the only lesson to be learned from afghanistan: war is a waste

Veterans for Peace protest, 2016
As the US finally ends its occupation of Afghanistan, watching the media obsess on the specifics of the pullout has brought me no end of head-shaking. The violent chaos of the exit makes for sensational images and startling headlines, always good for the business of media. But it's also a shell game, designed to narrow our attention and ask the wrong questions.

Twenty years of occupation and the pullout is the problem? This brings to mind Donald Rumsfeld's response to revelations of torture at the Abu Ghraib prison: banning cameras.

Ezra Klein had a similar thought.

In 2005, two of my colleagues at The American Prospect, Sam Rosenfeld and Matt Yglesias, wrote an essay I think about often. It was called "The Incompetence Dodge," and it argued that American policymakers and pundits routinely try to rescue the reputation of bad ideas by attributing their failure to poor execution. At the time, they were writing about the liberal hawks who were blaming the catastrophe of the Iraq war on the Bush administration’s maladministration rather than rethinking the enterprise in its totality. But the same dynamic suffuses the recriminations over the Afghanistan withdrawal.

To state the obvious: There was no good way to lose Afghanistan to the Taliban. A better withdrawal was possible — and our stingy, chaotic visa process was unforgivable — but so was a worse one. Either way, there was no hope of an end to the war that didn't reveal our decades of folly, no matter how deeply America's belief in its own enduring innocence demanded one. That is the reckoning that lies beneath events that are still unfolding, and much of the cable news conversation is a frenzied, bipartisan effort to avoid it.

Focusing on the execution of the withdrawal is giving virtually everyone who insisted we could remake Afghanistan the opportunity to obscure their failures by pretending to believe in the possibility of a graceful departure. It's also obscuring the true alternative to withdrawal: endless occupation. But what our ignominious exit really reflects is the failure of America's foreign policy establishment at both prediction and policymaking in Afghanistan.

"The pro-war crowd sees this as a mechanism by which they can absolve themselves of an accounting for the last 20 years," Senator Chris Murphy, Democrat of Connecticut, told me. "Just think about the epic size of this policy failure. Twenty years of training. More than $2 trillion worth of expenditure. For almost nothing. It is heartbreaking to watch these images, but it is equally heartbreaking to think about all of the effort, of lives and money we wasted in pursuit of a goal that was illusory."

Let's widen the lens. Why was the US in Afghanistan for 20 years

Canadians -- incredibly -- believed the "mission" in Afghanistan (no war please, we're Canadian) was for women's freedom! This was perfect for the country's positive self-image, and its apparently unshakeable belief in its military as a force for good in the world. 

In the US, the invasion of Afghanistan was supposedly a response to the attacks of September 11, 2001. Conveniently forgotten: the invasion was planned well before that date. Like all US invasions, the real goals were corporate interests and imperialism.

The history of multiple invasions and occupations of Afghanistan, by both the Soviet Union and the US, is long and complex, and I wouldn't begin to attempt to unravel it in a blog post. This interview with historian Ali Olomi in Vox makes for interesting reading.

Olomi, who is the host of the podcast Head on History, discussed the US’s funding of some factions of the mujahedeen, or Afghan guerrilla fighters, during the 1970s and ’80s; America’s rolling reasoning for its involvement in Afghanistan post-2001; and whether the US, even without soldiers present, is really gone.

Every US-led invasion carries a veneer of high-minded pretense, whether that is stopping the spread of communism or making the world safe from terrorism. Of course the US doesn't have exclusive rights to this type of propaganda. Since I've read a lot about resistance to "the Great War," Belgian babies and nuns spring to mind. The ruling class has been selling high-minded wars to the populace since time immemorial. Hence the term cannon-fodder.

I recall the testimony of one of the war resisters from our Toronto group. He was the former serviceperson with the highest rank and the most to lose. Stationed on an aircraft carrier, he had plotted the targets they had been ordered to bomb, and overlaid it with the route of a major US-backed pipeline. VoilĂ , a match! He realized what he and his division were protecting, who and what they were risking their lives for.

I applaud Joe Biden for having the guts to exit Afghanistan. The New York Times notes that, "In the end, the argument that won the day is that the future of Kenosha is more important than defending Kabul." (As far as I can tell, this "argument" was a random Twitter response to a White House tweet.) 

Sadly, the idea that military funds will be redirected to rebuilding US infrastructure and social programs is likely fantasy. If that does happen -- if the US's gargantuan military budget substantially shrinks and those funds are re-directed for the social good -- then Joe Biden will be a president of phenomenally historic stature. 

From my perspective, it's extremely difficult to imagine. But from 2016 on, I've been completely wrong about US politics. Nothing would please more than to be wrong on this, too.


allan said...

As the US finally ends its occupation of Afghanistan

Well, yes and no. Biden still made sure to note that if he believes Afghanistan could use some additional bombing, he will not hesitate to do so. The US's use of Afghanistan and its resources - and the killing of its innocent people -- is not over. It will likely never be truly over.

laura k said...

The US's use of Afghanistan and its resources - and the killing of its innocent people -- is not over. It will likely never be truly over.

True. I was counting on someone (likely you) to point that out.

allan said...

Biden also abandoned most Afghans and blamed them for the unfathomable death and destruction the United States unleashed on them for 20 fucking years. In other words, Biden has been Biden.