The recent situation in Afghanistan following President Biden’s decision to evacuate U.S. troops has been an ongoing story for the past month, instigating a multitude of questions regarding the now damaged reputation of the U.S., changes in foreign policy, implications for the people of Afghanistan and the rise of Taliban government. To answer these questions, the University of Connecticut American Studies program organized a virtual Zoom discussion titled “Afghanistan And The Course Of U.S. Empire,” on Wednesday evening, co-sponsored by Middle East Studies and Asian and Asian American Studies.
The session was moderated by American studies Director Chris Vials, who introduced the three panelists featured: Gilbert Achcar, professor of development studies and international relations at the University of London; Quan Tran, senior lecturer and senior program coordinator in the ethnicity, race and migration program at Yale University; and Robert Vitalis, a professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania.
Achcar was the first to speak about his thoughts on the situation. He started by referring to former President George W. Bush’s launch of the War on Terror as a “total failure,” mentioning that the U.S.’s biggest defeat was not actually Afghanistan, but Iraq. Despite this, Achcar went on to explain how the war on terror actually managed to revive traditional military perspectives that were thought to be abandoned following the Vietnam War.
“The key issue here is that the whole cycle of the war against terror was a sharp break with the U.S.-revised military doctrine of the post-Vietnam period,” Achcar said. “Especially during the Reagan years, you had a reconsideration of a number of things which were based on the idea that the U.S. should not get bogged down in protracted war or occupation. Instead, it should use its massive force, its massive power to crush any enemy or would-be enemy and strike from a distance — distant strikes using the new technologies of smart weapons.”
Achcar continued by applying this idea to the actions of past and current U.S. leaders.
“The issue is that we have seen progressively a return to the old doctrine, manifested in the attitudes of both Barack Obama and Donald Trump, between which there is much more continuity than discontinuity in this regard — in regard of the military doctrine, of the U.S. projection of power abroad,” Achcar said. “Both had very clear reluctance regarding any deployment of troops underground in any kind of massive way and both had a special taste for distant strikes, including drones. We know that Obama intensified the use of drones far beyond what Bush had done and Trump continued. Trump and Biden were keen on showing their readiness to use missile strikes in Syria during the first months of their presidencies. So we are seeing a return to that kind of perspective that was elaborated after Vietnam, which is basically an intensive use of remote warfare.”
Tran, on the other hand, mostly paralleled the incidents in Afghanistan to incidents of the Vietnam War. She talked about the specific narrative of loss that has become prevalent when discussing Afghanistan in the media, which according to her, is an inaccurate way of phrasing it.
“This is a pattern that you could see in terms of the Vietnam War, where it was a war that also lasted in the two-decade range and then at some point, the interest [was] not there any longer,” Tran said. “So this loss is a loss that [was] very much calculated [by] the U.S. I also wanted to emphasize that in withdrawing in the manner that it has, the U.S. didn’t lose Afghanistan. I think the verb would be ‘abandoned.’ Abandonment is a sentiment that I think is important to also consider.”
Tran’s thoughts on viewing the civilian evacuation of Afghanistan were accompanied by further comparisons to the Vietnam War.
“Thinking as a Vietnamese American and a child of refugees, the scene[s] of evacuation in Afghanistan that we all saw in August were really eerily familiar and heartbreaking to someone like me because there are so many parallels in those particular images,” Tran said. “I think the media also kind of framed it in that way for us because I think the memory of Vietnam is still very raw and in a way, I think it percolates the imagination in how we are to relate this particular moment to moments of the past.”
Vitalis, who was the last to speak, focused on the differing reactions of the U.S. toward the end of his own segment. He called out much of the reasoning used by public commentators as — according to John Hobson’s great grandson’s definition — racism.
“The core of racism is the idea of defective agency; of in this case, Afghans,” Vitalis said. “For the so-called liberal internationalists inside and outside the Biden administration, the failure of the state building project and the ignominious defeat by the Taliban is to be laid where? At the feet of Afghans themselves. We’re not the problem — or so it is imagined … ‘The leadership was corrupt’ and so forth. ‘We tried, but what can you do?’ Now, you can hear the sophisticated version of this on Ben Rhodes’ podcast, ‘Pod Saves the World,’ or the less sophisticated version that at its extreme goes, ‘Those Afghans are just unwilling to fight for their country.’ And I cannot tell you how many people have told me that in the past few weeks. That’s an argument of course that ignores the 80,000 or so lives lost in the past few years in the fighting. This is just one more instance of what I call the liberal internationalist’s fable, which assumes transparency, honesty, good faith and superior capacity on the part of the U.S. and that always ends in disenchantment.”