In Joe Biden’s keynote speech following the bloody debacle at Kabul airport, the American president presented a sober vision of the country’s new foreign policy realities that both liberals and conservatives seem loath to accept: that the age of remoulding the world in America’s image is over; that bloody and failing land wars in the depths of Asia were a luxury America could no longer afford; and that all along, the creeping, ever-expanding and ever-costlier mission had been a gigantic trap.
As Biden observed, entirely correctly, “there’s nothing China or Russia would rather have, would want more in this competition than the United States to be bogged down another decade in Afghanistan”. Instead, he asserted, “this decision about Afghanistan is not just about Afghanistan. It’s about ending an era of major military operations to remake other countries.” Whatever the howls of outrage from America’s prestige opinion pages, the age of liberal imperialism is over: the time of nakedly realist great power competition has begun.
Yet Biden’s worldview, so outrageous for an American commentariat as recklessly jingoistic as John Bull magazine in its Edwardian prime, is supported by analysis from an unexpected quarter: that of the architect himself of both America’s War on Terror, and of the great slaughter in New York that precipitated it, Osama bin Laden.
Piecing together the themes of bin Laden’s various statements to the outside world in the years immediately before and after 9/11, a specific, concrete plan emerges, by which the “slave of God” — as the billionaire son of a Yemen-born construction magnate styled himself — would accelerate the collapse of the American empire through embroiling it in long, unwinnable and expensive ground wars in the Islamic world. This plan, bin Laden claimed, had formulated itself through his experience of the jihad against the Soviets in Afghanistan, whose ignominious withdrawal from the country had shortly preceded their imperial collapse, events in which he himself had played a relatively undistinguished part.
In an interview conducted a month and a half after 9/11, bin Laden observed that:
“the Soviet Empire has become — with God’s grace — a figment of the imagination. Today, there is no more Soviet Empire; it split into smaller states and only Russia is left… So we believe that the defeat of America is something achievable — with the permission of God — and it is easier for us — with the permission of God — than the defeat of the Soviet Empire previously.”
Why would it be easier, asked the journalist, al Jazeera’s then-star reporter Taysir Alluni incredulously? Because, bin Laden replied, “we have already fought them — like our brothers who have engaged in battle with the Americans, as in Somalia. We have not yet found a significant force of note. There is a great aura about America, which it uses to scare people before it engages in battle.”
But, he claimed, the brief and inglorious American episode in Somalia showed that American power could not stretch to imposing order on insurgent forces far from home: “America left, dragging behind it tails of humiliation, defeat, and loss, without looking back; it retreated unexpectedly, and it forgot all that great media enthusiasm about the New World Order, and how it was the master of that order, and could do whatever it pleased.”
This was not the first time bin Laden had used the example of Somalia to persuade sceptics of the logic underlying his plan. In his first interview with al-Jazeera three years earlier, after al-Qaeda’s twin bombings of the American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, which had killed more than 200 people, bin Laden noted that:
“We believe that America is much weaker than Russia, and we have learned from our brothers who fought in the jihad in Somalia of the incredible weakness and cowardice of the American soldier. Not even eighty of them had been killed and they fled in total darkness in the middle of the night, unable to see a thing.”
Even before then, in a 1997 interview with CNN journalist Peter Arnett, bin Laden noted that in Somalia, “after a little resistance, the American troops left after achieving nothing. They left after claiming that they were the largest power on earth. They left after some resistance from powerless, poor, unarmed people whose only weapon is the belief in God Almighty, and who do not fear the fabricated American media lies.”
Indeed, he added, claiming dubiously that veterans of the Afghan jihad had fought against the Americans in Somalia, “We learned from those who fought there, that they were surprised to see the low spiritual morale of the American fighters in comparison with the experience they had with the Russian fighters. The Americans ran away from those fighters who fought and killed them, while the latter stayed.”
In choosing Afghanistan as the location for the war with the United States which would, he believed, bring about its decline, bin Laden embroiled the Afghan people in a conflict not of their choosing, doubling the length of their civil war by another twenty years and inflating its butchers’ bill by 46,000 civilian deaths alone. And yet, with the easy confidence of a billionaire, he told Afghans in a video message that their sacrifice was worth it — and that “whoever doubts this should learn from the Russians how the blessed jihad destroyed their myth.” Because, bin Laden claimed, “the struggle is both financial and physical” so that even as the Taliban reeled under American bombing, “it is possible to strike the economic base that is the foundation of the military base, so when their economy is depleted they will be too busy with each other to be able to enslave poor peoples.”
This emphasis on the War on Terror as a giant, entrapping money pit for the American empire runs throughout bin Laden’s messages. In his 2002 Letter to the American People, bin Laden taunted the inhabitants of “the worst civilisation witnessed by the history of mankind” that “it was easy for us to provoke this administration and lure it into perdition. All we had to do was send two mujahidin to the Far East to raise up a rag on which “al-Qaeda” was written, and the generals came running. This inflicted human, financial, and political losses on America without them even achieving anything worth mentioning, apart from providing business for their private corporations.”
Indeed, in his critique of America’s conversion of the War on Terror into a vast and lucrative wealth-creation scheme for the military-industrial complex, bin Laden either echoes or prefigures the identical critiques of American anti-interventionists of both Left and Right, from Bernie Sanders to Trump’s previous, anti-interventionist incarnation.
As bin Laden boasted, the massive borrowing needed to finance the wars “truly shows that al-Qaeda has made gains, but on the other hand it also shows that the Bush administration has likewise profited. Anyone seeing the enormity of the contracts won by dubious large corporations, like Halliburton and others connected to Bush and his administration, can be certain of that. But the reality is that it is you, the American people and your economy, who are losing.” For “we are continuing to make America bleed to the point of bankruptcy, by God’s will,” he asserted.
Yet it was only the presence of America’s then-Republican government, surely a gift from God, which enabled this situation: “the White House leadership, which is so keen to open up war fronts for its various corporations, whether in the field of arms, oil, or construction, has also contributed to these remarkable results for al-Qaeda.” Indeed, he mocked, “to some analysts and diplomats, it seems as if we and the White House are on the same team shooting at the United States’s own goal, despite our different intentions.”
No wonder, then, that Biden has similarly invoked the vast cost of the wars — two trillion dollars in his estimate — in bringing about their end. But even this colossal sum may be an understatement. As Fortune noted recently, this figure does not include the interest payments on the loans taken out to prosecute the war, nor the benefits paid to the survivors of the more than 7,000 American dead. Nor does it include perhaps the greatest single expense: the medical bills for the war’s more than 50,000 wounded veterans, which may alone total $2.3 trillion by 2050.
All told, claims Fortune, citing Brown University’s Costs of War project, the real bill of the War on Terror, including the lesser engagements in Yemen and Syria, may end up closer to eight trillion dollars, the effect of which American taxpayers have not yet faced, as “almost the entire cost of the Afghan and Iraq wars has come from borrowed money, much of which has yet to be repaid”.
Among America’s creditors is, of course, China, which made use of the West’s overriding distraction with winning over mountain village chieftains in the wilds of Afghanistan, with trying and failing to install a functioning liberal democracy in Iraq and then with destroying the Islamic State caliphate the invasion spawned to accelerate its rise to global industrial dominance. It is surely no accident that only now that the War on Terror is winding down, competition with China has finally intruded into the American foreign policy consciousness, despite being mocked as eccentric or even racist when expressed by then-presidential candidate Trump as the empire’s overriding challenge.
Even in the new Cold War over infrastructure and state capacity, perhaps the battleground on which wavering nations will be competed for, the money wasted on the failed wars in Asia could, as the Institute of Policy Studies thinktank observes, “have solved multiple problems in the U.S., like erasing all student debt for $1.7 trillion [or] decarbonizing the entire electricity grid for $4.5 trillion.”
But we are where we are. The twenty failed years of war, debt and distraction may not yet have led to America’s collapse in the manner bin Laden eagerly anticipated, but it certainly set the then-sole superpower at a disadvantage in preparing for the coming competition over its right to global hegemony. As Biden noted in his speech announcing the withdrawal, abandoning the Afghan adventure was necessary because “we need to focus on shoring up America’s core strengths to meet the strategic competition with China and other nations that is really going to determine our future.” Returning to this theme in his speech justifying the chaotic scenes in Kabul, he reiterated that “the world is changing. We’re engaged in a serious competition with China… We have to shore up America’s competitiveness to meet these new challenges in the competition for the 21st century,” and “as we turn the page on the foreign policy that has guided our nation the last two decades, we’ve got to learn from our mistakes.”
But can America do so? Their foreign policy establishment certainly seems averse to learning any lessons from two decades of failure, even if ordinary voters overwhelmingly support Biden’s diminution of America’s historical mission. It is not obvious that a GOP establishment responsible for the manifold strategic disasters of the twenty-year war can legitimately criticise Biden’s decision to end it, especially not when its last president rode to power partly on the same platform.
Yet even bin Laden’s purported killer, a SEAL operative-turned conservative talkshow celebrity and anti-masking activist, maintains his brand by asserting that “It baffles me right now that we’re even considering negotiating with the Taliban … Why don’t we just go kill them?” — to the applause of American conservatives who applauded Trump’s anti-interventionism just as passionately when the random spinning wheel of America’s culture war was calibrated to reward different incentives.
For al-Qaeda itself, America’s endless internal political conflict, its deepest malaise, is nothing but a cause for crowing celebration. In a recent propaganda video, America Burns, an adaptation of a previous magazine article, al-Qaeda surveyed the American political scene, crowing at the internal divisions of a “decaying polity” on the “verge of collapse”. In al-Qaeda’s framing, America is teetering on the edge of civil war. Its vast security apparatus has increasingly been directed onto American voters themselves as the combination of crude populism and the reactive collusion between the security state and “the liberal press that controls the American media industry” raised the country’s tensions to boiling point. As a consequence, America’s “usury-based economy” is merely “an inflated balloon ready to implode”, serving only “the corporate robber barons” and “Communist China.” Indeed, they boast, “It was Allah’s wisdom that the fourth plane whose downing was ordered by Dick Cheney on the 11th of September did not reach its target, and Americans were left to destroy the edifice of their democracy with their own hands.”
So what can be said of America’s standing twenty years after 9/11? Strategically, the hegemon appears a strange oxymoron, a global military empire which cannot win wars. It can kill hundreds of thousands of people and cause untold destruction — generally with the very best and noblest of intentions — but is seemingly unable to deploy the overwhelming military force on which its global position depends in a way that advances its interests. Given its military caste was unable even to manage a bloodless withdrawal from an airfield it controlled under a timetable it itself set, who can bet confidently that they would emerge the victor from a struggle against a competent and prepared near-peer adversary like China?
Only a reckless gambler, or the British government, would be happy with such a high-stakes throw of the dice. Politically, America’s divisions are a cautionary tale rather than an example to the world it still claims to lead; if the US still retains its status as the global standard-bearer for liberal democracy, then liberal democracy is not as enticing a prospect as it once appeared.
Yet America’s withdrawal from Afghanistan, like the withdrawal from Iraq — which, after a decent interval to avoid the appearance of being pushed out by the Iranian-backed militias the war empowered, seems certain to follow — does not herald the end of American power. It was the wars themselves that were the trap, as bin Laden made clear time and time again, and their ending is a necessary moment of rebalancing to focus on the far greater challenge ahead. In this, we can say Biden was the president the American empire needed, even if his supporters didn’t realise that was what they were getting: a cautious realist brought to power by a liberal-imperialist establishment, and a broadly competent manager of retrenchment, and objective decline.
It is therefore wrong to claim — as Tom Tugendhat and others have — that the withdrawal from Afghanistan is America’s Suez moment, not least because Suez was a military victory for Britain. It would be more apt to view it as America’s Singapore, a failure of planning and overconfidence which heralded the collapse of imperial power in vast swathes of Asia, yet a moral and psychological defeat more than a terminal strategic one. The Suez moment, if it comes, still lies over the horizon.
The lustre of the American empire has been tarnished, but the core underlying structure may hold good for decades yet; if America has lost its claims to global leadership, it has also lost its desire to press them. In abandoning America’s failing wars to focus on its decaying infrastructure and the great power competition that will now define its future, Biden has, perhaps, twenty years after the carnage of 9/11, finally exorcised bin Laden’s ghost.