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Tomgram: Alfred McCoy, Washington Strikes Out

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This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

What is it about this country and enemies? It can't even pretend to do without them. Of course, it just lost one enemy, the Taliban, in a humiliating fashion, even as President Biden bragged that no country had ever airlifted itself out of a losing war quite so brilliantly. ("No nation has ever done anything like it in all of history. Only the United States had the capacity and the will and ability to do it, and we did it today.") In the process, he also announced that the forever wars of the last 20 years were finally ending. But don't panic not, at least, if you happen to be a failed commander from those wars or a CEO in one of the many companies that make up the industrial part of the military-industrial complex. There's so much more to come. As Biden said, "The world is changing. We're engaged in a serious competition with China. We're dealing with the challenges on multiple fronts with Russia."

Keep in mind that, in these last two decades, the U.S. has spent an estimated $8 trillion just on our forever wars (and the care of the veterans of those conflicts). Worse yet, possibly $21 trillion went into those conflicts and the militarization of American society that went with them. That scale of investment can't continue without an enemy. Of course, from its earliest moments in office, the Biden foreign-policy team has been focused on "pivoting" from war-on-terror targets to provoking China. That's included threatening naval gestures in the Strait of Taiwan and the South China Sea, a calling-together of allies to confront Beijing in an ever-more-militarized fashion, and greater support for Taiwan. It all adds up to an enemy-filled future in which Congress must continue to invest ever more staggering sums in the military-industrial complex rather than in this country's true infrastructure or genuine needs.

In fact, the House Armed Services Committee promptly endorsed a plan to add an extra $24 billion (above and beyond the staggering $715 billion the Biden administration had requested for the 2022 Pentagon budget). The equivalent Senate committee had already given a thumbs up to a similar sum, indicating that the next Pentagon budget will be in the range of $740 billion dollars. California Representative Ro Khanna was among the few who gave the measure a thumbs down. ("We just ended the longest war in American history, now is the time to decrease defense spending, not increase it" We are already spending three times as much on our military as China did.")

In that context, let historian Alfred McCoy, author of the soon-to-be-published groundbreaking imperial history, To Govern the Globe: World Orders and Catastrophic Change, tell you what full-scale defeat in Afghanistan really means for this country. He considers how, as taxpayer dollars are put into yet more militarization (and the global failure that goes with it), China has proven so much cannier about its investments on a planet that itself needs some genuine human investment before it becomes a gigantic Kabul. Tom

The Winner in Afghanistan: China
A Debacle Marks the Decline of Washington's World Leadership

By

The collapse of the American project in Afghanistan may fade fast from the news here, but don't be fooled. It couldn't be more significant in ways few in this country can even begin to grasp.

"Remember, this is not Saigon," Secretary of State Antony Blinken told a television audience on August 15th, the day the Taliban swept into the Afghan capital, pausing to pose for photos in the grandly gilded presidential palace. He was dutifully echoing his boss, President Joe Biden, who had earlier rejected any comparison with the fall of the South Vietnamese capital, Saigon, in 1975, insisting that "there's going to be no circumstance where you see people being lifted off the roof of an embassy of the United States from Afghanistan. It is not at all comparable."

Both were right, but not in the ways they intended. Indeed, the collapse of Kabul was not comparable. It was worse, incomparably so. And its implications for the future of U.S. global power are far more serious than the loss of Saigon.

On the surface, similarities abound. In both South Vietnam and Afghanistan, Washington spent 20 years and countless billions of dollars building up massive, conventional armies, convinced that they could hold off the enemy for a decent interval after the U.S. departure. But presidents Nguyen Van Thieu of South Vietnam and Ashraf Ghani of Afghanistan both proved to be incompetent leaders who never had a chance of retaining power without continued fulsome American backing.

Amid a massive North Vietnamese offensive in the spring of 1975, President Thieu panicked and ordered his army to abandon the northern half of the country, a disastrous decision that precipitated Saigon's fall just six weeks later. As the Taliban swept across the countryside this summer, President Ghani retreated into a fog of denial, insisting his troops defend every remote, rural district, allowing the Taliban to springboard from seizing provincial capitals to capturing Kabul in just 10 days.

With the enemy at the gates, President Thieu filled his suitcases with clinking gold bars for his flight into exile, while President Ghani (according to Russian reports) snuck off to the airport in a cavalcade of cars loaded with cash. As enemy forces entered Saigon and Kabul, helicopters ferried American officials from the U.S. embassy to safety, even as surrounding city streets swarmed with panicked local citizens desperate to board departing flights.

Critical Differences

So much for similarities. As it happens, the differences were deep and portentous. By every measure, the U.S. capacity for building and supporting allied armies has declined markedly in the 45 years between Saigon and Kabul. After President Thieu ordered that disastrous northern retreat, replete with dismal scenes of soldiers clubbing civilians to board evacuation flights bound for Saigon, South Vietnam's generals ignored their incompetent commander-in-chief and actually began to fight.

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)
 

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