US Empire at War

 

The US Empire at War: Some Thoughts About the Consequences

Eddie J. Girdner (Retired Professor)

(Published in Third Concept Journal, July 2019)

From all indications, the United States is preparing for a new war against Iran, using almost exactly the same script that was used to drum up a war against Iraq in 2002 and 2003. Perhaps the officials believe that people will not remember how the neo-conservatives in the George W. Bush Government lied the United States into that war. A new war is apparently being drummed up by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Advisor, John Bolton. Thousands of additional US troops are being sent to the Middle East in June 2019.

It is said that President Donald Trump does not want a new war in the Middle East. But with Congressmen in Washington, such as Representative Tom Cotton and others, things may spin out of his control. It seems that nothing is easier for the USA than going to war. The country certainly has a lot of experience at it.

The United States of America has been continuously at war now for almost thirty years. Since the US invasion of Iraq in 1991 under George H.W. Bush, the father of George W. Bush the country has been at war. That is twenty-eight years.

So a person younger than thirty years old in the USA has never known their own country to be at peace. Of course, the USA was at war continuously from 1961 to 1975 in Vietnam. (Fourteen years)

Go back sixty years. Over that time period (1959 till 2019), the USA has been at war for at least forty-two years out of sixty. This does not count all the proxy wars that the USA carried out in Central America, as in Nicaragua and Grenada. Also Afghanistan, and other countries. Indeed, in many places all across the globe where the US Central Intelligence Agency destabilized governments.

This means that a person in the US who is sixty years old has only known eighteen years of peace in his or her lifetime.

There is no other country in the world that I can think of that has engaged in so much war over the last sixty years. If the US mission is to preserve the peace in the world, that is a hell of a way to do it.

Fighting for peace is like having sex for virginity, as we used to say in the sixties about the Vietnam war. It is still largely true.

But the USA will keep on keeping on waging war all over the world. I am confident of that. The officials in Washington will keep on drumming up needless wars as John Bolton and Mike Pompeo are now doing with Iran and Venezuela. So far US efforts in Venezuela have failed, which is good.

It seemed, at one point, that US President Donald Trump might end some of the continuous wars and bring some troops home, like he promised to do. But if he was serious about that, he has been defeated by the deep state that insists on keeping the wars going. Trump said that he would get US troops out of Syria a few months ago in 2019, but that did not happen.

The military industrial corporate complex wants war profits. They don’t need them, but they do want them. The roads, bridges, and other infrastructure in the US are falling into a state of collapse. But the US Government prefers to print money for wars, rather than putting money into fixing the roads and airports.

There are many other things besides war that the USA could have done over the last sixty years.

It was trillions of US dollars down the drain in Vietnam. Like Marx said, war is like dumping a portion of the national wealth into the sea. The US lost the war there. After 1975, Vietnam unified, tried socialism for a few years, then began shifting to the successful East Asian Model of state-guided capitalism. This model was followed by Japan, Taiwan, and then China after Deng Xioping moved toward state-guided capitalism. The Vietnamese saw that this model was successful, far more than the American liberal model. Chalmers Johnson on Japan and all that. US economists claimed that the model did not work, but this was wrong as Johnson pointed out in his writings. The model successfully developed the countries of East Asia. China became the great work house of the world with massive exports to the USA.

So all of that destruction and chaos, the killing of three million Vietnamese and sixty thousand American soldiers in Vietnam, many more wounded, many more suicides of veterans and so on, was completely unnecessary. Except, that is, for the making of war profits.

The war did contribute to the development of South Korea, just as the war in Korea in the early 1950s contributed to the development of Japan.

When it comes to the war in Iraq, hardly anybody now claims that this war was a good idea. That is, except for a few people like Bolton, Pompeo, Dick Cheney (thr former US Vice President) and so on.

And then there is the war in Afghanistan. Don’t even mention it. The Taliban were still winning, the last time I checked. But the war goes on now, after about eighteen years. It keeps pumping out war profits for the ruling class in the USA. The US Generals know that they whole thing is a farce, but they have to wait till they retire to tell what is really going on. What a waste on an international scale.

So, I will put it bluntly. It would have been difficult to devise foreign policies more destructive than those followed by the USA over the last sixty years. Destructive of both life in the USA and around the world. That is, if one wanted to have a peaceful world. It takes real talent!

But the guys in Washington are not about to let the world down! They can provide new wars. And, of course, every US president has to have his own war. If not, then they are seen as a failure. Remember Jimmy Carter. Poor guy. He never started a war anywhere. So he was sent back to grow peanuts on his farm in Plains, Georgia.

But he probably saved a lot of people from dying in useless wars.

There are many things that the USA could have done if the country had been a democracy that served the people instead of only the One Percent and US corporations.

The USA could have had a wonderful world-standard health care system that was available to the whole population, like most of the developed world has. Even Turkey has guaranteed health care for citizens at a very small cost.

The USA could have had a university system that was free and available to all, like Germany, Slovenia and many other countries. Now university graduates are saddled with debt and cannot find jobs. Some end up leaving the USA to teach in China. Salaries are much smaller in China, but they find themselves a lot better off than they would be in the USA.

The US could get rid of the crippling student debt of over one and a half trillion dollars in the USA. This would be a great help to young people trying to start their careers. Not a chance of it ever happening, however.

Surely, providing some benefits for the people was not out of reach for the USA. After all, dollars for the wars have been created out of thin air by the US Federal Reserve and just added to the US debt tab. The USA has not even pretended to pay for any of these multi-trillion dollar wars. The debt just generates more profits for the bankers.

Why not print a little money for social welfare? Not a chance of it ever happening, unfortunately.

The US didn’t have to pay for the wars because it had the world’s reserve country. It just shift the debt off onto other countries in inflated dollars.

So money was not the problem.

The USA could have built one of the best high-speed rail systems in the world, as France, Japan, China and some other countries have done. It would not be difficult. Much of the USA landmass is relatively flat. The technology exists for building tunnels through mountains. It is old technology. The Chinese or Japanese could have shown them how to do it. Even Turkey has high-speed trains.

Now much of the infrastructure in the USA is old and falling into a state of decay. But the US is not doing much to repair the systems, while spending massively on new wars.

People who do not fly in the USA are travelling on the old slow Amtrak trains. Actually, I love them. Personally, I love old, slow trains. But they do not get people anywhere fast. The US needs an alternative to airports and personal cars. People have to drive or fly everywhere to travel. Such travel is difficult for the elderly. High speed rail is the answer, but it would threaten the auto and airline industries.

The USA could have had a capitalist economic model that provided good jobs and benefits, like the European model of stakeholder capitalism that allows workers to share the profits. Not a chance of it happening, unfortunately. Wall Street corporate interests are too strong for that under stockholder capitalism.

The USA could have been a great place to live and a model for the whole world. Instead, the politicians in the USA just warn people to be careful or they might end up being just like Europe. Actually most people would love to be just like Europe, if they only had a clue about the benefits people enjoy in Europe!

In the event, the USA missed the boat over the last sixty years. That was the price of being the oligarchy that it is.

Today, the USA is losing the war. Not only in hearts and minds, but in real democracy and social welfare for its people. Just look at the many thousands of homeless young people living in tents in Los Angeles and other places in California. Official figures are way over one-hundred thousand just in California alone. Surely, the scenes of degradation one sees on the streets of Los Angeles is shameful for a country as rich as the USA.

It would be a shame for any country.

The lack of a national health care system in the United States is a national disgrace. One wonders how the officials believe that one can run a country without taking care of the health care needs of the people. It boggles the minds of those in most developed countries, such as Europe.

Again, politicians in the US warn Americans to be careful. They could end up being just like those in Europe. This would be funny if it was not so absurd.

Some Americans have started leaving the USA for a better life elsewhere and find that they are better off.

Some go to universities free in Europe, such as in Slovenia, Germany or France. Some young Americans find it easier to live well and pay off their student loans by teaching English and other subjects in China. So much for the so-called evils of communism!

Americans have started to retire abroad because their small social security checks give them a higher standard of living in Mexico and many other countries than they would have in the USA.

Wall Street and the corporate oligarchs in the USA, on the other hand, are mostly happy. Today, that is obviously the top priority.

The US Empire is not yet over, but on the down-side of history. Perhaps that is the bright spot on the horizon.

How many more imperialist wars will it take to finally bring down the American Global Empire? That is the historical question.

Eddie J. Girdner

June 18, 2019

 

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Listen to the Veterans

What Was It All for For: Vets Have Finally Turned on America’s Endless Wars

It is undoubtedly my favorite part of every wedding. That awkward, but strangely forthright moment when the preacher asks the crowd for any objections to the couple’s marriage. No one ever objects, of course, but it’s still a raw, if tense, moment. I just love it.

I suppose we had that ubiquitous ritual in mind back in 2007 when Keith – a close buddy and fellow officer – and I crafted our own plan of objection. The setting was Baghdad, Iraq, at the start of the “surge” and the climax of the bloody civil war the U.S. invasion had unleashed. Just twenty three years old and only eighteen months out of the academy, my clique of officers had already decided the war was a mess, shouldn’t have been fought, and couldn’t be won.

Me and Keith, though, were undoubtedly the most radical. We both just hated how our squadron’s colonel would hijack the memorial ceremonies held for dead troopers – including three of my own – and use the occasion of his inescapable speech to encourage we mourners to use the latest death as a reason to “rededicate ourselves to the mission and the people of Iraq.” The whole thing was as repulsive as it was repetitive.

So it was that after a particularly depressing ceremony, perhaps our squadron’s tenth or so, that we hatched our little defiant scheme. If (or when) one of us was killed, the other promised – and this was a time and place where promises are sacred – to object, stand up, and announce to the colonel and the crowd that we’d listen to no such bullshit at this particular ceremony, not this time. “Danny didn’t believe in this absurd mission for a minute, he wouldn’t want his death to rededicate us to anything,” Keith would have said! Luckily it never came to that. We both survived, Keith left the army soon after, and I, well, toiled along until something snapped and I chose the road of public dissent. Still, I believe either of us would have actually done it – even if it did mean the end of our respective careers. That’s called brotherhood…and love.

I got to thinking on that when I read a story this week which was both disturbing, refreshing, and sickening all at the same time. A major opinion poll’s results were released which demonstrated that fully two-thirds of post 9/11 veterans now think the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan “weren’t worth fighting.” That’s a remarkable, and distressing, statistic and one that should give America’s president, legislators, media, and people as a whole, serious pause. Not that it will, mind you, but it should! It’s doubtful that US military combat vets – who are more rural, southern, and conservative than the population at large – have ever so incontrovertibly turned on a war, at least since the very end of Vietnam.

On one level I felt a sense of vindication for my longtime antiwar stances when I read about the study – in the Military Times no less. But that was just ego. Within minutes I was sad, inconsolably and completely melancholy. Because if, as a “filibuster-proof” majority of my fellow veterans (and maybe even our otherwise unhinged president) believes, the Iraq and Afghan wars weren’t worth the sacrifice, then consider the unsettling implications. It would mean, for starters, that the US flushed nearly $5.9 trillion in hard-earned taxpayer cash down the toilet. It means that 7,000 American soldiers and upwards of 244,000 foreign civilians needn’t have lost their ever precious lives. Hundreds of thousands more might not have been injured or maimed. 21 million people wouldn’t have become refugees. The world, so to speak, could’ve been a safer, better place.

Those ever-so-logical conclusions should dismay even the most apathetic American. They should make us all rather sad, but, more importantly, should inform future decisions about the use of military force, the role of America in the world, and just how much foreign policy power to turn over to presidents. Because if we, collectively, don’t learn from our country’s eighteen year, tragic saga, then this republic is, without exaggeration, finished, once and for all. Benjamin Franklin, that confounding Founding Father, wasn’t sure the American people could be trusted to “keep” the republic he and other elites formed. It’d be a devastating catastrophe to prove him right, especially in this time of rising right-wing, strongman populism in the Western world.

So consider this a plea to Congress, to the corporate media establishment, and to all of you: when even traditionally more conservative and martial military veterans raise the antiwar alarm – listen! And next time the American war drums beat, and they undoubtedly will, consider this article encouragement to do what Keith and I promised way back when. Object! Refuse to fight the next ill-advised and unethical war. Remember: to do so demonstrates brotherhood and love. Love of each other and love of country…

Danny Sjursen is a retired US Army officer and regular contributor to Antiwar.com. His work has appeared in the LA Times, The Nation, Huff Post, The Hill, Salon, Truthdig, Tom Dispatch, among other publications. He served combat tours with reconnaissance units in Iraq and Afghanistan and later taught history at his alma mater, West Point. He is the author of a memoir and critical analysis of the Iraq War, Ghostriders of Baghdad: Soldiers, Civilians, and the Myth of the Surge. Follow him on Twitter at @SkepticalVet.

Copyright 2019 Danny Sjursen

On American Aggression

We’re Not the Good Guys

Originally posted at TomDispatch.

Headlined “U.S. Seeks Other Ways to Stop Iran Shy of War,” the article was tucked away on page A9 of a recent New York Times. Still, it caught my attention. Here’s the first paragraph:

“American intelligence and military officers are working on additional clandestine plans to counter Iranian aggression in the Persian Gulf, pushed by the White House to develop new options that could help deter Tehran without escalating tensions into a full-out conventional war, according to current and former officials.”

Note that “Iranian aggression.” The rest of the piece, fairly typical of the tone of American media coverage of the ongoing Iran crisis, included sentences like this: “The C.I.A. has longstanding secret plans for responding to Iranian provocations.” I’m sure I’ve read such things hundreds of times without ever really stopping to think much about them, but this time I did. And what struck me was this: rare is the moment in such mainstream news reports when Americans are the “provocative” ones (though the Iranians immediately accused the U.S. military of just that, a provocation, when it came to the U.S. drone its Revolutionary Guard recently shot down either over Iranian air space or the Strait of Hormuz). When it comes to Washington’s never-ending war on terror, I think I can say with reasonable confidence that, in the past, the present, and the future, the one phrase you’re not likely to find in such media coverage will be “American aggression.”

I mean, forget the history of the second half of the last century and all of this one so far. Forget that back in the Neolithic age of the 1980s, before Iraqi autocrat Saddam Hussein turned out to be the new Adolf Hitler and needed to be taken down by us (no aggression there), the administration of President Ronald Reagan actively backed his unprovoked invasion of, and war against, Iran. (That included his use of chemical weapons against Iranian troop concentrations that American military intelligence helped him target.) Forget that, in 2003, the administration of George W. Bush launched an unprovoked war of aggression against Iraq, based on false intelligence about Saddam’s supposed weapons of mass destruction and his supposed links to al-Qaeda. Forget that the Trump administration tore up a nuclear agreement with Iran to which that country was adhering and which would indeed have effectively prevented it from producing nuclear weapons for the foreseeable future. Forget that its supreme leader (in fatwas he issued) prohibited the creation or stockpiling of such weaponry in any case.

Forget that the Trump administration, in a completely unprovoked manner, imposed crippling sanctions on that country and its oil trade, causing genuine suffering, in hopes of toppling that regime economically as Saddam Hussein’s had been toppled militarily in neighboring Iraq in 2003, all in the name of preventing the atomic weapons that the Obama-negotiated pact had taken care of. Forget the fact that an American president, who, at the last moment, halted air strikes against Iranian missile bases (after one of their missiles shot down that American drone) is now promising that an attack on “anything American will be met with great and overwhelming force… In some areas, overwhelming will mean obliteration.”

Provocations? Aggression? Perish the thought!

And yet, just ask yourself what Washington and the Pentagon might do if an Iranian drone were spotted off the East Coast of the United States (no less in actual U.S. air space).  No more need be said, right?

So here’s the strange thing, on a planet on which, in 2017, U.S. Special Operations forces deployed to 149 countries, or approximately 75% of all nations; on which the U.S. has perhaps 800 military garrisons outside its own territory; on which the U.S. Navy patrols most of its oceans and seas; on which U.S. unmanned aerial drones conduct assassination strikes across a surprising range of countries; and on which the U.S. has been fighting wars, as well as more minor conflicts, for years on end from Afghanistan to Libya, Syria to Yemen, Iraq to Niger in a century in which it chose to launch full-scale invasions of two countries (Afghanistan and Iraq), is it truly reasonable never to identify the U.S. as an “aggressor” anywhere?

What you might say about the United States is that, as the self-proclaimed leading proponent of democracy and human rights (even if its president is now having a set of love affairs with autocrats and dictators), Americans consider ourselves at home just about anywhere we care to be on planet Earth.  It matters little how we may be armed and what we might do. Consequently, wherever Americans are bothered, harassed, threatened, attacked, we are always the ones being provoked and aggressed upon, never provoking and aggressing. I mean, how can you be the aggressor in your own house, even if that house happens to be temporarily located in Afghanistan, Iraq, or perhaps soon enough in Iran?

A Planet of Aggressors and Provocateurs

To mine the same New York Times piece a little more, here’s another paragraph:

“Some officials believe the United States needs [to] be willing to master the kind of deniable, shadowy techniques Tehran has perfected in order to halt Iran’s aggressions. Others think that, while helpful, such clandestine attacks will not be enough to reassure American allies or deter Iran.”

Of course, such clandestine American attacks would, by definition, not be “aggression,” not given that they were directed against Iran. Forget the grim historical humor lurking in the above passage, since the present Iranian religious hard-liners probably wouldn’t be there if, back in 1953, the CIA hadn’t used just such techniques to overthrow a democratically elected Iranian government and install its own autocrat, the young Shah, in power.

As that Times piece also emphasizes, Iran now uses “proxy forces” throughout the region (indeed it does!) against U.S. (and Israeli) power, a tactic Americans evidently just hadn’t thought about employing themselves in this century – until now. Americans naturally have no proxy forces in the Greater Middle East. That’s a well-known fact. Just out of curiosity, however, what would you call the local forces our special ops guys are training and advising in so many of those 149 countries around the planet, since obviously they could never be proxy forces? And how about the Afghan and Iraqi militaries that the U.S. trained, supplied with weaponry, and advised in these years? (You know, the Iraqi army that collapsed in the face of ISIS in 2014 or the Afghan security forces that have been unable to staunch either the growthof the Taliban or of the Afghan branch of ISIS.)

Now, don’t get me wrong. Yes, the Iranians can (and sometimes do) provoke and aggress. It’s an ugly planet filled with aggression and provocation. (Take Vladimir Putin’s Russia in Crimea and Ukraine, for instance.) The Chinese are now aggressing in the South China Sea where the U.S. Navy regularly conducts “freedom of navigation” operations – though no provocation there, as the Pacific’s an American lake, isn’t it?

In short, when it comes to provocation and aggression, the world is our oyster. There are so many bad guys out there and then, of course, there’s us. We can make mistakes and missteps, we can kill staggering numbers of civilians, destroy cities, uproot populations, create hordes of refugees with our never-ending wars across the Greater Middle East and Africa, but aggression? What are you thinking?

One thing is obvious if you follow the mainstream media: in our world, no matter what we do, we’re still the good guys on a planet filled with provocateurs and aggressors of every sort.

War to the Horizon

Now let’s think for a moment about that remarkable American comfort level, that unprecedented sense of being at home practically anywhere on Earth we choose to send armed Americans – and while we’re at it, let’s consider a related subject: America’s wars.

If, in the early 1970s, you had told me or any other American that, in the nearly half-century to come, the U.S. would fight wars and other lesser conflicts of almost every imaginable sort in startling numbers of places thousands of miles from home, including Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Syria, and Yemen, countries most Americans couldn’t then (or now) find on a map, I guarantee you one thing: we would have thought you were nuts. (Of course, if you had described Donald Trump’s White House to me then as our future reality, I would have considered you beyond delusional.)

And yet here we are. Think about Afghanistan for a moment. In those distant days of the last century, that country would undoubtedly have been known here only to small numbers of young adventurers eager to hike what was then called “the hippy trail.” There, in a still remarkably peaceful place, a young American might have been greeted with remarkable friendliness and then spaced out on drugs.

That, of course, was before Washington’s first (covert) Afghan War, the one the CIA oversaw, with the help of Saudi money (yes, even then!) and a major hand from the Pakistani intelligence services. Do you remember that conflict, which began in 1979 and ended a decade later with the Red Army limping out of Kabul in defeat, heading for a land, the Soviet Union, which would implode within two years? What a “victory” that proved to be for America, not to speak of the groups of extremist Islamic militants we helped to fund and support, including a young Saudi named Osama bin Laden.

And keep in mind as well that that was our “short” war in Afghanistan, a mere decade long. In October 2001, soon after the 9/11 attacks, instead of launching a police action against Osama bin Laden and crew, the administration of George W. Bush decided to invade that country. Almost 18 years later, the U.S. military is still fighting there (remarkably unsuccessfully) against a thoroughly rejuvenated Taliban and a new branch of ISIS. It now qualifies as the longest war in our history (without even adding in that first Afghan War of ours).

And then, of course, there’s Iraq. By my count, the U.S. has been involved in four conflicts involving that country, starting with Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Iran in 1980 and the ensuing war, which the administration of President Ronald Reagan supported militarily (as the present one does the Saudi war in Yemen). Then there was President George H.W. Bush’s war against Saddam Hussein after his military invaded Kuwait in 1990, which resulted in a resounding (but by no means conclusive) victory and the kind of victory parade in Washington that Donald Trump can only dream of. Next, of course, was President George W. Bush’s 2003 invasion and occupation of Iraq (mission accomplished!), a grim and unsatisfying eight-year conflict from which President Barack Obama withdrew U.S. troops in 2011. The fourth war followed in 2014 when the U.S.-trained Iraqi military collapsed in the face of relatively small numbers of ISIS militants, a group that was an offshoot of al-Qaeda in Iraq, which didn’t exist until the U.S. invaded that country. That September, President Obama loosed the U.S. air force on Iraq and Syria (so you can add a fifth war in a neighboring country to the mix) and sent U.S. troops back into Iraq and into Syria where they still remain.

Oh, yes, and don’t forget Somalia. U.S. troubles there began with the famed Black Hawk Down incident amid the Battle of Mogadishu in 1993 and never, in a sense, really ended. Today, U.S. Special Operations forces are still on the ground there and U.S. air strikes against a Somali militant Islamic group, al-Shabaab, have actually been on the rise in the Trump era.

As for Yemen, from the first U.S. drone strike there in 2002, the U.S. had been in an on-again, off-again low-level conflict there that included commando raids, cruise missile attacks, air strikes, and drone strikes against al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, another offshoot of the original al-Qaeda. Since, in 2015, the Saudis and the United Arab Emirates launched their war against Houthi rebels (backed by Iran) who had come to control significant parts of the country, the U.S. has been supporting them with weaponryintelligence, and targeting, as well as (until late last year) mid-air refueling and other aid. Meanwhile, that brutal war of destruction has led to staggering numbers of Yemeni civilian casualties (and widespread starvation), but as with so many of the other campaigns the U.S. has involved itself in across the Greater Middle East and Africa it shows no sign of ending.

And don’t forget Libya, where the U.S. and NATO intervened in 2011 to help rebels take down Muammar Gaddafi, the local autocrat, and in the process managed to foster a failed state in a land now experiencing its own civil war. In the years since 2011, the U.S. has sometimes had commandos on the ground there, has launched hundreds of drone strikes (and air strikes), often against a branch of ISIS that grew up in that land. Once again, little is settled there, so we can all continue to sing the Marine Hymn (“…to the shores of Tripoli”) with a sense of appropriateness.

And I haven’t even mentioned PakistanNiger, and god knows where else. You should also note that the American forever war on terror has proven a remarkably effective war for terror, clearly helping to foster and spread such groups, aggressors and provocateurs all, around significant parts of the planet, from the Philippines to the Congo.

Addicted to war? Not us. Still, all in all, it’s quite a record and let’s not forget that looming on the horizon is another possible war, this time with Iran, a country that the men overseeing the invasion of Iraq in 2003 (includingpresent National Security Advisor John Bolton) were eager to go after even then. “Everyone wants to go to Baghdad,” so the saying reputedly went in Washington at the time. “Real men want to go to Tehran.” And it’s just possible that, in 2019, Bolton and crew will be able to act on that much delayed urge. Considering the history of American wars in these years, what could possibly go wrong?

To sum up, no one should ever claim that we Americans aren’t “at home” in the world. We’re everywhere, remarkably well funded and well armed and ready to face off against the aggressors and provocateurs of this planet. Just one small suggestion: thank the troops for their service if you want, and then, as most Americans do, go about your business as if nothing were happening in those distant lands. As we head into election season 2020, however, just don’t imagine that we’re the good guys on Planet Earth. As far as I can tell, there aren’t many good guys left.

Tom Engelhardt is a co-founder of the American Empire Project and the author of a history of the Cold War, The End of Victory Culture. He runs TomDispatch.comand is a fellow of the Type Media Center. His sixth and latest book is A Nation Unmade by War (Dispatch Books).

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer’s new dystopian novel (the second in the Splinterlandsseries) Frostlands, Beverly Gologorsky’s novel Every Body Has a Story, and Tom Engelhardt’s A Nation Unmade by War, as well as Alfred McCoy’s In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power and John Dower’s The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II.

Copyright Tom Engelhardt 2019

Dodged a Bullet for Now

The US has not started the latest war against Iran yet. But I have no doubt that it will be underway at some point. I wish like hell that I was wrong about that! Give me strength! I hate to see that shit starting again with the same playbook as in Iraq. I wrote a book about it. But empires must be empires till they finally collapse.

Giving Trump Credit (But Not Too Much) on Iran

The Donald made the right call. Now that’s a rare statement. Calling off – or at least delaying – a military strike on Iran was prudent. Nevertheless, there was something deeply unsettling about the whole thing. The system is broken, perhaps irreparably.

The president never even considered seeking congressional approval before playing emperor and unleashing death and destruction on a sovereign nation. Why would he? Essentially every president, since Truman, has done the same thing one time or another. Unilateral executive action has been the American norm pretty much since World War II wrapped up. Seen in this context, Trump isn’t so anomalous as many would like to believe. Korea kicked off the trend. But the Vietnam advisory mission, Lebanon, Grenada, Panama, Somalia, Bosnia, Libya, and Syria – to name the highlights – were all undertaken without the constitutionally mandated consent of the legislature.

In that sense, a dozen or so more palatable and polite emperors, I mean presidents, paved the way for the coarser and more buffoonish reality TV star currently calling the shots in the White House. Americans’ collective sin of ignoring foreign policy and ceding unilateral power to the executive branch has truly, and definitively, come home to roost. That’s partly why I find the protestations from Democratic lawmakers to be more about partisanship than principles. Genuine legislators – that spent more time following international policy instead of obsessively raising money – would all revolt and restrain the president regardless of their political party. We’re unlikely to see that.

None of this should be seen as a defense or normalization of Trump. The manis scary. His threats, vagueness, and propensity to turn on a policy dime are genuinely disturbing. So is his blatant affinity for autocrats the world over. The point is that I shouldn’t have to give “credit” to Trump when he acts prudently and demonstrates restraint. I, we, should not have to hang on the words and pronouncements of any one man. The populace, the media, the congress should not be relegated to spectators held hostage by the whims of any one man.

It doesn’t necessarily matter whether that person is Donald Trump or Barack Obama, per say. The system, as designed in the Constitution, judiciously places the supreme power of warfare squarely on Capitol Hill, on the collective judgment of the peoples’ elected representatives. Discussion, debate, deliberation – these ought to be the hallmarks of any rather profound decision to kill and maim other humans. Instead, in 21st century America, we “elect” – not necessarily by the popular vote count – an emperor and then watch and see what he does with our military and, heck, our nuclear arsenal for that matter.

Which places this author, and all Americans really, in the awkward, and pathetic, position of having to praise the lunatic-in-chief for not doing the unthinkable. All of us feast on the decisional scraps of one Donald Trump. It’s been normalized to such an extent that hardly anyone notices any longer. All Americans are essentially too trapped in the Matrix of imperial war to recognize the crumbing of national institutions. It easy (and somewhat accurate) to blame congress, or the media, or various presidents themselves, but the rot runs much deeper. Average Americans have forgotten how to be true citizens, forgotten how to mobilize in the streets and demand change. Too busy eking out a living after forty years of working wage stagnation, and no longer required to serve in America’s imperial wars, the people have opted out. We’re all guilty, all complicit, in the hijacking of the Constitution. So it was that I personally endured combat in two ill-advised, immoral wars in the Greater Middle East.

See, there are consequences for executive overreach and popular apathy. We can count the costs to the tune of $5.9 trillion spent, some 7,000 American soldiers killed, and about 480,000 dead foreigners. All of this occurred with either a congressional rubber stamp or, often, no stamp at all. While congressmen and senators were busy dialing-for-dollars, my soldiers were in the field killing and dying in rather real wars. I’m sure thankful that I’m out of the business of death-dealing, but also remain deeply unsettled by the knowledge that any war in Iran will affect, and forever damage, a new generation of officers and soldiers. Americans will then vacuously thank, and hollowly adulate, the troops involved. Almost no one will ask why those servicemen were sent to war in the first place, or question the process by which they were sent. All the while, the last remnants of the American republic will continue to crumble.

So here we are, hostages to one – rather disconcerting – man, Mr. Donald Trump. We’ll collectively wait for his decision on whether to call off, delay, or launch a new Mideast war, this time with Iran. It’s absurd and need not be this way. Citizens, real citizens I mean, could hit the streets, flood their congressmen’s’ offices, and shut down the whole damn country until the president adheres to the Constitution. It’s genuinely possible, but, of course, will not happen.

Instead, we’ll all remain glued to our TVs and phones, wondering what the emperor will do next. And when that supreme leader decides, occasionally, to show restraint, I’ll be in the awkward and insane position of giving Donald Trump “credit” when he doesn’t embark on another illegal war in our name. And more’s the pity.

Danny Sjursen is a retired U.S. Army officer and regular contributor toAntiwar.com. His work has appeared in the LA Times, The Nation, Huff Post, The Hill, Salon, Truthdig, Tom Dispatch, among other publications. He served combat tours with reconnaissance units in Iraq and Afghanistan and later taught history at his alma mater, West Point. He is the author of a memoir and critical analysis of the Iraq War, Ghostriders of Baghdad: Soldiers, Civilians, and the Myth of the Surge. Follow him on Twitter at @SkepticalVet.

Copyright 2019 Danny Sjursen

On the Road to Hell

The American Cult of Bombing and Endless War

Originally posted at TomDispatch.

In those pre-seat-belt years – it might have been 1953 – I can remember being in the back seat of the family car with our dog. My dad was driving, my mom sitting next to him. And I can still practically hear them launching, with remarkable gusto, into the first verse of the Air Force song:

“Off we go into the wild blue yonder,
Climbing high into the sun.
Here they come zooming to meet our thunder
At ’em boys, Give ‘er the gun!
Down we dive, spouting our flame from under
Off with one helluva roar!
We live in fame or go down in flame. Hey!
Nothing can stop the Army Air Force!”

In World War II, my father had been operations officer for the First Air Commandos in Burma and a major in the Army Air Force. (There was, as yet, no U.S. Air Force.) When they got to the last line of that verse, “Nothing can stop the U.S. Air Force!,” they briefly paused, then added in a plaintive yodel – it was no part of the official song, but obviously part of the unofficial Air Force version of it – “…except the women.”

Though still the official song, its vision of American air power no longer seems faintly on target (and not just because of that final add-on). After all, a U.S. Air Force plane hasn’t gone down in aerial combat since the war on terror began with the bombing of Afghanistan in October 2001. (Admittedly, in 2017, a Navy F/A-18 Super Hornet did shoot down a Syrian jet fighter, a unique event in the last nearly 18 years.) In that first moment of the new war, the Pentagon dispatched B-2 Stealth bombers with satellite-guided precision weaponry from the United States, as well as B-1 and B-52 long-range bombers from the British Indian Ocean island of Diego Garcia, supplemented by strike aircraft from two U.S. aircraft carriers and about 50 Tomahawk Cruise missiles fired from ships, to take out both al-Qaeda and Taliban targets in Afghanistan. By the end of December 2001, 17,500 bombs and other munitions had rained down on that country, 57% of which were reportedly “precision-guided” smart weapons – and that was just how it began. It’s never ended.

So, in these years, “flames,” yes (not to speak of rubblized cities and tens of thousands of dead civilians), but “down in”… no. Someone coming “to meet our thunder” – not at least in the seven countries American air power has bombed during those nearly two decades of air war. The “thunder,” as retired Air Force lieutenant colonel, historian, and TomDispatch regular, William Astore points out, has been an unopposed thunder of destruction – and while quite literally nothing can stop the U.S. Air Force, nothing can make it victorious either. ~ Tom

Ten Tenets of Air Power That I Didn’t Learn in the Air Force

By William J. Astore

From Syria to Yemen in the Middle East, Libya to Somalia in Africa, Afghanistan to Pakistan in South Asia, an American aerial curtain has descended across a huge swath of the planet. Its stated purpose: combatting terrorism. Its primary method: constant surveillance and bombing – and yet more bombing. Its political benefit: minimizing the number of U.S. “boots on the ground” and so American casualties in the never-ending war on terror, as well as any public outcry about Washington’s many conflicts. Its economic benefit: plenty of high-profit business for weapons makers for whom the president can now declare a national security emergency whenever he likes and so sell their warplanes and munitions to preferred dictatorships in the Middle East (no congressional approval required). Its reality for various foreign peoples: a steady diet of “Made in USA” bombs and missiles bursting here, there, and everywhere.

Think of all this as a cult of bombing on a global scale. America’s wars are increasingly waged from the air, not on the ground, a reality that makes the prospect of ending them ever more daunting. The question is: What’s driving this process?

For many of America’s decision-makers, air power has clearly become something of an abstraction. After all, except for the 9/11 attacks by those four hijacked commercial airliners, Americans haven’t been the target of such strikes since World War II. On Washington’s battlefields across the Greater Middle East and northern Africa, air power is always almost literally a one-way affair. There are no enemy air forces or significant air defenses. The skies are the exclusive property of the U.S. Air Force (and allied air forces), which means that we’re no longer talking about “war” in the normal sense. No wonder Washington policymakers and military officials see it as our strong suit, our asymmetrical advantage, our way of settling scores with evildoers, real and imagined.

Bombs away!

In a bizarre fashion, you might even say that, in the twenty-first century, the bomb and missile count replaced the Vietnam-era body count as a metric of (false) progress. Using data supplied by the U.S. military, the Council on Foreign Relations estimated that the U.S. dropped at least 26,172 bombs in seven countries in 2016, the bulk of them in Iraq and Syria. Against Raqqa alone, ISIS’s “capital,” the U.S. and its allies dropped more than 20,000 bombs in 2017, reducing that provincial Syrian city to literal rubble. Combined with artillery fire, the bombing of Raqqa killed more than 1,600 civilians, according to Amnesty International.

Meanwhile, since Donald Trump has become president, after claiming that he would get us out of our various never-ending wars, U.S. bombing has surged, not only against the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq but in Afghanistan as well. It has driven up the civilian death toll there even as “friendly” Afghan forces are sometimes mistaken for the enemy and killed, too. Air strikes from Somalia to Yemen have also been on the rise under Trump, while civilian casualties due to U.S. bombing continue to be underreported in the American media and downplayed by the Trump administration.

U.S. air campaigns today, deadly as they are, pale in comparison to past ones like the Tokyo firebombing of 1945, which killed more than 100,000 civilians; the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki later that year (roughly 250,000); the death toll against German civilians in World War II (at least 600,000); or civilians in the Vietnam War. (Estimates vary, but when napalm and the long-term effects of cluster munitions and defoliants like Agent Orange are added to conventional high-explosive bombs, the death toll in Southeast Asia may well have exceeded one million.) Today’s air strikes are more limited than in those past campaigns and may be more accurate, but never confuse a 500-pound bomb with a surgeon’s scalpel, even rhetorically. When “surgical” is applied to bombing in today’s age of lasers, GPS, and other precision-guidance technologies, it only obscures the very real human carnage being produced by all these American-made bombs and missiles.

This country’s propensity for believing that its ability to rain hellfire from the sky provides a winning methodology for its wars has proven to be a fantasy of our age. Whether in Korea in the early 1950s, Vietnam in the 1960s, or more recently in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria, the U.S. may control the air, but that dominance simply hasn’t led to ultimate success. In the case of Afghanistan, weapons like the Mother of All Bombs, or MOAB (the most powerful non-nuclear bomb in the U.S. military’s arsenal), have been celebrated as game changers even when they change nothing. (Indeed, the Taliban only continues to grow stronger, as does the branch of the Islamic State in Afghanistan.) As is often the case when it comes to U.S. air power, such destruction leads neither to victory, nor closure of any sort; only to yet more destruction.

Such results are contrary to the rationale for air power that I absorbed in a career spent in the U.S. Air Force. (I retired in 2005.) The fundamental tenetsof air power that I learned, which are still taught today, speak of decisiveness. They promise that air power, defined as “flexible and versatile,” will have “synergistic effects” with other military operations. When bombing is “concentrated,” “persistent,” and “executed” properly (meaning not micro-managed by know-nothing politicians), air power should be fundamental to ultimate victory. As we used to insist, putting bombs on target is really what it’s all about. End of story – and of thought.

Given the banality and vacuity of those official Air Force tenets, given the twenty-first-century history of air power gone to hell and back, and based on my own experience teaching such history and strategy in and outside the military, I’d like to offer some air power tenets of my own. These are the ones the Air Force didn’t teach me, but that our leaders might consider before launching their next “decisive” air campaign.

Ten Cautionary Tenets About Air Power

1. Just because U.S. warplanes and drones can strike almost anywhere on the globe with relative impunity doesn’t mean that they should. Given the history of air power since World War II, ease of access should never be mistaken for efficacious results.

2. Bombing alone will never be the key to victory. If that were true, the U.S. would have easily won in Korea and Vietnam, as well as in Afghanistan and Iraq. American air power pulverized both North Korea and Vietnam (not to speak of neighboring Laos and Cambodia), yet the Korean War ended in a stalemate and the Vietnam War in defeat. (It tells you the world about such thinking that air power enthusiasts, reconsidering the Vietnam debacle, tend to argue the U.S. should have bombed even more – lots more.) Despite total air supremacy, the recent Iraq War was a disaster even as the Afghan War staggers on into its 18th catastrophic year.

3. No matter how much it’s advertised as “precise,” “discriminate,” and “measured,” bombing (or using missiles like the Tomahawk) rarely is. The deaths of innocents are guaranteed. Air power and those deaths are joined at the hip, while such killings only generate anger and blowback, thereby prolonging the wars they are meant to end.

Consider, for instance, the “decapitation” strikes launched against Iraqi autocrat Saddam Hussein and his top officials in the opening moments of the Bush administration’s invasion of 2003. Despite the hype about that being the beginning of the most precise air campaign in all of history, 50 of those attacks, supposedly based on the best intelligence around, failed to take out Saddam or a single one of his targeted officials. They did, however, cause “dozens” of civilian deaths. Think of it as a monstrous repeat of the precision air attacks launched on Belgrade in 1999 against Slobodan Milosevicand his regime that hit the Chinese embassy instead, killing three journalists.

Here, then, is the question of the day: Why is it that, despite all the “precision” talk about it, air power so regularly proves at best a blunt instrument of destruction? As a start, intelligence is often faulty. Then bombs and missiles, even “smart” ones, do go astray. And even when U.S. forces actually kill high-value targets (HVTs), there are always more HVTs out there. A paradox emerges from almost 18 years of the war on terror: the imprecision of air power only leads to repetitious cycles of violence and, even when air strikes prove precise, there always turn out to be fresh targets, fresh terrorists, fresh insurgents to strike.

4. Using air power to send political messages about resolve or seriousness rarely works. If it did, the U.S. would have swept to victory in Vietnam. In Lyndon Johnson’s presidency, for instance, Operation Rolling Thunder (1965-1968), a graduated campaign of bombing, was meant to, but didn’t, convince the North Vietnamese to give up their goal of expelling the foreign invaders – us – from South Vietnam. Fast-forward to our era and consider recent signals sent to North Korea and Iran by the Trump administration via B-52 bomber deployments, among other military “messages.” There’s no evidence that either country modified its behavior significantly in the face of the menace of those baby-boomer-era airplanes.

5. Air power is enormously expensive. Spending on aircraft, helicopters, and their munitions accounted for roughly half the cost of the Vietnam War. Similarly, in the present moment, making operational and then maintaining Lockheed Martin’s boondoggle of a jet fighter, the F-35, is expected to cost at least $1.45 trillion over its lifetime. The new B-21 stealth bomber will cost more than $100 billion simply to buy. Naval air wings on aircraft carriers cost billions each year to maintain and operate. These days, when the sky’s the limit for the Pentagon budget, such costs may be (barely) tolerable. When the money finally begins to run out, however, the military will likely suffer a serious hangover from its wildly extravagant spending on air power.

6. Aerial surveillance (as with drones), while useful, can also be misleading. Command of the high ground is not synonymous with god-like “total situational awareness.” It can instead prove to be a kind of delusion, while war practiced in its spirit often becomes little more than an exercise in destruction. You simply can’t negotiate a truce or take prisoners or foster other options when you’re high above a potential battlefield and your main recourse is blowing up people and things.

7. Air power is inherently offensive. That means it’s more consistent with imperial power projection than with national defense. As such, it fuels imperial ventures, while fostering the kind of “global reach, global power” thinking that has in these years had Air Force generals in its grip.

8. Despite the fantasies of those sending out the planes, air power often lengthens wars rather than shortening them. Consider Vietnam again. In the early 1960s, the Air Force argued that it alone could resolve that conflict at the lowest cost (mainly in American bodies). With enough bombs, napalm, and defoliants, victory was a sure thing and U.S. ground troops a kind of afterthought. (Initially, they were sent in mainly to protect the airfields from which those planes took off.) But bombing solved nothing and then the Army and the Marines decided that, if the Air Force couldn’t win, they sure as hell could. The result was escalation and disaster that left in the dust the original vision of a war won quickly and on the cheap due to American air supremacy.

9. Air power, even of the shock-and-awe variety, loses its impact over time. The enemy, lacking it, nonetheless learns to adapt by developing countermeasures – both active (like missiles) and passive (like camouflage and dispersion), even as those being bombed become more resilient and resolute.

10. Pounding peasants from two miles up is not exactly an ideal way to occupy the moral high ground in war.

The Road to Perdition

If I had to reduce these tenets to a single maxim, it would be this: all the happy talk about the techno-wonders of modern air power obscures its darker facets, especially its ability to lock America into what are effectively one-way wars with dead-end results.

For this reason, precision warfare is truly an oxymoron. War isn’t precise. It’s nasty, bloody, and murderous. War’s inherent nature – its unpredictability, horrors, and tendency to outlast its original causes and goals – isn’t changed when the bombs and missiles are guided by GPS. Washington’s enemies in its war on terror, moreover, have learned to adapt to air power in a grimly Darwinian fashion and have the advantage of fighting on their own turf.

Who doesn’t know the old riddle: If a tree falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound? Here’s a twenty-first-century air power variant on it: If foreign children die from American bombs but no U.S. media outlets report their deaths, will anyone grieve? Far too often, the answer here in the U.S. is no and so our wars go on into an endless future of global destruction.

In reality, this country might do better to simply ground its many fighter planes, bombers, and drones. Paradoxically, instead of gaining the high ground, they are keeping us on a low road to perdition.

William J. Astore is a retired lieutenant colonel (USAF) and professor of history. ATomDispatch regular, he runs his own blog, Bracing Views.

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer’s new dystopian novel (the second in the Splinterlandsseries) Frostlands, Beverly Gologorsky’s novel Every Body Has a Story, and Tom Engelhardt’s A Nation Unmade by War, as well as Alfred McCoy’s In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power and John Dower’s The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II.

Copyright 2019 William J. Astore

War With Iran

The United States of Aggression: War With Iran Would Spell the End of the Republic

Who do we think we are? Truly. The latest reports that the Trump administration is considering plans for deploying 120,000 troops to the Middle East – presumably to strike Iran – demonstrates how Washington’s foreign policy has finally gone off the rails. Crazier still, the impending war with Iran isn’t even the today’s biggest news story – what with all the nonsense, soap opera hullabaloo about the Mueller Report – on mainstream media outlets. What the proposed plan constitutes is nothing less than the most important, and disturbing, global issue of the day. This is how it should be reported by a truly adversarial media: The United States is preparing for an aggressive, illegal, and unwarranted war against another sovereign power thousands of miles from its shores. Again! All true citizens should be beyond appalled and screaming dissent from the rooftops.

The proposed plan comes on the heels of Iran’s decision – prompted by U.S. hostility – to withdraw from certain, though not all, Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA, better known as the Iran nuclear deal) requirements. This shouldn’t come as any surprise. In fact, it’s incredible that Iran stayed in compliance with the treaty as long as it did. After all, it was the United Statesthat unilaterally scuttled the deal – with which its own intelligence services admitted Iran had complied with – against the advice of its European allies and even Secretary of State Tillerson. By reimposing sanctions on a compliant Iran, the US acted aggressively and actually vindicated any Iranian counteraction. Indeed, President Rouhani had some justification for his claim that Tehran’s move didn’t violate the agreement, per say, but that actually the JCPOA permitted it since reimposition of sanctions was “grounds to cease performing its commitments under this JCPOA in whole or in part.”

This staggering military plan is only the latest escalation in a dangerous tit-for-tat game of chicken between Iran and the US Furthermore, it is Washington which has most often been the aggressor. The US, not Iran, recently deployed an aircraft carrier strike force and B-52 bombers to the Persian Gulf. The US, not Iran, needlessly began a provocative semantic battle when it designated the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps as a terror organization. So aggressive and unnecessary was this move that Iran’s subsequent retort that the real terror outfit in the region is USCENTCOM seemed disconcertingly accurate. Moreover, Washington has long exaggerated the level, and significance, of Iranian support for various regional proxies, such as the Houthis in Yemen, Shia militias in Iraq, and Hamas in Gaza. Bottom line: Iran currently presents no existential, strategic threat to the US

The whole sordid saga bears a striking, and disturbing, similarity to the worst foreign policy decision of the 21st century – America’s last war of choice waged in Iraq. Both were justified by inflated, vague, and alarmingly secretive intelligence reports. How’d that work out in 2003? Now, with the New York Times reporting that the magic number is again 120,000 troops – close to the number that invaded Iraq – we can deduce that even if war were warranted, the US military wouldn’t have the troops necessary to win.

The specter of war with Iran bears both hallmarks of terrible military adventures: Washington is again overestimating Iran’s bellicose intent and underestimating its capacity to defend itself. Make no mistake: war in the Persian Gulf will bloody, indecisive, and nearly impossible to disengage from. It’d be Iraq War 2.0, only worse – since Iran is bigger, more mountainous, and has a more nationalistic population than even Iraq.

The absurdity of even considering a major war with Iran demonstrates how truly Orwellian US foreign policy has become. Mr. Trump (correctly) chooses to reduce tensions with Russia and North Korea, but he still needs an enemy, a useful villain. Since loading up his administration with recycled neocons like John Bolton and Mike Pompeo – both obsessive Iranophones – it should’ve been obvious that Iran would play the scapegoat for, and justification of, America’s massive defense budget and apparent intention to maintain a military vice grip on the Mideast.

The American people hardly care about, and are excluded from, US foreign policy. A cabal of neocon Washington insiders, Trumpian buffoons, an all-powerful corporate arms dealing clique, and a compliant media seem to run America’s global affairs. Congress is hardly even consulted, as evidenced on Tuesday morning when Senator Bob Melendez – a highly placed member of the Senate Foreign Relations committee – admitted on CNN that he hadn’t been fully briefed, and didn’t fully understand, the oh-so-secretive intelligence that allegedly justifies this new military escalation in the Persian Gulf. That’s scary!

It is war that the unelected hyper-hawks like Bolton and Pompeo want, and, with an apathetic citizenry, uniformed Congress, and pliable president, it is war they may just get. Such a fight would be bloody, difficult, costly, and hard to end. It would shatter any remnants of regional stability and only serve to empower the two hidden hands behind this bellicosity – Saudi Arabia and Israel. To invade and/or attack Iran would, once and for all, spell the end of any fiction of the US remaining a representative republic governed by the popular will and international norms. Instead it’d be exposed for what it has long been becoming – a rogue, hegemonic empire bent on power and destruction.

If I were still in uniform, and I thank my lucky stars that I am not, I’d likely file as a conscientious objector. Indeed, I can hardly understand why most servicemen will not take such a drastic step. Though, admittedly, I too failed to do so during the horrific Iraq War.

Still, if loyal foot soldiers, a vacuous media, and an indifferent Congress march along to war in Iran, Roman history would repeat itself – as the empire finally swallows the republic whole.

Danny Sjursen is a retired US Army officer and regular contributor to Antiwar.com. His work has appeared in the LA Times, The Nation, Huff Post, The Hill, Salon, Truthdig, Tom Dispatch, among other publications. He served combat tours with reconnaissance units in Iraq and Afghanistan and later taught history at his alma mater, West Point. He is the author of a memoir and critical analysis of the Iraq War, Ghostriders of Baghdad: Soldiers, Civilians, and the Myth of the Surge. Follow him on Twitter at @SkepticalVet.

Copyright 2019 Danny Sjursen

The Farce of the US War in Afghanistan

Time for Peace in Afghanistan and an End to the Lies

It has been more than nine years since I resigned in protest over the escalation of the Afghan War from my position as a Political Officer with the US State Department in Afghanistan. It had been my third time to war, along with several years of working in positions effecting war policy in Washington, DC with the Department of Defense (DOD) and the State Department. My resignation in 2009 was not taken lightly by my superiors and my reasons for opposing President Obama’s “surge” in Afghanistan found support amongst both military officers and civilian officials at senior levels in Kabul and Washington.

I was repeatedly asked not to resign and was offered a more senior position within the State Department. Richard Holbrooke, then the President’s appointed representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan told me he agreed with 95% of what I had written and asked me to join his staff, while the US ambassador, Karl Eikenberry, told me my analysis was one of the best he had encountered and stated he would write an introduction endorsing my resignation letter if I remained with the US Embassy in Afghanistan for the remainder of my tour. In conversation with the US deputy ambassador to Afghanistan he agreed the war was not just unwinnable, but also corrupt, and stated he would not let his children serve in such a war. Further support for my views was provided by my counterparts who were serving as political officers in the most violent parts of Afghanistan: Kandahar, Helmand, Kunar, Nuristan and Oruzgan Provinces. These men and women made clear their agreement with my assessment and my resignation. The support from the military was equally effusive and genuine, often such support included apologies along the lines of “I’d like to resign too, but I’ve got kids heading to college in a few years…” (the golden handcuffs are an incredibly instrumental and integral aspect of the US Empire’s infrastructure). When I asked Karen DeYoung, the Washington Post correspondent who wrote the front page, above the fold story on my resignation for the Postwhy she wrote such a piece about me, she replied she could not find anyone at the Pentagon, State Department or White House who disagreed with me.

I relate the above not to cheerlead for myself, although the sadness and despondency from witnessing the wars up close and from afar and their cruel constant murder, does, at times, necessitate such crutches for me, but to relay my own personal observation of the great lie of war in action; the ability of the machine of war to propel itself forward even when those most intimate with the war, those most responsible for it and without whose support and effort the war could not continue, carry on the war whilst knowing and living the lie full well.

Nearly almost a decade after my resignation, there are reports of a possible peace deal in the making for Afghanistan. What I recognize, so clearly and sickeningly, just as my mind, and my soul, can recall the bright scarlet red of fresh arterial blood that dulls in contact with dust and cloth, or the clay-like frozen set jaw of a dead young man, whether he have been called an Afghan, American or Iraqi, are the same lies of the war that were so skillfully and effectively utilized by politicians, generals and the media to escalate the war in 2009 now being recirculated to defeat any current attempts for peace.

Sacrifice does not confer sanctity

When President Obama entered office in 2009 less than 30,000 US troops were in Afghanistan. Within a year and a half that number would reach 100,000 US military personnel along with 30,000 NATO soldiers from Europe and over 100,000 private contractors. Since 2001, more than 2400 US service membershave been killed in Afghanistan, nearly 1800 of them since 2009. European armies have had more than 1100 soldiers killed and more than 1700contractors have been killed while performing jobs that in previous wars would have been done by US soldiers. Tens of thousands have been physically wounded while hundreds of thousands suffer from traumatic brain injuries, post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), moral injury, depression, substance abuse and other “hidden” wounds of war. These hidden wounds have very real consequences: the US Department of Veterans Affairs reports young men and women who have served in Afghanistan and Iraq (a great many of them have served multiple deployments to both wars) have suicide rates six times higherthan their civilian peers, while infantry units, those that have performed the most killing and dying, have been seen to have suicide rates fourteen times higher than young civilian men their own age. In real numbers that means, since 2001, likely more than 9,000 US veterans who have served in Afghanistan and Iraq have been lost to suicide after returning home.

The numbers of Afghans who have been killed are truly unknown. The United Nations reporting on civilian casualties, which only began in 2009, reports tens of thousands killed, with nearly each year since 2009 showing an increase in civilian dead and wounded; a monstrous and grievous accomplishment of annual record upon record. UNAMA itself cautions its numbers should be understood to be a minimum or base level due to UNAMA’s methodology. Assessments of the total dead in Afghanistan over the last seventeen years put total dead at more than 100,000 civilians, although most who are familiar with war, including myself, are quick to say that is a conservative or low-end estimate. For example, Jonathan Steele has estimated more than 20,000 Afghans died as a result of the US bombings in the first four months of US military action following 9/11.

At least one million Afghans are internally displaced, while Afghans make up the second largest nationality of the largest refugee population the world has known since World War Two, with millions living in camps in Iran and Pakistan or claiming asylum in Europe. Of course the Afghan War did not begin in 2001, but began more than forty years ago and not with the Soviet Union’s invasion, but with an internal civil war that saw maybe as many 100,000 dead before the Soviets invaded; US support to Afghanistan’s mujaheddin, the grandfathers of the young men we are fighting today in Afghanistan, began six months prior to the Soviet invasion. Over forty years of war have completely devastated the people and land of Afghanistan. As a consequence of the violence, Afghan society is devastated by PTSD and drug use, the countryside has been denuded and deforested, resulting in agricultural troubles and water shortages, and no industry exists, besides the illicit drug trade which despite billions of US dollars spent yields record poppy crops and illicit narcotics exports nearly every year (2018 was an exception due to drought).

There is a desperate sunk cost argument that haunts all wars that are lost and unworthy. As it is, more often than not, it is those who have not experienced the pain and the destruction of the war who demand more blood and more sacrifice, turn on Fox News or open the Washington Post and this will be apparent. What makes such an argument even more mean and craven is these deaths, ones that need not be lost in vain as it is typically phrased,are forever tied and bound by the lies of the war, making these deaths eternally ignoble and worthless, the dead never to be heroes, despite the exaggerations of eulogies, bordering often on hagiography, but only to be future-less victims of the greed and egos that advance and maintain the war.

Even a losing war makes money

The total financial costs to the US in direct spending on the war in Afghanistan are approaching one trillion dollars. Peak spending of the war reached more than $100 billion a year and currently runs between $40 and $50 billion a year. Total costs of all the wars the US has been sending its young men and women to kill and be killed in since 2001 are said to be $6 trillion, and this is just for the wars, that $6 trillion figure does not include the regular or usual costs of running the military, which is now over $600 billion a year, or the hundreds of billions of dollars spent on veterans, the intelligence agencies, nuclear weapons, the State Department or Homeland Security. This staggering amount may perhaps best be understood by knowing that in interest and debt payments alone the US has spent more than $700 billion on the wars in 17 years (regarding overall national security spending this year the US will spend hundreds of billions of dollars, as it does each year, on debt payments due to past spending on wars, the military, intelligence, veterans, etc.).

If you compare Washington, DC and its suburbs to how they psychically existed prior to 9/11, you will most assuredly note the physical impact the wars and the benefiting military industrial complex has had on the city and its suburbs. The Pentagon is not confined to that five sided building alongside Interstate 395, but rather stretches for miles along the Potomac River; from the Key Bridge in Rosslyn, south through Arlington, and extending past Ronald Reagan National Airport into Alexandria, in office building after office building, are tens and tens of thousands of men and women working for war. Likewise in the suburbs, particularly west along Interstate 66 or north along the Baltimore-Washington Highway, hundreds of buildings exist to serve the war machine. It’s not just the defense industry or the contracting firms, but also the banks, hotels, restaurants, apartment complexes, high rise condominiums and near-million dollar McMansions that have risen to serve and support the Pentagon and its wars.

Within these buildings are hundreds of thousands of men and women, the majority not wearing a uniform but working for a contracting firm or defense corporation, who often make salaries in the high five or six figures. When I did such work in 2008, as a single 35 year old who’s seemingly only qualification was that I had been a captain in the Marines, my salary and benefits came close to $120,000 (when I joined the State Department in 2009 I didn’t take a pay cut), while an entry level position with that same DOD contracting company, the requirements of which were to simply possess a secret level security clearance and to know Microsoft Office, was more than $80,000. As you can see it is very easy to slip into those golden handcuffs…

What this calculates to, and remember aside from national and homeland security the federal government has decreased non-defense discretionary spending in real terms since 2001, is that the Washington, DC metro area is the wealthiest part of the country, and has been for a number of years, beginning after these unending wars and their mass profits began. While you can argue correlation is not causation, the symbiotic nature cannot be denied between the unending nature of the wars and the massive increase in wealth for Washington, DC and its people and organs. Observe the loud protestation by the US Senate towards the idea of the US wars in Afghanistan and Syria ending to get a glimpse of the fear that exists in Washington and within the war machine towards just the idea or concept of peace. If you want to understand why these wars continue and why these lies persist, then you must understand the money that sustains and underlies both the war and its lies.

There have not been “hard won gains” by the US military in Afghanistan

For all these costs, particularly the bloody expenditure of lives, the war remains the same as it was in 2009: neither side can win and neither side will surrender. US proclamations of military success and “hard won gains” are specious and are just one of the ever present lies of war. Reviewing Department of Defense data on the war since 2009 shows the Taliban never weakened in strength at any time. As US and NATO and then Afghan forces increased in number Taliban strength and attacks increased commensurately. Roadside bombs, mortar and rocket attacks, assassinations, etc., by nearly every metric the Taliban gained in strength and capability every year since President Obama’s “surge”. [Recall in 2013 the US military was caught lyingabout its data on the war and subsequently limited the information available about the war, a practice of limiting transparency that has grown to include not just the war in Afghanistan, but all the wars.] At some point if the US had achieved military success over the Taliban the Taliban’s ability to operate on the battlefield should have been impacted and their ability to launch attacks limited, but the true impact of the presence of increased US, NATO and Afghangovernment forces was to add purpose and motivation to a predominately anti-occupation rural Pashtun insurgency.

If one looks at US casualty data, US casualties increased as more US troops arrived, which is what one would expect, as more troops go into combat more will be killed and wounded. However, against the assurances of the military and civilian experts in Washington, DC who promoted the counter insurgency doctrine(whose adherents in many ways, honestly, resemble cult members) casualties never decreased due to battlefield success, casualties only decreased as a result of a decrease in US presence. So, as US troops went into a valley or village they met resistance and took casualties, and that combat and those casualties never stopped, the Taliban and its supporters were never defeated. No area was ever truly pacified, subdued or came over to the side of the US and Afghan government. In a memorable passage of Bob Woodward’s book Obama’s Wars a skeptical President Obama noted this reality and pushed back on his generals and advisors. Wherever US troops arrived in Afghanistan they were met with a resistance that was never fully defeated; quieted possibly for a limited amount of time, but never defeated.

As I visited small and large bases in 2009 US Army officers told me, in both eastern and southern Afghanistan, the only land they held was the land that was covered by their machine guns and mortars, the insurgency controlled the land and the population. In many places it was relayed to me that the Taliban welcomed the presence of US troops, because with the presence of the US troops came millions of dollars in US military and USAID spending, spending that went right into the pockets of the Taliban. This lack of control of the land and population remained true for the duration of US and NATO forces in their positions as an occupation force and remains true for the Afghan government forces, which continue to be nearly in total non-Pashtun and serve as occupation force of outsiders themselves.

One example of many I can give of how the Afghan security forces are seen as outsiders and occupiers in southern and eastern Afghanistan, and other Pashtun parts of the country, is of the seven senior Afghan Army officers in Zabul province only 2 spoke Pashto and could communicate with the near 100% Pashtun population. ANA did not stand for the Afghan National Army, but rather for the Army of the Northern Alliance, the force the Taliban was fighting in 2001 and who the US put into power after overthrowing the Taliban. While it was repeated year after year, authoritatively, to Congress that the ANA was ethnically and regionally representative of Afghanistan’s population the truth is only about 4% of the Afghan national army and police forces were composed of southern Pashtuns – the people from whom the Taliban received the base of their support and the part of Afghanistan were the fighting has been the worst. I know of no evidence that shows the Afghan Army is any more representative of the Pashtun population now as it has been over the last seventeen years.

As US and NATO forces withdrew from the fighting in 2013 and 2014 the Taliban turned their focus on the Afghan security forces. More than 45,000Afghan soldiers and police have been killed since 2014, while last Fall it was reported fighting has intensified so that nearly 60 Afghan soldiers and police are killed each day. These deaths primarily come not against an outside enemy or groups of revolutionary religious fanatics, but mainly against a Taliban that is composed of locally organized and recruited insurgent forces who are fighting against foreign occupation and a corrupt, predatory and non-representative government. That US, European and Afghan troops have died and been wounded in the hundreds of thousands in a civil war has been well understood by the US military and intelligence agencies, even if it has been ignored by the US politicians and media. The same was true of Iraq of course, as well as nearly any of the fourteen countries the US has sent its young men and women to kill and be killed in – the people we are fighting are fighting us because we are occupying their countries and supporting violent, repressive and corrupt governments.

When I was in Kabul members of the US Embassy, located in the center of Kabul, behind ring after ring of checkpoints and concrete walls, were not allowed to cross the street to the USAID compound on the other side of the road because it was not safe enough, we had to walk beneath the street through a tunnel. Now, members of the US Embassy can not even travel via armored vehicles to the airport, just a couple of miles away, but must travel by helicopter, naturally via a privately contracted helicopter force. And this is in Kabul, not in the rural provinces where the Taliban have their base of support.

The only success achieved by the US military since the Obama Surge has been the expansion of the war itself and the accompanying logistical accomplishment of moving so many people, machines and stuff into and out of a mountainous and rural landlocked nation with a demolished infrastructure (a result of the decades of fighting supported or taken part in by the US for nearly all of the four decades of war and, again, instigated by the US before the Soviet Union invaded). The idea of military success and hard won gains has been nothing but craven and homicidal war propaganda trumpeted by US generals and the world’s largest public relations operation, and bleated obediently by politicians and, shamefully, journalists (the Pentagon spends almost $5 billion a year on recruiting, public relations and psychological operations, by comparison the largest public relations company in the world had annual fees for all of its clients of less than $900 million).

The US has not brought progress to Afghanistan

Like a diseased onion, claims the US has brought progress to Afghanistan constitute another layer of the great lie of war. As the US Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) has shown in report after report the more than $130 billion spent on reconstruction in Afghanistan,more than what the US spent on the Marshall Plan to rebuild Europe after World War Two in inflation adjusted dollars, has been a huge bust. Billions of dollars in cash have been overtly stolen by Afghan government officials and cronies. In 2012 more than $4.5 billion in cash was taken directly out of the airport in Kabul, while, famously, in 2009, shortly after I resigned from my position in Afghanistan, Afghanistan’s Vice President landed in Dubai with more than $50 million in cash in his luggage-74 US and NATO troops died that month. The claims of millions of school children now attending school, including millions of girls, have been exposed to just be made up numbers. The great majority of schools and healthcare centers that were supposedly built, as much as maybe 80% of them, don’t exist, can’t be found or are empty, while the triumphant claim that life expectancy for Afghans increased by twenty years has shown to be, in the words of the SIGAR director, John Sopko, “baloney”.

Similarly the idea Afghan women are better off now than under the Taliban exists more in public relations statements than it does in reality for many Afghan women. While the lives of women under Taliban rule was horrific, and in some places in Afghanistan, such as parts of Kabul, women have experienced much better lives, the truth is the attitudes and actions towards women of many of the men the US put and kept in power after 2001 were and are not much different than the Taliban. Many of the rules the Taliban enforced against women, such as the requirement to wear a head to toe burqa, had been put in place by the misogynist leaders of the groups the Taliban were fighting in the 1990s, again, the people the US put into power after 2001. Under the Karzai and Ghani administrations women have committed mass numbers of suicides, including through self-immolation, in areas controlled by the Afghan government due to laws put in place by the government, including laws allowing men to legally rape their wives, and by a society were nearly 90% of Afghan women experience domestic violence.

Ultimately it is women who suffer the most in war and all the slogans put forth by the war’s apologists about how much they care about women can not overcome the truth that millions of Afghan women must deal with the consequences, actual or potential, of the hot iron, lead and metal that tears apart the flesh and lives of their children. If the generals, spokespeople and think-tank experts, almost all of whom are funded, directly or indirectly, by the defense industry, were so interested in the welfare of women in Afghanistan they would be working to end the violence that terrorizes, ruins and ends the lives of those women and their children and prohibits any development or progress, including advancements in women’s rights, from occurring.

Those we have put and kept in power in Afghanistan constitute a brutal kleptocracy

Besides the Pentagon and the defense companies, and al-Qaeda and ISIS, the only other people who have benefited from the wars since 2001 have been the corrupt leaders we have put and kept in power in places like Afghanistan.Every Afghan election has been thoroughly fraudulent and riddled with vote rigging and ballot theft on a mass scale. The last presidential election in 2014 was so crooked that an extra-constitutional position of co-president was created to prevent a civil war erupting amongst the Afghan constituencies that support the government, while in the most recent parliamentary elections, more than three months ago now, the “irregularities” were so blatant results still have not been released.

I personally witnessed the 2009 Afghan presidential election. Tens of thousands of US and NATO troops were rushed to Afghanistan prior to the election to ensure a “free and fair” contest. In the late spring and summer prior to those elections hundreds of them died and thousands more were wounded, many of them permanently. How many thousands of Afghans died we will never know. The Pashtun people in southern and eastern Afghanistan, just as the Sunni Iraqis did in 2004 (another electoral charade I was present for) boycotted the election, although US officials would say they did not vote because of “security concerns”. I ended up that day at an Afghan Army base where an unauthorized polling location had been opened at the last minute, just one of many “irregularities” that day. The boxes were stuffed by obedient soldiers. My report of this back to the Embassy in Kabul was disregarded because this was not an official voting location so such ballot stuffing did not count – the logic that supports many of the lies of the war would be impossible to make up if such logic and its realizations did not actually exist. Later that day I would overhear, through my translator, the Afghan brigade commander for the province telephone a subordinate and order his soldiers to conduct the same ballot stuffing. The vote theft was brazen, and the dead numbered in the thousands, and the same has occurred for every election and every year of our occupation in Afghanistan.

Meanwhile the Afghan government and military have been the key figures in the Afghan drug trade, not just the Taliban. Indeed much of the fighting over the last many years in places like Helmand Province can be attributed to a battle for control over the vast tracts of poppy fields. The drug trade is not confined to low or local levels of the military and the police, but has extended and continues to extend to the most senior men in government, and this has been evident throughout the duration of our occupation of Afghanistan. When I was in Afghanistan the biggest drug baron in southern Afghanistan was President Karzai’s brother Ahmed Wali Karzai (AWK), the biggest in eastern Afghanistan was the governor of Nangahar Province, Gul Agha Sherzai, in the north various warlords the US worked with ran the drug trade including the Governor of Balkh Province Atta Mohammad Noor, and in Kabul, Mohammed Qasim “Marshall” Fahim, for whom the Afghan military officers training academy is now named and who was the Afghan Vice President, was famous for using Afghan military aircraft to transport drugs out of Afghanistan. Sherzai, now the Minister of Border and Tribal Affairs, and Noor still control their drug fiefdoms, while AWK and Fahim are dead but have been replaced by drug syndicates within the Afghan government. The detailing of the criminality and gangsterism of the Afghan Government is endless, maybe best described by the General Rashid Dostum, President Ghani’s vice president, who is accused of massive war crimes in the years following 9/11 and who was forced to flee Afghanistan in 2017 after kidnapping and raping a political opponent.

Sherzai serves as a good case study for the insanity of the US war in Afghanistan. In the early 1990s Sherzai ruled as a warlord/governor in Kandahar. His barbaric rule can be counted as one of the defining factors in the rise of the Taliban after 1994 (the Taliban received a great deal of popular support as an antidote to the murder, rape and banditry of the warlords). In 2001, after the US ousted the Taliban, the US put Sherzai back in power in Kandahar – the very man who’s brutality helped create the Taliban we placed back in power. Sherzai’s rule was again murderous, and was now supplemented by American soldiers and money. Sarah Chayes, the former NPR correspondent, gives a heartbreaking detailing of Sherzai’s rule in her masterful The Punishment of Virtue. Sherzai would follow on his rule in Kandahar with time in Kabul as the Minister of Housing and Minister of Public Works before becoming governor of economically important Nangahar Province on the Pakistan border. Nangahar, along with Kandahar, had traditionally been a large source of poppy production for the narcotics trade. At this time, when I met him, Sherzai’s corruption and use of torture and violence, as well as his keeping of dancing boys, young slaves used for sexual pleasure and dominance, was well known by the US government. This however was shrugged off in Kabul and Washington with cavalier and smug excuses that war is a dirty business. Sherzai, who was invited and attended Barack Obama’s inauguration in 2009 as an official guest, cultivated a romanticized following among officials within the State Department and US Embassy who adoringly and reverentially viewed him as a Tony Soprano like figure – he was the very embodiment of the Dark Side Dick Cheney had advocating embracing.

Sherzai, who resided in the former Summer Palace of the Afghan Kings in Jalalabad, was indeed charming and gracious, I met him twice, but he knew full well the manipulation and control he had over the US government. There was a poppy eradication program in place in 2009, one of many programs that have constituted the nearly $10 billion spent on drug eradication efforts in Afghanistan (the cost has been more than just financial, one of my friends, a fellow company commander in the Marine Corps, Michael Weston, was killed in Afghanistan while posted there as a DEA agent). This program in particular offered $10 million in cash to governors who succeeded in eradicating a certain level of poppy crop. Sherzai through his family and due to his lingering power in Kandahar had significant poppy field holdings and drug trade involvement in southern Afghanistan. Now with the backing of the Afghan and US governments and the DEA Sherzai was able to muscle his competition in eastern Afghanistan. Those who wanted to cooperate with him in their poppy production and drug trafficking could survive, those who did not want to pay him had their fields eradicated. Utilizing Afghan and US resources Sherzai could co-opt or destroy his competition and was rewarded for doing so with $10 million courtesy of US taxpayers (I am quite certain this happened multiple years).

To make the claim that we are supporting the guys in the white hats in Afghanistan even more criminally ludicrous, the Afghan security forces, be it the army, the police, or the intelligence services consistently torture prisonersas a matter of routine practice in addition to being themselves involved in the drug trade. This has, unsurprisingly, received not very much attention from the US Congress and press. What has received attention, but for which little has been done, except for the US issuing actual and de facto waivers to the government of Afghanistan and its security forces for the Leahy Amendmentand Child Soldiers Prevention Act, has been the widespread keeping of child sex slaves by Afghan military and police officers. Some US military personnel, so disgusted by the overt keeping of child sex slaves, took matters into their own hands, only to be relieved of command and forced out of the military. For US generals and the Congress, Afghan military and police officers keeping child sex slaves is entirely worth the end purposes of “The Good War”, whatever end purposes those may be. As Vonnegut said: So it goes…

Afghanistan as a necessary safe haven for another 9/11 is a myth

The most fervent argument against peace, the one that has carried forth the US war in Afghanistan from its start in 2001, has been that a military presence, and the requisite massive land war, is necessary to prevent another 9/11. How quick are the facts of 9/11 and al-Qaeda forgotten and how easily jettisoned is critical thought when this argument is offered and accepted.

First, none of the hijackers involved in the September 11 attacks were Afghans, nor was anyone involved in the planning or logistics. More so the attacks were led and planned primarily in Pakistan and Germany. Training and planning did occur in camps in Afghanistan, but Khaled Sheik Mohammad (KSM), the mastermind of the attacks, was based in Pakistan and that is where he did the majority of his planning and training, while the leadership of the hijackers lived and planned in Hamburg, Germany in what was known as the “kitchen of the September 11 operation”. KSM was captured in Rawalpindi, Pakistan, the same town as the Pakistani military headquarters (Osama bin Laden was of course killed in Abbottabad, the same town as the Pakistani military academy). The man responsible for the logistics of the 9/11 operation never left Germanyuntil a few days before the attacks. Additional planning and preparations took place in MalaysiaSpain and possibly Dubai. Of course, the most important “safe havens” for the hijackers were the US flight schools and martial arts gyms they attended while in the US. It’s important to remember that some of the attackers were in the US for more than 18 months before the 9/11 attacks and that it seems all of the attackers spent more time in the US than they did in Afghanistan or Pakistan.

Not that it matters much where the attackers planned and trained as planning and training for these types of attacks requires nothing more than an apartment, hotel room or basement. Understanding these attacks and what actually goes into them exposes the idea of the necessity of safe havens as nothing more than a necessary myth to propagate the global war on terror or as the Pentagon likes to call it: The Long War (which along with the Greater Middle East also now includes Russia and China in US war plans). None of the arguments for war in Afghanistan to prevent another 9/11 speak of the well defined role of Saudi Arabia, and possibly Dubai, in financing and facilitating the attacks. Without the Saudi involvement in particular the attacks would have been impossible.

Those who utilize 9/11 to fear monger in an attempt to silence critics of the war or proponents of peace brazenly neglect the failure the wars have been. On and after 9/11 al-Qaeda was between 200 and 400 people strong worldwide. [For reading on the strained relationship between the Taliban and al-Qaeda in 2001 I strongly recommend Felix Kuehn and Alex Strick van Linschoten’s An Enemy We Created: The Myth of the Taliban/Al Qaeda Merger in Afghanistan]] Over the last seventeen years al-Qaeda and its successor, ISIS, has grown to number in the tens of thousands with branches and affiliates across the globe. Today the US is in combat operations in fourteen countries while conducting counter-terrorism operations in sixty-five countries to ostensibly defeat al-Qaeda and ISIS. Bombing that kills, maims and make homeless tens of thousands each year from US aircraft and drones is daily in not just Afghanistan and Iraq, but in Libya, Pakistan, Somalia, Syria and Yemen. Countries across the Middle East and Africa, most especially Libya, Somalia, Syria and Yemen, have been torn apart by civil wars and fighting that have at least some, if not all, of their genesis in US military and CIA activities since 2001. At times al-Qaeda, ISIS and their allies have controlled and commanded large swathes of land, including major cities, threatened to overthrow governments in nations both aligned and unaligned to the US, and committed mass-scale atrocities and genocide. How can any person with any degree of intellectual honesty look at the US strategy and operations against al-Qaeda and “terrorismover the last decade and a half and argue that more of the same is what is required?

Peace has been possible in Afghanistan

What has been said repeatedly since 2001 regarding the Taliban is that they have been uninterested in peace talks or negotiations. This is untrue.

Yes, there are some elements of the Taliban which have been against peace talks and negotiation, but there have been many members and parts of the Taliban that have been interested in talking. However, this goes against the profit benefits of an unending war, as well as the political need for President Obama to be not just a war time president but a victorious war time president, something the George W. Bush and the Republicans could not claim (see Bob Woodward’s Obama Wars and refer to Hillary Clinton and her hawkish role as Secretary of State, as a necessary part of her pre-campaign for president, pushing for war in not just Afghanistan, but in Libya as well).

In the immediate aftermath of the US invasion major figures and parts of the Taliban sought to surrender. They were rebuffed as it was victory that was being sought by the US and their Afghan warlord allies, not reconciliation and peace. In the years following 2001, members of the Taliban who sought to surrender and reconcile were instead hunted down and killed. Those who were not killed were forced across the border into Pakistan or Iran. Anand Gopal’s reporting on this is excellent and necessary for understanding how the Afghan War came to be unending post-2001.

In the final years of the Bush presidency and in the first year or two of Obama’s presidency the Taliban made overtures to peace and negotiations. Middle Eastern and Central and South Asian media reported the Taliban interest in talks, but these reports were rarely, if ever, picked up by Western media. The Taliban suggested negotiations via social media, including Facebook posts, and Mullah Omar, the leader of the Taliban, in his annual Eid messages would include comments about beginning a process of talks to lead to peace and reconciliation, these overtures, accompanied with the demand for foreign forces to leave, an understandable call by an insurgency, continued even after the US escalation of the war in 2009. None of this was even acknowledged, let alone considered, by the US government. In 2016 the New York Times, whose editorial page has been a continual supporter of the war over the last seventeen years until just this month, reported that in 2007 and 2008 Norwegian negotiators had been meeting directly with Mullah Omar (until this reporting it had been believed Mullah Omar had never met with any Westerner) and that a framework for peace was being advanced. This opportunity was scuttled in 2009 by the Obama Administration’s escalation of the war, an escalation that was justified by President Obama because according to him and the US government the Taliban were not interested in peace. Sherard Cowper-Coles, Britain’s ambassador and special representative to Afghanistan from 2007 to 2010, whom I met in Richard Holbrooke’s suite at the Waldorf Astoria in New York City in 2009 and who praised me for my resignation letter, described the main impediment to negotiations during his many year tenure in Afghanistan as the American military and the “reality of the American Republic”. Cowper-Coles, after leaving Afghanistan, experiencedan appalling sense of sadness and tragedy and, above all, the sense that otherwise intelligent people were living one big, bright shining lie.

During my time in Afghanistan I first hand saw a willingness to negotiate by elements of the Taliban. While in Nangahar Province in the spring of 2009 we were approached by representatives of Hezbi Islami Gulbuddin, one of three principal blocks of the Taliban (the Taliban is not monolithic and is composed of dozens if not hundreds of locally organized insurgencies that fall under the umbrella of larger, regional insurgencies whose leadership is based in Pakistan, which are then included under the overall broader designation that we call the Taliban). My instruction from the Embassy was clear: disregard, we do not negotiate or are involved with reconciliation. Reconciliation, according to the US government, was only to be conducted by the Afghan Government, a government that only existed and remained in power due to the backing of the US and NATO: so, because of this backing from the world’s lone superpower, it was a government that was never going to willingly negotiate on its own, why would it? – again the logic that sustains the lies of the war is brilliant in its speciousness. On multiple occasions interlocutors from the insurgency were rebuffed and when US army commanders asked about how the war ends without negotiation they received no answer.

Later in my time in Afghanistan I moved to the southern province of Zabul. Here too I met with Taliban interlocutors, and more than likely some Taliban themselves. My instructions were the same: do nothing. Throughout the war the US has insisted on three preconditions for the Taliban prior to talks: 1. Lay down their weapons, 2. Renounce links to al-Qaeda, and 3. Embrace the Afghan Constitution. Renouncing their links to al-Qaeda the Taliban have done, in one form or another, since 2001. Just as the Taliban put out feelers for talks in the Middle Eastern and Central/South Asian press that were never acknowledged by the US government, so has their renunciation of ties to al-Qaeda been ignored. The remaining two preconditions, if followed by the Taliban, would, in effect, have meant their surrender. As I was told several times in Zabul when discussing with interlocutors, and again maybe the Taliban themselves, and has been repeated to me by men in the US with ties to the Taliban: “we are tired of fighting, my father fought and now my sons are fighting; I do not want my grandsons to fight, but we are not going to surrender”. Couple this with the fact that it was not until eleven years after the US invasion that Taliban were allowed safe passage to negotiate (meaning that if they identified themselves they would find their vehicle the target of a drone and its Hellfire missiles – and even in the last few years they have been consistently targeted) and it is clear that US protestations for a willingness and a desire for peace may well have been the grandest and bloodiest lie of them all.

Peace. Cut through all the lies, and there it is right in front of you.

It is true that there are hundreds of thousands of well paid men and women in the US because of this war, many of whom can now afford beach homes and BMWs, and, yes, it is true there are hundreds of politicians who subsist on the unholy campaign contributions that come from the war machine. Aside from these mercenary beneficiaries can someone point to any thing worthwhile from these wars?

What should be apparent to observers of the war in Afghanistan is that the willingness for peace from the US and its allies has not existed. The reasons are multiple: there is too much money being made; the political advantages of a victory presidency are too great; the vainglorious egos of the generals and those in think tanks, backed financially by the defense industry, are too strong; there may be a great deal of money in minerals to be made in Afghanistan; while the yearly record amounts of drugs grown and exported are enriching the Afghan government and security forces, as well as local, regional and international banks; and if you are the corrupt, decadent Afghan government, with the US as your benefactor, why seek peace? What should also be clear, and damning, is how quickly and easily the recent peace talks have moved forward. With seemingly minimal effort over the span of a few meetings a framework for peace appears possible. All that, tragically, seems to have been required was the willingness of the US government to talk.

What a waste

The saddest epilogue to this essay and to this war is that none of this was necessary. It has all has been a waste.

Blood, flesh, bone, sinew, organs…ground up and thrown, as if by some spectral ghastly hand and shovel, into a furnace of oblivion and nothingness. EB Sledge, a US Marine who fought in the 20th Century’s Good War, wrote about his experiences as an infantryman amidst all the killing and dying. In With the Old Breed, over and over again, haunted by the dead and the loss of their futures, Sledge summarizes what he saw with the words: what a waste.

Yes, what a waste indeed.

Matthew Hoh is a member of the advisory boards of Expose Facts, Veterans For Peace and World Beyond War. In 2009 he resigned his position with the State Department in Afghanistan in protest of the escalation of the Afghan War by the Obama Administration. He previously had been in Iraq with a State Department team and with the U.S. Marines. He is a Senior Fellow with the Center for International Policy. Reprinted from CounterPunch with the author’s permission.