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Why Has US Lost Every Major War It Fought After World War II? – OpEd

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Misplaced objectives, bad tactics and indifference to local sentiments are cited as reasons 

The frightful hurry in which the Americans and their hangers-on attempted to fly out of Kabul on August 15 after the Taliban had entered the capital city, is rightly described as the “Saigon moment” in the 20-year history of the US military misadventure in Afghanistan. On April 30, 1975, the Americans fled from Saigon in a similar way. 

Post-World War II “Super Power” America has not won a single war in the last 75 years. Even the 1950-53 Korean war was a draw. All it can boast of are winning skirmishes in the Dominican Republic (1965), Grenada (1983) and Panama (1989). Subsequent American failures in Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan, despite its enormous technical and manpower superiority, only go to show that brawn alone can’t establish hegemony.         

Richard Lachmann, Professor of Sociology at the State University of New York at Albany, in his article entitled: Why the Most Powerful Nation in World History Keeps Losing Wars, in the journal Los Angeles Review of Books (April 18, 2021) gives three reasons for this phenomenon: Firstly, America spends an enormous lot on expensive complex high-tech weapons which cannot be effectively used in present-day wars because these wars are small scale.  The opponents in these are, typically, lightly armed non-state guerillas unrecognizably mixed with the general population. What they lack in equipment they make up with a fanatic zeal and high morale and they have popular support.  

In America, weapons purchases are “over-determined” by military contractors who lobby for high-tech weapons because those secure the highest profits, Lachmann points out. 

Secondly, there is opposition from the American public to significant American casualties. This forces the adoption of war strategies that reduce interactions between American soldiers on the ground and local civilians. This in turn affects intelligence gathering and the cultivation of local goodwill which are necessary for winning counter-insurgency wars. 

Thirdly, local populations are alienated by the US government’s neoliberalist policies which allow US companies to plunder the occupied country with the cooperation of a few local collaborators, who also get discredited in the process. American operations thus acquire a bad odor.

Lachmann says that successful invaders are successful not only because they are militarily strong but also because they enlist local support by giving economic aid and providing rehabilitation. After World War II, the US successfully cultivated the defeated Germans and the Japanese through huge rehabilitation packages. But the US ceased doing when it came to countries in Asia and the Middle East. Instead, it adopted an exploitative policy. Lachmann says that the neocons in America saw in Iraq a way to enrich Americans by gaining control of the massive Iraqi oil and other assets. 

The American media in its reporting on the end of Afghan war rarely go into the reasons for the debacle and earlier debacles in the last 75 years. The only talk about the dreadful fate that supposedly awaits Afghanistan and its innocent freedom loving people under Taliban’s  rigid Islamic regime and how people are already fighting to get to the West. There are grim predictions about Afghanistan’s falling for the willy Chinese. There is also an alarmist section which is highlighting the possibility of the US being flooded with Afghan refugees. There will probably never be any rethinking on America’s foreign policy and overseas military operations.  

Unwarranted Aims

In a phone conversation with the US Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, on Monday, the Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi  pointed out that one of the main reasons for the American defeat in Afghanistan is its bid to thrust its value system in other countries with different cultures.

“Without the support of the people, a government cannot stand, and the use of power and military means to solve problems will only cause more problems,” Wang said, adding that the developments in Afghanistan deserve serious reflection.

Strategic Profligacy

Writing in Global Times, Shen Yi, Professor in the School of International Relations and Public Affairs at Fudan University in China, says that another cause of American failures is its “strategic profligacy”.

“The first period of profligacy took place when US decided to intervene in the civil war of Vietnam militarily, trying to establish a so-called model of Western democracy in southern Vietnam, in an attempt to resist the expansion of Communism on the Indochinese Peninsula and in Southeast Asia. It ended with an embarrassing evacuation from Saigon in 1975. The history of US hegemony after 1945 is roughly the following cycle: expansion – profligacy – contraction – buildup of strength – expansion. After withdrawing from Vietnam, the US learned its lesson and behaved itself for a short while. But obviously, it rushed into a new round of strategic profligacy in 2001. Core decision-makers in the US government no longer pursued a clear and functional goal, but were trapped into a swamp of trivial and endless puzzles. They have been treating US strategic strength and resources as a blank check and expending it without limit.” 

“In the past 20 years, Washington has spent more than $2 trillion on the war in Afghanistan. According to Forbes, this includes US $800 billion in direct war-fighting costs and US$ 85 billion to train more than 300,000 Afghan forces. Last Wednesday, a US defense official said that the Taliban would take over Kabul within 90 days. However, the Taliban vanquished the Afghan government army that the US and its allies spent 20 years working to build in less than 10 days,” Prof. Shen said.

And the American plight has gotten worse, he points out. “In 1975, the evacuation of the US Embassy in Saigon demonstrated the power and efficiency of the fine operation of a giant war machine that a superpower should have. At that time, around 28 ships participated in the evacuation, including at least four aircraft carriers. However, this time in Kabul, it was a temporary combination of impromptu responses: Not only did the security forces in Afghanistan collapse quickly, but also the US Embassy fled Kabul helter-skelter.”

“It reflects that there are no longer any experts in the core circles of strategic decision-making who know how US troops could leave Afghanistan properly – in a way that can not only balance the political considerations of US leadership but also maintain the decency and dignity the US needs to show as a superpower,” Prof.Shen said. 

“Other global actors, when they witness Kabul’s ‘Saigon moment’ through the haze above the city, may ask: How much capacity does the US still have to stay in its position as the so-called leader to lead its partners to meet various challenges? Could such a US government that has ridiculously withdrawn its troops from Afghanistan, let alone construct it, really be at the core of Western leadership in dealing with global challenges? Any rational person needs to think about this.”

“Lastly, people must remain deeply aware of the fact that strategic changes and a major turning point have been taking place. For Washington, reproducing the experience of the Cold War will not help it overcome the discomfort caused by its contraction from strategic profligacy. It may even fall into a stage of accelerated loss of hegemonic strategic resources due to wrong perceptions caused by emotions and stereotypes,” the professor warned. 

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P. K. Balachandran

P. K. Balachandran is a senior Indian journalist working in Sri Lanka for local and international media and has been writing on South Asian issues for the past 21 years.

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