Empires Don't Last, But Their Scars Do

The Afghanistan withdrawal reteaches an old lesson about blowback to American intervention.

Joel Bleifuss

A U.S. Air Force aircraft takes off from the military airport in Kabul on August 27, 2021. AFP via Getty Images

Imperial ambitions in Afghanistan have once again been thwarted. This time, it’s the Americans who slunk off in defeat — or withdrawal,” as President Joe Biden calls it. In 1992 it was the Soviets who withdrew from Afghanistan, and in 1842, 1880 and 1919, during the Anglo-Afghan Wars, the British. The grandiose plans for nation building” long forgotten, in the end, winning the war proved too much.

Afghanistan reteaches an old lesson about imperial blowback. Empires don’t last, but their legacies do. Since World War II people around the world continue to deal with the fallout of U.S. covert operations and military interventions — in Chile, Guatemala, Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Honduras, Indonesia, Vietnam, Congo, Somalia, Israel and Palestine, Iran, Iraq, Yemen and Afghanistan, to name a few.

In recent decades, such intervention is accompanied by the imposition of a neoliberal model of industrial agriculture that, in its quest for maximum profit, destabilizes once-sustainable agrarian cultures and economies. Legions of the dispossessed then become the recruiting pool for religious and political extremists, both at home and abroad.

What are the Taliban other than our progeny?

What we do today, we live with tomorrow. All of which raises the question, how should the world relate to the new Taliban government and the atrocities it is likely to commit? What is to be done with despotic nations that violate basic human rights?

The United States is morally obligated to open its gates to Afghan asylum-seekers and refugees. Pro-war pundits may trash the execution of Biden’s withdrawal because they are upset that it is a complete withdrawal. But they are not wrong to point out that Uncle Sam has a debt to the refugees of its wars.

Progressives should be able to walk and chew gum at the same time — that is, to criticize Biden’s inadequate evacuation plans and to resist calls for perma-war.

But will we replace endless military deployments” that Biden has wisely promised to end, with a policy of crushing economic isolation and sporadic drone strikes? On the Wall Street Journal’s editorial pages, two former Trump administration officials called upon Biden to designate the Taliban a foreign terrorist organization” and impose economic sanctions, as we do against Iran, North Korea and Syria.

Is it progress to replace never-ending conflict with latter-day Treaties of Versailles? That treaty ended World War I, but required war-ravaged Germany to pay reparations” to the victors. The immiseration of the Germans by the Treaty of Versailles sowed the seeds of World War II, a global conflagration that killed 75 million people.

The Taliban may be a bad actor, but the punitive moralism of the sanctions caucus is more about the egos of American foreign policy elites than it is about the well-being of the long-suffering people of Central Asia.

The American public does not have the stomach for never-ending war. The United States might never again be the world’s policeman, even if it were to possess the moral authority to assume that role (which it does not).

But by what moral rhyme or reason does Washington protect some states but subject others to pressure-cooker sanctions? When it comes to regimes that violate basic human rights, Saudi Arabia gets lightly scolded. Bahrain persecutes its Shiite citizens but remains a friend in good standing. And China commits cultural genocide against the Indigenous people of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. For that China gets a pass. And we get cheap iPhones.

The War on Terror is 20 years old and it got us nowhere. It is time to loosen the ring of iron with which we have encircled the globe. We all might breathe easier.

Joel Bleifuss, a former director of the Peace Studies Program at the University of Missouri-Columbia, is the editor & publisher of In These Times, where he has worked since October 1986.

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