August 22, 2021

The Fragility of US Imperialism

Vijay Prashad

ON August 15, the Taliban seized Kabul with barely any gunfire. The Afghan National Army (ANA) – trained with $88 billion from the United States – faded into the byways, unwilling to fight the Taliban troops. Afghanistan’s president – the former World Bank official Ashraf Ghani – boarded a flight out of the country as soon as the Taliban stepped into greater Kabul; he was not going to lead any fight to defend his government. The previous day, when it was already clear that the Taliban would seize power, US president Joe Biden conceded that the United States had lost the war. The US, he said, entered Afghanistan in October 2001 to punish al-Qaeda and to destroy the Taliban regime.

Over twenty years, the US spent over $2 trillion in a failed attempt to create a Western-allied polity and the ANA. The US, Biden said, “trained over 300,000 Afghan soldiers and police, equipped them with the state-of-the-art military equipment, and maintained their air force as part of the longest war in US history. One more year, or five more years, of US military presence would not have made a difference if the Afghan military cannot or will not hold its own country.” This was a major concession: that the Afghan military either did not have the ability or the will to fight the Taliban. The next day, the ANA showed that it did not have the will. The Taliban returned to power.


The US withdrawal from Afghanistan is, without doubt, a defeat for US imperialism. The United States entered Afghanistan in 1978 when the CIA – with Pakistani and Saudi assistance – backed the most conservative political forces against the communist government. Over the years, the US deepened its links with these forces, finding them nonetheless to be unreliable allies particularly when the Taliban gave shelter to al-Qaeda. From 1978 to the present, the US was able to cause mayhem in Afghanistan with its superior fire power, but it was unable to control the politics of the country. The US policy in Afghanistan shows that the United States remains one of the deadliest countries in the world – with a military force without parallel – but that the ability of the US to use this force to control the world has been depleted. The US, in other words, has military power and power over financial institutions, but there is no guarantee that this power will lead to favourable outcomes for the United States. That is the fragility of US imperialism.

Afghanistan is not the only political defeat faced by the US. Two other sets of defeats haunt Washington, DC: defeats despite the use of US military power, and defeats despite the US unilateral sanctions regime.

The first set of defeats are those that have resulted from catastrophic wars. The US went to war against Iraq in March 2003 and in Libya in February 2011. In both cases, the US claimed that it would remove a dictator and put in place a pro-US liberal regime. In Iraq, not only did the political mood tilt toward Iran, but in 2011, the Iraqi parliament voted to effectively eject the US military from their country. US troops remained in northern Iraq, in the region controlled by the Kurdish political parties. In Baghdad, the political dispensation turned its back on the United States at around the same time as the US – under the flag of NATO – began to bomb Libya. The outcome there was also unfavourable for the United States; beneath the fog of chaos, the main political actors turned to Turkey and the Gulf for their orders and not to Washington. Three wars – Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya – and three political failures.

The second set of defeats are those that resulted from the resistance of countries to unilateral US sanctions regimes. The longest such sanctions policy has existed against Cuba, whose Revolution has faced a blockade for the past sixty years. At present, about thirty countries face unilateral US sanctions, which have been condemned by the international community for being inhumane and illegal. On August 11, four UN Special Rapporteurs condemned the unilateral illegal sanctions, saying that the “punishment of innocent civilians must end.” “Sanctions hold countries back from development, they hold back people as well, and in a globalising world, that hurts everyone,” they argued. That is the reason why eighteen countries came together in March 2021 to form the Group of Friends in Defence of the UN Charter. Policies such as “maximum pressure,” which the Trump administration placed on Iran, failed to meet their desired objectives. Mass mobilisation in Venezuela and Cuba as well as Bolivia prevented a coup in the first two countries and reversed it in the other; these three states and the resilience that runs from Lebanon to Iran demonstrated that such maximum pressure by the US will not necessarily result in a collapse of the government and the revolutionary projects.


Evidence of the fragility of US imperialism is no longer difficult to find, however this does not mean an alternative platform has emerged fully to set it aside. The United States uses its immense military and political power to try and maintain control over several key areas of human life:

1. Control over science and technology.
2. Control over financial systems.
3. Control over access to resources.
4. Control over weaponry.
5. Control over communications and information.

The emergence of Chinese advances in both science and technology – particularly in telecommunications, high speed rail, robotics, and green energy – provoked the US to intensify a hybrid war against China. Anger at the exertions of the Russian government across Eurasia pushed the US into dangerous provocations in Ukraine and in Syria. The US has reacted to the different kind of moves by China and Russia to create their own sovereign projects in Eurasia with military manoeuvres and with financial sanctions of different kinds. This US pressure has brought China and Russia together in a historic strategic partnership. The Chinese and Russians, as well as many member states of the Non-Aligned Movement, are attempting to put multipolarity and multilateralism back on the table against US unipolarity, enforced at least since the USSR collapsed in 1991. Neither China nor Russia have said that they would like to supplant the US; what they say candidly is that they would be satisfied with a multipolar order in which they are allowed to develop their own global projects – such as the Chinese-led Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) – without political pressure from the United States.

The US has not accepted the possibility of multipolarity and has instead pursued confrontation with both China and Russia. China and Russia cannot by themselves advance an agenda for multipolarity, and they cannot develop an alliance system strong enough to pressure the Latin Americans, the other Asians, and the Africans, let alone the Europeans and the North Americans. Thus far, changes in the world system have been slow-moving, particularly as these changes contest US-led control over those five key areas of human life listed above. This is the great limitation of multipolarity in our time.

US imperialism has suffered a set-back in Afghanistan and elsewhere. It cannot advance an agenda across Eurasia despite the creation of a more energetic NATO and the Quad. Massive US military operations in Afghanistan led to a chaotic withdrawal. Afghanistan was caught between two clarities: the clarity of subordination to the United States (represented by Ashraf Ghani) and the clarity of turning inward in space and in time (represented by the Taliban). No progressive path has opened up for the country. Regional tensions will prevent alternatives from emerging. As the BRI rolls through the country, perhaps Afghanistan will find other futures. But these are not visible at this time.