After the attacks on the US on 9/11, then President George W Bush vowed revenge and stated to the world — “You are with us or against us.” A coalition was built, and the US went after the terrorists. Four presidencies later, current President Joseph Biden said, “The US cannot afford to remain tethered to policies creating a response to a world as it was 20 years ago. We need to meet the threats where they are today.” Those threats are right where they were 20 years ago, still in Afghanistan, and now backed by the strength of a state. Kind of with the US, kind of still against it.
What happened to America, that “shining city on a hill” that beckoned brightness to its shores and won allies? Some self-delusion, a belief that it was still the global monarch after World War II. And, mostly, the inability to distinguish between friends and foes over the last two decades.
At the time of the 9/11 attacks, the US dominated world discourse. Its multinational companies were global entities, with outposts everywhere. American banks and the Treasury were the big shots, intertwined.
The attacks didn’t bring any of this to a halt. They added a new dimension to US economic and policy calculation: Defence. America’s foreign policy became suffused with security, to support which, the defence industry expanded.
While US soldiers were fighting in Afghanistan, ordinary Americans were out shopping. By 2006, US consumers were king. Cheap goods from China flooded western, especially US markets, where everyone now could buy that aspirational cashmere sweater for a mere $59.99. Invisible was the fact that wages weren’t rising, and ever more reliable manufacturing jobs were being outsourced to China.
The warning bell had rung, but few heard it. With no productive domestic economy to lend to, American banks created new exotic financial instruments to play with — resulting in the housing crisis of 2007, and the 2008 western financial crisis.
Washington bailed out the big boys on Wall Street with almost no consequences. The productive economy of America’s cars and textile factories and widgets, was replaced by a dazzling digital display from California’s tech and social media companies, and a massive defence industry of arms and security policymakers.
And thus began the delusions, the miscalculations of an America, which confused friend and foe. The US, which understood Europe, preferred to be guided by the former colonial power of Britain when it came to South Asia. Missing from Washington’s calculus was that Britain has never forgotten nor forgiven the loss of its empire, making it a flawed guide. Britain created Pakistan as it departed, and supported it. The US, too, turned to Pakistan as its shepherd in South Asia. Our canny neighbour, down on funds and an unproductive economy, used confused US policies to get billions in the fight on terror, for which it was awarded the title of “major non-NATO ally”.
“Pakistan manipulated America, and America was willing,” says Neelam Deo, a former diplomat. “The American understanding of the world became clouded, and inexplicable, especially its comprehension of what motivates countries like Pakistan, where the state has clearly stated Islamic aspirations.”
Iran, which should have been a friend and initially helped the US in Afghanistan, once again became a foe — the outcome of Israeli influence. Meanwhile, China used US preoccupations to grow. Other new players came on to the scene, including India, with its GDP growing at 9 per cent in 2008.
America’s digital economy grew, as did the billionaires of Palo Alto. But middle America was hollowing out. So were lots of other countries like Egypt, which saw ever more investment bypass it en route to China. The shadow and opportunities of China engulfed the former tiger economies of southeast Asia, turning them into pygmies and vassals.
Job losses and rising inequity across the world sparked the Arab protests in 2011, and also the occupy movement in the US. Social media giants like Facebook magnified these protests. The same social media companies became “Big Business”, significant lobbyists in Washington pushing for a liberal agenda. But that didn’t help the 99 per cent.
The pushback to this was the election of Donald Trump who called out China for its unfair mercantilism and spreading the Covid-19 pandemic. He neutralised the West Asia oil economies by encouraging shale. And he cut off aid to Pakistan. But like all US presidents, he fell short, and did not call out its perfidy. Nor did his successor. Their one-stop consulting shop on Afghanistan is still Pakistan, and the go-to guy on Afghanistan is still the Afghan-American appointee Zalmay Khalilzad, despite his continuing failure and lack of accountability.
Now, 20 years later, the threats of the past are back and visible. The Taliban is back in Afghanistan, unchanged. It is likely to plan fresh terror wars with the help of Pakistan, and protection and assistance from China, and perhaps other Islamic states and Russia.
The US is not back. Instead, America is isolating from Europe, and though it says it will turn its attention to Asia and the Chinese domination, its allies — old and new — aren’t sure. The US military has a more powerful arsenal than ever. But China is catching up.
Observers of America reiterate that the country has a unique ability to reinvent itself, to build capabilities anew. That may be the case. An acknowledgement of its mistakes and a rethink on its friends and foes could draw it back towards its pole position in the world — if the Taliban and Pakistan will let it.
This column first appeared in the print edition on September 15, 2021 under the title ‘With friends like these’. The writer is executive director, Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations