M. Shahid Alam
During the Cold War, the USA and USSR were arch rivals, each the antipodes of the other. For some four decades, they battled each other for ‘survival’ and global hegemony, staring down at each other with nuclear tipped missiles, ready at the push of a button to consummate mutually assured destruction. What parallels could there possibly exist between such irreconcilable antagonists?
Dismissively, the skeptic might retort that their similarities start and end with the first two letters in their names. The USA won and the USSR lost the Cold War. With all four of the letters in its name, the USSR is dead and gone. Its successor state, Russia, now ranks a distant second behind the USA in military power, a position it retains only by virtue of its nuclear arsenal. Measured in international dollars, the Russian economy ranked eighth in the world in 2009, trailing behind its former client, India.
On the other hand, the USA still believes it can ride roughshod over much of the world like a Colossus. It came close to doing this for a few years after the collapse of communism. In the years since its occupation of Iraq, that image has been deflated quite a bit. Haven’t the events of the last decade – the growing challenge to its hegemony in Latin America, the economic rise of India and China, and the recovery of Russia from its collapse of the previous decade – downsized the Colossus of the 1990s? Indeed, the near collapse of its economy in 2008 appears to have brought the Colossus down on its knees.
Coming back to the question of parallels, we can begin by pointing out that USA is in exactly the same place, quite literally, where the USSR once was. In Afghanistan. The USSR was in Afghanistan between 1979 and 1989: the USA has been there since November 2001.
Isn’t this the oddest of coincidences? And a bit ominous too – since, only a year after it withdrew its 100,000 troops from Afghanistan, the USSR collapsed.
Of course, no one expects the USA to collapse, whether it leaves Afghanistan or stays there. Unlike the Soviets who left Afghanistan after ten years of a bruising occupation, the United States is not in a mood to leave anytime soon. If necessary, claim some American politicians and generals, their troops could stay there for decades.
What is it that has drawn great powers – three over the past two centuries – into Afghanistan, but makes it so hard for them to leave in dignity?
Britain, USSR and USA have gone to Afghanistan for different reasons. Britain went into Afghanistan repeatedly to create a buffer state, to distance its Indian colony from Russia. The Soviet troops entered to shore up a fraternal communist regime, but if things had gone well, they would have walk through Afghanistan into the warm waters of the Indian Ocean. It is hard to say why exactly the USA landed its troops in Afghanistan. Was it to kill or capture Osama bin Laden? Or was that only an excuse for stationing its troops in Iran’s backyard, close to the Caspian oil fields, just south of Russia and China, and looking into Pakistan with an eye to rolling back its nuclear program?
Vital questions, but answering them will take us away from the subject of this essay – the question of parallels between the USA and the USSR.
Afghanistan points us towards a more troubling parallel. Some people have argued that by ramping up the arms race, President Ronald Reagan accelerated the collapse of the Soviet Union. Irresistibly, the Soviet leaders took the bait since their prestige depended on their ability to match the USA militarily. With a smaller economy, and a slowdown in growth that had started in the 1970s, the arms race made matters worse. As growth continued to decline, the ensuing stagnation in living standards bred popular discontent. When economic reforms failed to spur growth, disillusionment infected the leadership of the communist party. Collapse came quick: the system had lost its defenders.
Is it outlandish to suggest that the USA has been traveling down a similar road since 2001? For sure, no one thinks that the United States is on the road to collapse. Nevertheless, increasingly one gets the impression that its recent military adventurism is hastening its descent to the second spot – behind China – in the global hierarchy of economic and military power.
The dramatic collapse of the USSR in 1990 gave a new impetus to American ambitions. It encouraged feelings, not only on the right, that this unipolar moment in American history should be made irreversible. In particular, the neoconservatives argued more vigorously than before for a military build-up and a more muscular display of US military power everywhere, but especially in the Middle East.
Since the neoconservatives were embedded in the Republican Party, they had to cool their heels for eight years, from 1992 to 2000, during the presidency of Bill Clinton. When the Republicans returned to power in 2000, the neoconservatives quickly seized key positions in the administration of George W. Bush, especially in the office of the Vice-President and the Department of Defense.
In September 2000, the Neoconservatives had written that they would have to wait for ‘some catastrophic and catalyzing event – like a new Pearl Harbor’ to launch their unilateralist policies to deepen their global hegemony. They did not have to wait long. On September 11, 2001, Al-Qaida, a small group of non-state actors – terrorists, in common parlance – obliged by attacking the Twin Towers and Pentagon, killing close to 3000 Americans.
At the press of a button, the well-laid neoconservative plans for endless war were put into motion. They called it the Global War On Terror.
The GWOT was insanely ambitious. It was launched with an ultimatum to all weaker non-Western nations: You are with us or against us. To execute this war, the US would mobilize, expand and use its global military forces to threaten, attack and invade ‘unfriendly’ countries. Neither international nor domestic laws would stand in its way. Various US agencies would kidnap, imprison without trial, torture and assassinate anyone resisting or suspected of resisting its policies. The goal was to immobile resistance to American hegemony with fear – with state terror.
A comprehensive accounting of the costs to the USA of this reckless policy of unilateralism will not be available for a while, but we do have some partial and tentative estimates. At the end of 2008, the direct budgetary costs of the GWOT were expected to reach $758 billion. In March 2008, Linda Bilmes and Joseph Stiglitz estimated that the indirect budgetary costs of GWOT – of restoring depleted military hardware and materiel and support for veterans of the wars – would add up to $1.5 trillion. “All told,” they wrote, “the bill for the Iraq war is likely to top $3 trillion. And that is a conservative estimate.” Add to that the rapidly escalating costs of the AfPak War that is being ramped up even now, nine years after the Afghan War was declared to be a success.
The US wars in the Islamicate impose other painful costs, perhaps more debilitating than the budgetary expenses. We are referring to the human toll of these wars, the erosion of liberties it has produced inside the United States, and the manner in which it is undermining the economic leadership of the United States. The United States military has kept its military deaths low, at 5340 in January 2010, with greatly improved body armor, armor plated troop carriers, and a war fought remotely from the air, which saves American lives by sacrificing those of civilians in Iraq, Afghanistan Pakistan and Yemen. In terms of the near-sighted calculus of US politicians, the low US military deaths make these wars attractive. They forget, however, that high civilian deaths in the countries they attack or invade make their wars unwinnable by fuelling resistance.
The figures for Americans wounded and traumatized by wars are much higher. As of July 2009, according to official statistics, 34,592 American soldiers were wounded in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. A much greater number of veterans of these wars are suffering from post traumatic stress disorder(PTSD). In November 2007, according to one official source, there were a “minimum of 300,000 psychological casualties” from the war in Iraq alone. The lifetime cost of treating them is estimated at $660 billion.
The economic damage of the wars can be gauged by the speed with which China has been narrowing its lag behind, or even moving ahead of, the United States since 2001. During much of the last decade, the US has concentrated a huge portion of its resources, policy focus and media attention on fighting multiple wars; it has borrowed from China and Saudi Arabia to finance these wars; its economy suffered a near-collapse in 2008; and it has done little to repair its infrastructure, reduce its dependence on oil, or fix its expensive health-care system. During the same years, China, free form the burden of wars, has directed its policy focus and resources to developing its infrastructure, green energy, manufactures, exports, higher education, and securing access to raw materials globally.
The damage to America’s moral standing is not less worrisome. The United States stands accused before the world of engaging in a war of aggression against Iraq, waging an undeclared war against Pakistan, and sanctioning torture, kidnappings, assassinations, and imprisonment without trial. “Fifteen years ago,” writes Kishore Mahbubani, a former diplomat from Singapore, “if anyone had suggested that Western countries would endorse or allow the use of torture, they would have been dismissed out of hand.” After 2001, torture became routine. In 2005, Irene Khan, the head of Amnesty International, said, “Guantanamo is the gulag of our times.” One year after he took office, Obama has not ended these human rights violations. Indeed, he has chosen assassinations as a major instrument of his war against the Taliban in Pakistan.
What did it cost al-Qaida to produce this avalanche of misdirected and self-damaging actions by the United States? The sum total of investments the leadership of al-Qaida made in its attack on the Twin Towers and Pentagon is trifling, as these things go – the lives of 19 men and an investment of between $400,000 and $500,000 in flight training, airline tickets, lodging in Western capitals, box cutters, etc. That is roughly equal to the cost of deploying one US soldier in Iraq for one year. 
Had the leaders of al-Qaida anticipated this dramatic payoff from their paltry investment? Was 9-11 part of a strategy to lure the world’s most powerful military machine to place their boots on Muslim lands, where the Jihadists would successively engage and defeat them, and eventually drive the United States out of the Islamicate? Indeed, this was the strategy al-Qaida adopted towards the end of the 1990s. Challenged by their failure to defeat the ‘near enemy,’ the Egyptian and Algerian governments allied to the United States, al-Qaida decided to carry its war to the United States, the ‘far enemy,’ which they saw as the ‘head of the serpent.’
Recently, Eric Margolis offered a succinct account of al-Qaida’s strategy. Osama bin Laden, he writes, “would oust the modern ‘Crusaders’ by luring the US and its allies into a series of small, debilitating, hugely expensive wars to bleed and slowly bankrupt the US economy, which he called America’s Achilles’ heel.”
If this had not been their strategy, al-Qaida would quickly appropriate it as its own, after watching America’s frenetic response to the attacks of 9-11. The neoconservatives had been waiting for the men with box cutters, ready to launch their well-laid plans to redraw the map of the Middle East. If the United States could so easily be provoked into invading Muslim countries, Osama bin Laden – not the US President – would decide when and where the United States would be fighting wars in the Islamicate.
Indeed, al-Qaida has provoked the United States into attacking an ever-lengthening list of Muslim countries.
Nine years after it had been ‘won,’ the United States is escalating its war in Afghanistan. Some eight years after its ‘cakewalk’ through Iraq, it is just beginning to draw down its forces there. In addition, different factions of the US military are “involved in combat operations in Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen, West Africa, North Africa and the Philippines. A new US base at Djibouti is launching raids into Yemen, Somalia and northern Kenya. US forces aided the failed Ethiopian invasion of Somalia in 2006.” If indeed, it was al-Qaida strategy to lure American troops into the Islamicate, who can deny that they have done quite well. Irresistibly, the US has walked into one al-Qaida trap after another.
While the US is engaged in the “sequential destruction of Muslim nations” – to borrow a troubling phrase from Liaquat Ali Khan – China is making economic gains in the very countries that US occupies, attacks or threatens to attack. Over the past decade, China has continued to make economic gains in Iran, Sudan, Venezuela, Syria and Afghanistan, while the United States occupies, sanctions or launches military attacks against these countries.
Two years back, China acquired rights to one of the world’s largest deposits of copper in Afghanistan. In a report in the New York Times in December 2009, Michael Wines writes perceptively about the symbolism of this investment, “While the United States spends hundreds of billions of dollars fighting the Taliban and al-Qaida here, China is securing raw material for its voracious economy. The world’s superpower is focused on security. Its fastest rising competitor concentrates on commerce.”
A similar picture emerges from Iraq. US oil companies are not getting the oil deals they wanted, production-sharing agreements instead of service contracts. In this area too, a partnership between a British and Chinese oil company walked away with a contract to develop Rumaila, one of the world’s largest oil fields. Two US companies signed contract for the much small oil field of West Qurna. 
Surely, the Chinese must be saying, al-Qaida is its best ally – although accidental and unacknowledged – in the contest to displace the United States from its leadership of the global economy. It is difficult at this stage to assess the long-term significance of al-Qaida for the Islamicate – its strategy has brought great suffering to Muslim populations in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan – but the gains it has brought to China are clear. The siren song of terrorism has lured the United States into one trap after another, to ramp up its military expenditure, to finance its escalating wars by borrowing from its chief economic rival, to deplete its moral capital in the international community, and to shred its own safeguards against state tyranny. China cannot acknowledge the gifts it has received from al-Qaida, but privately, perhaps, the Chinese leadership must be toasting these windfall gains.
Instead of rising up to deal with the economic challenges stemming from the rapid rise of India, China and Brazil; instead of investing in programs to develop alternative energy; instead of developing a network of high-speed trains; instead of reversing the decline in its K-12 schooling; the Christian right and the neoconservative cabal pushed the United States into a vast quagmire, stretching from one end of the Islamicate to another. All this, while China has continued to challenge US dominance in a growing array of economic activities.
In the 1980s, the United States outspent the USSR into economic ruin. Since 2001, al-Qaida with its paltry investments in men and money has been drawing the United States into wars that are accelerating its economic decline. At least for now, China is the chief beneficiary of the perverse mechanism that forces the United States into embracing wars against the Islamicate as the panacea to its problems, when in fact they have been having the opposite effect.
It was Euripides who first wrote, “Whom the gods would destroy, they first make mad.” Is that what happens to the leaders of a country who doggedly follow a course – as the Soviets did during the 1980s and 1990s – that points in the direction of decline or worse, ruin. In principle, democracies have the capacity to replace such ruinous leadership. Yet, it would appear that the disastrous military policies inaugurated under President Bush are not going to be discarded under President Obama, his Democratic successor. Is it likely that both parties in the United States are captives of a political system that – at least on the question of Islam and the Islamicate – are dominated by a powerful conglomerate of pro-Israeli forces, led by Jewish Americans but with a strong following of Christian Zionists?
If Americans wish to see a reversal in their ruinous policy towards the Islamicate they will have to make some honest and courageous efforts to countervail the influence of the pro-Israeli forces in their body politic. The time for this too is running out. This will not happen by electing a candidate who dazzles them with his rhetoric of change. They will also have to elect a President and Congress with the spine to stand up to the pro-Israeli forces in the United States.
—M. Shahid Alam is professor of economics at Northeastern University, Boston. He is author of Israeli Exceptionalism: The Destabilizing Logic of Zionism (Palgrave Macmillan, 2009). You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
— References —
Project for the New American Century, Rebuilding America’s defenses (Washington DC: Project for the New American Century, September 2000): 63.
Anthony Cordesman, The uncertain costs of the global war on terror (Washington DC: Center for Strategic and International Studies, August 2007).
Linda Bilmes and Joseph Stiglitz, “The Iraq war will cost us $3 trillion, and much more,” Washington Post (August 8, 2008).
US Department of Defense, Defense casualty report, 2010.
Anne Leland and Mary-Jana Oboroceanu, American war and military operations casualties: Lists and casualties (Congressional Research Service, September 2009):12.
Bob Roehr, “High rate of PTSD in returning Iraq war veterans,” Medscape Today (November 6, 2007).
Kishore Mahbubani, The new Asian hemisphere: The irresistible shift of global power to the East (Public Affairs Books, 2008): 165-66.
National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, The 9/11 Commission Report: Final Report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States: Executive Summary.
Tom Engelhardt, “What progress in Iraq really means,” The Nation (April 13, 2007).
Fawaz Gerges, The far enemy: Why Jihad went global (Cambridge University Press, 2005): 21, 24-26.
Eric Margolis, “Osama: 10. The US: 0,” LewRockwell.com (January 12, 2010).
Eric Margolis, “Osama.”
Liaquat Ali Khan, “Now Pakistan,” CounterPunch.Org (October 21, 2009).
Michael Wines, “China willing to spend big on Afghanistan commerce,” New York Times (December 30, 2009).
Timothy Williams, “Oil Companies Look to the Future in Iraq,” The New York Times (November 30, 2009).