An Ignominious End for a Superpower: Run, America, Run

First in a series of 2-4 articles on Afghanistan, the Taliban, and the United States

Afghanistan has fallen to the Taliban and the United States is scrambling to evacuate Americans.  So screamed a headline in the New York Times all of yesterday and so say the images being flashed on television and mobile phone screens.  How the Americans are running with their tails between their legs!  US Secretary of State Antony Blinken was on the air defending the Biden administration’s decision to undertake a rather abrupt withdrawal of American forces and the most striking pronouncement that came from his lips was surely this:  ‘This is manifestly not Saigon.’  The very fact that he attempted to disabuse people from recalling the humiliation that the United States suffered on 30 April 1975 as North Vietnamese troops occupied the city and the US sought to evacuate its personnel from its embassy in Saigon suggests the potency of the analogy.  Then, and now, the most iconic image from the end game is of American helicopters ferrying US personnel and ‘collaborators’, as the enemy dubs them, to safety—this time to a secure location at the airport the perimeter of which is ringed by American military forces.  Then it was the evil communists; now it is the dreaded Islamic terrorists.  But it is America, once again, which is fleeing from scenes of chaos—the very chaos that it engendered in the first place.

The United States, the preeminent military power of the post-World War II period, has suffered yet another crushing defeat.  Let us not minimize the enormity of this defeat.  Many commentators have sought to soften the blow:  some are calling it an ‘embarrassment’, others are speaking of the loss of American ‘prestige’, and yet others are speaking of how the US military has been caught flat-footed.  It is all this and far more than just the end of the US era in Afghanistan.  It cannot suffice to say that the Americans were committed to a withdrawal in any case and that Biden and his advisors only miscalculated if severely the extent to which Afghan security forces would be able to hold back the Taliban.  On this view, the present ‘humiliation’ can be put down to failures in strategic thinking and implementation of a policy laid down by Biden’s predecessor, though many American themselves will wonder why a ‘trillion dollars’ have gone down the drain.  This is the amount that is being mentioned as the cost of the 20-year war, allowing for expenses incurred in military engagements, maintaining a massive American presence, and nation-building in an attempt, as the Americans saw it, to secure the ‘free world’ from the scourge of terrorism and bring ‘civilization’ to tribal ‘savages’.  Such a view shows a complete unawareness of the culture of militarism, which is another form of savagery, which is as intrinsic to American foreign policy and even the American character as the purported love of liberty. 

Last Days in Vietnam: The Evacuation of American Personnel from the American Embassy, Saigon, 29-30 April 1975. Source: PBS.
Last Days in Afghanistan: Evacuation from the US Embassy in Kabul, 14 August 2021. Source: AP Photo, Ahmad Gul.

The brute fact of the matter is that, since the end of World War II with the decisive victory of the US and the Allies against the fascists in Germany, Italy, and Japan, the US has not won a war outright, if it has won a war at all.  The Korean War (June 1950 – July 1953) ended in a stalemate, marked by an armistice agreement, and its bitter legacy continues to the present day.  In Vietnam, the Americans assumed the responsibilities, as it saw them, that the French were no longer able to carry out of stemming the menacing advance of communism.  Then, two decades later, in what can be called another protracted entanglement, this time in Iraq, the Americans sought the submission of Saddam Hussein first by bombing Iraq back into the stone age and then, some years later, by cornering the Iraqi dictator and literally digging him out from a hole before he was sent to the gallows.  In the process, they not only left the country in shambles, but their ambition to introduce democratic reforms—when they had enough to do in their own country, as the rise of white supremacists and xenophobic militarists has established all too clearly—would have the effect of unraveling entire societies all over West Asia (or the Middle East as the Americans call it).  The debacles in Syria, where the atrocities committed by the Western-educated Bashar al-Assad make Iraq under Hussein look tame, as well as the civil war in Libya, precipitated by the US resolve to bring down the government of Muammar Gaddafi, bear the imprint of US foreign policy, even as one recognizes the role of other states such as Russia and Saudi Arabia in creating the unholy mess in which the Arab world is now enmeshed.  Now, to cap it all, is the story of twenty years of the presence of American troops dissolving into capitulation to armed tribesmen over a matter of a few days. Some might argue that the US did win the Cold War:  if it did so, which thirty years after the demise of the Soviet Union is far from being clear, it is worthwhile asking what the implications might be of winning only a ‘cold’ rather than ‘hot’ war.

What should be unambiguously clear now is that military power, indeed overwhelming military power, has limitations and indeed is even a liability. There is a lesson in this for other powers, especially China, though one should never underestimate the human tendency to forgo what historians fondly and sometimes wistfully call ‘the lessons of history’.  The US never fully acknowledged its military defeats and the generals only took back the lesson that they would not fight a war with one hand tied behind their back. American counter-insurgency operations would henceforth be focused on developing tools and the skills required to fight guerrillas and what are called non-state actors.  In the operations against the al-Qaeda, the Taliban, ISIS, and other jihadi outfits, the Americans thought that they had learnt something about how to engage non-state actors. However, none of this should be allowed to obscure the fact that overwhelming military power does not necessarily confer advantages as it once did, even when the asymmetry of firepower is astronomical.  What is seldom mentioned about the American triumph over Germany, in contrast to the wars that the US has fought in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan, is the element of the shared culture between the US and Germany as one of the torch-bearers of ‘Western civilization’.  This had a great many implications:  the US forces were never viewed as alien in Germany, just as the Taliban, whatever one might hear in the Western press about the dislike for them among common Afghans, have capitalized on the shared culture between them—even allowing for differences between Pashtuns, Tajiks, Hazaras, Uzbeks, and the handful of other ethnic groups—and the myriad other insurgent groups and political parties. The newly appointed Taliban mayor of Kunduz, Gul Mohammed Elias, is reported to have said that ‘our jihad is not with the municipality, our jihad is against the occupiers and those who defend the occupiers’.  The return of the Taliban, to which I shall turn in a subsequent essay, owes much to this consideration, not merely to realist political assessments of foreign policy, geopolitics, military strategy, and the like. 

A Polish translation of this article by Marek Murawski is available here.

The Creative Scholar: A Tribute to James Carse, Philosopher of Religion

Finite players win titles; infinite players have nothing but their names. — James Carse

           

James Carse, a philosopher of religion ‘by profession’ and an extraordinarily creative thinker at large, died on September 25 last year.  He was 87 years old. 

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The Impunity of White Terrorists

Vinay Lal

What transpired at the US Capitol on January 6, President-elect Joe Biden noted, amounted to “sedition”, an act not of “protest” but of “insurrection”.  He was joined in this characterization at that time by a few other Senators and since then many public commentators have endorsed this view.  Some are inclined to use somewhat softer language, deploring the shocking lawlessness and descent into anarchy.  Many other elected officials and public figures bemoan the desecration of the “temple of democracy” and still others wonder whether America can any longer boast of being “the shining city on the hill”.

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The Year that America Unraveled

It scarcely seems possible that it was a mere thirty years ago, as the Berlin Wall came crashing down, the Soviet Union crumbled, and what Winston Churchill had famously called the ‘Iron Curtain’ was lifted from eastern Europe, that commentators in the West were jubilantly pronouncing (to use Francis Fukuyama’s phrase) “the end of history”.  The supposition was that the entire world seemed on course to accept the idea that the liberal democracies of the West, and more particularly the United States, represented the pinnacle of human achievement and that the aspirations of people everywhere could only be met through the free market. It mattered not a jot on their view that, precisely at this time, the US was cajoling nations into joining an international coalition designed to bring Saddam Hussein to heel and bomb Iraq, as American officials with pride and insouciance declared, “back into the stone age”.  Those who saw ominous signs of what unchecked American power might mean worldwide, and in the US itself, for the prospects of democracy and social justice were dismissed as some pathetic remnants of a warped communist vision that could not recognize the dawn of a new age of freedom.  “Muslim rage”, the phrase made popular by the likes of the Princeton scholar Bernard Lewis, was a variant on the idea that those who failed to recognize the supremacy of the free market economy and the rights-bearing individual as the apotheosis of the idea of human liberty were religious fanatics, troglodytes, or just under-developed.

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Coronavirus in Native American Communities: The Charade of “Thanksgiving”

General Jeffrey Amherst’s letter of 16 July 1763 advocating for the use of every method, including the “gift” of smallpox-infected blankets to American Indians, that might aid in extirpating “this execrable Race”.

Every nation has its, to use the word commonly invoked for such purposes, “myths”.  Just how myths, lies, and fictions differ from each other is an interesting question in itself, but in his classic essay of the late 19th century, “What is a Nation?”, Ernest Renan put forward the arresting idea that a nation cannot be forged without some shared notion of “forgetfulness”.  Americans, especially white Americans, have for generations been brought up on the idea that the annual celebration known as Thanksgiving, held on the fourth Thursday of November for many decades, marks the occasion when the Pilgrims first sat together with Native Americans and they broke bread together in celebration of the first successful harvest.  This recounting of that idyllic past disguises the forgetfulness which would become critical to the making of America.  The other name for that forgetfulness is “genocide”.  It is for this reason that, in common with many other Native Americans, the United American Indians of New England mark Thanksgiving Day as the “National Day of Mourning”.  As this collective of Native American organizations states, “Since 1970, Native Americans and our supporters have gathered at noon on Cole’s Hill in Plymouth to commemorate a National Day of Mourning on the US thanksgiving holiday. Many Native Americans do not celebrate the arrival of the Pilgrims and other European settlers. Thanksgiving day is a reminder of the genocide of millions of Native people, the theft of Native lands, and the relentless assault on Native culture.”

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Conspiratorial America: QAnon and the Great Awakening

Third in a series on the 2020 US Election

America is right now in a strange place, many would say.  Though the Presidential election was “called”—as one Indian commentator in the state of Bihar, where an equally interesting election has just drawn to a close, stated, he now perforce has to add this new term to the electoral vocabulary common to India—some days ago, the sitting President of the US refuses to acknowledge the election results. Trump’s supporters plan a massive rally in the nation’s capital on Saturday in a show of force intended to convey to the man who now believes that he practically owns the White House that they will form his stormtroopers.  There are rumors that, come January 20, Trump may be running a parallel administration.  Perhaps, much like Venezuela, the United States will have two presidents and the world will be divided between those conferring recognition to either of the two claimants to the throne.  There is some talk of militias taking to the streets and even of “civil war”.  Uneasiness hangs in the air.

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What the US Election Tells Us About America

Los Angeles, 5 November 2020, 11:45 AM

Second in a series on the 2020 US Election

It appears, at least as of this moment, that Joe Biden is headed for the White House in January 2021.  A considerable segment of the American people will feel greatly relieved, as indeed they should, and what many characterize as the ‘nightmare’ of the last four years appears to be coming to an end.  Biden had, among other things, declared this election as a referendum on ‘decency’ and many Americans will doubtless feel grateful that their country, long accustomed to viewing itself as the world’s greatest power, the leader of the free world, and as a shining beacon of freedom and hope to the rest of the world, has had its reputation restored.  There were fears that the election would be marred by violence but even international observers have declared themselves satisfied that the election proper has been conducted fairly, insofar as there does not appear to have been any violence at polling states, and indeed little effort appears to have been spared in ensuring that voters had multiple options to cast their ballots in the midst of a major public health crisis.  None of this detracts from the ugly fact that for weeks Trump and his election campaign team had been making attempts to obstruct mail-in ballots from being counted and that lawyers representing the campaign have filed multiple legal challenges to bring the counting of votes to a halt.  That there should be any question at all about whether votes should be counted or not is astounding and will be the subject of a subsequent essay.

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Voter Suppression: As American as Apple Pie

First in a series on the 2020 US Election

With just one day to go before the American Presidential election, the signs are unmistakably clear that voter suppression remains a fundamental problem in American electoral politics.  Among the many ways in which American democracy may be distinguished, and certainly not for the better, from other democracies is its long, unparalleled, and entirely unabashed record of voter suppression. One might think that voter suppression is a relic of the past, its history rooted in the idea, present at the inception of the Republic, that the right to exercise of the vote could only be granted to select constituencies.  To the contrary, the practice of voter suppression has displayed a striking resilience, suggesting the manner in which American democracy is as much rooted in the idea of exclusion as it is in the notion of inclusivity. Indeed, though Americans like to flaunt their democracy as the envy of the world, American politics is virtually unthinkable without voter suppression.  It is as American as apple pie and its remains, to the present day, a weapon with which white supremacists, whether parading as armed militiamen or dressed up as governors, senators, state officials, county clerks and registrars, intimidate some people from voting and in some cases outright deny them their constitutional right to vote.

A demonstration carried out by African Americans in front of an Indianapolis hotel on 14 April 1964. A white man holds a Confederate flag. (AP Photo/Bob Daugherty, File)
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Nonviolence in the American college air: Gandhi and the Education of James M. Lawson

Part III of The Birth of a Nonviolent Activist

In this, the final excerpt from the second half of our first conversation in December 2013, which is reproduced here in public interest and as a birthday tribute to Rev. Lawson, who turned 92 on September 22, we discuss his college years and in particular how he fostered his interest in Gandhi.  As was mentioned in the previous excerpt, Gandhi’s name appeared frequently in the African American press; indeed, there were lengthy articles in virtually all the black-owned newspapers which discussed the struggle for freedom in India, the possibility of raising a “Negro Gandhi” in the US, and the difficulties of adopting Gandhi’s methods in the US.  In our later conversations, some of these questions were taken up for discussion; in this excerpt, Lawson describes mainly how he came to Gandhi’s work, his embrace of nonviolence and disavowal of pacifism (with which nonviolence is often confused), the manner in which Gandhi’s name was being circulated in certain circles, and the place of some key figures who appeared as exponents of Gandhi’s ideas in the United States.  Among the latter were A. J. Muste, a Dutch-born American clergyman associated with the anti-war and civil rights movements who served as the executive director of the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR) from 1940-53 and once famously submitted Thoreau’s essay on ‘The Duty of Civil Disobedience’ along with his 1040 tax form, and Richard Gregg, a now somewhat obscure figure whose book, The Power of Nonviolence, is a sadly neglected treatise of political resistance that literally served as the handbook for two generations of Americans interested in nonviolent political activism.  A 1960 reprint of the book carried a foreword by Martin Luther King Jr. Unlike Muste, Gregg had a deep familiarity with India and he lived there for many years; he maintained his interest in India even in later years, writing a book called The Philosophy of Indian Economic Development (1958).

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The Birth of a Nonviolent Activist: Recollections of Childhood and the Experience of Racism

A Birthday Tribute to Rev. James M. Lawson—Part I: “Jimmy, What Good Did That Do”

Today, September 22nd, marks the 92nd birthday of the Reverend James M. Lawson, once described by Martin Luther King as the greatest strategist of nonviolence in the US.  I have, on this blog, penned a couple of essays on him over the last 2-3 years, and also included excerpts from our recorded conversations extending to around 26-27 hours which commenced in December 2013 and are now slowly but surely being edited with the aim of creating a compact book on the greatest living practitioner of nonviolence in the United States, one whose experience in training three generations of nonviolent resisters and dissenters extends over 70 years.  Our first conversation took place shortly after the death of Nelson Mandela on December 5, and was largely on the subject of Mandela, the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa, the US support of the apartheid regime, and the place of nonviolence in modern politics.  We discussed at length both Mandela’s achievements and what we both saw, though perhaps in different in complementary ways, as some of the shortcomings of the struggle in South Africa—shortcomings which, judging only from the continuing strife and plight of black people in South Africa, may have been considerable.  Excerpts from this discussion will be shared in this blog on the death anniversary of Mandela.

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