Volume 32, Number 3

Forget the Headlines About Afghanistan and Look at the History of American Foreign Policy

Fred Schepartz

I was greatly struck by a recent tweet by Katrina-Vanden-Heuvel, publisher of The Nation, regarding the recent events involving the United States' withdrawal from Afghanistan: “Maybe we'd be wise to focus less on how the U.S. got out of Afghanistan, and focus more on how it got in.”

Simple words, but extremely profound.

Obviously, the American withdrawal, the scenes of chaos and violence at and around Kabul airport and the massive airlift, are big news. There is really no question about it.

But the reality is that what is happening right now in Afghanistan is a tiny blip of what was a 20 year war. And to truly understand these events, one needs to view Afghanistan through the wide lens of post-World War II American foreign policy.

That said, I do have to address some of the absurdity of what we are seeing and defend President Biden just a bit.

Without question, there have been tactical errors in this endeavor. The Administration should have anticipated at least the possibility of such a rapid conquest by the Taliban. The Administration should also have anticipated the chaos that would ensure and should have done a better job getting their ducks in a row for the evacuation of Americans and Afghan allies. The evacuation should have been started sooner.

On the day I write this, ISIS-K terrorists (a product of blowback from the Iraq War) detonated explosives outside the airport, killing more than 100 people, including 13 American soldiers. The Administration feared that this might happen, but the attack may not have been quite as deadly if the process had proceeded more quickly and orderly.

It is a highly dangerous and volatile situation. I don’t blame Biden. It really is a situation where there is great vulnerability, and sometimes you can’t do much more than hope for the best.

In the wake of the ISIS-K attack, Republicans have called for Biden’s impeachment, resignation and removal, shamefully playing politics with tragedy. As leaders, they should come together in a crisis. I don’t remember Democrats calling for Bush’s resignation after 911 or demanding that Reagan step down after 241 Americans died in the Beirut bombing of the Marine barracks.

That said, Biden is not the author of the greatest foreign policy blunder in American history, as some Republicans have said.

Such statements, in fact, are profoundly absurd and demonstrate not only a deep ignorance of American history, but a clear lack of understanding of what foreign policy actually means.

And to be fair, while slow and awkward at first, the airlift out of Kabul has proven to be quite successful, evacuating more than 100,000 people as I write this. In addition, the Administration has taken steps to find places inside and outside the United States to relocate Afghan allies. It should further be noted that Afghans relocated within the United States have already been vetted by the US government and are not security risks.

Trump deserves a good bit of blame for how things have gone. First, his Administration negotiated a deal with the Taliban that weakened the American position (including a draw-down of American troops to a mere 2500).

Second, Stephen Miller did his best to undermine the visa system, which made the processing of Afghan allies way more difficult than it needed to be. The was done merely out of racism and hatred of immigrants.

And last but not least, due to Giant Baby Man’s unwillingness to participate in a peaceful and meaningful transition, Biden and his Administration were denied the intelligence necessary to have the greatest chance for success.

I am certain Biden knew at least some of the shortcomings of his position, but proceeded with the withdrawal anyway because he believed it was time to get out of Afghanistan. In fact, he believed we should have gotten out a long time ago.

Maybe we'd be wise to focus less on how the U.S. got out of Afghanistan, and focus more on how it got in.

I keep coming back to these words.

We fought a futile war for 20 years. It was a war whose objectives were vague at best. And it was a war that was destined to fail. After all, as has long been the saying, Afghanistan is where empires go to die. And we did not help matters by ignoring local customs regarding governance and trying to superimpose our notion of government on them. And we also did not help matters by allowing as much inefficiency and corruption.

After all, war tends to attract profiteers. And the military-industrial complex is a money-sucking automaton.

But the winnable or non-winnable nature of the situation is beside the point.

If we want to understand Afghanistan, we need to understand that it was not a failure of our effort to win a war. It was a failure of American foreign policy that put us in this position.

In some ways, Afghanistan is a perfect microcosm of American foreign policy.

It was bipartisan and spanned the terms of two presidents each from the Republican and Democratic parties. A Republican president started the war. A Democratic president tried to win the war but failed. Another Republican president maintained the war then tried to end it. A Democratic president finally ended the war.

And more to the point, the war was more about American hegemony than any kind of urgent tactical and strategic need.

George W. Bush started the wars in Afghanistan as well as Iraq under the pretense of 911. As we know, Iraq had nothing to do with 911, and fabricated evidence was used to support that claim that it was.

Bin Laden and Al Qaeda used Afghanistan as a base and training ground, so there was significant reason to deal with Afghanistan in one way or the other. However, way back in 2001, the Taliban actually expressed a willingness to turn over Bin Laden. Hell, they even offered to surrender.

W. would accept neither. And we also know that Bin Laden was somehow able to escape Afghanistan.

And the war wore on and on and on.

Bush and Cheney and Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz had no interest in short-term tactical victories specifically tied to 911. They wanted Iraqi oil. They wanted to run an oil pipeline across Afghanistan. They wanted Afghanistan for the geographic strategic value. Oh, and on top of everything else, Afghanistan’s considerable poppy crop was more than a little inviting as well.

And most of all, they wanted Regime Change.

Because, ultimately, that is what American foreign policy tends to be about.

Contemporary American foreign policy began immediately following World War II. Or perhaps it actually began with the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the demonstration of these weapons of mass destruction that the United States solely possessed.

Since 1945, American foreign policy has been a matter of bi-partisan agreement with seven Democratic and seven Republican presidents presiding over its implementation. Strategy and tactics have perhaps varied by a matter of degrees, but overall, the goals and objectives have remained the same.

In the immediate aftermath of World War II, we see the highly laudable Marshall Plan, but quickly American foreign policy took a very dark turn. In 1953, Mohammad Mosaddegh, the democratically elected prime minister of Iran, is overthrown in a coup overseen by the CIA. The threat of the Soviet Union is a pretense for the coup, but the reality is that US foreign policy tends to be motivated more by economics than fear of the Soviets or other perceived threats.

Mosaddegh had the temerity to nationalize Iranian oil. He had to go. And by the way, we’re still paying for the blowback from that action.

In 1954, Jacobo Arbenz, the democratically elected president of Guatemala, was overthrown in another CIA engineered coup. Eisenhower rationalized the action by citing the Monroe Doctrine and the threat of the Soviets, but Arbenz standing up to United Fruit probably had more to do with the coup than anything else.

The list of coups goes on: Congo, 1960, Dominican Republic, 1961, Brazil, 1964, Chile, 1973.

And more recently, there is the overthrow of Jean-Bertrand Aristide in Haiti in 2004.

The message of American foreign policy is that the United States will decide who will and will not lead sovereign nations whenever it sees fit.

If not coups, there’s assassination. There’s economic interference. And sometimes, there’s military intervention.

In John Perkins’ stunning book Confessions of an Economic Hit Man, he describes presenting economic development projects to emerging countries. The projects included loans he knew the country could not afford, which would put the nation behind the Eight Ball with the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, which then forced said nation to do the bidding of the United States.

In the book, he offers the following observation:

The United States would first send in economic hit men. If that didn’t work, they’d send in the jackals. If that didn’t work, they’d send in the military.

Regime change is simply a matter of I can do it, therefore, I should do it.

And then came Vietnam.

Some historians describe American leadership as giddy over its success in overthrowing regimes that it viewed as unfriendly.

And what was Vietnam, but just the same thing on a larger scale?

The war was winnable because the United States was unbeatable and too accustomed to doing whatever it wanted without consequences. And Vietnam was viewed as a sufficient prize to justify the risk.

Kennedy provided the public justification with the “Domino Theory.” And Johnson used the Gulf of Tonkin incident to officially start the Vietnam War.

And we know what happened.

Prior to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Vietnam War was the greatest foreign policy blunder in American history. It is absolutely crucial that we understand that Vietnam War was not some immoral aberration of American foreign policy but rather was a logical and inevitable escalation and destination of where American foreign policy was taking us.

In the immediate aftermath of the Vietnam War, we saw the “Vietnam Syndrome,” where American politicians were a bit leery of making the same mistake.

Sadly, that didn’t last. Certainly, Reagan expressed a strong desire to get beyond the “Vietnam Syndrome,” which he viewed as an expression of American weakness.

As for the Middle East wars of W., we could say that it was a case of not learning from history, but I would say it’s a matter refusing to reject American foreign policy of hegemony and dominion.

I hope there will be an “Afghanistan Syndrome,” but I’m not holding my breath. Avoiding full scale wars while opting for covert and proxy actions certainly doesn’t make me sleep much better at night. I have vivid memories from the 1980s of the Secret Wars in Central America.

I remember in 2004, attending a John Kerry rally on West Washington Avenue in Madison, Wisconsin, just a few blocks away from our state Capitol. Bruce Springsteen sang a few songs and gave a wonderful stump speech.

In his speech, he referenced the need for a “sane and reasonable foreign policy.” I’m not sure exactly what he meant, but I liked the way it sounded.

In 2003, while travelling to Ireland, I met an Irish solider who described himself as a “peacekeeper.” Talking to him and other Irish people during that trip, I got a strong sense of the Irish viewing themselves as citizens of the world. I like that idea.

We as Americans would be wise to view ourselves as citizens of the world and not just some awesomely powerful force living on an impenetrable island.

And we should demand a foreign policy that reflects this. Sure, foreign policy, by nature, is about protecting a nation’s security interests. But let us see if we can protect our interests without infringing on the interests of others. It certainly would be more sustainable for this nation in the long run.

Right here in Wisconsin, I am encouraged by Governor Tony Evers opening up Fort McCoy to Afghan refugees. This is the right thing to do. It is our governor setting an excellent example of how to be a good neighbor and a citizen of the world. We need more, much more of this sort of thing.