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US has no intention of a global military retreat despite Biden’s promise

The military-industrial complex that feeds the US economy will lead to more remote warfare as a myriad of risks diminish worldwide security

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
7 September 2021, 10.19am
Joe Biden speaks at the White House about the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan, April 2021
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Andrew Harnik / Pool via CNP/AdMedia

The US’s disastrously chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan has ended. Whether Taliban rule itself will descend into chaos as financial and other crises unfold is far from clear, but the regime has close friends in the region, especially within Pakistan’s military. Neighbouring China sees many opportunities for gain. Both these countries depend on a perceived level of Taliban-run stability, but even more distant states are already elbowing their way in.

Within a day of the final US plane taking off, the Qatari military landed with a team of specialists tasked with setting up the airport as a commercial operation. The Russian, Chinese and Pakistani embassies in Kabul have remained operational throughout the changeover, while the UK and US already have embassies in Doha, making it easy to meet the Taliban at their existing diplomatic office there. Even the British foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, flew to Qatar in haste to help things along, and possibly salvage his career.

Overshadowing all of this on the world stage is the weakened status of the US and President Joe Biden’s position. There is little doubt that his personal standing has been damaged, and we may now see Kamala Harris coming to the fore. Before the recent withdrawal chaos, the twenty-year war had become deeply unpopular, with the majority of Americans only too keen to see the troops return home. A Pew poll conducted in the last days of August showed that even as the tragedy in Kabul unfolded, support for the withdrawal among US adults remained at 54% to 42%.

Little evidence of state-building

In his speech from the White House this week, 24 hours after the last US soldier left Kabul, Biden accepted some responsibility for the mess – while also blaming others – but went on to make a much more general point: "This decision about Afghanistan is not just about Afghanistan. It’s about ending an era of major military operations to remake other countries.” His declaration that such operations, especially when they included state-building, were no longer among US policy priorities, is widely assumed to be a major change of direction.

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Since US security policy impinges on the rest of the world, this may have a considerable long-term impact, but it raises many more questions than it answers. For a start, to what extent has the US even been involved in state-building over the past two decades?

The Afghanistan operation was supposed to destroy al-Qaida and terminate the Taliban regime, but the Bush administration lost interest in Afghanistan within weeks of the initial success in November 2001, leaving it to the Europeans and others to rebuild the state as Washington moved on to the wider ‘axis of evil’, starting with Iraq. It did go back into Afghanistan within a few years as the Taliban made their comeback but the emphasis then was on counterinsurgency, with state-building very much secondary.

It’s true that with Iraq, at least, the initial focus was on building a new state intended to be a shining example of a pure neoliberal domain. Yet the transitional government known as the Coalition Provisional Authority was run from the Pentagon rather than the State Department and was aimed at transforming the Iraqi economy into an example for the region and beyond. Being run from the Pentagon took it far closer to the intentions of the Bush Administration and away from the professionals of the State Department who would ordinarily have been in charge.

Plans included wholesale privatisation of state assets, opening up oil and gas exploitation to foreign control, a minimum of financial regulation and a flat rate tax system, but it all went badly wrong, so much so that Barack Obama could fight his 2008 election campaign on getting out of the country as soon as possible.

A drawdown from fighting wars overseas should surely mean lower military spending but Biden has instead sought a massive budget of $715bn

The US had no involvement in any state-building during the 2011 war in Libya and it was left to the Europeans to make a hash of it. As for the 2014-2018 US-led air war against ISIS in Iraq and Syria, that was straightforward counterinsurgency fought from the air rather than the ground, speeding up the global transition to remote warfare.

That brings us to the wider record of recent years. What Biden proposes is not new but a continuation of Obama’s policy of getting out of Iraq and, in his second term, cutting back radically on troops in Afghanistan after his initial military onslaught in 2010 failed to force the Taliban to negotiate.

Nor does it mean a drawdown in US military operations overseas, but rather two changes in posture. One is to continue Obama’s ‘bring on the drones’ approach that reached its height during the 2014-2018 battle, when ISIS lost more than 50,000 of its supporters in the intense air war, while the few US losses were due to accidents, rather than combat.

This is evident across the world, including Mali, Somalia, Iraq, Syria and of course, Afghanistan, where last week’s anti-ISIS-K attack involved an armed drone. Overall, we have firmly entered the age of remote warfare, with very few boots on the ground and instead, reliance on armed drones, strike aircraft, special forces, private military corporations and local militias.

The second change lies in the new military budget for the fiscal year 2022 (FY2022) that starts next month. Any drawdown from fighting wars overseas should surely mean lower military spending but Biden has sought a budget of $715bn, which is massive by any stretch of the imagination and close to the highest US military budget during the Cold War. (The UK’s is less than a tenth of that). Moreover, Congress wants to increase that by $25bn to a revised figure of $740bn.

Pork-barrel politics dominates

The US Senate had already passed this higher figure and the House of Representatives followed suit after the House Armed Services Committee held a one-day session this week. As Defense News reported on Thursday: “The 14 Democrats who voted with Republicans on the measure included representative Elaine Luria, who represents a shipbuilding-heavy district in Virginia. She hailed the funding boost’s inclusion of public and private shipyards: ‘The president’s defence budget fails to adequately address the rising threats of China, Iran and Russia and I will not hesitate to break with my party if it’s in the best interest of our national security and the local economy of Hampton Roads.’”

Even if Biden wanted to scale back military spending, he would have a devil of a job to do so. Indeed, the power of the military-industrial complex, and especially the role of pork-barrel politics, where government spending is appropriated for localised projects, makes it close to impossible. The talk in Washington may be about facing up to the Chinese, but the FY2022 budget has plenty of funding for counter-terror operations too. And so well it might.

As my recent column pointed out, the challenge of extremist Islamism has not in any way diminished. Movements are active right across the Sahel, from Mauritania to Chad, as well as elsewhere in Africa – Mozambique, the DRC and Somalia. More are active in Yemen, while ISIS retains paramilitaries in Syria and Iraq, and there is radical Islamist activity in Pakistan, India, southern Thailand, the Philippines and Indonesia, as well as both al-Qaida and ISIS in Afghanistan.

Added to that, the COVID-19 pandemic is still expanding in the Global South and worldwide vaccination is highly unlikely to be achieved before mid-2023. The impact is increased marginalisation around the world and all the simmering resentment that comes with that.

This marginalisation is just the ticket to recruit youths, especially men, to extreme movements – and climate breakdown will increase marginalisation even more if it is not prevented.

In the world as it is now, any talk of the US under Biden retreating from a global military role is nonsense. As the then head of the CIA, James Woolsey, said in 1993 at the end of the Cold War, although the US won, it had entered a jungle filled with a bewildering variety of poisonous snakes. As long as the US and other military powers consider the use of force to be their first port of call, little will change.

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