The US withdrawal from Afghanistan has turned into utter humiliation for US imperialism. It has not only exposed a relative military and economic decline, it has also exposed a growing mood of war-weariness at home. Workers in the US have become sick and tired of the ruling class’ endless military adventures, whilst the basic needs of US citizens at home are going unmet. This article was written one week ago, before the Taliban had taken Kabul. Click here for in-depth analysis of the latest developments.
The withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan has officially brought the two-decades-long deployment in the region to an end. The decision to pull out of this disastrous conflict has widespread support among the US public, with 58 percent in favour, according to a YouGov/Economist poll, demonstrating a deep war-weariness among Americans. Today, only a minority of Americans (39 percent) think that the “War on Terror” was worth it. These figures are all the more astonishing when compared to the 88 percent support that the invasion enjoyed at its launch in 2001.
This war-weariness is also extending to the rank-and-file of the US Army. An increasing number of US soldiers are questioning the purpose of risking their lives on military adventures that achieve nothing. Returning home, they are left with a legacy of physical and mental trauma. The same governments that could find the material means to send them off to fight in distant lands are apparently unable to find the resources to support veterans struggling with mental health problems, unemployment and homelessness.
An increasing number of ordinary Americans are rejecting US involvement in costly, futile conflicts abroad, particularly when there is rampant poverty and inequality at home. The American ruling class, across partisan lines, is having to swallow the fact that the relative decline of its power coupled with growing discontent at home means that it can no longer play the role that it used to.
The limits of US military might
As the predominant imperialist power, in decades past the USA used its military might to defend its markets and protect its spheres of interest all over the world. In the second half of the 20th century, the US engaged in hundreds of armed conflicts internationally.
But the withdrawal from Afghanistan has become only the latest humiliating debacle to underline that US imperialism has reached a limit. Back in 2008, faced with a show of force by a resurgent Russia asserting itself in a conflict with Georgia over South Ossetia, the US could do little other than fulminate on the sidelines. And when in 2014 Crimea was joined with Russia following a referendum, the US ruling class could do little other than stamp up and down and express its anger in words.
In Iraq, despite 4,500 US troops being lost and over 30,000 injured, and a bill running into the trillions, none of the stated aims of US imperialism were achieved. And despite the farcical claim that the Iraq War was part of the ‘War on Terror’, it is only since the US-led invasion that Al-Qaeda has established a foothold in the country, recruiting youth radicalised by US atrocities in Fallujah and elsewhere. Meanwhile, no amount of US troops could prevent Iraq from slipping increasingly under Iranian influence.
In the Obama years, the US struggled even to get domestic backing for limited military airstrikes in Libya and Syria, being forced to rest increasingly on unreliable proxies on the ground. In the end, Obama was forced to effectively hand the reins over to Russia in Syria. The US was reduced to a mere spectator as its ‘moderate’ Islamist proxies were defeated by the Syrian army, allied with Iranian ground forces and Russian air support.
Meanwhile, despite US sabre-rattling about military action in Iran, North Korea and Venezuela, in all cases, these threats have amounted to nothing. Above all, the masses have little enthusiasm for further bloody adventures, and are increasingly unmoved by militaristic jingoism. As such, the US ruling class has been increasingly limited to using its economic might to squeeze its enemies using sanctions.
Donald Trump capitalised on this growing war-weariness in his 2016 presidential campaign as part of his ‘America First’ agenda, which promised to create jobs and prosperity at home, rather than wasting money on “endless wars”.
America’s retreat from Afghanistan, initiated by Trump, is a further demonstration of the inability of the US ruling class to enforce its authority anywhere, in the manner that it used to.
Two decades of war have achieved nothing, other than the destruction of hundreds of thousands of lives, the establishment of a crumbling puppet government in Kabul, and the Taliban ending up stronger today than at any time since the war began in 2001. All of America’s military objectives lie in tatters.
A public sick of war
Only 9 percent of the American public supported military intervention in Syria. And Trump's suggestion that the US would intervene militarily to remove President Maduro from power in Venezuela saw a meagre 20 percent support.
Seeing how little has been gained by endless belligerence, it is little wonder the majority of the US masses want to wash their hands of the catastrophe in Afghanistan and are opposed to their ruling class involving them in further adventures. But the general rejection of conflict is also explained by the economic crisis at home, which has thrown the wasteful expense of America’s ‘forever wars’ into sharp relief. In the final analysis, declining US military power flows from its declining economic power.
A decade of austerity, and an ongoing global pandemic (from which the US has the highest confirmed death toll in the world) have had a devastating effect on people’s lives. This has contributed to a change in consciousness among the masses regarding militarism, and US exceptionalism more generally.
According to a poll by the Ronald Reagan Foundation, only 11 percent of Americans think that military spending should be the highest priority for their government. Healthcare and education programmes are at the top of that list.
The same poll found that, while in 2011 only 8 percent of Americans believed that there were better countries than the US, that figure stands at 21 percent today. It is even higher among the youth, at 36 percent.
Rejection of the political establishment, evident in movements like the Black Lives Matter protests last year, and even the election of Trump in 2016 (albeit in a distorted way), show the resentment of the masses towards a status quo that offers no future, while politicians waste a fortune on losing wars abroad.
The American Dream has turned into a nightmare. The $2 trillion that was spent on the humiliating disaster in Afghanistan could have solved so many of the urgent needs of US workers and youth. More and more people are drawing the conclusion that the enemy is at home, not abroad.
This is naturally concerning for the ruling class, which understands the risk of provoking further social upheavals by becoming embroiled in endless, costly conflicts while so many ordinary American workers are struggling to keep their heads above water.
The same mood of disaffection that is infecting millions of Americans is also seeping into the ranks of the armed forces. This is hardly surprising. The war in Afghanistan alone cost the lives of 2,448 soldiers, with a further 20,700 wounded, while troops have undergone a spate of pay and benefit cuts in recent years.
155,000 soldiers suffer from chronic depression and PTSD as a result of participating in the ‘War on Terror’, further feeding into a mental health crisis that affects the whole of US society.
A shocking 45,000 members of the US military have taken their lives since 2013. And there are 67,000 homeless war veterans on American streets due to a lack of alternative employment opportunities, and adequate support for the mental and psychological damage that they have suffered.
For all its jingoistic tub-thumping about ‘supporting the troops’, the US ruling class displays utter contempt for its former soldiers, abandoning them to a miserable fate back home.
All these factors, combined with the experience of defeat, and belief that lives are being wasted on pointless conflicts, are severely impacting soldiers’ morale, and their confidence in the top brass. For example, a 2015 poll found that 55 percent of US troops are “pessimistic about their future in the military”, while only 27 percent “thought that [their] leadership had their best interests at heart.”
A recent Financial Times investigation into the Afghanistan withdrawal shed a stark light on this crisis in morale. One veteran confessed: “I was raised with the belief that we’re always the good guys [...] I don’t believe the national bedtime story any more”.
Another commented: “The idea that we’ve been walking around with a big stick for 20 years now and breaking shit — really, what has it built, other than a tremendous pile of debt? Death too.”
Across the board, the FT report identifies an increased feeling among the rank-and-file that the “armed forces aren't being adequately led into the future”.
As an ex-marine explained to the FT journalist:
“If you think the mission your country keeps sending you on is pointless or impossible [...] then it’s not the Taliban or al-Qaeda or ISIS that’s trying to kill you, it’s America.”
Diminishing loyalty and confidence in their leadership will undermine the effectiveness of the army and weaken the hand of the ruling class.
Every army necessarily reflects the society out of which it arises. The lack of trust in the military leadership is a reflection of the decline of legitimacy of the establishment and is a product of the crisis of capitalism. Disillusionment in the ranks translates to an increased risk of insubordination, and splits among the troops: a very dangerous scenario for the ruling class.
One recent example of this insubordinate mood coming to the fore occurred last March, when the captain of the US aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt decided to evacuate the vessel in order to prevent the spread of COVID-19, in defiance of orders from top brass. The captain’s decision led to him being relieved of duty, but gained sympathy from the crew, whose health was being put at risk by the callous Admiralty.
These fissures in the army are potential harbingers of a much more serious crisis of confidence in the ruling class among the working class as a whole, and among capitalism’s armed bodies of men in particular.
US imperialism in crisis
In absolute terms, the US is still indisputably the world's greatest economic and military superpower. Its annual military spending roughly equals that of the other top 10 countries combined. On a world scale no power is able to challenge its position, but on a regional level it can no longer claim to be the strongest power everywhere. In East Asia, China is the strongest military power today. In Syria, Russia and Iran were able to defeat US intervention. And increasingly, we will see that regional powers will become a challenge to US imperialism and further restrict its ability to manoeuvre.
While the relative economic decline has translated into deep disaffection at home, growing protectionist tendencies and national antagonisms are making it increasingly difficult for the US to maintain a united front with its allies – as Biden is finding to his cost.
The relative decline of US imperialism, and the increased war-weariness of the American population, won’t automatically put an end to global conflict. US imperialism still has the power to spread the seeds of barbarism in much of the world. Ultimately, imperialism is a consequence of the capitalist system itself. As such, even where US power is in crisis, it will simply create a vacuum that lesser powers will try to fill. This will create the conditions for further proxy wars in Afghanistan, the Middle East and elsewhere. Only by confining capitalism to the dustbin of history can this nightmare be stopped.
Just as US imperialism is the most reactionary force on earth, so the powerful US working class has immense revolutionary potential, possessing in its hands the power to stop in its tracks the biggest war machine the world has ever known.
The workers and youth of America are increasingly being forced to compare their illusions in a common ‘national interest’ with the reality of the policies of its murderous ruling class. Their eyes are opening up to the fact that they have much more in common with the workers of Karachi or Beijing than they have with the likes of Zuckerberg and Bezos. They will find common cause with their class brothers and sisters around the world – this is the cause of the world socialist revolution, and in this struggle, the workers of the US have a key role to play.