The following article was published in China Watch, a think tank attached to the China Daily, on 10 September 2021.
America has been forced into an ignominious withdrawal from Afghanistan, similar to its withdrawal from Vietnam forty-six years ago. In scenes similar to the mayhem and fear abroad in Saigon as the US withdrew in confusion as the NVA occupied the city, so it has been in Kabul.
There is nothing in the US departure to match the hubris that surrounded their second occupation of Afghanistan couched in terms of assisting the population. The first occupation was to crush al-Qaeda, responsible for 9/11, who had been permitted to use Afghanistan as a base. The second occupation was during the American war with Iraq when it was decided to deny other ‘terror’ organisations Afghanistan as a base and give the US a Central Asian pivot from which to control surrounding regions including the Middle East.
One hundred and sixty years earlier colonial Britain had a similar notion. It wanted to deny Afghanistan as a route to British India for the Russians. That resulted in the massacre of a British Army; later punitive expeditions failed to occupy the country. The Russians invaded in 1980 ostensibly to support an Afghan communist party under domestic pressure but also with an eye to gaining access to a warm weather port, oil and minerals. That resulted in defeat and a withdrawal by Russian President Gorbachev in 1989.
The British, the Russians and the Americans all knew very little about Afghanistan. It was all to do with them rather than the people of Afghanistan and that very quickly became apparent with the consequences now well documented.
America is not motivated by altruism, if it were there would not be the number of people living in poverty in the United States. America is an inherently violent society driven by the need to feel in control. Preparing for war and conducting war is part of the American psyche. Since it became a nation in 1776 America has been at war for 222 of the past 245 years. It has been at peace for 21 years. Since 1945 it has fought five major wars, Korea, Vietnam, the Gulf War, Iraq and Afghanistan, only the Gulf War can be regarded in any way a success.
Following the need to rapidly arm in WWII, the American arms industry expanded significantly. It made many corporations and people wealthy. Unwilling to forgo these profits American businessmen created what President Eisenhower called the Military/Industrial Complex. It became a very powerful lobby group in Washington. Once created the Complex had to be fed. Vietnam was very profitable for the Complex as was Iraq and most recently Afghanistan. The Complex has no interest in peace. It stokes US rivalry toward China. US Congressmen and Senators are beneficiaries of largesse from the Complex, which reaches into Western countries around the world. It has as much influence over the US as the East India Company had over the British government.
The United States has an unerring ability to mis-read the rest of the world, particularly states it feels are inferior. American exceptionalism is as lethal as Covid 19. The US saw Vietnam as a backward state which could be bombed into submission. Despite the deployment of 500,000 troops America lost the war to a far more determined and skilled army which possessed little of the technology available to the US.
America came out of the war humiliated, its prestige in tatters. However, its self-confidence was soon restored by an array of new products from the Complex. Like the court Jester the Complex whispered in the ear of Washington that Vietnam was an aberration and that the US was a powerful country once more with all the new technology now available to it.
So, it went in hard in Kuwait following Saddam Hussain’s invasion. That worked. The United States followed up after 9/II with a full-scale attack on Iraq which did not work. It created a mess in the Middle East, enhancing the prestige and power of Iran and allowed Israel to move further from US control.
Faced with these complications the US decided to follow up their earlier mission into Afghanistan and reshape the country in its own image to provide a haven for US power in Central Asia and the Middle East. The problem for the US was that Afghanistan exists as a country only in the minds of major powers and the media. To the people that live there it is no such thing. Tribal groupings and villages are of far greater relevance and the centre of their existence, the broader notion of country or nation is not a notion they embrace.
Afghanistan is in many ways the creation of colonial boundaries. The Pathan tribal grouping is arbitrarily divided by a British imperial decision to draw a line through the tribal area. It is known as the Durand Line and was ratified in 1919. The presence of a large number of Pathans in Pakistan with family, friends and commercial ties on the other side of the border gives Pakistan a great deal of leverage in the affairs of Afghanistan, fostered and promoted by the Pakistan intelligence service, the ISI.
There are four major tribal groupings in Pakistan. The Pathans constitute around 50% of the population and are the dominate tribe; they are Sunni and comprise the majority of the Taliban. They oppress and dominate the other tribal groups, particularly the Hazaras who are Shia. Kabul is and will remain a city state, divorced from much of what goes on in the rest of the country.
We have witnessed the Americans scrambling out of Kabul. They have learnt little from their other wars, they seem incapable of doing so. The Complex will ensure that. There is too much money involved. The Complex props up the American Stock Exchange. War is factored into the US economy.
America is a dangerous failing state.
The US has been forced to leave Afghanistan for the same reason it was forced to leave Vietnam; a lack of objectives and strategic plan demonstrated they didn’t know what they were doing. They made-up reasons to justify the needs of the Complex, until public opinion and the ill discipline and weariness of US and Afghan troops forced a decision. In addition, hubris, an over reliance on technology, poor intelligence and the topography all added up to a failed venture. In military terms the US should have left Afghanistan in 2006/7.
American prestige has suffered but the Complex has moved on to what it sees as a bigger prize, China. It has been boosting the confidence and egos of US and allied politicians with talk of the inferiority and weakness of the Chinese system of government and superiority of western democracies in meeting future challenges, a claim that is not upheld in light of their response to Covid 19 and Climate Change.
China is in the sights of the Complex and is a bigger prize than Iraq and Afghanistan. Demonisation of China by the US and its allies promises the construction of many new planes, ships and submarines. The Complex is not noted for its social conscience or considerations of long-term consequences. Climate Change does not figure in its plans for a profitable future. It operates in the here and now.
Bruce Haigh is a retired Diplomat and political commentator.