Next September, when the last C-130 cargo aircraft and Chinook transport helicopters take off from the infamous Bagram Air Force Base in Afghanistan that has doubled as a CIA torture center for suspected jihadists, they will not only be leaving behind the site of a military defeat. Their departure will also mark the dismal end of a strategy of direct military engagement to drastically reshape the Middle East that resulted instead in upending the global strategic balance.
America’s 20-year-long war in the Middle East contributed decisively not only to degrading U.S. imperial power but also to the domestic polarization savaging the American political process at present and to the emergence of China as the new center of global capital accumulation. Ending the Afghanistan commitment, liberals and progressives hope, will provide the conditions for a fundamental reset of US foreign policy
But even now, many are skeptical that the United States has really learned its lesson and that Joe Biden will not find another excuse to maintain a military contingent in Afghanistan.
In a United States that has gone through the trauma of COVID-19, followed by the January 6 insurrection and a pandemic of almost weekly mass shootings, Osama bin Laden, George W. Bush, 9/11, and the War on Terror might seem to be historical footnotes that pale before the country’s present troubles. But these now seemingly distant personalities and events had a decisive role in shaping the present.
Osama’s vision, Bush’s opportunity
As I wrote in the aftermath of 9/11, Osama bin Laden operated with something like Che Guevara’s “foco theory.” Guevara believed that direct engagement of the enemy was necessary to show peasants that guerrillas could defeat the military and encourage them to join the revolution. Bin Laden, operating on a global stage, saw the September 11 events as an act that would expose the vulnerability of the Great Satan and inspire Muslims to join his jihad against it.
It did not quite work out that way. Instead of being inspired, most Muslims were horrified and distanced themselves from the terrible deed. Still bin Laden lucked out, thanks to George W. Bush and the neoconservatives that had come to power with him in Washington in 2001. For them, Osama’s attack was a god-given opportunity to teach both America’s enemies and friends that the empire was omnipotent. Ostensibly waged to go after the “roots of terror,” the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq were in fact what the Romans called “exemplary wars,” and their aim was to reshape the global strategic environment to fit Washington’s so-called “unipolar” status following the demise of the Soviet Union.
Disappointed with his father’s reluctance to finish off Saddam Hussein during the 1990-91 Gulf War, George W. Bush initiated these invasions as the first steps in a demarche that would eliminate the so-called rogue states, compel greater loyalty from dependent states or supplant them with stronger allies, and put strategic competitors like China on notice that they should not even think of vying with the United States.
Disregarding the lessons of Vietnam and the British and Soviet debacles in Afghanistan, the Bush administration drove the United States into two unwinnable wars against highly motivated insurgents in the Middle East as bin Laden watched with satisfaction, living unperturbed under the protection of an American ally, the Pakistani military, in the peaceful garrison town of Abbottabad in Pakistan. It was not exactly the scenario he had envisaged, but he was not about to quibble if the Bush administration, owing to its drive for unipolar hegemony, placed the United States on the road to overextension, which was, after all, his strategic aim.
Prolonged occupation demanded boots on the ground, and as Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage saw it, “The Army, in particular, [is] stretched too thin…fighting three wars—Afghanistan still, Iraq, and the global war on terrorism.” At the height of the Iraq War, defense analyst James Fallows wrote, it was “only a slight exaggeration to say that today the entire U.S. military is either in Iraq, returning from Iraq, or getting ready to go.” Most of the Army’s maneuverable brigades were overseas, and those left in the United States were too few to maintain the contingency reserve or the training base necessary. Even the famed Special Forces were degraded, with their actual numbers in the field coming to hundreds at the most. Lack of human resources led the high command to call on the Reserves and the National Guard. As might be expected, morale plummeted, especially as tours of duty were extended and casualties mounted in lands to which these part-time soldiers had never expected to be assigned.
And as the prospect of prevailing in the battlefield became more and more distant, public support for the Iraq and Afghanistan expeditions, which was very limited right from the start, went up in smoke.
Obama extends Bush II’s wars
Barack Obama came to power in 2009 promising an end to the Middle East wars. In Iraq, the bulk of U.S. forces were withdrawn during his first term, but thousands of marines and Special Forces personnel were reintroduced to fight against the Islamic State whose growth had been provoked by the U.S. presence in the Middle East. Even as this was happening, what had been a key U.S. objective in Iraq—a stable non-sectarian pro-U.S. state–collapsed as the Iraqi Shiite government aligned itself with Iran, against whom the United States was colluding with the Israelis in a high-tech effort to sabotage Tehran’s nuclear program.
Obama also began an open-ended intervention in the Syrian Civil War, deploying Special Forces and airstrikes that eventually enmeshed the United States in a multi-cornered confrontation with the Islamic State and other jihadists, Syrian forces, and Russian troops. The Democratic president, ironically a recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, in fact expanded the U.S. military reach to North Africa during the Arab Spring in 2011, unilaterally enforcing with its NATO allies a “no fly zone” featuring attacks on Libyan defenses that resulted in hundreds of civilian deaths and massive air support of the ground campaigns of anti-Qaddafi rebels. The intervention left Libya with no centralized government, and the country lapsed into an anarchy that persists until the present.
In Afghanistan, Obama added 33,000 troops to the 68,000 already in the country when he came to office, thinking this “surge” would cripple the Taliban. This surge failed, but he maintained 8,400 troops in the country. In fact, Obama expanded the war to Pakistan, using drones to target Taliban leaders and jihadists operating from bases near the border with Afghanistan; this computer-managed war took the lives of hundreds of innocent civilians that the military termed “collateral damage.” He also sent Special Forces on raids deep into Pakistan, the most prominent example being the one to Abbotabad that killed Osama bin Laden in 2011.
In contrast to Bush II, who preferred “boots on the ground,” Obama, as the New York Times’ David Sanger, put it, embraced “hard, covert power, “alluding to the necessity of a “‘light footprint’ that enables [the United States] to fight its wars stealthily, execute its operations with the speed of the bin Laden raid, and then avoid lengthy entanglements.” Like Bush II, who had never experienced war firsthand, Obama brought to his brand of war-making an “aggressiveness” that people around him found “surprising.”
Obama, though, did appreciate the fact that being bogged down in the Middle East was sapping U.S. power by provoking disaffection at home and alienation from America abroad. Fighting so-called “asymmetric warfare” with irregulars like the Taliban and the jihadists could go on forever, and Obama wanted to shift the global U.S. military strategy to one that was more congenial to its perceived strength in conventional warfare instead of counterinsurgency. The grand new design was the “Pivot to Asia” that involved the deployment of the bulk of the U.S. naval strength to the Indo-Pacific area to contain China. Reorientation was easier said than done, however, as extrication from the Middle East morass was made impossible by the strength of interests that made up the War on Terror/Counterinsurgency lobby.
Obama’s wars become Trump’s
Donald Trump rode to power partly on the strength of anti-war sentiment, continually reminding people during his campaign for the presidency in 2015 and 2016 that his rival Hillary Clinton had voted for the invasion of Iraq in 2003 when she was a senator. In office, however, he ended up destabilizing the Middle East even more. There was, first of all, his unqualified support for Israel, which led him to a major move that infuriated Arabs: the transfer of the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Then he reversed the one tension-lessening achievement of Obama when he took the United States out of the Iran nuclear deal that had put effective checks on Tehran’s development of weapons-grade uranium in return for a relaxation of economic sanctions. Finally, he gave a blank check for weapons purchases to Saudi Arabia, enabling the benighted kingdom to wage its cruel intervention in the civil war in Yemen.
Trump occasionally remembered, however, that eliminating boots on the ground was one of his major campaign promises, so that the country could focus on “America First.” But, as in the case of Bush II and Obama, both of whom had an inferiority complex when dealing with generals owing to their lack of combat experience, draft dodger Trump also deferred to the military. After he decided to end the Obama-era intervention in Syria by withdrawing 1,000 U.S. troops in early October 2019, he caved in to the military’s pushback. Over a month later, the head of the U.S. Central Command stated there was no “end date” on Washington’s intervention in Syria and the presence of 2,500 American troops in neighboring Iraq.
Like Obama, Trump was passive-aggressive, eager to show the generals that he could be as macho as they are. The most notorious display of this behavior was when he flagrantly disregarded international law and ordered the assassination of Qassem Soleimani, a top Iranian general, at Baghdad International Airport in January 2020, against the advice of the top brass and the intelligence elite.
Faced with passive resistance on the part of the generals, Trump ended up keeping thousands of troops in Afghanistan during his term in office, but, mindful of the consequences of not keeping his promise by the 2020 elections, he directed the military in February 2020 to withdraw all troops by November 2020. Again, the military procrastinated, with the support of the War on Terror lobby, the deadline passed, and Joe Biden inherited some 3,500 troops and Special Forces personnel still in the country when he took office in January 2021.
Will Trump’s wars becomes Biden’s wars?
Biden’s early rhetoric was reminiscent of both Obama’s and Trump’s initial seeming decisiveness about ending American’s Middle East engagements. Obama’s “Pivot to Asia” has been resurrected, identifying China more explicitly as a U.S. strategic rival. As the Defense Department puts it, China is the “DOD’s No. 1 pacing challenge, and it will develop operational concepts, capabilities and plans to bolster deterrence and maintain its competitive advantage. The approach toward China will be coordinated and synchronized across the enterprise to advance DOD’s priorities—integrated into domestic and foreign policy—in a whole-of-government strategy, strengthened by DOD’s alliances and partnerships and supported on a bipartisan basis in Congress.“
But that a continuing commitment to the Middle East is built into the Pentagon’s perspective is seen in the fact that after listing containment of China as its prime concern, it then lists as a priority the “disruption of transnational and non-state actor threats from violent extremist organizations—such as those operating in the Middle East, Africa and South and Central Asia.”
Indeed, that difficulty of ending these debilitating commitments was shown by the fact that Biden’s first act of war took place—guess where?—in Syria, where U.S. planes attacked Syrian militias slightly over a month after the new administration took office, on February 25.
Who lost Afghanistan?
If a sideshow like Syria is so difficult to wind up, it will be that much more difficult to end a major commitment like Afghanistan. As Biden’s self-imposed September deadline approaches, the War on Terror military/civilian lobby is going into overdrive to keep a U.S. presence there. The congressionally chartered Afghan Study Group, co-chaired by retired Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has warned that “a precipitous withdrawal could lead to a reconstitution of the terrorist threat to the U.S. homeland within eighteen months to three years.” Biden’s people must be anticipating with dread the blood curdling cry of “Who Lost Afghanistan?” that the opportunistic far right would raise in advance of the 2022 mid-term elections.
One characteristic of overextension is that it is infernally difficult to shed old priorities so that everything becomes a priority. Few have been the empires that have been able to unclench their fists and let go of self-destructive commitments. This is the reason why, despite Biden’s rhetoric of withdrawal, one cannot fault skeptics who predict that Biden, never known as a steely fellow but well known as a compromiser, will ultimately not have the stomach to defy the entrenched interests that are hell-bent on keeping a heavy American footprint in Afghanistan and the Middle East.
FPIF commentator Walden Bello is a former member of the Congress of the Philippines. A consistent advocate of an independent foreign policy, he opposed the US-Philippine Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) at the same time that he sponsored the resolution renaming the South China Sea the West Philippine Sea. He is also the author of two recent studies, China: An Imperial Power in the Image of the West, and Trump and the Asia-Pacific: The Persistence of Unilateralism, which can be accessed at https://focusweb.org.
Southern, Iraq (Apr. 2, 2003) -- U.S. Army Sgt. Mark Phiffer stands guard duty near a burning oil well in the Rumaylah Oil Fields in Southern Iraq. (U.S. Navy photo by Photographer's Mate 1st Class Arlo K. Abrahamson). |President Joe Biden prepares remarks regarding the Colonial Pipeline cyberattack and resumption of operations, Thursday, May 13, 2021, in the Oval Office of the White House. (Official White House Photo by Adam Schultz)
Ukraine would consider inviting Russian officials to a peace summit to discuss Kyiv’s proposal for a negotiated end to the war, according to Andriy Yermak, the Ukrainian president’s chief of staff.
“There can be a situation in which we together invite representatives of the Russian Federation, where they will be presented with the plan in case whoever is representing the aggressor country at that time will want to genuinely end this war and return to a just peace,” Yermak said over the weekend, noting that one more round of talks without Russia will first be held in Switzerland.
The comment represents a subtle shift in Ukrainian messaging about talks. Kyiv has long argued that it would never negotiate with Russian President Vladimir Putin, yet there is no reason to believe Putin will leave power any time soon. That realization — along with Ukraine’s increasingly perilous position on the battlefield — may have helped force Kyiv to reconsider its hard line on talking with the widely reviled Russian leader.
Zelensky hinted at a potential mediator for talks following a visit this week to Saudi Arabia. The leader “noted in particular Saudi Arabia’s strivings to help in restoring a just peace in Ukraine,” according to a statement from Ukrainian officials. “Saudi Arabia’s leadership can help find a just solution.”
Russia, for its part, has signaled that it is open to peace talks of some sort, though both Kyiv and Moscow insist that any negotiations would have to be conducted on their terms. The gaps between the negotiating positions of the two countries remain substantial, with each laying claim to roughly 18% of the territory that made up pre-2014 Ukraine.
Ukraine’s shift is a sign of just how dire the situation is becoming for its armed forces, which recently made a hasty retreat from Avdiivka, a small but strategically important town near Donetsk. After months of wrangling, the U.S. Congress has still not approved new military aid for Ukraine, and Kyiv now says its troops are having to ration ammunition as their stockpiles dwindle.
Zelensky said Sunday that he expects Russia to mount a new offensive as soon as late May. It’s unclear whether Ukrainian troops are prepared to stop such a move.
Even the Black Sea corridor — a narrow strip of the waterway through which Ukraine exports much of its grain — could be under threat. “I think the route will be closed...because to defend it, it's also about some ammunition, some air defense, and some other systems” that are now in short supply, said Zelensky.
As storm clouds gather, it’s time to push for peace talks before Russia regains the upper hand, argue Anatol Lieven and George Beebe of the Quincy Institute, which publishes Responsible Statecraft.
“Complete victory for Ukraine is now an obvious impossibility,” Lieven and Beebe wrote this week. “Any end to the fighting will therefore end in some form of compromise, and the longer we wait, the worse the terms of that compromise will be for Ukraine, and the greater the dangers will be for our countries and the world.”
In other diplomatic news related to the war in Ukraine:
— Hungary finally signed off on Sweden’s bid to join NATO after the Swedish prime minister met with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban in Budapest, according to Deutsche Welle. What did Orban get for all the foot dragging? Apparently just four Swedish fighter jets of the same model that it has been purchasing for years. The prime minister blamed his party for the slow-rolling, saying in a radio interview prior to the parliamentary vote that he had persuaded his partisans to drop their opposition to Sweden’s accession.
— French President Emmanuel Macron sent allies scrambling Tuesday when he floated the idea of sending NATO troops to Ukraine, according to the BBC. Leaders from Germany, the United Kingdom, Italy, Poland, and other NATO states quickly swatted down the idea that the alliance (or any individual members thereof) would consider joining the war directly. Russia said direct conflict with NATO would be an “inevitability” if the bloc sent troops into Ukraine.
— On Wednesday, Zelensky attended a summit in Albania aimed at bolstering Balkan support for Ukraine’s fight against Russia, according to AP News. The Ukrainian leader said all states in the region are “worthy” of becoming members of NATO and the European Union, which “have provided Europe with the longest and most reliable era of security and economic development.”
— Western officials were in talks with the Kremlin for a prisoner swap involving Russian dissident Alexei Navalny prior to his death in a Russian prison camp in February, though no formal offer had yet been made, according to Politico. This account contrasts with the one given by Navalny’s allies, who claimed that Putin had killed the opposition leader in order to sabotage discussions that were nearing a deal. Navalny’s sudden death has led to speculation about whether Russian officials may have assassinated him, though no proof has yet surfaced to back up this claim. There is, however, little doubt that the broader deterioration of the dissident’s health was related to the harsh conditions he was held under.
U.S. State Department news:
In a Tuesday press conference, State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said the situation on the frontlines in Ukraine is “extremely serious.” “We have seen Ukrainian frontline troops who don’t have the ammo they need to repel Russian aggression. They’re still fighting bravely. They’re still fighting courageously,” Miller said. “They still have armor and weapons and ammunition they can use, but they’re having to ration it now because the United States Congress has failed to act.”
keep readingShow less
Janet Yellen, United States Secretary of the Treasury. (Reuters)
On Tuesday, U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen strongly endorsed efforts to tap frozen Russian central bank assets in order to continue to fund Ukraine.
“There is a strong international law, economic and moral case for moving forward,” with giving the assets, which were frozen by international sanctions following Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine, to Kyiv, she said to reporters before a G7 meeting in San Paulo.
Furthermore on Wednesday, White House national security communications adviser John Kirby urged the use of these assets to assist the Ukrainian military.
This adds momentum to increasing efforts on Capitol Hill to monetize the frozen assets to assist the beleaguered country, including through the “REPO Act,” a U.S. Senate bill which was criticized by Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky.) in a recent article here in Responsible Statecraft. As Paul pointed out, spending these assets would violate international law and norms by the outright seizure of sovereign Russian assets.
In the long term, this will do even more to undermine global faith in the U.S.-led and Western-centric international financial system. Doubts about the system and pressures to find an alternative are already heightened due to the freezing of Russian overseas financial holdings in the first place, as well as the frequent use of unilateral sanctions by the U.S. to impose its will and values on other countries.
The amount of money involved here is considerable. Over $300 billion in Russian assets was frozen, mostly held in European banks. For comparison, that’s about the same amount as the entirety of Western aid committed from all sources to Ukraine since the beginning of the war in 2022 — around $310 billion, including the recent $54 billion in 4-year assistance just approved by the EU.
Thus, converting all of the Russian assets to assistance for Ukraine could in theory fully finance a continuing war in Ukraine for years to come. As political support for open-ended Ukraine aid wanes in both the U.S. and Europe, large-scale use of this financing method also holds the promise of an administrative end-run around the political system.
But there are also considerable potential downsides, particularly in Europe. European financial institutions hold the overwhelming majority of frozen Russian assets, and any form of confiscation could be a major blow to confidence in these entities. In addition, European corporations have significant assets stranded in Russia which Moscow could seize in retaliation for the confiscation of its foreign assets.
Another major issue is that using assets to finance an ongoing conflict will forfeit their use as leverage in any peace settlement, and the rebuilding of Ukraine. The World Bank now estimates post-war rebuilding costs for Ukraine of nearly $500 billion. If the West can offer a compromise to Russia in which frozen assets are used to pay part of these costs, rather than demanding new Russian financing for massive reparations, this could be an important incentive for negotiations.
In contrast, monetizing the assets outside of a peace process could signal that the West intends to continue the conflict indefinitely.
In combination with aggressive new U.S. sanctions announced last week on Russia and on third party countries that continue to deal with Russia, the new push for confiscation of Russian assets is more evidence that the U.S. and EU intend to intensify the conflict with Moscow using administrative mechanisms that won’t rely on support from the political system or the people within them.
keep readingShow less
Activist Layla Elabed speaks during an uncommitted vote election night gathering as Democrats and Republicans hold their Michigan presidential primary election, in Dearborn, Michigan, U.S. February 27, 2024. REUTERS/Rebecca Cook
A protest vote in Michigan against President Joe Biden’s handling of the war in Gaza dramatically exceeded expectations Tuesday, highlighting the possibility that his stance on the conflict could cost him the presidency in November.
More than 100,000 Michiganders voted “uncommitted” in yesterday’s presidential primary, earning 13.3% of the tally with most votes counted and blasting past organizers’ goal of 10,000 protest votes. Biden won the primary handily with 81% of the total tally.
The results suggest that Biden could lose Michigan in this year’s election if he continues to back Israel’s campaign to the hilt. In 2020, he won the state by 150,000 votes while polls predicted he would win by a much larger margin. This year, early polls show a slight lead for Trump in the battleground state, which he won in 2016 by fewer than 11,000 votes.
“The war on Gaza is a deep moral issue and the lack of attention and empathy for this perspective from the administration is breaking apart the fragile coalition we built to elect Joe Biden in 2020,” said Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), a progressive leader who has called for a ceasefire in Gaza, as votes came in last night.
Biden still has “a little bit of time to change this dynamic,” Jayapal told CNN, but “it has to be a dramatic policy and rhetorical shift from the president on this issue and a new strategy to rebuild a real partnership with progressives in multiple communities who are absolutely key to winning the election.”
Rep. Ro Khanna, a prominent Biden ally, told Semafor the vote is a “wake-up call” for the White House on Gaza.
The “uncommitted” option won outright in Dearborn, a Detroit suburb with a famously large Arab American population. The protest vote also gained notable traction in college towns, signaling Biden’s weakness among young voters across the country. “Uncommitted” received at least 8% of votes in every county in Michigan with more than 95% of votes tallied.
The uncommitted campaign drew backing from prominent Democrats in Michigan, including Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) and state Rep. Abraham Aiyash, who is the majority leader in the Michigan House. Former Reps. Andy Levin and Beto O’Rourke, who served as a representative from Texas, also lent their support to the effort.
“Our movement emerged victorious tonight and massively surpassed our expectations,” said Listen to Michigan, the organization behind the campaign, in a statement last night. “Tens of thousands of Michigan Democrats, many of whom [...] voted for Biden in 2020, are uncommitted to his re-election due to the war in Gaza.”
Biden did not make reference to the uncommitted movement in his victory speech, but reports indicate that his campaign is spooked by the effort. Prior to Tuesday’s vote, White House officials met with Arab and Muslim leaders in Michigan to try to assuage their concerns about the war, which has left about 30,000 Palestinians dead and many more injured. (More than 1,100 Israelis died during Hamas’s Oct. 7 attacks last year.)
The president argues that his support for Israel has made it possible for him to guide the direction of the war to the extent possible, though his critics note that, despite some symbolic and rhetorical moves, he has stopped far short of holding back U.S. weapons or supporting multilateral efforts to demand a ceasefire.
Campaigners now hope the “uncommitted” effort will spread to other states. Minnesota, which will hold its primaries next week, is an early target.
“If you think this will stop with Michigan you are either the president or paid to flatter him,” said Alex Sammon, a politics writer at Slate.
Meanwhile in the Republican primary, former President Donald Trump fended off a challenge from former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley. With 94% of votes in, Trump came away with 68% of the vote, while Haley scored around 27%.