Far away on the frontier of the American empire, thousands of US troops remain surrounding the Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul. No longer is the military mission to wage war in support of Washington’s nation-building project. It’s now about helping Americans and Afghans escape the likely ire of the onset of the new Taliban regime. After twenty years, Washington’s imperial outpost, sitting abreast the mountainous regions of the Middle East and Central Asia, has fallen, and its forces and diplomats are retreating back over the horizon and leaving a scene of destruction in the rearview.
To his credit, President Joe Biden has refused to extend the military’s ground mission outside of the Kabul airport. Further violent escalation with the Taliban would simply respark the flames of conflict and compel the administration to send more troops to fight against the de facto government of Afghanistan. The supplications of media-dullards, failed celebrity generals, and British warhawks carried no clout. America’s war against the Taliban is over.
But US military intervention in Afghanistan has not struck its final note. The preponderance of US hegemony is now veiled behind an ominous, "over-the-horizon capability," sitting idly, waiting "to keep them from going after us."
As formerly transparent military deployments turn into clandestine ones, the Air Force’s new "over the horizon" airstrikes will surely be employed as another tool in the US imperial toolbox. The new capabilities, costing taxpayers only $10 billion, confers the Pentagon with a set of bases from which airstrikes and air cover can be launched against terrorist activity throughout the region. Located in Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, and Kuwait and supplied with war planes and surveillance equipment, the state is prepared to continue defending its interests abroad.
Now that military intervention can be conducted from far outside Afghanistan’s borders, there is surely a mood within the foreign policy establishment that the abandonment of US interference is not yet over. A military presence is still fixed on Afghanistan. Biden wrote to Congress in June, saying that Washington’s all-powerful military eye will ward "off the terrorist threat."
The initial chorus of air strikes, which were launched from outside Afghanistan, have already struck members of the Islamic State of Khorasan Province (ISKP), a subset of Taliban defectors and foreign fighters from across the Arab world. Washington wasted little time. The Pentagon announced the retaliatory strikes one day after yesterday’s attacks outside the Kabul airport, which killed 175 people, including Afghan civilians, Taliban fighters and US soldiers. The severity of Biden’s vowed retaliation will serve as an important demonstration of what is to come next for the entire region in the early stages of post-US occupation.
"We will respond with force and precision at our time, at the place we choose, and the moment of our choosing," Biden noted, during a press conference Thursday. "These ISIS terrorists will not win."
There was little hope, if any at all, of a complete de-escalation of US military involvement in Afghanistan. And, of course, putting an end to the US occupation and the nation-building project is an extraordinary achievement. According to the president, however, the omnipotent and omnipresent power of American military might and intervention will persist against another band of terrorists.
Should Biden choose to limit attacks against the "assets, leadership, and facilities" of ISIS-K and benefit from a cooperative relationship with the Taliban, as hard as that may sound for beltway rabble rousers, there is solid grounds to believe that America’s military intervention might see a true reduction. The Taliban, while making their final push towards the capital, already benefited handsomely from the leftovers of US military occupation. Afghanistan’s new government now controls a stronger arsenal than most countries on the planet. If there’s a chance for limited military intervention, if any, it’s now.
But after the folly of the past two decades, Washington hasn’t proved capable of conducting a limited war to which a reachable endpoint is even possible. During the purported drawdown in American involvement in recent months, an array of US airstrikes continued to do substantial damage to Afghan civilians. In Lashkar Gah, American missiles destroyed a health clinic and school, killing around 20 civilians — innocent women and children. It’s hard to imagine that future air raids, of any number, will truly prove fruitful in securing the liberty of American people. That sort of foreign policy preference follows lockstep with the decision making of the past forty years. How else have we arrived at this current crossroads?
This strikes at the center of what’s wrong with America’s imperial foreign policy. There is little, if anything, the general public and its collective wisdom, for all that it’s worth, can do to persuade those in the seats of power that the gig is up, and the endeavor for empire is over.
While public opinion polling isn’t the most reliable metric to gauge each individual’s consent, mood, and understanding of public affairs, shortly after the 9/11 attacks in October 2001 Gallup measured that approximately 88 percent of Americans approved of Bush’s war. Years later, after more than a decade of fighting, Gallup asked again in 2014 and found that most Americans disagreed with the decision to double-down, time and again, to continue the military mission. Such a decrease in popular sentiment followed an unfortunate, yet still beneficial, string of events for the war makers and profiteers — Obama’s failed surge in 2009 and 2010, Michael Hastings’ Rolling Stone profile of Stanley McChrystal, and the litany of other whistleblower reports that exposed the swath of false-truths told about the war. After a few years of President Donald Trump and another surge, a similar public sentiment was expressed in a Pew Research poll from 2018. Now nearing the end of occupation, a majority of Americans remain dissatisfied with the war effort, believing it was "not worth fighting."
Despite the optics of US withdrawal portrayed in recent newscasts and press statements, the United States needed to end its war with the Taliban. The American people understood that well. There is no debating the exorbitant costs of war — hundreds of thousands lives lost and trillions of dollars wasted. But the war machine in Washington does not fold so easily. The imperial project might end in one area, but bipartisan institutional support for the imperial project marches onward in others.
A military presence will persist in Afghanistan, just like it does in Syria, Yemen, Iraq, the Congo and Somalia. It might serve the interests of Washington to use CIA operations, or permit the Pentagon to conduct clandestine operations with the Taliban against ISIS-K. Remember that funding and support still goes to Saudi Arabia’s genocidal war in Yemen and Israel’s war efforts in Syria and Lebanon. These foreign entanglements, however small or secretive, serve as the true grounds for the forever wars.
Yes, Washington’s longest war has ended. But has it learned any of its lessons? Global hegemony is not Washington’s inherent privilege. The world would not burst into flames without American arms purporting to defend and preserve free society. In fact, the prevalence of American arms and intervention fuels the cycle of instability and terror. There is no grounds on which the US government can claim it has truly secured long term peace for the people it allegedly defends overseas.
What does this mean for the 300 million individuals living within the United States? Their dollars will continue to be seized and used to subsidize myriad unproductive usurpations around the globe.
For over two decades, Washington has conducted a wholesale war of treason against the fundamental ideas of constitutionalism and limited executive war making. Ending the formal conflict in Afghanistan was the first step towards reconciling with reality. Despite that success, the belief that Washington’s inherent global rule mustn’t wane still holds firm.
Antiwar opposition, supporting fullscale de-escalation, diplomacy, and trade, must stand strong.
Brett Kershaw is a young independent writer, historian, and creator of the NewPublicForum.com – a site created to help foster ideological dialogue, preserve heterodox views and provide an alternative to the corporate press.