by Andrew Magee
After the sudden collapse of the Afghanistan government last week, the U.S. is momentarily off balance, but as we look down the road, it’s still not clear that the U.S. won’t continue intervening in Afghanistan through drone strikes, bombing, and special forces operations.
“. . . [T]he present regime in Afghanistan is unstable, and some experts estimate it may collapse within the year,” wrote Professor Michael Blake last month in an article from The Conversation. “If it does so, the resulting power gap would likely be filled by the Taliban, whose history of human rights abuses include violence against women and children.” Arguments like this are likely familiar to the reader. We hear things along these lines daily: “I understand it isn’t great that Americans are dying, but the US can’t leave that country.” People will say about any country so unfortunate to have on their neck a heavy Yankee boot that “if the US leaves, a power vacuum will ensue, and someone even worse than us will take control.” In the case of Afghanistan, those who would like to retain American presence in the region claim that a hasty US withdrawal would delight and embolden terrorists around the world. As Gideon Rachman wrote in The Financial Times:
There are . . . direct national interests at stake. The terrorist threat that drew the US into Afghanistan has not disappeared. If the Taliban once again gained control [due to American withdrawal], it might well become a safe haven for … al-Qaeda and Islamic State. Jihadis all over the world will also draw heart from the spectacle of the defeat of NATO in Afghanistan.
The rapid collapse of the Afghan government as soon as the bulk of U.S. troops were withdrawn, makes it clear that this was going to happen, no matter what. Thus, we are either stuck in endless wars to maintain stability in the regions we’ve already invaded, or we leave, allowing for havoc across the nation while letting blame for the death and destruction fall squarely on our shoulders—as, we were the ones who left, after all.
During a speech in April 2021, Biden said, “While we will not stay involved in Afghanistan militarily, our diplomatic and humanitarian work will continue.” Although his language was hopeful, it is important to ask what “diplomatic and humanitarian work” means. The New York Times reported on August 3 that officials expected “. . .Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III and Gen. Mark A. Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to approach Mr. Biden at the end of August about the possibility of continuing airstrikes into September if the Taliban look as if they are about to overrun key population centers.” Officials have also said “. . . that the United States would launch strikes in Afghanistan only for counterterrorism reasons, in case there was intelligence about efforts to attack American interests.” Here we have another tricky phrase: “American interests.” What does it mean? In the past it, a number of things, from securing nationalized oil fields to annexing sovereign countries for fruit corporations.
Will the US continue its military operations, and if so, what will allow them? To see the future, we can look into our past. Pakistan is a great example of what happens to a country which has no US troops. A sovereign, stable nation—a nuclear power; but has any of that stopped the American ire? Pakistan has historically been one of the most drone struck places on Earth, despite Pakistan being “America’s most allied ally.”
This leads us to ask whether the US considers drone warfare and other types of “airstrikes” to be military actions. I would guess that any person on the street would consider it to be, so why doesn’t our government? I believe the answer is really quite simple. Imagine for a moment, that you are a voracious hegemon who has an interest in the Greater Middle East (be it for profit, power, or whatever else). To take what you want, you must use American troops. This works if you have a scared homeland (think WMDs in Iraq), but as people become suspicious, they are less likely to let you kill them in illegal wars. So, you are left with a couple of options: (1) end the violence and cut your losses or (2) figure out a way to keep extracting the wealth from the Middle East without killing Americans. Drone warfare and airstrikes perfectly fit case (2). You can wreak havoc and terror, you can bully nations to be at your beck and call, and it doesn’t cost a single American life.
This is, of course, what the Biden administration means by “withdraw.” If they did not, they would have called for a full unconditional withdrawal: no airstrikes and no drone warfare. Anything less than that is simply not a withdrawal.
Does the young man in Afghanistan feel less encouraged to bring arms against the Imperial West if his father is killed by a faceless, invisible machine in the sky rather than a soldier on the ground? Does a mother cry fewer tears when her child is crushed to death by the rubble from a Predator drone’s missile than from a tank’s artillery? No, of course not. Unless there is a total cease of American terror in these regions, it will only ever be called “withdrawal” in the pontifications of jingoist hawks.
— Andrew Magee is a recent graduate of UMass/Lowell