The Western media talks about the “shocking” developments in Afghanistan, as a government the US spent two decades “building up” is swept from the country in mere days.
The Taliban (banned in Russia) have even entered Kabul, occupying the offices and meeting rooms of former Afghan president Ashraf Ghani and his administration who have already fled the country – this as the US withdrawal is not even completed.
But is it really shocking?
It shouldn’t be. The US never intended to build up a strong, self-reliant, sustainable government in Afghanistan. The US occupation of Afghanistan was never about “nation building.” It was always an exercise in American hegemony, to occupy a geostrategic location in Central Asia bordering multiple US adversaries including China, Pakistan, and Iran as well as several former Soviet states essential to Washington’s strategy of encircling Russia.
In fact, the US occupation of Afghanistan was essentially the chain-link connecting three of Washington’s most important geopolitical encirclement strategies – its encirclement of Iran, Russia, and China – with Afghanistan sharing part of its border with China’s Xinjiang region.
Afghanistan for US hegemony is such a geostrategic location that the only thing truly shocking would be the prospect of the US simply abandoning its position in Central Asia and truly withdrawing for good.
A truly strong, self-reliant, sustainable government in Afghanistan – had the US ever given rise to such a thing from 2001 to present day, would have been faced with the prospect of joining China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). A truly strong and sovereign government in Afghanistan would have obviously signed up to transform the isolated, landlocked nation into a corridor of trade and transit, securing royalties and driving development within its own borders while facilitating economic growth beyond them across the region.
The US had, from the very beginning never seriously intended to create such a government and allow Afghanistan to determine policy that truly served the Afghan people’s interests – because serving the Afghan people’s interests would be done at the expense of Washington’s geopolitical ambitions.
Understanding this helps understand why after two decades the US failed to create a government or society Afghans would ever be interested in fighting for and upholding after any sort of US withdrawal from the region.
Empire throughout history has always been about creating dependent satraps, vassals, colonies, and client regimes. Effort would be spent specifically to prevent a political, economic, or military development that would shift a subjugated nation from dependence toward independence.
Quarterly reviews by the US government’s Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) reflects the documented institutionalization of this premise. The July 2021 report’s cover features a black and white image of 3 members of Afghanistan’s security forces in mismatching uniforms squatting in front of a battle-damaged concrete barrier, symbolizing just how little “reconstruction” has actually taken place over the last two decades.
The report, despite invoking the term “reconstruction,” instead describes shoddy, unfulfilled contracts most of which pertain to security, politics, and media rather than any real infrastructure projects.
An entire section titled “investigations” lists multiple multi-million dollar fraud cases involving USAID money and the theft of government property by contractors. A look at any SIGAR report from any year during the US occupation revealed similar “progress.”
Most if not all of the contractors brought into Afghanistan were simply interested in making money with little to no interest at all in whether the projects succeeded or not. This too shouldn’t be a surprise. Foreign contractors have no real stake in Afghanistan’s future, and frankly, the longer instability prevailed, the more contracts the US would have needed to issue to run the country via contractors rather than the country running itself.
Large sums of money being doled out by a foreign government also bred immense corruption among local collaborators – corruption so bad that entire programs could not be trusted to be run by Afghan administrators. This highlights the major difference between a nation building something for itself, creating a desire to protect it physically and legally, versus money handed out by a foreign occupier to local collaborators with little sense of responsibility, no real control and thus no real stake in US “development” beyond how much could be earned by being involved in it.
The massive infrastructure investments Afghanistan actually needs both financially and in terms of physical construction are beyond the United States and NATO’s technical abilities and certainly at cross purposes with Washington’s overall goal of creating and maintaining the Afghan government as a subjugated client regime.
If the conditions on the ground in Afghanistan truly made it untenable for a US presence to persist, there would be neither time nor any reason for the US to create a strong, self-reliant government to take over after America’s departure from the country.
The lightning fast collapse of Afghanistan’s “government,” a collapse that appears to have taken place before the US even completed its withdrawal, illustrates just how little substance was ever behind US “reconstruction.”
At least three scenarios exist.
First, it is very possible that the US’ position in Afghanistan, however geostrategic, was simply no longer tenable, forcing it to draw down forces and eventually retreat just as it did from southern Vietnam in 1975.
There is also the possibility that the US is “withdrawing” from Afghanistan in the same manner it “withdrew” from Iraq in 2011. In Iraq it left a contingent behind only to return in force with the rise of the so-called “Islamic State” (ISIS) – a terrorist organization (banned in Russia) the US and its regional allies in fact sponsored.
Using ISIS as a pretext, the US “return” to Iraq also included a partial invasion and occupation of Syrian territory east of the Euphrates River. Both Iraq and Syria are still occupied by US forces as of this writing – and specifically as a means of confronting Iran and pressuring the Syrian government, not to “combat ISIS.”
The US, by allowing the Taliban to overtly overrun the country and with the Western media attempting to portray all of America’s hard-won “progress” being swept away, could create the justification for an otherwise indefensible troop surge in the country.
But what is more likely is a third option where the US is withdrawing from Afghanistan and will instead use contractors and special operations forces to manage extremist groups in remote areas of the country beyond the reach of the Taliban for the purpose of exporting terror from the nation’s territory into neighboring countries like China, Pakistan, and Iran.
A US withdrawal from Afghanistan would lend any US-sponsored terror emanating from the country’s territory plausible deniability to Washington.
For policymakers in Washington, it would mean Afghanistan still serving as a key location from which to pursue key foreign policy objectives, while maintaining a minimal footprint,, using fewer resources, and engaging in a much more difficult war for its adversaries to defend against with far less political fallout.
The US currently backs extremists everywhere from North Africa and the Middle East to Central and South Asia. In many ways, much of the fighting against targets of US regime change around the globe is now done through these proxies.
There are thousands of Uyghur militants, for example, who have been fighting in Syria and could stage in Afghanistan before eventually returning to Xinjiang, China. If this were done while the US occupied Afghanistan, the US would be seen as clearly culpable.
US-backed militants based in Pakistan’s southwest Baluchistan province, which borders Afghanistan, could also benefit from a US Afghan withdrawal, now able to receive more covert aid without implicating Washington in the process.
The humiliating nature of the current US withdrawal helps enhance plausible deniability for Washington if and when it uses Afghanistan as a springboard for future terror in the region. The narrative that Afghanistan was a safehaven for terrorism before the 2001 US invasion will also play nicely into providing plausible deniability with the US able to convince many that it itself was the reason this sort of cross-border terrorism wasn’t rampant before, and is only rampant afterward because of its withdrawal.
It will be important for Afghanistan’s neighbors to aid whatever government finally ends up forming in the wake of the US withdrawal in bringing real development and reconstruction to the country – by building real infrastructure required to break Afghanistan’s landlocked isolation and drive the sort of real economic development needed to establish a genuinely self-reliant and sovereign government in Kabul.
The Taliban have pledged to various concerned nations in the region that extremist groups targeting each of these nations will not be provided a sanctuary in Afghanistan. Security partnerships must translate these pledges into action, ensuring that any extremist organization attempting to shelter in Afghan territory can be found and rooted out.
Regardless of what happens, and whether the current, humiliating withdrawal of the US from Afghanistan is a genuine defeat or part of a longer-term strategy of retrenchment for US foreign policy, one thing is for certain – Afghanistan stands as yet another stark example of how US regime change, “nation building,” “democracy promotion,” and interference leaves in its wake only humiliation, death, and destruction that whoever ends up taking over needs to start from zero to build up from all over again.
Scenes of US collaborators desperately fighting for a place on departing aircraft are a warning to would-be US collaborators the world over.
It’s a warning to other opposition groups around the globe including in Southeast Asia where “pro-democracy” protesters seek US backing against “Beijing” – a warning of what the US really stands for and what really becomes of those it builds up, uses, and then discards when their utility is spent.
Brian Berletic is a Bangkok-based geopolitical researcher and writer, especially for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.