From Afghanistan to Ukraine

Nancy Lindisfarne and Jonathan Neale

Six months ago, in a post about the American withdrawal from Afghanistan, we wrote:

“This is a turning point in world history. The greatest military power in the world has been defeated by the people of a small, desperately poor, country. This will weaken the power of the American empire all over the world.”

The consequences of the American defeat are now playing out in Ukraine. Putin, understanding the weakness of American power, is pushing to change the balance of power further.

We also wrote, “The War on Terror has been politically defeated in the United States. The majority of Americans are now in favor of withdrawal from Afghanistan and against any more foreign wars.”

Joe Biden and the American military have no intention of going to war in Ukraine. The political consequences in the US would backfire catastrophically.

Biden has been very clear about not going to war. For weeks he has been saying that Russia would probably invade Ukraine, and that when they did so, the US would retaliate with financial sanctions. His meaning was absolutely clear – if Russia invaded Ukraine, the US would not fight.

The leaders of the other major powers in NATO and the European Union have said much the same thing: financial sanctions, and we won’t fight.

Now that Russia has invaded, the UK immediately announced that they would bring forward financial sanctions against five Russian banks and three Russian individuals. Five banks and three individuals is nothing. In the US, the Biden administration told reporters that they would begin with mild sanctions in the hope of stopping Russian escalation.

Contrast this to the Biden administration’s policy towards Afghanistan which reeks of shame and revenge. The US has confiscated the entire meagre financial reserves of that impoverished country, some 9 billion dollars. They have banned almost all trade and aid, and are purposely pursuing sanctions which are ensuring large scale famine in that country.

Or, contrast the sanctions against Putin to the long American blockade of Cuba, or their unforgiving economic and trade sanctions against Iran.

Of course, we don’t know enough to predict the outcome. There may be a proxy war in Ukraine, as there were so many bloody proxy wars between the super powers during the Cold War. In that case, the United States might well supply arms to a Ukrainian resistance, or encourage a guerilla war. Or there may be a brokered peace.

But whatever the outcome, the invasion of Ukraine is a consequence of the shifting balance of global power. And the consequences of Putin’s invasion will be a further weakening of the power of the United States and of NATO. Their humiliation is already clear for all to see. The cornerstone of NATO was a commitment by the United States and the other NATO countries to go to war if any of them were invaded. Ukraine was not a member of NATO, but this was in the offing. Now, who can be sure Turkey or the US or the UK would go to war to defend their NATO brethren in Estonia, Latvia or Slovenia.

The result will be an increase in Russian power. The larger consequence will be an increase in the imperial power of China.

To avoid confusion among our readers, of course we against the appalling Russian invasion of Ukraine. We are also against a wider war, and we do not mourn the decline of American global power. Indeed, it would be a bad idea to take any side in the on-going contest between the super-powers. In the face of the humanitarian catastrophe in Afghanistan, the cruelty and inequalities of the pandemic, and the unfolding reality of climate chaos, taking sides with one group of oppressors against another is absurd.

In the rest of this article, we quote from what we wrote six months ago, to explain the importance of the American defeat in Afghanistan as a background to declining American power.

AMERICANS DON’T WANT WAR

Six months ago we wrote, “The fall of Kabul marks a decisive defeat for American power around the world. But it also marks, or makes clear, a deep turning away from the American empire among Americans.

One piece of evidence is the opinion polls. In 2001, right after 9/11, between 85% and 90% of Americans approved of the invasion of Afghanistan. The numbers have been dropping steadily. Last month, 62% of Americans approved of Biden’s plan for total withdrawal, and 29% were opposed.

This rejection of the war is common on both the right and the left. The working class base of the Republican Party and Trump are against foreign wars. Many soldiers and military families come from the rural areas and the south where Trump is strong. They are against any more wars, for it is they and those they loved who served, died and were wounded.

Right wing patriotism in America now is pro-military, but that means pro-soldier, not pro-war. When they say ‘Make America Great Again’, they mean that America is not great now for Americans, not that the US should be more engaged in the world.

Among Democrats, too, the working class base is against the wars.

There are people who support further military intervention. They are the Obama democrats, the Romney republicans, the generals, many liberal and conservative professionals, and almost everyone in the Washington elite. But the American people as a whole, and especially the working class, black, brown and white, have turned against the American Empire.

After the fall of Saigon, the American government was unable to launch major military interventions for the next fifteen years. It may well be longer after the fall of Kabul.”

THE DECLINE OF AMERICAN POWER

We also wrote: “Since 1918, 103 years ago, the United States has been the most powerful nation in the world. There have been competing powers – first Germany and Japan, then the Soviet Union and now China. But the US has been dominant. That ‘American Century’ is now coming to an end.

The long-term reason is the economic rise of China and the relative economic decline of the United States. But the covid pandemic and the Afghan defeat make the last two years a turning point.

The covid pandemic has revealed the institutional incompetence of the ruling class, and the government, of the United States. The system has failed to protect the people. This chaotic and shameful failure is obvious to people around the world.

Then there’s Afghanistan. If you judge by expenditure and hardware the United States is overwhelmingly the dominant military power globally. That power has been defeated by poor people in sandals in a small country who have nothing but endurance and courage.

The Taliban victory will also give heart to Islamists of many different sorts in Syria, Yemen, Somalia, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan and Mali. But it will be true more widely than that.

Both the covid failure and the Afghan defeat will reduce the soft power of the US. But Afghanistan is also a defeat for hard power. The strength of the informal empire of the United States has relied for a century on three different pillars. One is being the largest economy in the world, and domination of the global financial system. The second is a reputation in many quarters for democracy, competence and cultural leadership. The third was that if soft power failed, the United States would invade to support dictatorships and punish its enemies.

That military power is gone now. No government will believe that the US can rescue them from a foreign invader, or from their own people. Drone killings will continue and cause great suffering. But nowhere will drones on their own be militarily decisive.

This is the beginning of the end of the American century.”

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