Ryan McMaken – April 26, 2021
President Biden announced last week that he planned to remove all combat troops from Afghanistan by September, which he says will mark the end of what is now a twenty-year war in the central Asian country.
A week earlier, the US and Iraq reaffirmed a deal to withdraw “any remaining combat forces” from Iraq, and to further wind down the US involvement there, which dates back to the 2003 invasion.
In both cases, of course, the stated plans to end military intervention have been framed in polite language designed to make it look like the US is leaving on its own terms—and also to allow the US regime some level of plausibility when it claims “mission accomplished.”
In reality, of course, both Iraq and Afghanistan are just two more wars that the United States has lost in a long list of botched military interventions dating back to Vietnam and Korea. Moreover, these withdrawals signal the US’s continued geopolitical decline in a world that is becoming multipolar and highly motivated to bring to a final end the US’s vanishing “unipolar moment.”
But what exactly do we mean by “lost” in this context? Well, by the standards of the objectives presented by the US regime itself when these wars began, these wars are complete failures.
For example, we were told Iraq and Afghanistan would become “democracies” where Western-style human rights are protected and valued. That was the humanitarian justification.
We were also told these countries would become reliable allies of the United States, sort of like Germany or Japan. That was the geopolitical justification.
The US has failed on both fronts.
The Failure of Global Democracy
When the United States first invaded Afghanistan, following the terrorist attacks of 9/11, the US regime claimed the mission was both a punitive and a strategic one. The military intervention was, we were told, designed to punish and disable the Taliban regime, which was fostering terrorist training camps of the sort that supposedly led to 9/11.
But, not surprisingly, Washington then decided it was going to stay in Afghanistan for a long time. The voters were soon told to brace for a generational war, one that could last decades. After twenty or twenty-five years, though, we were told Afghanistan would become a liberal democracy where women could walk around in miniskirts and the youth would spend their days studying poetry and engineering at universities. Afghanistan, we were told, would end up like postwar Germany and Japan—outposts of Western liberal democracy.
Needless to say, the Pentagon never mentions that anymore. Even after twenty years, the political situation in Afghanistan can perhaps be most accurately described as an ongoing series of wars between warlords, with US-supported warlords on the “good” side. The idea that these US-aligned warlords represent the side of human rights, though, is wishful thinking at its most extreme.
Two years after the occupation of Afghanistan began, the promises of “global democracy” became even more grandiose as the regime tried to grow support for the Iraq invasion. The Bush administration pushed a grand vision for the entire region with claims that a new democratic Iraq would serve as the launching point for a total makeover of the Middle East, which would soon become a region of liberal democracies. The US repeatedly claimed that Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein was something of a reincarnation of Hitler—rather than the run-of-the-mill dictator he was—and suggested that once Hussein was gone freedom and justice would flower throughout the region.
That didn’t happen. Indeed, even if life improved for some Iraqis—such as the Kurds—life became far worse for countless other Iraqis. As noted by NPR in 2018, as a result of the Iraq War,
Iraq devolved into one of the most dangerous and corrupt countries in the world. With an estimated 500,000 killed in war and violence since 2003, few families have been left untouched. Although security has improved immensely, corruption remains entrenched.
“The majority of people before—Sunni and Shiite—did not like the [Hussein] regime,” says [General Najm al-Jabouri]. “But many people, when they compare between the situation under Saddam Hussein and now, find maybe their life under Saddam Hussein was better.”
Today, Iraq’s standard of living remains crippled by the US invasion, and the democratic government amounts to a regime that is little more than a group of competing kleptocracies.
Moreover, the US invasion paved the way for the rise of religious extremism in Iraq, which led to the near-total destruction of Iraq’s Christian population—which had enjoyed legal protection under Hussein.
Rather than spread notions of liberal democracy and human rights in the region, the US regime has only doubled down in its support for the most repressive regimes. The US remains an enthusiastic supporter of the Saudi regime, one of the most despotic and blood-soaked regimes on earth today. The US has been propping up the military dictatorship in Egypt. Through its interventions in Libya and Syria, the US has taken the side of terrorists and Islamic zealots who traffic young women for sex slavery and enforce the most draconian sorts of Islamic law—something much more rare under the Hussein regime, or under the secular regime still ruling in Syria.
The US’s regime change in Iraq supercharged al-Qaeda and ISIS, leading to humanitarian crises in northern Iraq and eastern Syria.
The Failure of Regime Change
But even if the US failed miserably on installing new human rights–loving regimes across the region, at least the US’s “national interests” are now much safer thanks to regime change. Right?
Well, not quite. Although Washington now claims that it is leaving Iraq and Afghanistan on good terms with the local regimes, the fact is that the US is leaving in power a great many enemies who are more than happy to see the US leave. And in many cases, the US strengthened those with an interest in undermining Washington’s interests.
In Afghanistan, for example, the anti-US warlords (i.e., Taliban-aligned groups) aren’t going away, and are likely to even increase in power as the US leaves. This, after all, is the central claim made by those who oppose Biden’s withdrawal plan. The US leaves behind an Afghanistan where anti-US powers are likely to quickly rush in and fill the power vacuum.
Meanwhile, in Iraq, the main “accomplishment” of the removal of Sunni-aligned Saddam Hussein was to grow the power of the Shia minority. This now means the growth of Iran-aligned Shia militias, which are avowedly opposed to the US regime.
In other words, the US could maintain a foothold in both countries indefinitely, but it could only do so through old-fashioned—and very costly—military occupation. That’s certainly not what Washington promised twenty years ago.
With all its fanciful promises for fundamentally changing the calculus in the Middle East, the US has not come even close to shifting the balance of power toward the US by creating a new block of pro-US “democracies.” Mostly, the US has sown chaos in the region, paved the way for terrorist groups, and reaffirmed support for some of the worst dictators and regimes in the region.
All of this was bought and paid for by thousands of US lives and hundreds of thousands of lives in the invaded countries. And by trillions of US dollars.
The last twenty years have been little more than the US regime spinning its wheels, all while condemning millions to a new reality of greater death, disability, and poverty.
It’s not over yet, though. The fact some announcements have been made about ending wars doesn’t mean they’re really over. There’s no time frame for the final removal of combat troops from Iraq. In Afghanistan, the US may not be ending the war at all, but only shifting toward a war fought by US-employed mercenaries.
In any case, the global political situation has become expensive and hostile to the point that it now makes sense to at least ostensibly bring these conflicts to an end. Also, now that the average American voter is barely paying attention—and that the US is facing an economic crisis and weak recovery—it has become politically expedient to forget about those old wars, preferably with an eye to starting a new one with Russia.
Originally published at Mises.org. Ryan McMaken is a senior editor at the Mises Institute. He has degrees in economics and political science from the University of Colorado, and was the economist for the Colorado Division of Housing from 2009 to 2014. He is the author of Commie Cowboys: The Bourgeoisie and the Nation-State in the Western Genre.
Image source: “halfnelson” via Flickr