By Dr Leon Tressell
I recently attended my cousin’s funeral. The vicar gave a well-meaning eulogy about coping with the loss of a loved one. He then talked about my cousin John’s service in the British army which led to him developing PTSD. What was missing from the eulogy was any mention of how my cousin developed PTSD. His experiences of the horrors of the battlefield in Afghanistan, where he was shot and seriously wounded by a Taliban sniper, led to his trauma. The PTSD he suffered from was particularly acute and was a factor in his untimely death.
Following recovery from his wound, John was dismissed by the army. It no longer had any use for a traumatised veteran which had just used him as cannon fodder for yet another imperial adventure that was failing.
After the funeral, it made me reflect and take stock of my cousin’s bloody experience in Afghanistan. He fought in a war that has caused over 150,000 Afghan causalities, the deaths and wounding of thousands of US/NATO soldiers, never mind the trillions of dollars wasted in fighting an unwinnable war.
Sadly, the US military and political establishment has learned nothing from its defeat and is gearing up for further economic and military confrontation with China and to a lesser degree Russia.
Biden speech: mission accomplished as he draws a line under the Afghan war
As the United States frantically evacuates its diplomatic and military presence from Afghanistan the mainstream media and politicians of all political colours wring their hands in horror at the victory of the Taliban. For those of us who have followed America’s longest war over the last 20 years it comes as no surprise that the US is experiencing another ‘Saigon’ moment.
Following the Taliban’s victory President Joe Biden gave a sanctimonious self-serving address to the American people trying to whitewash yet another defeat for US imperialism.
In his 20 minute address Biden explained that the US invasion of Afghanistan was motivated by the desire to defeat the Al-Qaeda forces that carried out the 9/11 attacks. If that were truly the case, why didn’t the US and its allies seriously engage in negotiations with the Taliban to hand over Bin Laden? Let us not forget that back in 1998 the Taliban had offered to hand over the leader of Al-Qaeda. After 9/11 the leader of the Taliban, Mullah Omar, stated that the Taliban wanted the US to provide evidence of Bin Laden’s role in the attacks after which it would hand over the Al-Qaeda leader to a neutral third party.
Why did the US and is allies invade Afghanistan in 2001?
America’s rulers were full of hubris and imperial confidence after its victory in the first Gulf War had got over its ‘Vietnam syndrome’. Its defeat in Vietnam was a distant memory. Now the US was determined to embark upon a series of regime change wars that would decisively reshape the Middle East in its interests.
The United States believed that its position as the world’s sole superpower together with its massive military machine guaranteed a quick victory over the Taliban and the imposition of a puppet regime subservient to the interests of Washington. It had no geopolitical rivals to oppose the invasion and cause trouble for its occupation forces as the US had done for the Soviet forces in Afghanistan during the 1980s. The ruling elite of the United States arrogantly ignored the history of Afghanistan which had the well-earned reputation for being the ‘graveyard of empires’.
US and NATO committed themselves to fighting an unwinnable war
The US/NATO defeat was baked into the cake from the outset of its invasion in October 2001 following the 9/11 attack.
Washington believed that it could impose a political settlement on Afghanistan that would secure its long term geo-political and economic interests. This simplistic approach ignored the fact that the Taliban, deeply embedded within the Pashtun people who comprise 40% of the population, would never reconcile itself to a foreign occupation. Afghanistan, just like Vietnam, lacked the economic basis for any comprador regime to establish a base of support amongst a majority of the population.
Despite this, the US and its NATO allies proceeded to occupy Afghanistan in the mistaken belief that this time it would be different. The military occupation that at its peak had over 100,000 troops fighting the Taliban, failed to establish the Kabul government’s remit beyond the major cities. The Taliban fought the US and its NATO allies to a standstill and established a shadow government across large swathes of the countryside.
Meanwhile, the Pentagon and successive presidents lied to the American people claiming that the military mission was making progress and on the way to victory over the Taliban. In 2019 the Washington Post published documents from the Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction (SIGAR) revealing that the Pentagon knew from early on that the military occupation was failing and had no long term prospects of success.
The Washington Post had to sue the Inspector General twice in federal courts to obtain these documents which laid bare the huge extent of the mistakes, lies, corruption and failures of the American-led occupation of Afghanistan.
This unwinnable war has cost the lives of over 157,000 people. American taxpayers have seen hundreds of billions being poured into the pockets of the military-industrial complex. The total cost of the war is estimated to be over $2.21 trillion. It has also had the effect of turning Afghanistan into one of the most corrupt nations on the planet.
Biden ignores the massive death toll caused by the US led occupation
In his self-serving speech, Biden made no mention of the horrific death toll inflicted by the US-led occupation of Afghanistan.
Estimates vary of how many civilians died during the last 20 years but one conservative estimate by Brown University put the number at 47,245 – not counting the hundreds of thousands of people injured by the fighting caused by the occupation. A higher figure of 116,000 civilians killed was provided by BodyCount: Physicians for Social Responsibility back in 2015.
Over the last 20 years, the US and its NATO allies have dropped tens of thousands of bombs on Afghanistan killing and wounding many thousands. Additionally, thousands of civilians have been killed and wounded by US-led forces and the Taliban during the fighting. An untold number of civilians were killed by US death squads such as Task Force 373 that were operated by the CIA and Special Forces, as revealed by WikiLeaks back in 2010.
Worse still is the role played by Afghan death squads that were trained and led by the CIA which roamed around the country committing numerous massacres. We shall never know how many innocents died as these death squads often left no eye witnesses. Investigative journalist Abby Martin of The Empire Files has produced a shocking film on these CIA led death squads.
Biden refuses to acknowledge the US defeat
In the conclusion to his speech, Biden puts the blame for the Taliban being “in the strongest position militarily since 2001” on his predecessor Trump. This blatant falsehood reflects the unwillingness of the current commander in chief to acknowledge the humiliating defeat that the United States has suffered.
From the outset, the US military campaign in Afghanistan was best by fundamental problems. Former Trump aide General Michael Flynn, a former director of military intelligence in Afghanistan, was interviewed by SIGAR. His interview provides numerous insights as to why the US occupation failed to stabilize Afghanistan and defeat its enemy in one of the poorest countries on the planet.
Flynn’s assertion that the United States was failing in yet another war is supported by the conclusion to SIGAR’s 300 page report ‘stabilization: lessons from the US experience in Afghanistan’. It makes the incredible admission that, “Between 2001 and 2017, U.S. government efforts to stabilize insecure and contested areas in Afghanistan mostly failed.’’
This failure is confirmed further by the decision of the Pentagon to stop publishing its public assessments of how much territory the Kabul government and the Taliban controlled. These assessments have long been seen as a key indicator of American progress in the war. Bill Roggio, a military analyst who has challenged the Pentagon’s rose-tinted assessments of the war, told the New York Times in May 2019, that the military assessments were revealing how the US puppet government in Kabul was losing territory to the Taliban. Roggio told the Times: “The district assessments highlight failure, which is contrary to the U.S. military’s desired message of success. Make no mistake, if these assessments showed the Afghan military retaking lost ground, the U.S. military would continue to publish the information.”
In May 2019 the New York Times noted that a previous US commander in Afghanistan had called these assessments “the metric that’s most telling in a counterinsurgency.”
Other metrics in recent years include the historically high levels of opium production, the 20% increase in ‘effective’ attacks by the Taliban on the Afghan army, which has suffered from a horrendous casualty and desertion rate, and the sharp rise in civilian casualties. They all testify to how the US was bogged down in an unwinnable war.
All of these factors are important in explaining why the US decided to extricate itself from the Afghan quagmire via ‘peace talks’ with the Taliban. There is an uncanny resemblance to the Paris peace talks in the early 1970s which President Nixon used to extricate America from the war that it was losing in Vietnam.
Having said this, the most critical reason for the US decision to withdraw from Afghanistan is the growing confrontation with China. Above all else, this factor will shape American geo-political action over the next decade.
Withdrawal from Afghanistan and full steam ahead towards military confrontation with China
The United States has been the world’s hegemonic economic power since the Bretton Woods agreement of 1944. It has dominated global trade through the dollar’s use as the world’s reserve currency and has been an economic powerhouse in the field of advanced technologies.
Now China has come along and upset the apple-cart by challenging American dominance of the global economy. This kind of existential struggle has been played out many times throughout history when dominant powers face competition from rising nations. The Greek historian Thucydides explained this simply: “It was the rise of Athens and the fear that this instilled in Sparta that made war inevitable.”
Over the last 500 years alone there have been 16 cases where a hegemonic power has been challenged by a rising power. In twelve cases the irreconcilable contradictions between the hegemony and challenger led to war breaking out.
The last century witnessed the titanic struggle between the Soviet Union and the United States that came desperately close to nuclear war and led to a series of highly destructive proxy wars being fought all around the planet.
The US sees China as an existential long-term threat to its economic and military dominance which won’t be resolved up by any limited diplomacy. The complete failure of the Alaska Summit back in March is testament to that.
The grave threat posed by China to US military dominance was recently acknowledged by Admiral Charles A. Richard, the commander of U.S. Strategic Command, when he said:
“We are witnessing a strategic breakout by China. The explosive growth and modernization of its nuclear and conventional forces can only be what I describe as breath-taking. And frankly, that word breath-taking may not be enough.”
He added his concern over China’s development of modern weapons such as hypersonic missiles: “Because of these challenges our current terrestrial- and space-based sensor architecture may not be sufficient to detect and track these hypersonic missiles.’’
He noted with alarm: “They have the largest Navy in the world and they have the third largest air force in the world.”
Biden’s withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan is a recognition of the need for the American empire to speed up the concentration of its military forces against its Chinese rival. This process that was started by Obama, in his 2014 pivot to Asia, has involved the US constructing military bases in allied nations that leave China surrounded by a huge and growing US military presence.
Back In February, the newly elected Biden ordered the Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin to oversee a review of America’s global military footprint as a matter of urgency. At the time Austin admitted that China was the number one priority for US defence planning. In July Austin bemoaned the lack of progress in the pivot to Asia. According to one Pentagon official the Defence Secretary complained that there was a gap, “between the stated prioritization of China and what we saw in a number of areas related to attention.”
As the Afghan debacle begins to recede into the distance, Biden will bring to bear the full might of the US military machine as its prepares itself for potential conflict with China in the 2020s.
Leon Tressell is a geo-political historian who has written extensively about the new Cold War between the US and Russia/China as well as the persecution of whistle blowers such as Julian Assange and Chelsea Manning.
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