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America's humiliation in Afghanistan reveals a terminal crisis of empire

There are parallels between the retreats from Saigon and Kabul, but one major difference: there is a new global context, and this time US hegemony will not survive
US President Joe Biden speaks during an update on the situation in Afghanistan on 22 August, 2021 (AFP)

"Vietnam is a unique case - culturally, historically and politically. I hope that the United States will not repeat its Vietnam blunders elsewhere."

So wrote the late Pakistani intellectual Eqbal Ahmad, one of the great gurus of matters related to colonialism, hegemony and resistance, in his 1965 essay for The Nation, 1965-1975: How to Tell the Rebels Have Won.

In it, Ahmad offered some sober advice to Washington planners. Sadly, not only was it not heeded, but it no longer makes sense to categorise the compiling and cascading imperial mistakes as merely "blunders".

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Every nation has its unique objective and subjective specificities. These are what ultimately define and situate the country - geostrategically - in the world system. The Vietnamese were, objectively, just another nation in the third world. However, the formidable organised resistance mounted against unquestioned US supremacy is the striking subjective, particularly characteristic of Vietnam at that time.

The Vietnamese insurgency, led by the Viet Cong, was heavily armed and supported by the two other global behemoths at the time: the Soviet Union and China. That was no secret. And despite the enormous human toll on Vietnam, with between three to five million killed and a nation flattened, the more-than-a-decade-long brutal American air and ground war could not defeat the resistance. At least, not militarily. 

However, politically speaking, Washington’s message was sent, loud and clear. If a nation of the third world, or the global south, did not submit to America’s grand design for the world, it would pay a heavy price. Even though the Vietnamese were able to humiliate the US militarily, the country was utterly destroyed by massive carpet bombing sustained year after year.

Expansionism by other means

What type of independence and sovereignty was there to be had when there was barely a dent made to unhinged American hegemony. US global domination would continue to manifest itself in the coups and proxy wars that America continued to indulge in - successfully in terms of its imperial ambitions - for the decades to come. The "Vietnam syndrome" did not mean less global interventionism by the US. It was simply expansionism by other - indirect - means. And, anyway, that "syndrome" was short-lived. It had been overcome by the time of the heavy US military deployment in the Gulf War of 1990-91. 

The scenarios of Saigon in 1975, and Kabul in 2021, are remarkably similar - despite the considerable ideological differences of the indigenous political forces involved. The utter humiliation of the US in both cases is all too palpable. Nevertheless, there is a crucial difference: the two events take place in vastly different global contexts. And that has defined the way the Taliban has retaken Afghanistan now. 

US global domination would continue to manifest itself in the coups and proxy wars that America continued to indulge in for the decades to come

By 1996, it had taken the nascent Taliban two years to defeat a bunch of warlords before establishing its reign over the country from Kabul. The new movement of "students", or Taliban, were openly and fully backed, in all ways including militarily, by Pakistan. Not only has the Taliban not been supported anything remotely like that this time by Islamabad or elsewhere, but it has also had to confront what on paper is a much more daunting enemy: heavily trained and armed Afghan security and military personnel numbering well over 300,000. And, of course, American air strikes. 

We have seen before our very eyes how astonishingly quickly this ethnic Pashtun insurgency took over Afghanistan once the officially announced beginning-of-the-end of the western occupation began. The American puppet government in Saigon lasted a good three years after the US withdrawal there in 1972. Indeed, even the Soviet puppet regime in Kabul lasted a good three years after the Soviets withdrew in 1989. The Ashraf Ghani government, on the other hand, collapsed even before the American deadline for withdrawal. 

Syria's 'moderate rebels'

To emphasise this fact again: the Taliban today, unlike the Taliban of the 1990s, has accomplished what it has in Afghanistan more or less on its own. It becomes remarkable when comparing its achievement with the lack thereof, for example, of the "moderate rebels" in Syria. Funded to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars (maybe billions) and armed to the teeth by an array of both regional actors as well as western ones (principally the US), this not-so-moderate proxy opposition could not bring down the Assad regime. 

However critical Russian and Iranian/Hezbollah support was for the Syrian government, it in no way approximates the scale of the two decades of western occupation of Afghanistan. The country has witnessed 20 years of US/Nato air strikes, ground operations by up to 150,000 foreign forces, an equal if not larger number of mercenaries and private contractors, and the arming and training of the Afghan National Army (ANA) and security personnel - with a tally of around $2tn for this entire venture. Only to see, in the end, the propped-up puppet fiefdom in Kabul lose power so quickly and so embarrassingly when having to confront any resistance on its own.

The larger political meaning of what has happened now in Afghanistan is what distinguishes it from the fall of Saigon in 1975. The war and military defeat in Vietnam, as Eqbal Ahmad noted, was a colossal American blunder. Beyond its geopolitical significance, the Vietnam war took a tragic human toll of epic proportions. 

But the US could easily survive that military defeat - again, politically speaking. It maintained its global hegemonic status of the superpower that "calls all the shots". A country dreaming of independence and sovereignty may put up a valiant resistance to the American imperium, but even if such resistance "wins", as the Viet Cong did, its country would have been flattened to a moonscape. Ultimately, such a nation would be politically and economically compelled to return to its subservient status in the US-run global order.

America's precipitous decline

And that is what differentiates the Saigon defeat in 1975 from the Kabul one in 2021. Over the past few decades, the US has gone from a steady decline as the hegemonic power to a precipitous one. The disastrous wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have further validated such an assessment.

Thus, what has occurred in Afghanistan is not just another imperial "blunder". It is a naked manifestation, with its startling sequence of events and spectacular optics, of the terminal crisis of empire. The past two weeks, culminating in the Taliban’s capture of Kabul, represent nothing less than the final stage of the post-war American imperium. 

Shanghai skyline
'The world has become definitively multipolar, especially with the phenomenal rise of China.' The Shanghai skyline (AFP)

Rather than simply examining the two events in and of themselves - Saigon in 1975 and Kabul in 2021, respectively - we must evaluate the objective structural global position of the US both before and after each military intervention. And therein lies the crux of the matter. The US was utterly dominant both before and after the blunder in Vietnam. Even after that blunder, the world was still divided between the winning West and the remaining Rest. Prosperity would still be primarily found in New York, London, Berlin, and so on.

That is no longer the case. The fall of Kabul was symptomatic and a product of the decades-long process of the severe weakening of American power, authority, legitimacy - in short, its hegemony. The world has become definitively multipolar, especially with the phenomenal rise of China. There has been a profound decentring of the West in the world system that it has attempted to dominate for more than 500 years now. In other words, the world is not necessarily buying the "West knows/is best" mantra anymore. 

The world is not necessarily buying the 'West knows/is best' mantra anymore

And prosperity in 2021 can be found in Doha, Shanghai, Singapore, and so on.

The retreating US forces in Kabul, therefore, may not only be the symbolic death knell of American exceptionalism and expansionism - narratives and processes that define the nation since its birth. It may also be one of the last pages of the chapter of Eurocentric history that arguably began in 1492.

The surge of American militarism at the beginning of this century is akin to the vociferous roars of the king of the jungle, meant to compensate for and conceal its irreversible wounded and weakened condition. The anxious lion may be in partial denial, but deep down it knows that its deranged actions are no longer merely mistakes or blunders, but the logical outcome of its emaciated predicament.

After Saigon in 1975, the American sheriff could simply pull up his bootstraps and get back to the business of running the world. After Kabul in 2021, the sheriff will have to belatedly acknowledge that he no longer is the only sheriff in town.

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

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.

Junaid S. Ahmad
Junaid S. Ahmad teaches Religion and World Politics and is the Director of the Center for the Study of Islam and Decoloniality, Islamabad, Pakistan