Rambo leaves Afghanistan

Abdel-Moneim Said
Tuesday 14 Sep 2021

Mediating on the limits of power

Like energy, speed, time and other quantifiers of human ability, power has its limits. Perhaps its main problem is that, at its rise, it boasts absolute qualities, which eventually ends in disaster. Currently, nothing epitomises this more than the US departure from Afghanistan after a couple of decades of steadily mounting military costs.

On first going into that country the US forces had not had time to identify what to target before they were immersed in a war with no end in sight. The era had opened with the US recipe for activating military power, which starts with an intensive escalation later mixed with economic and psychological power. The recipe was applied to Iraq and Afghanistan. It was General Patterson who laid the foundations for the new state that was meant to please the people and isolate the enemy. That plan failed in both Iraq and Afghanistan, just as it had in Vietnam and Korea before that.

After World War II, when communist activity in East Asia intensified, the US looked to General McArthur, who had led the US to victory in Japan, in order to lead US forces to another victory. It would be a war he could quickly settle since the US had everything to its advantage from conventional might to nuclear weapons. Then China entered the war, shifting the balance of power. By the end, the US met with a form of defeat that forced it to accept the partition of the Korean peninsula. Vietnam would follow. In the US, which was feeling the thrill of its burgeoning industrial, military and technological boom in the 1950s and 1960s, no one could imagine there were limits to its might. The war in Vietnam proved the opposite, handing the US another dismal failure.

But the limits of American might were not always informed by defeat and withdrawal. There were moments of success when American might would grow with the addition of new allies. After World War II, US power had a different quality to it, compared to World War I, when the US not only wanted to exit Europe but also to withdraw from the rest of the world. It did not even want anything to do with the League of Nations, which it helped found. After World War II, the US remained in Europe, in the world and in the UN. This was one of the main reasons NATO could emerge and why former European belligerents, such as the UK, France, Germany and Italy, would join the alliance. To the west, across the Pacific, the US entered into similar defence alliances with Australia, Japan and South Korea.

Nor were these alliances purely military. They occasioned major economic projects, such as the Marshall Plan and the industrial projects that would eventually give rise to the EU. This European integration project, in turn, became the “carrot” that led the wars and power struggles in Bosnia, Herzegovina and other parts of former Yugoslavia to ultimately conclude with accession into the union, economic progress, and the end of the eternal Balkan cycle where no sooner did one war end than another inevitably began. We can say, then, that participation in Western Civilisation and its European legacy has been a key to success which led to a power building phase and averted renewed plunges into tunnels with no light at their end. In this case, the limits of power emerged when other countries decided to take on the responsibility to achieve the same worthy goals.

But this was not the process that occurred when the US ventured into this region. To some extent this may have been because the cultures and civilisations were so far apart or because the arrival of US forces conjured up memories of the Crusader, the Mongolian and, more recently, the Zionist invasions, in which Jerusalem was always a central issue. But it was also due to the fact that Washington’s dedication to promoting development and progress seemed lacking, especially when the edifice of the state entered the crosshairs.

When the US invaded Iraq in 2003, there was an institutionalised state capable of maintaining law and order. It had a professional military establishment even if, as Bob Woodward relates, US intelligence agencies had managed to infiltrate whole divisions from the foot soldiers to the top. But the US plan for wielding its might in Iraq was not to turn a hostile state into a friendly one which would need law and order to sustain it. It was to dismantle the state entirely, dissolve the army and take over its arsenals, and install a system of government that was incapable of taking a decision, whether on war and peace or on development. The country was to sink into backwardness, terrorism and a long period of anarchy.

Afghanistan did not have a centralised state when the Americans arrived and they had no plan to build one. They were thinking in terms of “power structures,” but of course not with real power. The president and government did not really govern and the army was not really an army. Afghanistan, itself, had no intention of emerging from the world of backwater states. The Afghan collapse was inevitable due to the US withdrawal and to pressure from the Taliban, the first local force with its own capacities and history in power. 

In the aforementioned instances of success, the limits of US power were shaped by shared destinies and histories, as in the case of Europe, or by a shared fate in a large industrial and economic market, as with Japan, South Korea and Australia. Indeed, note how Japan – whose culture is as remote from Western culture as heaven is from earth – has coexisted in a long sustainable alliance with the US and continues to cling to Washington’s skirts. Japan learned the limits to its powers after Hiroshima, since which time it has demonstrated its willingness to sustain the costs of three-quarters of a century of occupation without complaint.

It therefore seems that we need to classify the limits of power and their ability to change not only in terms of success and failure in the exercise of power but also in terms of the proximity to power and the aims of its use. In this context, the US exit from the Middle East is perfectly natural. In fact, perhaps time will prove that President Biden’s decision to withdraw from Afghanistan was wise; that he was implementing a realisation, however late, of the limits of American might, after Washington had been deluded by its great technological progress into believing it was capable of everything.

Curiously, despite the fact that hard realities have burst the bubble of the delusion this has not prevented the survival of the myth, if not inside the US then in parts of the rest of the world. In the Middle East, it appears that the time has come to realise that the limits to American power is not our problem. What should concern us in this region are the limits of the power of those in this region when it comes to handling existential issues and creating effective alliances based on common goals in a framework of dynamic reform.

*The writer is chairman of the board, CEO and director of the Regional Centre for Strategic Studies.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 16 September, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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