By Observer R for the Saker Blog
In my previous article, A Poisoned Chalice? (The Saker Blog, December 15, 2020), I noted that there were so many crises and troubles ahead for the United States (US) that it was questionable as to whether it was a good idea to be the winner of the 2020 election. Whichever candidate took office in January 2021 would inherit a vast slate of problems. In fact, winning the 2020 election might turn out to be like winning the proverbial “poisoned chalice.” Better to wait for 2024 and let the 2020 winner take the blame when the so-called “Everything Bubble” bursts.
One of the bubbles just burst in Afghanistan. The events in that country have generated plenty of media coverage. One of the more interesting questions is whether there will be a ‘domino’ effect following the pull-out from Afghanistan. The Biden Administration has said that all combat troops will be out of Iraq by the end of this year. Only training troops to remain. Cynics say it is just a change of name and the local resistance groups have told the US to remove all its troops by the end of the year—in keeping with the declaration of the Iraq parliament. So far, little has been said about leaving Syria, but it would be difficult for the US to hang in there once there are no combat troops in Iraq.
One of the reasons for the US intervention is that if these dominoes fall, then the route is unimpeded for the New Silk Roads to open from China through Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, and Syria. A second reason for US intervention is to block new pipelines that would take oil and gas from the huge fields in Iran and Iraq both east to China and Pakistan and west all the way to Europe. Presumably, these reasons are partially why the US stayed so long in the area.
A third reason for the US actions is the Cebrowski Doctrine, which aimed at breaking the countries in the Middle East into smaller statelets conforming more closely to the ethnic makeup of the area. The statelets would be less able to defend themselves and more amenable to pressure from outside powers. This would make it easier for global companies to negotiate favorable deals for the natural resources and for the US to set up military bases.
A fourth reason is that Israeli security is enhanced if the next-door neighbors are weak, divided, and not supported by any powerful country not allied with Israel. If the surrounding countries or statelets could not be run by regimes favorable to Israel, then the next best thing would be to have failed states in the area. By definition, a failed state would have little chance to organize an effective opposition to Israeli activities. Small statelets would also have less chance of countering any Israeli expansion, nor would they be able to offer much support for the Palestinians.
The fifth reason for US action over many years has been the so-called “petrodollar” effect, whereby oil sold in US dollars gave the US enormous control over the world energy market. It also allowed the US to run enormous deficit spending programs with the rest of the world effectively paying for the good life in America. The petrodollar also provided the US with greatly increased clout in international politics and allowed the expansion and maintenance of US hegemony.
A sixth reason is the geopolitical viewpoint of the “Grand Chessboard,” whereby a US presence in Afghanistan would place the US military and intelligence forces closer to China and Russia. This proximity would make it easier for the US to engage in various forms of hybrid warfare and regime change efforts against these two countries.
A final reason is money: The alleged vast corruption on-going in Afghanistan, which is claimed to have been making numerous parties very rich, the spending for many highly paid contractors to maintain weapons, the funding for many dubious infrastructure improvement projects, and all the other spending amounting to trillions of dollars.
All these reasons help to explain the vociferous attacks on the Trump administration when it tried to withdraw some of the US forces in the Middle East. The same goes for the weeping and wailing going on about the Biden Administration’s pull-out from Afghanistan and the more or less pull-out from Iraq. Decades of US foreign policy and Western imperialism are being junked or at least being reconstituted into a different-looking mix. The think tanks and foreign policy magazines do not seem to know how to respond to the new game. It appears that China is well on the way to a win on the Grand Chessboard and the vast majority of US imperial supporters are at a loss on how to proceed. The first reflex action is to demonize China and attempt a containment of that country along the lines of the first Cold War against the Soviet Union.
So why did the Trump Administration decide to pull out and why did the Biden Administration also decide to pull out? After all, Biden campaigned to reverse or undo many of the Trump policies. Biden was expected to rejoin the Iran nuclear agreement, and he could have declined to implement the Trump agreement to leave Afghanistan. Biden immediately rejoined the strategic arms agreement with Russia, but did not do the same with the Iran agreement. It seems probable that the reason for the arms reversal was that the US had fallen behind in the arms race, and faced the prospect of falling further behind in the years ahead. So the obvious solution was to freeze the race until the US could get its act together. The non-reversal in the Iran situation was presumably due to pressure from the Israel lobby.
With Afghanistan, it might have been better for Biden if he had immediately announced a reversal of the Trump agreement and claimed that it would not work as written and needed to be renegotiated to fit the situation. Or, on the other hand, he could have said that the US would honor the agreement because great powers should keep agreements. This tactic would have fit nicely with honoring the Iran agreement. Unfortunately for the US, the Biden Administration botched both issues. It broke the Afghan agreement by announcing a clumsy extension and then tried to use the pull-out as part of a 9/11 propaganda scheme. The administration then allowed the military to abandon a large airbase near Kabul in the middle of the night, thus making it unavailable for use in evacuating people from the country. With the Iran agreement, the US tried to add new and onerous restrictions on Iran, resulting in the negotiations ending up in limbo.
Why then, did both Trump and Biden decide to leave Afghanistan? The official story seems to be that the adventure was a colossal waste of lives and money and that the US can no longer afford to be the world’s policeman. While the official story is essentially correct, the reality also is that the world has changed since the time of the younger Bush and Obama. Russia has gone from being a gas station in the middle of nowhere to ranking as the number one advanced military power. China has gone from being an underdeveloped factory town producing cheap goods for the big box stores to having the largest economy in the world, according to the CIA Fact Book. China is also rapidly moving ahead in space exploration, computers, artificial intelligence, robots and other advanced technology, including modern weapons. Iran has weathered the US sanctions and is moving ahead to produce goods domestically and using Iranian companies to develop the oil and gas fields. Iran is now set to join the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) as a full member. The US economic sanctions against these countries are failing and the US conventional military threats are not convincing, while nuclear threats are only mutually assured destruction (MAD).
The resistance to US occupation forces on the ground in West Asia has steadily increased over the years as the correlation of forces tipped against the Americans. Iran has been able to provide support, training, weapons and strategy to the factions in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Palestine and Yemen that are opposed to the US. Russian military aid to Syria, and Russian diplomacy everywhere, have blunted US imperialism. China has become the number one trading nation with many countries and is actively promoting business deals worldwide. All of this reduces political support for the US and makes it more expensive and problematic to pursue hegemonic ambitions. The changes have also reduced dependence on the US as a broker in diplomatic negotiations.
The decline in economic and diplomatic power is not the only problem facing the US in the Middle East. There is also the adverse situation that has developed concerning the security of occupation military forces on the ground. In the years of the Afghanistan and Iraq invasions, the US had uncontested control of the skies and based its strategy on this fact. None of the Middle East countries had an air force that could even begin to do battle with the US, so the US bases on the ground were safe from bombing attacks. The US opponents had only missiles with short range and poor guidance, so they did not cause much trouble for the US side. This state of affairs began to change rapidly after that time when Iran began to unveil much more sophisticated missiles, drones and other weapons. The Russians began to introduce high-quality air defense systems in the area and continued to announce new weapon systems that sounded more like science fiction.
The change to more advanced missiles by Iran and the Iranian-supported Resistance meant that US military bases were placed in a difficult position. Their fighter planes were useless for shooting down incoming missiles, while the missile defense systems on the ground did not seem to be very effective against any incoming attack. The US was providing air defense systems to Saudi Arabia which were used to defend against missiles incoming from the Houthi forces in Yemen. The defense was not adequate—the Houthis managed to blow up refineries and pipelines in Saudi Arabia despite the US aid and equipment. The US claimed one time that the missile came from Iran, but that was odd because it would have flown right over the US-built air defense systems in bases between Iran and Saudi Arabia without being shot down. Another route it could have taken was to fly to Yemen first, then turn north and fly up to the Saudi pipeline. This possible routing only served to make the Iranian achievement more impressive. However, it is impossible for an outsider to find out what actually happened. In January 2020, the US ordered the assassination of the Iranian general leading the Resistance, in return the Iranians supposedly carried out two paybacks. One was the downing of a CIA plane allegedly carrying the CIA ”Dark Prince” who was a US official of similar importance to the Iranian general. Another was to fire cruise missiles at a major US base in Iraq, causing concussion damage to many US soldiers. The US air defense was ineffective.
On the other hand, the Russian and Syrian air defense proved to be much more effective. When the US ships in the Mediterranean Sea fired a salvo of cruise missiles against Syria, the results were eye opening. The missiles were either shot down by Syrian or Russian air defense systems, or were somehow deflected by electronic countermeasures, or malfunctioned due to old age. Few made it all the way to the target. Recently, Israel sent up six fighter planes over Lebanon where each fired six missiles against targets in Syria. Results were 22 of 24 missiles shot down by Syria with the others apparently not doing any extensive damage. An Israeli weapon was also in the news this week when the US Air Force announced that it would not purchase the Israeli “Iron Dome” air defense system because it came in second-best in a test shoot-out in New Mexico. The Iron Dome has not been very successful in Israel either.
As a result, both the US and Israel have resorted to “theater” in lieu of actual attacks against actual targets. The domestic pressure in each country is very strong to have the governments do something to hit back at any perceived success by the Resistance forces. It appears that the Israelis have this down to an art form: When they bomb Syria they try to hit empty warehouses or sand dunes or something unimportant but build up the attack as something important when they make the domestic announcement for political reasons. When Israel is using drones against Resistance vehicles in Lebanon, the drone operators may give the passengers in the vehicles time enough to get out and escape before blowing the vehicles to bits. Syria and Lebanon can then complain to the United Nations and the whole episode fades away. The US also plays the game whereby it warns the country ahead of time. In the case of Syria, the warning came far enough ahead that the Syrians were able to evacuate all personnel and usable equipment from a base before the US attacked it. The Syrians had the base back in full operation within 24 hours. But in the meantime, the Trump Administration had headlines claiming it had accomplished something important. Later on, few people would become aware of what really happened. Just more theater. In another case, Iran shot down an expensive and sophisticated US reconnaissance drone flying over its border near the Strait of Hormuz. The US claimed the drone was over international waters in order to make Iran look bad and the pressure was on the Trump Administration to do something. According to reports, the US asked Iran for permission to fire a few missiles into sand dunes to make it seem like action was taken. Iran refused to go along with the theatrical performance. Then it was shown that the drone fell in Iranian waters and all the parties concerned dropped the subject. Finally, Iran has picked up on the same game: After the Iranian general was assassinated in Iraq, Iran passed word to the Americans that the main US airbase in Iraq would be attacked and gave the American troops time enough to get into their bomb shelters. However, the missile warheads evidently contained a much heavier load of explosives than the US expected, consequently the bomb shelters did not furnish enough protection from concussion injuries to the troops.
Thus the US military was faced with a quandary or perhaps a no-win situation in the countries of the Resistance. Iran had shown that it had missiles that were really effective, well-hidden, and plenty of them. In addition, Iran had organized an effective popular militia fighting group (the “Resistance”) in each country, also armed with missiles. It became quite clear that if the US dropped bombs or missiles on Iran in a serious strike, many of the relatively exposed US bases in the Middle East and West Asia would be destroyed in an Iranian counter-strike. In a tit-for-tat escalation, Iran could quickly bring more missiles into action than the US. Any US planes that got off the runway would face extensive and modern air defense systems in Iran. The US could send in cruise missiles from ships or bases outside the range of Iranian weapons, but these would be slow and relatively few in number. Note that this analysis is based only on information in the public domain and does not account for anything secret or for some exotic military strategy not available to the public. It also does not account for anything that China or Russia might do. However, if things got really out of hand, Iran could stop oil shipments from the Middle East. US sanctions have already greatly reduced oil shipments from Iran and the country has learned to manage without many oil sales. It is unlikely that the GCC countries would fare as well if their oil shipments and sales came to an abrupt halt. In addition, the impact on the world economy would be fairly significant. Finally, it would be expected that the Resistance fighters in the various countries could go into action with potentially drastic consequences, including more than a few regime changes.
It appears that the US military has been quicker than the politicians to grasp the situational change and preferred to engage in theatrical performances as opposed to dropping bombs. The US military also tried to get out in front by declaring that it needed to pull forces from the Middle East and West Asia in order to reposition them in the Pacific to help face the threat from China. Supersonic bombers, nuclear weapons, stealth technology, and very expensive aircraft carriers were of little use against peasants and guerrilla warriors. They also appear to be pretty useless against Iran and the Resistance. The US military-industrial complex was much more comfortable pointing to the new and modern weapons of the Chinese and Russians as a reason for a very costly rearmament of the American forces. Thus, any US peace dividend from withdrawal from West Asia is not possible, as all the money and more is now needed to provide security against the revisionist powers. Hypersonic weapons do not come cheap, but are now desperately required to match the Russian armament. The Chinese are fast building up their military prowess and have the factories to mass produce enormous quantities of missiles, planes, and ships.
However, just when the US needs plenty of scientists, engineers, and technology experts to work on new space-age weapons in a renewed arms race, the US education system has gone in a strange direction. Education is moving away from a merit-based system relying on exams, tests, and centuries of accumulated knowledge. The new system relies on doing away with tests, grades and exams, and using a lottery to determine entrance to science and technology high schools and colleges. This system also relies on extensive diversity efforts to determine entrance to, and progression in, school. It is difficult to believe that these new school methods will be very helpful in turning out graduates capable of designing, building, and operating hypersonic weapons that work as advertised. There is already trouble in the technology area where the latest US aircraft carrier, stealth fighter plane, and littoral combat ship do not function properly. US missiles and space rockets are not up-to-snuff either. The US has to purchase rockets from Russia in order to put large satellites in orbit. This technology difficulty is even apparent in the civilian aviation field where US-built passenger planes have been grounded with major problems for long periods.
It appears that the dominoes will continue to fall in the Middle East and West Asia as more bubbles burst and the US forces continue to leave. The military situation has turned against the US as Iran and its Resistance allies have acquired more and better missiles, air defense systems, new weapons, and improved tactics and coordination on the ground. This improvement by the Resistance forces has turned many US bases into the proverbial “sitting ducks” in the event of a real shooting war. The relatively small number of US troops in most of the countries of the Resistance also means that the US must guard against any possible future hostage situations. The countries that host US bases are becoming less sympathetic toward an American military presence on their land. A recent example is the US movement of troops and equipment out of Qatar and into Jordan. Qatar relied heavily on Iran during the recent squabble between Qatar and Saudi Arabia and Qatar shares a huge gas field with Iran—thus making Qatar look less reliable in the view of the US. As another result, the US military has declared that it will reposition its forces from West Asia to East and Southeast Asia to better contain China. In summary, the US military has already lost the contest in West Asia and the textbook advice in such a situation is to “declare victory and go home,” or in this case to declare victory in the “war on terrorism” and go somewhere else.
However, the best laid plans often go awry. Such appears to be the case with the US plans. The US entered into negotiations with the Taliban in Afghanistan concerning withdrawal from that country and into negotiations with the Iraq government for a withdrawal from there also. Consequently, anti-American activities were greatly reduced in both countries during the negotiations. This reduction allowed the US to plausibly claim that the “war on terrorism” had been won and that the US troops were no longer needed there. The US has continued to turn over bases to the Iraqi government and reduce its footprint in that country. In Afghanistan, the US also quietly withdrew and finally abandoned the Bagram Airfield secretly in the dead of night. This action helped prevent any last minute attacks on the American troops that might have complicated the exit. All according to plan, at least from the view of the US Defense Department.
Unfortunately for the US Government, the military plan does not seem to have been fully coordinated with the State Department, the CIA, the US allies, and the numerous Western NGO’s present in Afghanistan. In fact, it now appears that Defense was the only organization with any real plan at all. There does not appear to have been very good planning by State, CIA, or the other countries to remove their employees, agents, assets, fellow travelers, or foreigners before the Taliban took over Kabul. The total fiasco at the airport was so bad that public pressure forced the US military to go back into the country to help with the evacuations using the civilian airport instead of the recently abandoned military airfield. Then more disaster hit when a suicide bomber blew up scores of people at the perimeter of the airport, including US troops. The situation rapidly degenerated after that, with public pressure for the US to do more to rescue and evacuate people from Afghanistan, while there were even calls for the US to re-invade the country. The latest news is that Biden has stayed firm on withdrawal and the US troops will be out by the end of August.
As for the rest of West Asia, the adjustment in the US presence will generally continue despite attempts by various factions to delay and obstruct it. Saudi Arabia and Iran are returning to the negotiating table in Iraq to continue the diplomacy interrupted by the assassination of the Iranian general. Both countries would benefit by burying the hatchet, from cooperative management of oil and gas activities and support from China and Russia. The Arab countries are in the process of normalizing relations with Syria and bringing the country back into the Arab League. Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and many of the other countries are looking toward Russia for their next weapon systems. India is also waking up to the fact that it has been sidelined by the events in Afghanistan and that the Prime Minister has bet on the wrong horse. The air will be quietly leaving the Quad bubble. One might say that it is dawning on all concerned that the Americans are going home, but the Persians are there to stay.
As for the poisoned chalice, one only has to watch Biden and his staff squirm, struggle, and try to avoid press conferences since taking office, and compare that with Trump enjoying himself at recent public speeches. So far the winner of the 2020 election is taking the blame for what has gone wrong since, and more is likely to go wrong in coming months. Whereas the loser of the election is free to organize and campaign for the 2022 and 2024 elections. More bubbles are waiting to burst, including, perhaps, more on foreign relations, the COVID-19 virus, the vaccines, immigration, stagflation, election audits, climate change, the stock market, the national debt, cultural and lifestyle conflicts, the role of the police, etc. In addition, the world is fast figuring out how to work around attempted control by the US, its sanctions, its rules-based order, and its hegemony. This means that for quite some time ahead, the US Presidential office will likely not be a comfortable place to sit.