not a bad idea.

And so the Vietnam syndrome has never left us. The Taliban learned the lesson that carried Ho Chi Minh through wars against the French and the Americans: the foreigners will eventually leave, if you can hang on long enough. 

For those who think that Biden’s withdrawal means the United States is losing interest in being an imperial power, they’re wrong. This is just a retrenchment, not a change in policy.

No one should think that US troops leaving Afghanistan amounts to disengagement. The United States is both pulling back and reaching out. The same conflicts are going to be fought over greater distances.

Whether that involves using autonomous military hardware or deploying more agile forces, these are the sorts of things that are in the mix and will become more prominent in America’s future wars.

One thing is for sure, though. The occupation of Afghanistan served its purpose for the White House that launched it, but stopped being useful a long time ago. This is still a defeat, after all.

That much never changes.

This article is the second in a series. The first is Last Lesson From Vietnam. Photograph courtesy of Airman Magazine. Published under a Creative Commons license.