Afghanistan-End of Empire? I Think Not!
The American Empire is alive and well. And that is a good thing!
With the swift fall of the Kabul government and the chaotic scramble to evacuate the Kabul airport, talk is in the air that this latest lost American war presages the fall of the American Empire. I disagree, based on America’s unique history, and based on America’s clear self-interest, the United States will not be consigned to the dustbin of history.
U.S. Marines at the Kabul Airport, August, 2021
First, let’s discuss the concept of an “American Empire.” Some pundits, such as Chris Hedges, see this event as a sign of America’s coming fall as a world power. I agree with Hedges and others to a point, in that the United States DOES possess an empire of sorts, but our dominion is unique in world history, and this is, in part, our salvation. Other empires of the past, such as the British, French, Russian, etc. empires were empires of land and territory. They specifically and purposefully sailed out (or, in Russia’s case, marched out) and invaded other parts of the world, subjugated them, and literally made those captured and enslaved territories into British, or French, or Russian land. Many old world atlas books showed nearly a quarter of the world’s land in British pink, along with large stretches of Africa and Asia in French green. The captive peoples in those lands, from Algeria to India, to Vietnam and many places in between, were subjects of the people who conquered them.
Now, the current American empire is different. Our empire is a network of alliances, business deals (always cutting toward American financial interests), military bases, and support for local governments, both democratically-elected leaders, and those who, shall we say, rose to power in creative ways. The United States no longer invades lands with the intent to literally absorb them into the nation. In the 1800s, we did build a continental empire, rolling over Native Americans, Mexicans, and anyone else who got in our way, but, with a few exceptions, literal empire-building, on the European model, was not our way. Those exceptions, of course, were the spoils of our short war with Spain, in which we suddenly found ourselves in possession of the Philippines, Puerto Rico, and a few smaller islands. After fighting a bloody war to convince the Filipinos we were better for them than the Spanish (yes, that is sarcasm!) America decided that we did not want to be in literal charge of another country, and began planning for Philippine independence.
When America’s modern empire faces a setback, such as when an old ally changes leaders and becomes a foe (like Iran or Iraq in the 1970s), or a local government decides having American military bases on their land is no longer a positive (like the Philippines in the 1990s) and tells us to go home, or, when we actually lose a war (Vietnam in the 1970s), our empire shrinks a bit, but, unlike when the French lost their Vietnam War, the maps do not change to show that we lost territory. The American “empire” is like an incredible shrinking, yet, NOT shrinking entity. Looking at a map from, say, the early 1950s, and then a map from today, it is obvious that the British, French, Portuguese, and others, lost huge swaths of territory as their empires shrank. No such map would show that America has “lost” China (when it went communist in 1949), or Vietnam (when Saigon fell in 1975), or Afghanistan (today).
Our empire faces occasional military setbacks, with Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos being the biggest examples until now. But, despite the recent loss of Afghanistan, the U.S. maintains hundreds of military bases in over 70 nations, all willing partners to American power. Yes, we “lost” Afghanistan. But, remember, this was a political loss, not a military loss. President Biden (and yes, President Trump before him-though for different reasons) chose to leave Afghanistan. Militarily, there was no reason to think the U.S. could not maintain at least a small military presence and continue shoring up the Kabul government. Biden made a deliberate decision to leave that nation in order to focus on other, more dangerous threats (i.e. China). After a 20-year war and ongoing military action (and the considerable financial cost of that war and of propping up a corrupt Afghan government), the leadership of the United States decided it was time to “cut bait,” to use a fishing metaphor, because there were bigger and more dangerous creatures in the sea to contend with (again, China and to a slightly lesser extent, Russia).
Our initial invasion of Afghanistan in the wake of the 9/11 attacks that were launched from Afghan soil, was justified and necessary, just as our war against Japan was justified and necessary following Pearl Harbor. As President Biden said in his remarks of July 8, 2021, America cannot continue the policies and wars begun 20 years ago. Most significantly, he stated that “we also need to focus on shoring up America’s core strengths to meet the strategic competition with China and other nations that is really going to determine — determine our future.” Even though it is clear that the actual act of leaving has devolved into a real mess, the President was very clear in stating that America must turn her back on a bad deal (Afghanistan) in order to focus on a near-peer “competitor.” The next major war will likely be against either China or Russia (or both, as they are becoming strategic partners again), and America must prepare. Our exit from Afghanistan, messy though it is, does not presage the coming fall of the American Empire. Letting ourselves remain distracted in places like Afghanistan and ignoring the growing Chinese threat will potentially lead to America losing a major war and possibly a lot more. More than one empire has fallen by not noticing, or ignoring major threats and letting their attention and power become distracted. The U.S. has made the right decision in Afghanistan, painful though it may be right now.
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