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 Congo, Chile 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, fires, smoke, 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.
Copyright 2021 Tom Engelhardt
Tom Engelhardt created and runs the website TomDispatch.com, where this article first appeared. 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.