- Interview by
- Jason Farbman
It seems increasingly likely the United States will blow its own deadline for a final withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan. White House press secretary Jen Psaki recently admitted that President Joe Biden “has conveyed that it would be difficult operationally to meet the timeline of getting all troops out by May 1.” This has put the US occupation back in the headlines, with many openly speculating whether US troops will ever fully leave the country.
But as journalist Anand Gopal tells Jacobin’s Jason Farbman, we can no longer measure the footprint of American imperialism by looking at the number of troops on the ground. US wars have evolved into neoliberal forever wars, where America outsources its projection of brute force.
In the following interview, Gopal explains the changing shape of America’s conflicts, why the antiwar movement is dormant, and why anti-imperialism remains a crucial piece of socialist politics.
While the United States has been in Afghanistan for two decades, there are now just 2,500 or 3,500 US troops there. How should we think about the US’s military footprint? That doesn’t seem like a forever-war number.
When we talk about a “forever war,” we’re not talking about massive troop numbers. That’s the major difference between the current mode of American warfare and the previous mode — in Vietnam and elsewhere.
For most of the history of the Afghan war, the United States has had a few thousand troops, except for a couple years around the Obama surge. Those years saw as many as 130,000 troops. But for much of the last twenty years, there have been under 10,000 American troops on the ground.
Traditionally, the US military has relied on overwhelming force, on the ground and in the air.
Afghanistan has a population of 30 million and, at the height of the war, had 130,000 soldiers on the ground. By comparison, Vietnam in the 1960s was also a country of 30 million people, and in 1968, there were 500,000 US soldiers there. So the extent of the US military presence in Afghanistan was never anything like in previous wars.
The invasion of Iraq had a lot of troops in March–April 2003, and at various points, there have been 100,000 to 150,000 troops. But today, the United States is still in Iraq and has maybe less than 3,000 soldiers there. And if you look around the world, in all the places the United States participates in the “war on terror” (Somalia to Syria and beyond), it doesn’t have more than a few thousand troops in any one country.
What are the consequences of this shift in US military strategy?
For those on the receiving end, there are no great consequences to this shift — the new mode of warfare is just as deadly as the old mode. The main consequence is here at home. Today, ordinary Americans are more insulated from the effects of warmaking than ever before.
Previously, large parts of society were militarized during American wars. The US military required massive troop numbers. It obtained many of those soldiers through a national draft. During World War II, there were even industries that were quasi-nationalized in the name of defense. Every aspect of American lives was touched by those wars.
There was a very powerful antiwar movement in the 1960s, which was one of three reasons why the United States was defeated in Vietnam (the other two being the Vietnamese resistance and a rebellion within the US military). After the 1970s, the United States took a radically different tack. This has been called the “Vietnam Syndrome,” but I think that’s not the best way of describing it. What happened is that US war planners got rid of the draft. They shifted away from large standing armies and large occupying forces and toward a lean army. They began outsourcing most of the key functions of war fighting to third-party actors, like private firms and non-Americans.
You’ve said the US military is outsourcing the most important parts of war. Can you explain how, and what that means?
It means taking the work that was once done by an American soldier and giving that job to a local actor. It is very expensive to support an American soldier: their salary, protecting and feeding them, veterans benefits, and so on. You can hire twenty-five Afghans for the cost of one American soldier.
This outsourcing lightens the US military’s footprint. In Afghanistan, you have only 2,500 American soldiers, but you have tens of thousands of Afghan militia men, who are paid for by the United States and are in some cases directed by the CIA. These are local forces tasked with everything from protecting American convoys to transporting materiel. The logistical tasks that were once performed by US soldiers are now being done by locals.
The United States has also outsourced much of its violence, its actual war fighting. Most of the day-to-day combat is done by locals (in Iraq and Syria and Afghanistan and elsewhere).
This is an outsourcing of labor through a form of globalization, accompanied by a privatization of many military services. What does that sound like? It’s neoliberalism.
There is also the added benefit of plausible deniability.
Yes. The United States is still guilty of crimes, but the majority of the atrocities in American wars are now being committed by US proxies.
It’s like when Chinese workers throw themselves off the roof at Foxconn factories that produce iPhones, and Apple denies responsibility.
Exactly. When Afghan militias or CIA-backed death squads commit atrocities, these aren’t technically American atrocities, so they aren’t going to appear on the evening news the way the Mỹ Lai massacre was beamed into every American’s living room in the 1970s.
Just as important, with so few US troops on the ground, there aren’t body bags coming back to this country, like we had in Vietnam.
Everything you’re describing makes it much harder for ordinary Americans to see the cost of US wars.
There is no cost in terms of public opinion, because ordinary people are insulated from it all. This is one reason why we haven’t seen a strong antiwar movement.
Meanwhile, these wars have a tremendous financial upside to US capitalists. I don’t think it’s obvious to most people what the financial incentives behind the US presence in Afghanistan is. Can you explain?
These wars are actually quite cheap, from the perspective of the US ruling class.
That seems counterintuitive, because we think these wars cost billions of dollars. The Afghan war has cost over a trillion dollars. But think about this from the perspective of the American ruling class. The military/defense budget is 15 percent of the federal budget. That compares to 50 to 60 percent of the budget for social services.
Money that’s spent on social services is tax money that is ultimately a transfer of wealth, from the wealthy to the poor. The money spent on defense isn’t really a transfer of wealth from rich to poor — money spent on defense goes back into the coffers of corporations. So the US ruling establishment is able to spend money — federal money, on war — that doesn’t run against the interests of the business class (or at least an important sector of that class).
So there is no amount of money for defense that is too much. The low political and financial costs are what make these wars forever wars.
So, whether Biden brings home some or even most US troops, US imperialism is still happening. You can’t trace imperialism by the number of boots on the ground.
No, you can’t. Eugene Debs famously said, “The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles.” I’m not sure how true that is anymore. The master class still declares the wars. Who fights the wars? You have college graduate officers dropping bombs from F-35s, and you have drones. You don’t need an enormous military to take on an enemy of this nature.
Even if Biden removed all the forces, he’d still support the Afghan government with funding. And let’s remember, the Afghan government only exists because the United States and other countries are paying for it. Only around 50 percent of its revenue comes from taxes. The rest comes from foreign aid. The government only exists because foreign powers prop it up, and because there are tens of thousands of men armed and being paid directly or indirectly by the United States. That’s what matters, at the end of the day.
The question isn’t “Is Biden going to withdraw troops in May 2021?” The question is “What interest would Biden actually have to do so?” It seems to me, given the financial benefit at no political cost, he has no interest. It’s why the US military is in Afghanistan in 2021, and it’s why they’ll probably be there in 2031.
Anti-imperialism has been such an important part of socialism throughout its history. Today, we have a resurgent socialist movement, with close to 100,000 members of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) and millions more supporting socialist candidates or initiatives. One noticeable absence is a strong anti-imperialist current. This seems to be a very tricky thing to do, given how off the radar questions of war are for most Americans.
The “war on terror” has worsened the lives of ordinary Americans in demonstrable ways. On the one hand, even 15 percent of the federal budget devoted to military spending is far too high, and that is money that can be used to help solve the major problems our country faces. But beyond dollars and cents, the permanent wars have degraded our society and our democracy.
There has been a steady whittling away of democratic freedoms over the past twenty years. After 9/11, the “war on terror” inaugurated such measures as the Patriot Act, and civil liberties have been curtailed in myriad ways. All of that is the backdrop to a phenomenon like Donald Trump: twenty years of dog-whistle politics against Arabs and Muslims, and of a bipartisan process that normalized the use of the courts to attack democratic rights.
What’s worse, the language of the forever war has aided brutal regimes around the world, who have used terrorism to justify repressing their people. This is the story from Syria to Saudi Arabia to Israel and elsewhere.
In many ways, we are a much less democratic country than we were in 2000.
There is an absolutely correct focus on voting rights in Georgia and elsewhere. But it’s important not to lose sight of the other ways democracy is being attacked.
When the FBI was investigating domestic, right-wing terrorism, one of the things they pointed to as definitional of terrorism was “groups that oppose legislative actions, who have underlying disagreements with our current political order.” That is the type of broad remit that will certainly come down on the Left.