After the disgraceful flight of United States troops from Afghanistan, when the whole world watched with surprise and horror the nightmarish scenes at the airport, the rate at which the once-US-friendly government collapsed, giving way to the Taliban (banned in Russia), and experienced the tragic human stories of those Afghans who remained in the country, a question naturally came to everyone’s mind: Is Washington able to conduct a sane foreign policy? Another equally important question is: What does the US departure mean for the region, for American leadership in the world, and which countries will now fill the void created by the absence of the United States in the region?
All these questions can be answered correctly and in detail if we consider the fact that America’s problems in the Middle East began not with the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan, which only served to vividly illustrate the ineffectiveness of Washington’s policy. The decline began twenty years earlier with the reckless, costly and disastrous decisions of President Bush’s administration to invade both Afghanistan and Iraq, followed by the decision to occupy them and try to create “democracies” that would support US interests first and foremost.
These wars were reckless, for in both cases the Bush administration was informed by experts from the intelligence community, State Department officials, and the military that these were not wars that the United States could win, or permanently implant local governments to its liking. In both cases, President Bush ignored those who knew about Afghanistan and Iraq and instead listened to the influential neoconservatives who have become the dominant force in his cabinet. Since these ideologues had no grasp of either country’s culture, character, or history, they allowed cheap ideology to trump reality. As a result, these efforts were doomed to fail from the start.
These prolonged wars have also cost the United States, Afghanistan, and Iraq many lives and a great deal of money needlessly wasted. The losses in Iraq and Afghanistan were devastating, and even now these nations cannot adequately recover from the many wounds inflicted on them by the US occupiers. In the case of the United States, they lost over 6,000 troops, and tens of thousands more were left physically or mentally crippled for life. It is also important to note that every year since the end of active combat operations, both in Afghanistan and Iraq, the United States has lost over 6,000 of its veterans to suicide, an average of over 20 a day! Moreover yet, there are tens of thousands more people who have joined the ranks of the homeless and drug addicts, all as a result of the trauma caused by these wars. This affected the morale of the military. These two wars and the treatment of veterans, mutilated and suffering from psychological trauma and drug addiction, have so far cost more than three trillion dollars. Evidently, this was one of the key reasons why the US military leadership was unwilling to commit significant ground forces to the occupation of Syria.
And not to mention that these wars were disastrous, achieving none of their goals. Extremism has not been defeated. Instead, it has grown into more lethal forms and spread to many other countries, threatening the security and stability of the Middle East and North Africa, and has even taken root in some European countries. Another disastrous byproduct of these wars, according to political analysts, is the fact that Iran did not succumb to the destructive influence of the United States and decided to stand to the end. Although the unattainable goal of the neoconservatives was to decisively win these wars by demonstrating American power and resolve, thereby ensuring a century of US hegemony in a unipolar world, it ended in a crushing collapse. Instead, we can now see the emergence of a multipolar world in which regional and other global powers aspire to achieve their strategic ambitions.
So, whether or not the US would have stayed in Afghanistan, a new reality has emerged in the Middle East. Other powers are either replacing the US or competing with it for influence, and some key regional allies, tired of the hegemon’s foolish blunders and miscalculations, are pursuing their own interests. As a result, American leverage is now more limited than it used to be. Nevertheless, we must not write off the United States as a “former” power just yet. It still has influence in the Middle East, economically, militarily and culturally. It still remains the most successful economy in the world, it still has significant deterrence capabilities that can protect its allies, and its all too often underestimated “soft power” remains an important asset as well.
As disastrous as the US withdrawal was, practice shows, and the course of history testifies, that the former hegemon had no choice but to limit its losses, leave Afghanistan, and cease its active combat role in Iraq. But the adoption of these decisions in no way means that Washington is leaving the region altogether. It simply means that some American politicians have acknowledged realities that neoconservatives have tragically ignored. What is now required, Washington believes, is a clear analysis of the damage caused by both wars and a reconsideration of a regional position that realistically fits American needs and capabilities so that the United States can best protect its interests and those of its allies.
But it’s hard to believe that claim. After the chaotic withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan, after 20 years of military occupation, many expected President Joe Biden to cut military spending. Instead, Washington has done the opposite, which will be a blow to average Americans who claim they have big problems to invest at home and need large sums to do so. After leaving Afghanistan, Biden himself said that the US was recklessly spending money on military activities, telling his nation: “American people should hear this: $300 million a day for two decades … And what have we lost as a consequence in terms of opportunities?”
And yet, the US president signed into law a massive $778 billion defense spending bill (a 5% increase over last year) after lawmakers welcomed the administration’s initial funding request by adding a supplementary $25 billion to it. The bill easily passed both houses of Congress (as it does every year) with rare bipartisan support. The only bill on which both sides agree almost unanimously is military spending. America’s military budget is by far the largest in the world.
Despite receiving overwhelming bipartisan support in Congress, American military spending has been decried by supporters and anti-war groups who continuously pose the question as to why is America spending $30 billion more (than President Donald Trump’s last budget) on its armed forces, despite withdrawing from Afghanistan, the longest war in US history? About two dozen lawmakers urged Biden to reassess priorities after “up to $50 billion would be freed up by withdrawing troops from Afghanistan.” The reality is that there are too many jobs, interests and lobby groups involved in the US military-industrial complex. Furthermore, while the US military presence in Afghanistan has indeed ended, taxpayers continue to pay for America’s massive military presence around the world. So there will likely never be a large reduction in the military budget that many Americans had hoped for.
That’s money that could have been redirected instead to the 600,000 to 1.5 million Americans who have been sleeping outside this winter, or maybe 13% to 16% (depending on various studies) of the nation’s population living below the poverty line, or even to the “uncounted majority” – the half of American households struggling to pay essential bills. The list goes on.
How does the US balance its military adventurism with the administration’s responsibility to the majority of average Americans who cannot make ends meet? The $778 billion in spending suggests that the military is more important. But does the military protect national interests? The neo-conservatives are likely to win again. It is known that the Pentagon has more than 750 military bases in 80 countries around the world. One of the largest American military presences is in West Asia. Other major base locations include East Asia, Europe and Latin America. This is despite the fact that no threat to America or its allies comes from these regions.
So, in summary, the disgraceful flight from Afghanistan has taught nothing to the administration of Joe Biden, who is once again ready to repeat the same mistake of the neoconservatives.
Viktor Mikhin, corresponding member of RANS, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.