Forever Wars Tom Engelhardt

What Really Matters in the US of A

The Decline and Fall of the Roman …whoops! … American Empire
Taliban kabul
A convoy of Taliban fighters patrol along the streets in Kabul, Afghanistan, on August 31, 2021, after US withdrawal and Taliban’s takeover. Photo by Selcuk Samiloglu/DVM/Abaca/Sipa USA(Sipa via AP Images)

By Tom Engelhardt / TomDispatch

They weren’t kidding when they called Afghanistan the “graveyard of empires.” Indeed, that cemetery has just taken another imperial body. And it wasn’t pretty, was it? Not that anyone should be surprised. Even after 20 years of preparation, a burial never is.

In fact, the shock and awe(fulness) in Kabul and Washington over these last weeks shouldn’t have been surprising, given our history. After all, we were the ones who prepared the ground and dug the grave for the previous interment in that very cemetery.

That, of course, took place between 1979 and 1989 when Washington had no hesitation about using the most extreme Islamists — arming, funding, training, and advising them — to ensure that one more imperial carcass, that of the Soviet Union, would be buried there. When, on February 15, 1989, the Red Army finally left Afghanistan, crossing the Friendship Bridge into Uzbekistan, Soviet commander General Boris Gromov, the last man out, said, “That’s it. Not one Soviet soldier or officer is behind my back.” It was his way of saying so long, farewell, good riddance to the endless war that the leader of the Soviet Union had by then taken to calling “the bleeding wound.” Yet, in its own strange fashion, that “graveyard” would come home with them. After all, they returned to a bankrupt land, sucked dry by that failed war against those American- and Saudi-backed Islamist extremists.

Two years later, the Soviet Union would implode, leaving just one truly great power on Planet Earth — along with, of course, those very extremists Washington had built into a USSR-destroying force. Only a decade later, in response to an “air force” manned by 19 mostly Saudi hijackers dispatched by Osama bin Laden, a rich Saudi prince who had been part of our anti-Soviet effort in Afghanistan, the world’s “sole superpower” would head directly for that graveyard (as bin Laden desired).

Despite the American experience in Vietnam during the previous century — the Afghan effort of the 1980s was meant to give the USSR its own “Vietnam” — key Bush administration officials were so sure of themselves that, as the New York Times recently reported, they wouldn’t even consider letting the leaders of the Taliban negotiate a surrender once our invasion began. On September 11, 2001, in the ruins of the Pentagon, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld had already given an aide these instructions, referring not just to Bin Laden but Iraqi ruler Saddam Hussein: “Go massive. Sweep it up, all up. Things related and not.” Now, he insisted, “The United States is not inclined to negotiate surrenders.” (Of course, had you read war reporter Anand Gopal’s 2014 book, No Good Men Among the Living, you would have long known just how fruitlessly Taliban leaders tried to surrender to a power intent on war and nothing but war.)

Allow a surrender and have everything grind to a disappointing halt? Not a chance, not when the Afghan War was the beginning of what was to be an American triumph of global proportions. After all, the future invasion of Iraq and the domination of the oil-rich Greater Middle East by the one and only power on the planet were already on the agenda. How could the leaders of such a confident land with a military funded at levels the next most powerful countries combined couldn’t match have imagined its own 2021 version of surrender?

And yet, once again, 20 years later, Afghanistan has quite visibly and horrifyingly become a graveyard of empire (as well, of course, as a graveyard for Afghans). Perhaps it’s only fitting that the secretary of defense who refused the surrender of the enemy in 2001 was recently buried in Arlington National Cemetery with full honors. In fact, the present secretary of defense and the head of the joint chiefs of staff both reportedly “knelt before Mr. Rumsfeld’s widow, Joyce, who was in a wheelchair, and presented her with the flag from her husband’s coffin.”

Meanwhile, Joe Biden was the third president since George W. Bush and crew launched this country’s forever wars to find himself floundering haplessly in that same graveyard of empires. If the Soviet example didn’t come to mind, it should have as Democrats and Republicans, President Biden and former President Trump flailed at each other over their supposedly deep feelings for the poor Afghans being left behind, while this country withdrew its troops from Kabul airport in a land where “rest in peace” has long had no meaning.

America’s True Infrastructure Spending

Here’s the thing, though: don’t assume that Afghanistan is the only imperial graveyard around or that the U.S. can simply withdraw, however ineptly, chaotically, and bloodily, leaving that country to history — and the Taliban. Put another way, even though events in Kabul and its surroundings took over the mainstream news recently, the Soviet example should remind us that, when it comes to empires, imperial graveyards are hardly restricted to Afghanistan.

In fact, it might be worth taking a step back to look at the big picture. For decades, the U.S. has been involved in a global project that’s come to be called “nation building,” even if, from Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia to Afghanistan and Iraq, it often seemed an endless exercise in nation (un)building. An imperial power of the first order, the United States long ago largely rejected the idea of straightforward colonies. In the years of the Cold War and then of the war on terror, its leaders were instead remarkably focused on setting up an unparalleled empire of military bases and garrisons on a global scale. This and the wars that went with it have been the unsettling American imperial project since World War II.

And that unsettling should be taken quite literally. Even before recent events in Afghanistan, Brown University’s invaluable Costs of War Project estimated that this country’s conflicts of the last two decades across the Greater Middle East and Africa had displaced at least 38 million people, which should be considered nation (un)building of the first order.

Since the Cold War began, Washington has engaged in an endless series of interventions around the planet from Iran to the CongoChile to Guatemala, as well as in conflicts, large and small. Now, with Joe Biden having withdrawn from America’s disastrous Afghan War, you might wonder whether it’s all finally coming to an end, even if the U.S. still insists on maintaining 750 sizeable military bases globally.

Count on this, though: the politicians of the great power that hasn’t won a significant war since 1945 will agree on one thing — that the Pentagon and the military-industrial complex deserve yet more funding (no matter what else doesn’t). In truth, those institutions have been the major recipients of actual infrastructure spending over much of what might still be thought of as the American century. They’ve been the true winners in this society, along with the billionaires who, even in the midst of a grotesque pandemic, raked in profits in a historic fashion. In the process, those tycoons created possibly the largest inequality gap on the planet, one that could destabilize a democracy even if nothing else were going on. The losers? Don’t even get me started.

Or think of it this way: yes, in August 2021, it was Kabul, not Washington, D.C., that fell to the enemy, but the nation (un)building project in which this country has been involved over these last decades hasn’t remained thousands of miles away. Only half-noticed here, it’s been coming home, big time. Donald Trump’s rise to the presidency, amid election promises to end America’s “endless wars,” should really be seen as part of that war-induced (un)building project at home. In his own strange fashion, The Donald was Kabul before its time and his rise to power unimaginable without those distant conflicts and the spending that went with them, all of which, however unnoticed, unsettled significant parts of this society.

Climate War in a Graveyard of Empires?

You can tell a lot about a country if you know where its politicians unanimously agree to invest taxpayer dollars.

At this very moment, the U.S. is in a series of crises, none worse than the heat, fire, and flood “season” that’s hit not just the megadrought-ridden West, or inundated Tennessee, or hurricane-whacked Louisiana, or the tropical-storm-tossed Northeast, but the whole country. Unbearable warmth, humidity, firessmoke, storms, and power outages, that’s us. Fortunately, as always, Congress stands in remarkable unanimity when it comes to investing money where it truly matters.

And no, you knew perfectly well that I wasn’t referring to the creation of a green-energy economy. In fact, Republicans wouldn’t hear of it and the Biden administration, while officially backing the idea, has already issued more than 2,000 permits to fossil-fuel companies for new drilling and fracking on federal lands. In August, the president even called on OPEC — the Saudis, in particular — to produce significantly more oil to halt a further rise in gas prices at the pump.

As America’s eternally losing generals come home from Kabul, what I actually had in mind was the one thing just about everyone in Washington seems to agree on: funding the military-industrial complex beyond their wildest dreams. Congress has recently spent months trying to pass a bill that would, over a number of years, invest an extra $550 billion in this country’s badly tattered infrastructure, but never needs time like that to pass Pentagon and other national security budgets that, for years now, have added up to well over a trillion dollars annually.

In another world, with the Afghan War ending and U.S. forces (at least theoretically) coming home, it might seem logical to radically cut back on the money invested in the military-industrial complex and its ever more expensive weaponry. In another American world on an increasingly endangered planet, significantly scaling back American forces in every way and investing our tax dollars in a very different kind of “defense” would seem logical indeed. And yet, as of this moment, as Greg Jaffe writes at the Washington Post, the Pentagon continues to suck up “a larger share of discretionary spending than any other government agency.”

Fortunately for those who want to keep funding the U.S. military in the usual fashion, there’s a new enemy out there with which to replace the Taliban, one that the Biden foreign-policy team and a “pivoting” military is already remarkably eager to confront: China.

At least when the latest infrastructure money is spent, if that compromise bill ever really makes it through a Congress that can’t tie its own shoelaces, something will be accomplished. Bridges and roads will be repaired, new electric-vehicle-charging stations set up, and so on. When, however, the Pentagon spends the money just about everyone in Washington agrees it should have, we’re guaranteed yet more weaponry this country doesn’t need, poorly produced for thoroughly exorbitant sums, if not more failed wars as well.

I mean, just think about what the American taxpayer “invested” in the losing wars of this century. According to Brown University’s Costs of War Project, $2.313 trillion went into that disastrous Afghan War alone and at least $6.4 trillion by 2020 into the full-scale war on terror. And that doesn’t even include the estimated future costs of caring for American veterans of those conflicts. In the end, the total may prove to be in the $8 trillion range. Hey, at least $88 billion just went into supplying and training the Afghan military, most of which didn’t even exist by August 2021 and the rest of which melted away when the Taliban advanced.

Just imagine for a minute where we might really be today if Congress had spent close to $8 trillion rebuilding this society, rather than (un)building and wrecking distant ones.

Rest assured, this is not the country that ended World War II in triumph or even the one that outlasted the Soviet Union and whose politicians then declared it the most exceptional, indispensable nation ever. This is a land that’s crumbling before our eyes, being (un)built month by month, year by year. Its political system is on the verge of dissolving into who knows what amid a raft of voter suppression laws, wild claims about the most recent presidential election, an assault on the Capitol itself, and conspiracy theories galore. Its political parties seem ever more hostile, disturbed, and disparate. Its economy is a gem of inequality, its infrastructure crumbling, its society seemingly coming apart at the seams.

And on a planet that could be turning into a genuine graveyard of empires (and of so much else), keep in mind that, if you’re losing your war with climate change, you can’t withdraw from it. You can’t declare defeat and go home. You’re already home in the increasingly dysfunctional, increasingly (un)built U.S. of A.

Tom Engelhardt
Tom Engelhardt

Tom Engelhardt created and runs the website TomDispatch.com. He is also a co-founder of the American Empire Project and the author of a highly praised history of American triumphalism in the Cold War, The End of Victory Culture.  A fellow of the Type Media Center, his sixth and latest book is A Nation Unmade by War.

Copyright 2021 Tom Engelhardt

10 comments

  1. Next stop…..Hell. The ninth circle I believe….

    How could it possibly be otherwise?

    You reap what you sow.

  2. As Noam Chomsky pointed out, the US didn’t “lose” its wars in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, Libya, Syria, or Afghanistan that resulted in the deaths of millions of innocents, created “failed states”, and forced the mass migration of tens of millions into Europe and the US. A substantial percentage of the corporations that comprise the US stock market are directly or indirectly involved in the US “war machine”. US weapons manufacturers such as Lockheed Martin, General Dynamics, Raytheon, and Silicon Valley giants like Microsoft, Google, and Amazon that are paid to provide “surveillance” on behalf of the military made huge profits from these wars that created the “booming stock market” we currently enjoy. It’s why our wars never end: War is America’s “business”. We could have achieved “world domination” and a “booming stock market” by building bridges abroad instead of bombing them, but that’s not on the psychopathic agenda of the military-industrial-congressional-complex.

  3. Although I agree with the tenor of this article, look at that sh*thead in the picture: he’s having his first erection in years!

  4. My respectful advice to you, speaking as a European, is to get the Hell out of the US. It is a fascist ‘country’, the worst thing to ever happen to the entire world, a thousand billion times worse than Nazi Germany, and things will never ever ever ever change for the better. La commedia è finita. You are in Hell. Get out. Get out!

  5. It’s a strange irony that the only winners in this war were the 1% & Osama, who watched us spend $300 million every day on the war & is likely merrily dancing in hell over our defeat.

  6. I would rephrase one sentence- “Two years later, the Soviet Union would implode, leaving just one truly weak, insecure, immature hegemonic power on Planet Earth.” This would help dispel our culture’s propaganda and continued deference to the degenerate monarchies from which we came. I don’t know anyone who respects a bully. Do you respect someone who bullies you? Of course not. Real power comes only from lasting respect. Compassion and mutual fulfillment achieve this, not selfish individual or national competition. Equality is in OUR blood. We all were born with the highest dignity and we share this honor with everyone. We are all better than any king or queen who ever lived. The compassionate motivations in our nature have created everything loving and positive in this world. In truth, kings and queens were all personally undeveloped, insecure and immature desperately clinging to fake honor, wealth and power. It’s time for our culture to take off their silly masks and share an honest history. Dispelling the imperial propaganda that continues to cause so much rot in our culture is crucial. Imperial notions of “wealth”, “honor”, and “power” are all actually very weak, creating only trauma and sorrow. A retired US teacher recently commented on a fb thread that criticism from the British empire’s parliament of Biden’s withdrawel was proof of a bad decision!! That “honorable” British empire… wishing we could be as worthy as it???? Lol! Not that Biden isn’t a complete fake for the shareholder empire- British, French,US… melding empires…

  7. Is good to have a recitation of the facts of the matter.
    Scattered shots: Not only were the Taliban vastly outgunned, but their discipline was just about on a comparable level. So all the training of the Afghans (and our own) doesn’t seem to have been worth too much.
    The pop sites, on this subject, are tragically the equivalent of voting – 90% of comments are party-line, usually just a talking point sentence or two. No depth, and (generously) little thought. But how many of the blamers dove into the junk-pushed frenzy of vengeance? They themselves played their part in getting the war going, and keeping it going. USA!

  8. The war was Stolen. We won every battle but the final count was rigged! Cyper Wasabi ramen has been contracted to audit the results which were switched by Dumbminion Machines and Smartalex Machines. Shysters, – No Chin Syd, Ludicrous Woody, and hair job Julie have dozens of lawsuits that will reveal the truth. Every thing will be restored by September 11th when we march on Capitol Kabul hill to protest the political arrests of patriots lead by Cancun Cruise and Bygosh Hawlee. We won by a landslide. Send donations to fight this rigged lost and purchase the official trumped-up membership card.

  9. Here we go again with boilerplate career criticism from the professional manufacturers of dissent on the failures of empire (for us) after it’s had another run enriching and empowering ruling class interests for which the war was waged in the first place. Meanwhile, we’re in the midst of a global imperial coup under cover of covid-19(84), and these useful idiots march lockstep with the plandemic to turn the planet into one big graveyard for humanity.

  10. Thruout history, every Empire fell when its leadership could not manage : climate change plus, plagues / viruses, plus, Imperial over reach.

    These 3 strikes are too much of challenges for any king, or emporer, or dictator, or president. No one in history has overcome theses troubles.

    Usually, these Empires also disregard or lack sufficient
    scientists, engineers, researchers and medical experts.

    The Roman Empire had the very best engineers that made them super but their culture of ‘ decimation’ led to a severe shortage of scientists and engineers, and their Empire was exhausted.

    Then they turned to a new religion, Christianity, to solve problems but the dark middle ages took hold for over a 1000 years before Europe recovered their scientific methods.

    Many people now are turning to a new religion, QAnon ( Nazi ideology).
    Gun violence and mass shootings are much the same as ‘decimation’.
    Hopefully, these troubles are minor and solvable to save our Empire but don’t hold your breath.

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