‘American century’ will end when troops leave Afghanistan
Symbolism plays a significant role in international politics, even when it goes beyond strategic necessities. The process of lowering the Stars and Stripes from every military installment in Afghanistan is already on and will be concluded by Sept. 11. The White House decided to send the strong message that the vicious circle that the terrorists opened 20 years ago will be permanently closed, and the boys can now come back home. But where does symbolism stop and political reality start to bite again?
There are many ways to read President Joe Biden’s decision to withdraw all US forces from Afghanistan and many more repercussions to discuss. First, during Donald Trump’s presidency, the US spent a tremendous amount of the soft power clout that Barack Obama had managed to save for the state. The “Make America Great Again” slogan — so profoundly populist and so categorically simplistic in its essence, thus predominant among white, blue-collar Americans — inflicted great damage to America’s image worldwide. The harm can only be compared to that of the image of nine-year-old Phan Thi Kim Phuc, the naked Vietnamese girl pictured running naked to save herself from the Napalm bombs near Trang Bang in South Vietnam in 1972. Biden is now trying his best to rebuild the image of the “shining city on a hill,” sending the message that the US is ready to open a new chapter in its foreign policy.
However, as I have argued many times in the past, there was nothing wrong with the American decision to openly confront the Taliban and Al-Qaeda. On the contrary, it would have been almost impossible to deter the terror if Afghanistan was to be allowed to continue to function as the de facto land of dystopia, much earlier than Raqqa in Syria. The Taliban, alas, continues to exist in Afghanistan, while Al-Qaeda is making a comeback in the international arena, especially in Yemen. On top of that, Daesh continues to exist in Yemen, Libya and sub-Saharan Africa. This leads to the undeniable conclusion that the US is withdrawing from Afghanistan without having secured even a fragile peace and order there, or given the Taliban the understanding that any erratic behavior will have military repercussions.
From a strategic point of view, the Taliban’s long-standing endurance feeds its narcissistic ego — this is understood since it managed to survive the methodical military operations of the strongest armies in the world today: The US and NATO forces. The fact the Taliban regards itself as an invincible power adds to the radical metaphysics surrounding its very existence, raising serious concerns regarding the peace status in Afghanistan on Sept. 12 and beyond.
Biden is trying his best to send the message that the US is ready to open a new chapter in its foreign policy.
Some would say that Biden’s decision is a realistic one as a member of the Obamian school of thought. In my latest book, “US Foreign Policy in the Eastern Mediterranean: Power Politics and Ideology Under the Sun,” I strongly support the view that these arguments are correct. Who can doubt American sincerity regarding a post-Taliban Afghanistan when so many lives and money were spent over the years that followed 9/11? Biden will bring a halt to all this, admitting what the Soviets, the British, the French, the Greeks and the Persians came to realize throughout the centuries: You cannot conquer a region that openly rejects the conventional method of political thinking, has few urban centers, and boasts terrain that is among the most difficult any army may ever encounter.
Such a concession from the most powerful army that humanity has ever witnessed brings an official end to the so-called “American century,” which started with the US entry into the First World War. The international system has been multipolar for many decades now; however, future historians will use the day of America’s final withdrawal from Afghanistan to signal the official end of an era.
What does the future hold for Afghanistan? The omens, alas, are not good. The Afghans have to exercise efficient and operational self-help and drastically oppose the return of the Taliban in the central scene. This means that, for the first time, Afghan patriotism has to triumph over loyalty to tribes or factions. In other words, the most challenging task for Afghanistan is to explore the depths of the Westphalian system and emerge as a conventional nation state.
And what does the future hold for the rest of the international system? From the statements of the US president and his close associates, it is obvious that America will concentrate even more on a double deterrence process toward China and Russia. Antagonism will rise further. Yet, as I constantly argue in my lectures and writings, this will build on systemic stability rather than instability. After all, the international arena exists in continuous antagonistic activity, meaning that multipolar conditions come closer to what international relations theory calls “systemic anomaly.”
The end of the American century is a fact. But this does not mean that the US is not the most robust and most influential Western state in international politics. On the contrary, the rise of antagonism between the US, Russia and China will allow Washington to revive the transatlantic geostrategic goal as a valuable tool to withstand the systemic pressure and diversify, once again, its tremendous and unique hard and soft power skills. Biden is more than capable of achieving this monumental transition in the smoothest possible manner.
• Spyridon Litsas, Ph.D., is Professor of International Relations at the University of Macedonia in Greece and at the Rabdan Academy in Abu Dhabi, UAE.