The U.S. empire’s looming presence in Afghanistan
There’s a story of a large empire that attempted to conquer or prop up a smaller nation that fundamentally did not want to be governed by outside forces. It’s the story of the British empire in Afghanistan. It’s the story of the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. It’s now also the story of the United States in Afghanistan.
If there’s any confusion over labeling the U.S. as an empire, allow me to elaborate. Though it is labeled a republic and we preach the values of democracy, we still conquered territory through our history like any empire would. The U.S. still has many territories around the world, and we have major spheres of influence where we have made other countries reliant on us, primarily for economic reasons. This isn’t a prescription of judgment on whether this is good or bad. Rather, it’s important to understand history and imperialism to understand just what went wrong in Afghanistan.
Let’s start with some brief history. When the British empire was in Afghanistan, they ruled by dividing and conquering, resulting in many shifting alliances that never truly solidified British rule over Afghanistan. The Soviet Union faced opposition from the anti-communist Mujahideen during their attempt to take over Afghanistan. It was only inevitable that the U.S. nation-building campaign was also doomed to fail.
During the British and Soviet attempts to take control of Afghanistan, the goal was primarily territorial. They wanted to expand the size of their respective empires and exert their influence and power. The U.S., however, entered Afghanistan as part of the War on Terror. It was a reactionary move after 9/11 that intended to destroy Al-Qaeda and anyone who provided them sanctuary, such as the Taliban. In the early stages, it seemed to have worked. By 2002, the Taliban was nearly decimated. So where did nation-building factor in?
It’s very clear that the United States also wanted to exert its own influence and power in the reconstruction effort in Afghanistan. George Bush evoked George Marshall in his 2002 speech when he called for reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan. The reference to the famous World War II reconstruction plan in Germany and Japan was no mistake. Just as the Marshall Plan was meant to further extend United States primacy, so was the Afghanistan reconstruction effort. Building a government that preached and upheld U.S. values in a region that the U.S. had a fraught history in would have been a major push forward for U.S. interests.
But there are major differences between the Marshall Plan and the Afghanistan effort. First, the U.S. had not actually fully won the war yet. Second, there was not enough funding for the plan in the first place, with only $38 billion allocated from 2001-2009 for humanitarian aid and reconstruction. Third, the U.S. diverted resources away from Afghanistan toward Iraq, which only further jeopardized nation-building efforts. Fourth, and most importantly, is that the government that was propped up by the U.S. and its allies would never be considered fully legitimate because it was a government propped up by outsiders. Now, in 2021, that government has fallen, and the Taliban has taken control of Afghanistan again.
To further elaborate, let’s turn to Carter Malkasian, a civilian advisor for the military in Iraq and Afghanistan. He had interviewed a Taliban scholar about why the Taliban had such an edge in the battlefield against the better-trained and better-equipped Afghan army, who had the backing of the U.S. and NATO. The scholar’s answer was simple: we fight for belief; the army fights for money.
If the Soviets and the British couldn’t compete when their objectives were territorial, how could the United States compete when our nation-building goals were mainly ideological? Not only were we outsiders, but we were aggressors. Thousands upon thousands died in the collateral damage caused by the war, which only gave the Taliban more legitimate reasons to continue fighting the U.S. and the Afghan government backed by us.
It goes to show that modern imperialism has not evolved but shifted to fit the modern world order. The glory days of imperialism and colonization saw European empires partially motivated by a sense of superiority, that their whiteness could save the “savages” they deemed below them. Of course, that’s far too racist for modern sensibilities. Territorial expansion is also far too aggressive for modern sensibilities too. Instead, the imperial superiority complex has taken the form of who has more liberal ideals. Democracy and freedom are values to be spread around the world, but the goal is not an altruistic one as promoted on the surface level. A world that cherishes U.S. values is a world which the U.S. dominates.
To reiterate, this is not a prescription of whether this is good or bad. What’s important to take away is that ideological wars are not something the U.S., or any other empire for that matter, has the capacity to truly win. Afghanistan has served as the most recent example of this. Ultimately, it is up to the individual nation and the people of that nation to determine what it is they want for themselves. No outsider empire, such as the U.S., can achieve that goal by force, even if they were truly altruistic in nature. Besides, the U.S. should focus on upholding its own values at home first before it tries to force those values on others.