Dragan Plavšić considers the consequences of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan as another Cold War looms
Afghanistan represents a major defeat for US imperialism. Iraq was a defeat because it was a disaster, but Afghanistan is a disaster because it is a defeat, sealed by the table-turning ignominy of the once ousted Taliban now ousting the US.
Nothing the US tried in Afghanistan worked. Neither Obama’s ill-fated ‘surge’ to a peak presence of 130,000 US, UK and Nato troops nor ‘Afghanicising’ the defence forces (albeit with US air and drone support) nor Trump’s infamous ‘mother of all bombs’.
They all failed because there was no military solution to the insurgency. The insurgency was permanent because it was ineradicable. And it was ineradicable because it drew daily support from that ever-renewable source of anger and bitterness, the murderous horror of a US occupation that took an estimated 240,000 Afghan lives.
The parallels with Vietnam are apt but go deeper than the chaotic humiliation of their common endings. Notwithstanding important differences, Afghanistan and Vietnam shared the same core struggle for national sovereignty that sapped US resolve to breaking point. Indeed, it is in no way to minimise the Taliban’s reactionary Islamism to acknowledge the deep ideological source of their mobilising power in an Afghan nationalism employing the thoroughly modern idiom of rights, as these opening sentences from their first press conference show:
"This is a proud moment for the whole nation ... Freedom and independence-seeking is a legitimate right of every nation. The Afghans also use their legitimate right after twenty years of struggle for freedom and for emancipating the country from occupation, this was our right and we achieved this right."
The US claim that it was ‘nation building’ - a standard imperialist claim, of course, made by another defeated occupier of Afghanistan, Russia - was never taken seriously by Pentagon strategists, for whom it was in practice a euphemism for the military goal of ‘remaking’ Afghanistan into a pro-Western state.
Certainly, in the immediate term, the defeat of this goal makes it harder for Washington to contemplate more such interventions, given the now widespread opposition to ‘forever wars’. In the longer term, its defeat needs contextualising and here the essential context is the relative waning of US power, notwithstanding three decades of global supremacy.
The lone superpower
Following the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the Cold War defeat of its Russian rival, the US emerged in the 1990s not only triumphant but intoxicated by its now unrivalled status as the one and only imperialist superpower. Although intoxication was a general ruling-class sentiment shared by Democrats and Republicans alike, its most hubristic expression was the neo-conservative think-tank, The Project for a New American Century (PNAC), supported by some of the leading figures of the Bush 2 administration.
Determined to capitalise on its historic Cold War victory in order to secure its global hegemony for the long term, Washington set its sights on newly ambitious geopolitical goals, readying its overwhelming military power to pursue them, for this was to be a decidedly militarised hegemony. As PNAC put it, ‘America should seek to preserve and extend its position of global leadership by maintaining the preeminence of U.S. military forces.’
Thus, in Eastern Europe, Nato and the EU expanded more or less in tandem to the borders of Russia, led by a US that stamped its expansionist authority on the region by launching Nato’s very first ‘out of area’ war against Serbia in 1999.
In the Middle East, after the Iranian Revolution, and then the falling out with Iraq over Kuwait, had weakened its regional hegemony, Washington sought to reassert US power by opportunistically exploiting 9/11 to invade and occupy Afghanistan (2001) as a prelude to its real goal, the invasion of Iraq (2003).
A waning superpower
This four-year period from 1999 to 2003 was therefore the high point of US military interventionism because it was the high point of US geopolitical expansionism. Yet its ‘mission accomplished’ triumphalism now feels like a far distant memory. The disaster in Iraq, the chaos in Libya, the failure in Syria, and now the defeat in Afghanistan show the US repeatedly failing to secure and stabilise its hegemony despite its overwhelming military power: US military spending stands at 40% of global spending, and currently exceeds the spending of the next ten countries combined, China included.
This also points to a still deeper problem. Although the US remains the largest single economy in the world, its relative contribution to the global economy has been steadily declining. In 1960, US GDP represented 40% of global GDP; today, it is not much over 20% and declining. Maintaining absolute military preeminence has therefore served to compensate the US for waning economic power, but it has not made up for it. In fact, it has repeatedly failed on its own military terms, and it is ultimately unsustainable unless relative economic decline can be arrested.
All this has been brought to a head by the rise of China. In 1960, Chinese GDP was 4% of global GDP; today it is at least 15% and rising. It is the second largest economy in the world and expected to overtake the US in the not-too-distant future. It is already the largest trading nation in the world and has now overtaken the US as the EU's biggest trading partner. It has also become the largest recipient of foreign direct investment, again surpassing the US.
Afghanistan reflects these trends in microcosm. What the US could not achieve militarily (a pro-Western state), China now seeks to achieve economically (a pro-Chinese state) by offering the receptive Taliban much-needed investment funds (conveniently ‘forgetting’ that Beijing provided the last Afghan government with $70 million of military aid between 2016 and 2018).
A new world disorder
The defeat in Afghanistan therefore reflects the direction of travel of world affairs. Indeed, in years to come, it may be viewed as a defining moment in the transition from the unipolar era of supreme US imperialist power after the Cold War to a bipolar world order. This new order will be dominated by increasingly tense and dangerous competition between the US and China, one seeking to retain global hegemony and the other seeking to gain it. As Biden put it this year, ‘China has an overall goal … to become the leading country in the world, the wealthiest country in the world, and the most powerful country in the world. That’s not going to happen on my watch because the United States is going to continue to grow.’
The implications of all this expose the US to a host of contradictory pressures. It needs to increase domestic investment to grow in order to compete with China, but it cannot afford to reduce military spending as China’s rises, lest that exacerbate the growing sense of its waning power. Multilateralising military spending by pressuring NATO members to increase theirs (as it is already doing) is an option, but to have any appreciable domestic impact this would ultimately mean weakening US leadership in Nato and Europe, and constricting its freedom to make unilateral decisions.
Squaring these circles has been made both more difficult and more urgent by the defeat in Afghanistan. The immediate response has been a decisive ratcheting up of tensions with China so as to reassert US global standing shaken by the ignominious withdrawal from Kabul. The AUKUS trilateral pact for sharing nuclear submarine technology with Australia (last shared with the UK 63 years ago) raises the level of confrontational pressure on China to new heights. At the same time, it brusquely dismisses a Nato ally, France, as Washington seeks to demonstrate, with mounting anxiety, that US leadership does indeed remain indispensable for the West.
Above all, though, AUKUS makes the world a much more dangerous place as we lurch ominously into a Second Cold War.
The anti-war movement
And yet, in the House of Commons last Thursday, apparently oblivious to these world-shattering perils, Keir Starmer welcomed AUKUS claiming that it ‘makes [the US and Australia] safer, makes Britain safer, and makes the world safer’. Indeed, his main concern was the entirely conventional one of the impact of an ‘Indo-Pacific tilt’ on Nato.
Starmer also endorsed AUKUS by citing the strategic review’s description of China as a ‘systemic competitor’ whose assertiveness needed curbing. Yet, it is precisely this systemic logic, the logic of competition - Marx called it the ‘essential locomotive force’ of capitalism - that lies at the root of present events and which the left cannot endorse.
Indeed, it was imperialist competition between Britain and Germany that in the last century led to two world wars and 80-100 million deaths; and it was imperialist competition that led to the Cold War between the US and Russia when nuclear arms races became the key competitive means of draining your enemy’s resources and undermining their power. Thus, today, imperialist competition between the US and China is the latest expression of a dangerous and destructive logic intrinsic to the very workings of capitalism.
It follows from all this that the left cannot choose between US and Chinese imperialisms because to do so would be to fall captive to the very logic of competition that is the global driver of tensions, military build-ups, conflicts and wars. Nevertheless, refusing to choose is not a passive ‘plague on both your houses’ stance.
On the contrary, it must go hand in hand with the tried and tested principle first expounded during the First World War by the German socialist Karl Liebknecht that ‘our main enemy is at home’. This principle entails a sustained and active focus on opposing UK foreign policy and its alliance with the US, as it is where we live that we can have the decisive political impact needed to change the course of events for the better.
Such opposition cannot be expected from Starmer’s Labour. As its welcoming support for AUKUS shows, it is as dedicated to the logic of competition and the role of the UK in perpetuating it as are the Tories.
It is only outside Parliament that this opposition will be found, and here the record of the anti-war movement over the last twenty years stands out with distinction: again and again, it has been as right as the US and the UK have been wrong - on Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Syria. Though studiously ignored by the mainstream media, it has earned the kind of political trust few in Parliament can match. The role of the anti-war movement - the role of Stop the War and CND in particular - will therefore be crucial in the years ahead. Joining this fight for peace makes very good sense.
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Dragan Plavšić is a member of Counterfire in London and of Marks21 in Serbia. He jointly edited The Balkan Socialist Tradition and the Balkan Federation 1871-1915 (2003).