American Occupation: What worked, what didn’t

By Aswathy Kooanmpilly

Twenty years later, the US leaves its latest battlefield. Like its other post Second World War ventures, American involvement in Afghanistan has come to nought. Thus, it becomes important to put the event in context by looking into a brief history of American occupation to understand where the US went wrong.


American occupation of other lands is generally considered to have begun in the age of imperialism. But American imperialism is a relative term. Some would consider the entire existence of the nation itself based on imperialism. In academic circles, the Spanish cessation of Cuba and the Philippines around the turn of the 20th century is considered the beginning of American imperialism. Even then, the US claimed to be liberating these areas.

In relation to its contemporaries, the US was seen as a benevolent power. America’s democratic concessions to the Filipinos were considered progressive during that time, but its hasty retreat was motivated by changing priorities, as it was to be repeated in subsequent endeavours. The US realised that having the Philippines as an integrated colony was hurting its economy so it willingly granted the region independence. 

There are very few places where American occupation can be considered fruitful. It worked in war-torn West Germany and Japan which were firmly in the jaws of defeat and South Korea which was/is in an existential battle with its northern brother. The existence of a Soviet threat also acted as a rationale for the intervention for both the occupied and the occupier. These two nations understood that working with the US would help in its development and they adopted a developmental model to sustain themselves rather than revel fully in corruption. There were local acts of resistance against the allied forces but nothing substantial or country-wide to hurt the American presence.

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After the period of decolonisation, the world moved into a neocolonial phase where economic coercions outweighed military takeovers. The coercive power of economic initiatives was more effective and subtle than any direct invasion. Yet America’s ideological hostility with the USSR and the failure of its puppet regime led to the Vietnam War. After its defeat in that war, the US should have realised its shortcomings. 

But the end of the Cold War gave the American ego a boost. Believing liberalism to have won, it used the principle as the legitimised basis to interfere in other nations. Its folly has been to revert back to a physical takeover of governments colonial style while using the excuse of democracy and modernisation. This is the 21st century, no one believes in the excuse of “white man’s burden” anymore. As a nation that gained independence after defeating the global superpower of its time, the US should have recognized the power of nationalism.

The US was successful in conquering these areas but abysmal at policing them. Its corrupt puppet governments were a farce of democracy and very unpopular with the population they governed. One reason the Taliban was able to make such swift gains was due to Ghani administration’s failure in resolving common issues of the people. America’s fault was the belief that it could export liberalism through military occupation while professing to abide by it. Europe did not thrive through colonialism by applying the ideas of liberty, equality, and fraternity in its colonies. In this connected world, such hypocrisy won’t fly. Stretched wars in far-flung areas also test the American citizens’ attention and patience.

In the present age, military occupation cannot counter threats that come through non-traditional means. Ideology motivated the resistance efforts against the American forces in both Vietnam and Afghanistan. American bombings just fueled them more. Presently, the US faces hostility from non-state actors and attacking a sovereign nation won’t solve the problem as evident in the case of the Iraqi invasion.

Hopefully, the failure of the NATO mission in the Middle East marks the end of the political/militaristic form of imperialism. This event might also end the American belief in its global hegemony. The US has increasingly shifted attention towards a rising China, insinuating that it doesn’t consider itself unchallenged in the international arena. 

But pundits had spelt out such forecasts when the US left Saigon. American military intervention responded to the “red menace” during the era of the USSR, the same way it is responding to the threat of Islamic terrorism during the present age of globalisation. Who knows what might again trigger the US into another occupation. But we all can guess what will end any such future endeavours.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

Author’s Profile

Aswathy Kooanmpilly is a postgraduate in International Studies from Christ University. She is interested in the Indo-Pacific region, International Relations Theories, and how culture and similar intangible forces shape global affairs.

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