This By-invitation commentary is part of a series by a range of global thinkers on the future of American power, examining the forces shaping the country’s standing. Read more here.
IN FEBRUARY 1989 the last Soviet tank rolled out of Afghanistan, its army having been decisively defeated in a punishing, nearly decade-long war by a loose coalition of mujahideen (who were trained, armed, funded and indoctrinated by the American and Pakistani Intelligence services). By November that year the Berlin wall had fallen and the Soviet Union began to collapse. When the cold war ended, the United States took its place at the head of a unipolar world order. In a heartbeat, radical Islam replaced communism as the most imminent threat to world peace. After the attacks of September 11th, the political world as we knew it spun on its axis. And the pivot of that axis appeared to be located somewhere in the rough mountains of Afghanistan.
For reasons of narrative symmetry if nothing else, as the US makes its ignominious exit from Afghanistan, conversations about the decline of the United States’ power, the rise of China and the implications this might have for the rest of the world have suddenly grown louder. For Europe and particularly for Britain, the economic and military might of the United States has provided a cultural continuity of sorts, effectively maintaining the status quo. To them, a new, ruthless, power waiting in the wings to take its place must be a source of deep worry.
In other parts of the world, where the status quo has brought unutterable suffering, the news from Afghanistan has been received with less dread.
The day the Taliban entered Kabul, I was up in the mountains in Tosa Maidan, a high, alpine meadow in Kashmir, which the Indian Army and Air Force used for decades to practise artillery and aerial bombing. From one edge of the meadow we could look down at the valley below us, dotted with martyrs’ graveyards where tens of thousands of Kashmiri Muslims who had been killed in Kashmir’s struggle for self-determination are buried.
In India, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), a Hindu nationalist group, came to power cunningly harnessing post-9/11 international Islamophobia, riding a bloody wave of orchestrated anti-Muslim massacres, in which thousands were murdered. It considers itself a staunch ally of the United States. The Indian security establishment is aware that the Taliban’s victory marks a structural shift in the noxious politics of the subcontinent, involving three nuclear powers: India, Pakistan and China, with Kashmir as a flashpoint. It views the victory of the Taliban, however pyrrhic, as a victory for its mortal enemy Pakistan, which has covertly supported the Taliban in its 20-year battle against the US occupation. Mainland India’s 175m-strong Muslim population, already brutalised, ghettoised, stigmatised as “Pakistanis”—and now, increasingly as “Talibanis”—are at even greater risk of discrimination and persecution.
Most of the mainstream media in India, embarrassingly subservient to the BJP, consistently referred to the Taliban as a terrorist group. Many Kashmiris who have lived for decades under the guns of half a million Indian soldiers, read the news differently. Wishfully. They were looking for pinholes of light in their world of darkness and indignity.
The details, the nuts and bolts of what was actually happening were still trickling in. A few who I spoke to saw it as the victory of Islam against the most powerful army in the world. Others as a sign that no power on Earth can crush a genuine freedom struggle. They fervently believed—wanted to believe—that the Taliban had completely changed and would not return to their barbaric ways. They too saw what had happened as a tectonic shift in regional politics, which they hoped would give Kashmiris some breathing space, some possibility of dignity.
The irony was that we were having these conversations sitting on a meadow pitted with bomb craters. It was Independence Day in India and Kashmir was locked down to prevent protests. On one border the armies of India and Pakistan were in a tense face-off. On another, in nearby Ladakh, the Chinese Army had crossed the border and was camped on Indian territory. Afghanistan felt very close by.
In its scores of military expeditions to establish and secure suzerainty since the second world war, the United States has smashed through (non-white) country after country. It has unleashed militias, killed millions, toppled nascent democracies and propped up tyrants and brutal military occupations. It has deployed a modern version of British colonial rhetoric—of being, in one way or another, on a selfless, civilising mission. That’s how it was with Vietnam. And so it is with Afghanistan.
Depending on where you want to put down history’s markers, the Soviets, the American- and Pakistan-backed mujahideen, the Taliban, the Northern Alliance, the unspeakably violent and treacherous warlords and the US and NATO armed forces have boiled the very bones of the Afghan people into a blood soup. All, without exception, have committed crimes against humanity. All have contributed to creating the soil and climate for terrorist groups like al-Qaeda, ISIS and their affiliates to operate.
If honourable ‘intentions’ such as empowering women and saving them from their own families and societies are meant to be mitigating factors in military invasions, then certainly both the Soviets and the Americans can rightly claim to have raised up, educated and empowered a small section of urban Afghan women before dropping them back into a bubbling cauldron of medieval misogyny. But neither democracy nor feminism can be bombed into countries. Afghan women have fought and will continue to fight for their freedom and their dignity in their own way, in their own time.
Does the US withdrawal mark the beginning of the end of its hegemony? Is Afghanistan going to live up to that old cliché about itself—the Graveyard of Empires? Perhaps not. Notwithstanding the horror show at the Kabul airport, the debacle of withdrawal may not be as big a blow to the United States as it is being made out to be.
Much of those trillions of dollars spent in Afghanistan circulated back to the US war industry, which includes weapons manufacturers, private mercenaries, logistics and infrastructure companies and non-profit organisations. Most of the lives that were lost in the US invasion and occupation of Afghanistan (estimated to be roughly 170,000 by researchers at Brown University) were those of Afghans who, in the eyes of the invaders, obviously count for very little. Leaving aside the crocodile tears, the 2,400 American soldiers who were killed don’t count for much either.
The resurgent Taliban humiliated the United States. The Doha agreement signed by both sides in 2020 for a peaceful transfer of power is testimony to that. But the withdrawal could also reflect a hard-nosed calculation by the US government about how to better deploy money and military might in a rapidly changing world. With economies ravaged by lockdowns and the coronavirus, and as technology, big data and AI make for a new kind of warfare, holding territory may be less necessary than before. Why not leave Russia, China, Pakistan and Iran to mire themselves in the quicksand of Afghanistan—imminently facing famine, economic collapse and in all probability another civil war—and keep American forces rested, mobile and ready for a possible military conflict with China over Taiwan?
The real tragedy for the United States is not the debacle in Afghanistan, but that it was played out on live television. When it withdrew from the war it could not win in Vietnam, the home front was being ripped apart by anti-war protests, much of it fuelled by enforced conscription into the armed forces. When Martin Luther King made the connection between capitalism, racism and imperialism and spoke out against the Vietnam war, he was vilified. Mohammad Ali, who refused to be conscripted and declared himself a conscientious objector, was stripped of his boxing titles and threatened with imprisonment. Although war in Afghanistan did not arouse similar passions on American streets, many in the Black Lives Matter movement made those connections too.
In a few decades, the United States will no longer be a country with a white majority. The enslavement of black Africans and the genocide and dispossession of native Americans haunt almost every public conversation today. It is more than likely that these stories will join up with other stories of suffering and devastation caused by US wars or by US allies. Nationalism and exceptionalism are unlikely to be able to prevent that from happening. The polarisation and schisms within the United States could in time lead to a serious breakdown of public order. We’ve already seen the early signs. A very different kind of trouble looms on another front too.
For centuries America had the option of retreating into the comfort of its own geography. Plenty of land and fresh water, no hostile neighbours, oceans on either side. And now plenty of oil from fracking. But American geography is on notice. Its natural bounty can no longer sustain the “American way of life”—or war. (Nor for that matter, can China’s geography sustain the “Chinese way of life”).
Oceans are rising, coasts and coastal cities are insecure, forests are burning, the flames licking at the edges of settled civilisation, devouring whole towns as they spread. Rivers are drying up. Drought haunts lush valleys. Hurricanes and floods devastate cities. As groundwater is depleted, California is sinking. The reservoir of the iconic Hoover Dam on the Colorado River, which supplies fresh water to 40m people, is drying at an alarming rate.
If empires and their outposts need to plunder the Earth to maintain their hegemony, it doesn’t matter if the plundering is driven by American, European, Chinese or Indian capital. These are not really the conversations that we should be having. Because while we’re busy talking, the Earth is busy dying.
Arundhati Roy is a novelist and essayist.