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Yet Again, the US Was Defeated in Afghanistan

In Afghanistan, as in Vietnam and Iraq, US elites sold us a vision of the world in which the United States alone has not just the power but the duty to forcibly reshape the world how it sees fit. They have again proven utterly incapable of doing so.

US soldiers stand guard as Afghan people wait at the airport in Kabul on August 16, 2021. (Wakil Kohsar / AFP via Getty Images)

To look at it one way, the Afghanistan War was a great success. If you think of the perpetually grinding US war machine as one great big funnel through which public money is turned into corporate profits, then the war’s more than $2 trillion worth of spending has been a boon for a variety of business interests, from the private military contractors who outnumbered US troops seven to one by the war’s end, to the various companies arming, supplying, equipping, and constructing for the war effort, to the private investors who own the majority of US debt, and have benefited from the more than $500 billion of interest the government has paid on its war borrowing so far.

But there is another, more earnest side of the Washington foreign policy establishment, one that genuinely believes the United States’ position as the global hegemon allows it to limitlessly reshape the world in whatever ways it sees fit, for the sake of its own interests. And Afghanistan’s swift collapse over the past week in the face of a Taliban onslaught is just one more case from a lengthy history that proves this wrong.

The United States is, of course, still an enormously powerful nation. It has the world’s largest military, the capability to annihilate all life on the planet many times over, the power to cripple its adversaries’ economies, influence other nations’ elections, and inflame political unrest within them — as it has demonstrated in Venezuela, Iran, and Cuba, to name a few. But the ability to destroy is not the ability to control, any more than the thrashing of a bull at a rodeo means it won’t end up locked in a pen at the end of the day. And it’s hard to square this latest failure with the story US elites tell their people and the world about “the indispensable nation,” using military force wherever it likes to remove bad governments and spread democracy.

We’ve just watched the Afghan security forces, which the US military has spent nearly two decades and billions of dollars training to maintain the country’s fragile, US-made democracy once US troops were gone, practically evaporate in the face of a Taliban that blasted through them like a fist punching through smoke. White House officials and military planners alike were taken by surprise by the speed of the successful campaign, which defied even the most recent, pessimistic intelligence estimates — itself an indictment of a military establishment that we know has lied about the war’s progress for years.

The desperate scramble to airlift US personnel, citizens, and allies from Kabul as the Taliban took the capital has drawn valid comparisons to the similarly chaotic US withdrawal from Vietnam in 1975, which saw US and South Vietnamese officials scramble into helicopters on the US embassy roof as the Vietcong pummeled Saigon. That was another conflict where the US military, after decades of involvement, including eleven years of open warfare, saw its client state quickly fold and was forced to withdraw against an opponent it vastly outmatched militarily. As some have pointed out, Afghanistan is worse in many ways, as the Taliban are neither as large or well-equipped as the Vietcong were, nor are backed by a superpower.

It also calls to mind Washington’s ill-fated adventure in Iraq, launched shortly after Afghanistan in the heyday of neoconservative fantasies about US power. Contrary to the drunken optimism of the Bush administration and its media toadies, the war wasn’t quick, easy, or successful, because it turned out simply removing Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein from power wouldn’t automatically lead to democracy, peace, or stability. Instead, the United States spent years — and, in fact, is still there for the foreseeable future — navigating a civil war, training security forces, and trying to prop up an authoritarian, sectarian government. The Taliban’s rapid takeover of Afghanistan will look familiar to anyone who remembers Iraqi forces’ stunning collapse against ISIS in 2014.

The chaos unleashed by the Iraq war didn’t stop Barack Obama, who had become president in large part on the basis of his opposition to the disastrous war, from blundering into a regime-change operation of his own in Libya. Just like Iraq, killing the dictator simply triggered bedlam in the country, while destabilizing the wider region beyond its borders. In both cases, the wars didn’t even serve the narrow interests of US geopolitical goals: Hussein’s removal created an opening for Washington’s other Middle Eastern adversary, Iran, to enter and wield influence within the country, while Libya hardened the determination of, for one, North Korea to hold onto its weapons of mass destruction, having seen what happens to leaders who make the mistake of disarming.

What should have been clear ever since the failure in Vietnam — where US forces dropped more than a million tons’ worth of bombs on the North Vietnamese and helped kill more than a million of them, all for nothing — is that the United States’ extraordinary capacity for brute force has only a limited usefulness in situations that call for long-term political solutions. In Afghanistan, all the air power in the world couldn’t help it create a modern, professional, and sustainable security force, nor establish a popular, effective, and non-corrupt government.

Some will question how far US policymakers actually buy into the “indispensable nation” nonsense they sell to the public and the world. But what’s not debatable is that it’s something they want other people to believe, even as episode after episode demonstrates the stark limits of US power and the incompetence of the human beings who wield it. And that should hopefully make anyone skeptical of the calls for more US-led war and regime change that we keep on hearing, whether it’s in Cuba, Iran, or so many more.