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Afghanistan: The amorphous American empire is alive and well

The permanent crisis of the neoliberal economy demands a far more versatile empire than one that gets bogged down in any single country
US President Joe Biden speaks at the White House in Washington on 12 August 2021 (AFP)

After months of negotiations between the US and the Taliban in Doha, the two sides signed an agreement in February 2020 stipulating that the US and its Nato allies would pack up and leave Afghanistan, and the Taliban would cease hostilities against coalition forces.

Last month, the US did precisely as it had promised, and the Taliban engaged in a blitzkrieg, ultimately capturing the entirety of Afghanistan. There was nothing surprising about any of this: the US and its allies occupied Afghanistan for two decades, then packed up and left, with all their fake promises abandoned in the dust of flying helicopters and the frightful echoes of fighter jets.

The US never had any intention or capacity for 'nation-building'; Afghanistan is a nation and does not need building by a country that can't get its own house in order

A pandemonium of bizarre speculation from the left, right and centre followed: that the US had been soundly defeated in Afghanistan, that the American empire had fallen, that once again “history” had reached an endpoint. And yet, nothing of the sort had happened. US promises of “nation-building”, liberation of women and the “gift of democracy” were all fake from the beginning. To declare that the US failed in Afghanistan is to have believed the fake premise that the US was there to do any good for the Afghan people. This was and remains delusional.

To avoid such flawed assumptions, we must come to terms with the military logic of the amorphous American empire - why it wages wars; why it ends wars; why it has to change strategies and tactics, logic and rhetoric, means and ends. The US military is the American empire’s very raison d’etre.

It is foolhardy to think of the American adventure in Afghanistan as a failure, and the return of the Taliban as a sign of US isolationism to come. The Afghan war had politically, militarily, and above all, epistemically exhausted itself. The US never had any intention or capacity for “nation-building”; Afghanistan is a nation and does not need building by a country that can’t get its own house in order, and is riven by internal divisions.    

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Empire of military bases

After the Vietnam debacle in the 1960s, US military strategists prepared to recast their country as an amorphous empire. In the current context, the Afghan conquest had exhausted itself; there was nothing rushed or surprising about the US withdrawal, beyond some optics mishaps at the Kabul airport. The embarrassed and implicated liberals of the New York Times and BBC have made too much of it, in order to conceal their own dreadful role in making such wars possible.

US President Joe Biden is neither smart nor dumb; he just followed the military logic of American imperial meandering, now an empire of military bases. If former President Donald Trump and Biden disagree on everything on planet Earth, other than a withdrawal from Afghanistan, then there is a superior logic to their agreement - a military logic, or a national security logic, as they euphemistically call their global domination.

An Afghan police officer stands guard at the Bagram US air base after all US and NATO troops left on 5 July 2021 (AFP)
An Afghan police officer stands guard at the Bagram US airbase after all US and Nato troops left on 5 July 2021 (AFP)

In a piece for the New York Times back in 2009, headlined “Empire of Bases”, the late Chalmers Johnson expanded on his groundbreaking Blowback Trilogy, detailing how the very logic of American empire is entirely contingent on hundreds of fortified bases “dotted across the globe in other people’s countries”.

According to a 2011 article by investigative journalist Nick Turse, there are more than 1,000 US military bases around the globe, although the precise number is unclear. At the time of the article’s publication, there were reportedly close to 400 US and coalition bases in Afghanistan alone. David Vine’s Base Nation: How U.S. Military Bases Abroad Harm America and the World (2015) thoroughly documented how, based on an idea of former defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld, there is now a widespread network of US military bases across Asia, Africa, Europe and Latin America.

It is delusional to think that the “humiliation” of the US in Afghanistan is the end of its empire, or to resort to the old Orientalist cliche of Afghanistan as the “graveyard of empires”. Such hurried assessments are reactionary and archaic, a fundamental failure to understand how an amorphous empire works. The fact that the US fails to sustain its imperial hegemony does not mean that it lacks military wherewithal. The permanent crisis of the neoliberal economy demands a far more versatile empire than one that gets bogged down in any single country.

Three American empires

In their groundbreaking book Empire and all its subsequent volumes, Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri demonstrated how instead of old-fashioned, territorial empire, we now have the imperial condition of “empire”, in which a constellation of neoliberal forces and transnational organisations effectively run the world and sustain the power of rich nations over poor people. This aterritorial empire has its own innate military logic too; it flexes its military muscles, but never for direct colonial rule, as the British did in India or the French in Africa.

New York Times columnist Ross Douthat is far more accurate in his reading of the end of the Afghan war where he aptly describes three simultaneous American empires, not just one: “First there is the inner empire, the continental U.S.A. with its Pacific and Caribbean satellites. Then there is the outer empire, consisting of the regions that Americans occupied and rebuilt after World War II and placed under our military umbrella: basically, Western Europe and the Pacific Rim. Finally, there is the American world empire, which exists spiritually wherever our commercial and cultural power reaches, and more practically in our patchwork of client states and military installations.”

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Those who believe in American empire do not mince words. You may wonder, though, what “spirituality” the American world empire has revealed when slaughtering innocent human beings around the globe? The answer, of course, comes in the evangelical triumphalism evident in this phrase: “In a way this third empire is our most remarkable achievement. But its vastness inevitably resists a fuller integration, a more direct kind of American control.”

From Douthat’s perspective, the US has also failed in the making of its world empire. But on this particular score, he is wrong. That very “patchwork of client states and military installations”, which he aptly maps out, is all that this world empire needs. It does not need the whole world to appreciate the finer delicacies of a McDonald's hamburger or a Hollywood blockbuster. They can eat their own “spicy” food and watch their own masterpieces of world cinema - so long as their energy resources and strategic ports are at the service of this world empire.

The globalised American empire has a title: the “war on terror”. It has an ideology, Islamophobia, and it has a vast network of client states and military bases. It does not need to control the entirety of Afghanistan, or any other country for that matter. It just needs a few military bases in the region, from Central Asia to the Indian Ocean. Right in the middle, Pakistan always prides itself on service.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Hamid Dabashi is Hagop Kevorkian Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University in the City of New York, where he teaches Comparative Literature, World Cinema, and Postcolonial Theory. His latest books include The Future of Two Illusions: Islam after the West (2022); The Last Muslim Intellectual: The Life and Legacy of Jalal Al-e Ahmad (2021); Reversing the Colonial Gaze: Persian Travelers Abroad (2020), and The Emperor is Naked: On the Inevitable Demise of the Nation-State (2020). His books and essays have been translated into many languages.
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