Opinion: Pax Americana’s Hubris in Afghanistan

Professor Adekeye Adebajo is Director of the University of Johannesburg’s Institute for Pan-African Thought and Conversation. He recently penned an opinion article that first appeared in the Business Day: 30 August 2021.

I was living in New York in September 2001 when two planes – flown by terrorists – rammed into the World Trade Centre. Many irate Americans demanded immediate revenge, calling for someone to be given a bloody nose for killing 3,000 American citizens. The UN turned a blind eye, as the warmongering, sanctimonious George W. Bush administration launched a war into Afghanistan: a decision the world body would soon rue when Uncle Sam abused the UN by launching an illegitimate invasion into Iraq a year later in search of non-existent “weapons of mass destruction.” America easily defeated the al-Qaeda-supporting Taliban regime in Afghanistan within a month. But the fact that 15 of the19 terrorists who had flown the planes that attacked the United States (US) were Saudi citizens barely registered. Riyadh is, however, not too different from the Taliban in its maltreatment of women and spreading of global terror, but yet escapes censure and isolation.

Many of the cheerleaders of American interventionism in the fickle Western media are now wringing their hands at the fiasco that is unfolding in Afghanistan. US president, Joe Biden, is embarking on a chaotic withdrawal from a “forever war” after 20 years in which Washington has spent $2 trillion, triggered an estimated 240,000 Afghan deaths, and lost 6,294 soldiers and contractors. America’s “war on terror” spread death and destruction, alienating the very people whose hearts and minds it claimed to be trying to win. President Barack Obama’s blood-soaked drone warfare caused particular damage to Washington’s reputation. Like the “war on drugs” and the “war on crime,” this was a cynical shadow game to make Americans feel safer, in the full knowledge that no such war could be successfully prosecuted, let alone won. By 2015, the US had reduced its troops in Afghanistan to 10,000, alongside a similar number of NATO troops.

So, what is the legacy of two decades of America’s presence in Afghanistan? The Taliban has returned to re-establish an atavistic theocracy in a 40 million-strong country that has not known peace for four decades; the mullahs now inherit $83 billion worth of military assets that Washington squandered on supposedly training an army that has refused to fight; anti-American terrorists linked to Islamic State continue to operate in the country; a stagnant economy has not grown in a decade; two thirds of women remain illiterate; half of the population is still in need of humanitarian aid; and 3.5 million Afghans have recently been displaced.

A delusional, interventionist Pax Americana seemed to see itself as a contemporary Pax Romana, rebuilding countries like Afghanistan and Iraq in its own image. Instead, America has suffered its third humiliating military defeat following embarrassing retreats from Vietnam and Iraq. The world’s largest military power – outspending the next dozen countries combined – has been unable to impose its will on a relatively small Central Asian country, and has been ultimately defeated by a motley crew of ill-equipped, largely illiterate, highly-motivated jihadist insurgents.

President Biden appears to be pursuing a quixotic strategy of wanting to return to a pre-9/11 era of an American “unipolar moment” when Washington bestrode the globe unrivalled. But the world has changed beyond recognition, and as Donald Trump painfully discovered, China’s economic threat cannot be so easily repelled by turning back the clock. With this Afghan fiasco, Biden has, in one stroke, destroyed his reputation as a reliable multilateralist, sending shockwaves across Europe. Like Trump, the US president has acted unilaterally and failed to consult his allies on this disastrous troop withdrawal. The overconfident bravado of American neo-imperial “nation-building” has been embarrassingly exposed. British poet, Rudyard Kipling’s century-old call for Washington to take up the “White Man’s Burden” has met an untimely end. As French diplomat, Talleyrand, famously noted about the monarchical Bourbons: “They have learned nothing, and forgotten nothing.”

The views expressed in this article are that of the author/s and do not necessarily reflect that of the University of Johannesburg.

prof adekeye adebajo
Professor Adekeye Adebajo
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