Twenty Years After 9/11

W.J. Astore

When the first hijacked plane hit the World Trade Center on 9/11/2001, I was at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs.  I was in my car, listening to the radio, just outside the North Gate, where a B-52 sits on static display as a symbol of American power. The first reports suggested it was an accident, but it soon became apparent it was a deliberate act.  As a second and then a third plane hit the WTC and the Pentagon, I remember hearing speculation that 9/11 could have a higher death toll than the Battle of Antietam, the single bloodiest day of the U.S. Civil War.  It was bad enough, if not that bad.

I remember confusion and chaos in the government, and the use of the word “folks” by President George W. Bush to describe the hijackers.  Very quickly, his rhetoric changed, and soon America would be launched on a global crusade against terrorists and other evildoers.

The flags came out and America came together, but that team spirit, so to speak, was quickly seized upon and exploited by Bush/Cheney to justify war anywhere and everywhere.  Good will was squandered and wise counsel was rejected in a calculated plot for power-projection disguised as righteous vengeance. Sweep everything up, related and unrelated, go big: those were the sentiments of Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney, and crew.  They had failed so badly at protecting America on 9/11; they were not going to fail to use 9/11 for their own nefarious purposes.

And now, 20 years later, we’re witnessing how badly their hubris and dishonesty have damaged democracy in America, as well as damaging or destroying millions of lives around the globe.

After finishing my tour at the AF Academy in 2002, I became the Dean of Students at the Defense Language Institute at the Presidio of Monterey. I wonder how many of “my” young troops who so proudly crossed the stage with newly acquired language skills in Pashto and Dari and Arabic never made it home from Bush and Cheney’s GWOT, their “global war on terror.”

9/11 remains a traumatic day for America. It’s a day we remember where we were and what we were doing when we first learned of this horrific attack on our country. However briefly, 9/11 brought America together, but militarism and constant warfare along with prejudice and ignorance have served only to weaken our democracy while impoverishing our country.

This madness was on my mind as I recently re-watched “The City on the Edge of Forever,” a classic Star Trek episode in which history’s changed when Dr. McCoy travels back in time to 1930s America.  Here he saves the life of Edith Keeler, a social activist who, in an alternate timeline, delays U.S. entry into World War II, which allows the Nazis to develop the atomic bomb first, thereby winning the war.  Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock learn they must prevent McCoy from saving Keeler, which is complicated by the fact that Kirk falls hard for her.  She’s a visionary who speaks of space travel and a better world.  As Kirk courts her, Keeler says she dreams of a future in which all the money currently spent on war and death … and Kirk completes her thought by saying that that money will be spent instead on life.  Kindred spirits they are, Kirk and Keeler, yet to restore history to its proper place, he must let her die.

Joan Collins as Edith Keeler and William Shatner as Captain Kirk: Reaching for the stars

Keeler’s dream of peace – of all the trillions of dollars spent on weapons and war and death being instead spent on life – is the proper one, the right one, even as it was tragically premature.  For this she must die, forgotten to history, a bit player remembered only for running a small neighborhood mission for those with nowhere else to go.

I’ve always been attracted to science fiction and to plots both utopian, or at least hopeful, and dystopian.  But in the dystopia in which we increasingly find ourselves today, we need hopeful visions.  We need Edith Keelers.  But to use Star Trek-speak again, what I see issuing from the U.S. government is far more consistent with a Klingon Empire driven by war than a peaceful and life-affirming “federation” of planets.  The U.S. empire is not about to go quietly, nor will it go peacefully.

It’s time for a new course, a far less bellicose one, but a no less determined one, where Americans look within rather than without. Echoing Edith Keeler, let’s spend our money and resources on life, not death, love, not war. Let’s try that for the next 20 years. If we do, I bet we’ll be a lot better off in 2041 than we are today.

Ten Reasons Why America’s Afghan War Lasted So Long and Ended So Disastrously

One thing is certain: The U.S. military succeeded in arming the Taliban (captured military equipment; photo from The Guardian)

W.J. Astore

The headlines claim America’s war in Afghanistan has finally ended, but of course no war ends just because someone claims it to be so. The Afghan people will be living with the chaos and destruction of this war for decades to come, even as mainstream media pundits in the USA and at the Pentagon pivot quickly to new wars or rumors of war in China, Africa, Iran, and elsewhere.

The Afghan War, I’ve argued, was never America’s to win. The U.S. military had the watches but the Afghan people had the time, as the saying goes, and unless U.S. forces stayed there forever (as retired General David Petraeus advised with his empty talk of “sustainable, sustained commitment”), the Taliban or indigenous forces like them were always going to prevail. After all, it’s their country, their culture, their people, and they want to live their way, free of foreign interference, whether it’s British or Russian or American.

That said, why did America persist in a lost cause for two decades? What explains this debacle? If we can explain it, perhaps we can avoid similar catastrophes in the future. 

In that spirit of optimism, here are ten reasons why America’s Afghan War lasted so long and ended so disastrously:

  1. Lack of a military draft in the USA. No, I’m not advocating for a return of the draft. But because there is no draft, because America allegedly has an “all-volunteer” military, most Americans pay it little mind, including the wars it fights, no matter how long they last.
  2. Related to (1) is the Pentagon’s practice of isolating Americans from the true costs of war. Elsewhere, I’ve called it the new American isolationism. We are simply encouraged not to look at the true face of war and its many horrors. Isolation from wars’ costs, I’d argue, acts to prolong the killing and dying.
  3. Related to (1) and (2) is the lack of a sustained anti-war movement in America. When there’s no draft and little exposure to war’s horrors, there is neither the cause nor the outrage needed to generate a significant anti-war movement. The lack of a strong anti-war movement serves to prolong Pentagon folly, which is fine with the Pentagon, as long as budgets for war continue to increase.
  4. Related to (2) and (3) is extensive Pentagon lying, which is abetted by mainstream media propaganda. The Afghan Papers in 2019 revealed how the American people had been lied to repeatedly about “progress” in Afghanistan, but those revelations came late, and most Americans, isolated from the war, paid them little mind anyway.
  5. Politics. It seems like every decision about Afghanistan was driven more by U.S. domestic politics than by realities on the ground. Firstly, the U.S. invaded as revenge for 9/11, even though the Taliban wasn’t responsible for that attack. Attempts by the Taliban to surrender or to turn over Osama bin Laden were rebuffed. Later, Barack Obama and the Democrats cynically turned the Afghan War into the “good” war as opposed to the badly botched Iraq War of Bush/Cheney. Obama persisted in fighting the Afghan War partly as a way of showing his “seriousness” as U.S. President. Trump inherited the war, thought about ending it, then decided he’d prosecute it even more vigorously than Obama did, after which he decided to negotiate with the Taliban without bringing the war to a conclusive end. Biden inherited that mess, a mess he’d helped to create as Obama’s Vice President, and is now being blamed for a chaotic withdrawal, even as he tried to tie the war’s conclusion to the 20th anniversary of 9/11. It’s a sordid record with plenty of cynical manipulation by Democrats and Republicans alike. In Washington, the war became a political football, tossed about willy-nilly with plenty of unforced fumbles resulting. 
  6. Solipsism.  Everywhere we go, there we are. Did the Afghan people even exist in the minds of Washington officials?
  7. Profit. Endless wars generate boundless profits for a select few. As General Smedley Butler noted in the 1930s, war is a racket. Many warrior-corporations got very rich off the Afghan War. Most in Congress willingly went along with this: they were getting paid too. Hence Dwight D. Eisenhower’s warning about the military-industrial-Congressional complex as a vastly powerful entity. It only gains strength as war is prolonged.
  8. Poor strategy. You simply can’t deliver a “government in a box” to Afghan peoples destabilized by decades of war exacerbated by foreign meddling and manipulation. Creating well-armed “national” police and security forces, meanwhile, is a great way to build an authoritarian police state, but not a participatory democracy. Did the U.S. spend so much time creating police and military forces in Afghanistan because that is what the Pentagon and its various mercenary camp followers understood best? If so, the effort still failed spectacularly.
  9. Dereliction of duty. The U.S. military knew it was losing the war. It hid the truth by massaging metrics and by lying repeatedly, including to Congress. Senior commanders were never held accountable for these lies. Indeed, the two most famous U.S. commanders, David Petraeus and Stanley McChrystal, were fired from their jobs for reasons unrelated to lies and lack of progress in this war.
  10.  Too many guns brought to a knife fight.  The U.S. military used massive firepower in the cause of limiting American casualties. Afghan casualties didn’t matter. But every time a drone strike hit a wedding party, or a Hellfire missile generated “collateral damage,” more Afghans turned against America and its military occupation.

Looking at these ten reasons, facing them squarely, is tougher than it sounds. Addressing them is even tougher. Some suggested reforms:

  1. A return to a military draft that picks the most privileged sons and daughters of America first. Start with the families of Members of Congress and the Executive Branch. Fill out the ranks with anyone attending the Ivy League and all private prep schools. And fight no war without a Congressional declaration of the same. (If this all sounds like nonsense, because you “know” the rich and privileged won’t allow their sons and daughters to be drafted and to serve in harm’s way, then you should also know from this that America’s wars since 1945 are dishonest as well as avoidable.)
  2. Face the true costs of war. Any expenditures on war should result in an immediate tax hike on the richest Americans (those in the top 10% of wealth). Casualties of war, whether of U.S. troops or foreign innocents, should be aired on national media in a manner similar to the New York Times’ coverage of 9/11 victims in 2001.
  3. Anti-war voices deserve at least an equal hearing in the mainstream media as pro-war ones. Indeed, anti-war voices should be amplified to provide a humane balance to pro-war ones.
  4. Given the evidence of consistent Pentagon mendacity, whether in Vietnam or Iraq or Afghanistan and elsewhere, the default position of the mainstream media should be supreme skepticism. At the same time, information about war should be declassified and shared with the American people so that informed decisions can be made about the war’s true course and progress toward victory (or lack thereof).
  5. War, the Prussian military theorist Carl von Clausewitz said, is the continuation of politics by other means. By this he didn’t mean that war should be defined and driven by an internal politics focused tightly on partisan advantage. War may be too important to be left to generals; it is also most assuredly too important (and deadly) to be left to partisan politicians striking tough guy poses.  Coda: Any politician making noises about putting on “big boy pants” and similar bellicose nonsense shall be handed a rifle and deployed immediately to the front.
  6. Before waging war with or against a people, those people should be recognized as, well, people, possessing their own unique culture, mindsets, and abilities.
  7. Taking the profit out of war is perhaps the best way of ending it. If America must wage war, it should be a non-profit operation.
  8. Strategy at the highest level should be agreed upon by the American people and be explicable by the same. Americans should be able to explain “why we fight,” with clear ideas about ending the war quickly, i.e., an exit strategy.
  9. Military officials caught lying to the American people, whether before Congress or elsewhere, demonstrate a lack of integrity and should be fired with loss of all future benefits. More serious lies shall result in prison sentences.
  10. Any war that requires U.S. military forces to use massive firepower merely to tread water against much weaker enemies is a lost war from day one. Using sledgehammers to kill gnats is never wise, no matter how much Americans like to sling sledgehammers. 

For any self-avowed democracy, a politics based on honesty, equity of burden-sharing, and humane values among citizens is a must. If America is to wage war, which I would prefer it not do, except in those rarest of cases when America is directly attacked or imminently in danger, that war’s causes and goals should be debated honestly and fully, with the burden of warfighting shared fairly.  A quick cessation of hostilities should be the goal.

Ultimately, you wage war long, you wage it wrong, should become the byword of U.S. policy now and forever.

The Limits of Air Power

We can airlift people and also kill them by remote control missile. USA! USA! (Cartoon from The Guardian)

W.J. Astore

As U.S. airplanes evacuated so many desperate people from Afghanistan, I got to thinking about all those drone strikes, assassinations by Hellfire missiles, and bombing runs that the U.S. did in Afghanistan over the last two decades (in a quest for peace, naturally). Much like Vietnam in the 1960s, air power kept U.S. forces in a lost war for far longer than they should have been, yet air power made no difference to the ultimate, disastrous outcome.

So what will the U.S. do?  What “lesson” will we draw?  Build more drones and F-35 attack jets, of course!

You simply can’t occupy and control a country from the air.  What America’s dominance of the air emboldens it to do is to intervene on the cheap. Here “cheap” means fewer killed-in-action for America.  It’s not cheap to those people on the receiving end of American air power, nor is it cheap to the American taxpayer.

Remember all those assassinations by drone of HVTs (high-value targets), of “key” Taliban figures and fighters? All for nothing.  As in Vietnam, the U.S. military kept a body count that meant nothing.

A few statistics, courtesy of The Nation. There have been 14,000 confirmed drone strikes in Somalia, Yemen, Pakistan and Afghanistan since 2004. Roughly 90% of the more than 200 people killed in Afghanistan via drone strike during one five-month period of the Afghan War were not the intended targets. U.S. drone strikes have killed somewhere between 9000 and 17,000 people since 2004, with an estimated 2200 of these being children. And this is just “precision” drone strikes; the number of bombs dropped (including the MOAB, or mother of all bombs) has been staggering. All these bombs and missiles made war corporations richer, but they didn’t bring victory to America.

If America’s troops had lacked air support in Afghanistan (and this is also true of Vietnam), they probably would have left the war far sooner, which would have been a very good thing for all concerned.

But technology and firepower are seductive. U.S. troops in Afghanistan could call on A-10 and F-16 attack jets, drones like Predators and Reapers, “strategic” B-1 and B-52 bombers designed originally for nuclear war, and that’s just the Air Force side of the equation. Troops on the ground also had Apache and Kiowa helicopters, heavy artillery, mortars, indeed virtually every weapon in the U.S. arsenal short of nuclear weapons. (And President Trump once hinted we could use them, theoretically, but he didn’t want to kill all Afghans. What mercy!)

The Taliban, by comparison, had assault rifles, RPGs, IEDs, a few mortars, and a cause they believed in. Expel the invader. Their strategy was to outlast U.S. forces while profiting from America’s wild expenditure of money there. It was a good strategy and they won.

Will America finally learn that massive firepower, especially from the air, is not only a crime but a mistake?

Update: After I wrote that final line, I got this report in my email: “The largest Muslim civil rights organization in the United States has demanded that the Biden administration immediately put in place a “moratorium on drone warfare” after the U.S. killed at least 10 Afghan civilians—including half a dozen children—with an airstrike in Kabul over the weekend.” Call for Drone Moratorium After Latest Civilian Killings, article by Jake Johnson at Consortium News.

The Highly Profitable Racket of Building Foreign Militaries

W.J. Astore

Is building effective security forces in Iraq and Afghanistan and elsewhere really what the U.S. military and government is about? Given the total collapse of the Iraqi military in 2014 and its Afghan equivalent in 2021, I’d have to say no. What are these efforts really all about? A few heretical thoughts:

  1. The top priority is profits for America’s military-industrial-Congressional complex. Foreign military forces are always provided with loads of U.S.-built weaponry, much of it unneeded or inappropriate to their capabilities and missions. When these forces collapse, as they did in 2014 and this summer, enemies such as ISIS or the Taliban are the recipients of plenty of new weapons funded by the American taxpayer. In short, the U.S. arms its (failed) proxy armies and its enemies as well, which almost guarantees more fighting and/or bombing in the future. Call it a win/win for weapons makers even when the U.S. loses.
  2. If profit-making is the top priority, so too is making it last. Until they utterly collapse, often without much combat, America’s proxy militaries are never fully ready to stand on their own. They always require more U.S. training and funding, that is until the lie is exposed.
  3. Along with profit-making, it’s important for the U.S. military to look good while providing the training. Looking good requires lying about progress. And so America’s proxy militaries are always making progress (on paper, if nowhere else) which helps everyone involved get promoted while keeping the money flowing.
  4. Along with perpetual profits and promotions, these proxy militaries must never be allowed to become independent from the U.S. military. Sure, the U.S. government says it’s seeking “standalone” forces, but in practice Iraqi and Afghan forces were always dependent on U.S. logistical support as well as air power. Which is just the way the U.S. government wanted it and wants it. Dependency ensures pliability and control (until the inevitable collapse, that is).
  5. In sum, one must always follow the money and ask, who is profiting the most from these “training” efforts? Most of the billions and billions spent on training and equipping these militaries goes to the military-industrial complex and to local warlords. It sure didn’t go to Iraqi or Afghan foot soldiers. Again, failure here is its own success; the longer it takes to build “reliable” proxy armies, the longer the money flows to military contractors in the USA. And if your proxy military collapses, maybe you can even rebuild it (at ever higher costs) or at least fight the enemy that captured the expensive high-tech weapons funded so generously by the U.S. taxpayer.

I hope this list is useful as one reads an article at Foreign Affairs, “Why America Can’t Build Allied Armies,” sent to me by a friend. It’s not that America can’t build them. It’s more that we really don’t want to build them; indeed, that there are perverse incentives to do a half-assed job, making money all the while, until the rot can no longer be hidden.

Allow me to explain. The author of this article assigns blame mainly to the “partner” militaries, suggesting these “partners” in Iraq and Afghanistan weren’t interested in building effective militaries: they’re interested in money and power instead. Displacing blame onto our “partners” is always good fun, but shouldn’t the U.S. government have recognized this dynamic instead of feeding it? (Let’s face it: the U.S. is driven by money and power as well.)

In fairness to the author, she does advise that maybe the U.S. government should smarten up and stop throwing money at foreign militaries. Here’s an excerpt:

But the United States also has another option: it could scale down its train-and-equip efforts altogether. Rather than using advisory missions as the preferred option for addressing local security threats, it could instead reserve such programs for states with strong national institutions and a demonstrated interest in building better militaries. This pathway would lead to the termination of most U.S. security assistance projects, including the ongoing effort to build the Iraqi security forces.

Too often, the United States’ efforts to train and equip foreign militaries have been motivated by bureaucratic logic rather than sound strategy. The fall of Kabul exposed more than the rot within the armies the United States builds. It also exposed the rot within the United States’ approach to building them.

Sound advice, except the author doesn’t discuss how much these “train-and-equip efforts” are really money laundering operations for the military-industrial-Congressional complex. War is a racket, as General Smedley Butler taught us, and building hollow legions overseas, whether in Iraq or Afghanistan or earlier in Vietnam, is a racket that pays very well indeed.

Words and War, Hawks and Doves

W.J. Astore

Two of my colleagues at the Eisenhower Media Network, Danny Sjursen and Matthew Hoh, recently gave the best interview I’ve heard on America’s failed wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. You can watch it here.

They were described as anti-war veterans, which is true enough. But it did get me thinking about the words we use to describe war in America, or just words in general that we apply to military actions and the broader military world.

For example, instead of describing Sjursen and Hoh as “anti-war,” why not say they’re “pro-peace” or “pro-sanity” or “pro-humanity” or even “pro-using-history-to-avoid-expensive-and-deadly-quagmire-wars”? OK — that last one may be too long, but I often find pro-peace activists being described as critics, i.e. as malcontents.

Another example might be “think tank.” So many of the thinks tanks within the Beltway in DC are fronts for warrior corporations like Boeing, Raytheon, Lockheed Martin, and so on. Are they really “thinking” freely? And that “tank” word might be more descriptive than they realize, given they always “think” of expensive weaponry like main battle tanks as the solution to everything. (If memory serves, not only did we use the M1 Abrams tank in Iraq; we also tried a few in Afghanistan; similarly, during the Vietnam War, the U.S. Army deployed tanks in jungle areas that were designed to battle their Soviet counterparts on the plains of Germany.)

So maybe “think tank” should mean: “Thinks always of tanks and other ultra-expensive weaponry.”

Here’s a heretical thought: Why are pro-war voices in the establishment referred to as “hawks”? As if they’re noble birds of prey?

I feel sorry for all the real hawks in nature (red-shouldered hawk, Audubon Society photo)

Meanwhile, pro-peace voices are dismissed as passive cooing “doves.” More than a few peace activists have all the energy and tenacity of hawks, and most of the pro-war ones are more likely to be cooing like doves in the ears of their bosses about the wisdom and wonders of going to war and staying there.

I suppose you could call pro-war voices “vultures” or “jackals” or perhaps “ticks” or some other parasite on the body politic, but I’d feel like I’m insulting the tick, which just does what it needs to do to survive. It’s not like ticks have think tanks where they can weigh their choices.

Readers, have a little fun with this. What military/Washington Beltway term annoys you, and how would you define it, in plainspeak? Have at it in the comments section, and many thanks, as always, for reading my posts.

P.S. No one, of course, can beat Orwell and the “war is peace” formulation. And Ambrose Bierce was a master of exposing cant and hypocrisy and dishonesty in his “Devil’s Dictionary.” In their spirit, have at it!

Leave Afghanistan Now (Repeat)

W.J. Astore

Back in 2010, I wrote the following article for Huff Post. The title was “Leave Afghanistan Now.” It was obvious to me, and of course to many others, that the U.S. military/governmental mission to Afghanistan was a failure. And here we are, eleven years later, finally leaving (I hope), though who knows with all those U.S. troops deployed there to protect U.S. nationals? Anyhow, here’s what I wrote in 2010. Will we ever learn?

Winston Churchill’s memorable quotation, “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few,” captured the nobility of the RAF’s performance protecting free people from the tyranny of Adolf Hitler during World War II.

An irreverent paraphrase of this quotation, however, captures the Afghan war as it stands at this moment: Never was so much squandered by so many for so few.

The United States is currently spending $7 billion a month on the Afghan war, yet progress remains elusive and the end nowhere in sight. Just read General Stanley McChrystal’s own bleak assessment (which may have been a factor in his firing); several sobering metrics stick out:

  • Counterinsurgency (COIN) is about securing population centers from violence. But of the 116 Afghan population centers assessed, 40 (or more than a third) were considered “dangerous” or “unsecure,” with only five being judged “secure.”
  • A key element to the Afghan war is the span of control of the central government (led by Hamid Karzai). Remarkably, only five areas of Afghanistan (out of 122) are under the “full authority” of the Karzai government. In 89 areas, Karzai’s authority was judged “non-existent,” “dysfunctional,” or “unproductive.”
  • Of vital importance to an eventual American withdrawal is the viability of Afghan national military and police forces. Here again, according to McChrystal, progress is feeble, with less than a third of the Afghan military and only 12 percent of its police forces rated as “effective.”

So, despite nine years of American involvement and $300 billion dollars spent, key elements of our strategy in Afghanistan are not close to being achieved. We’re failing at COIN, the Karzai government remains corrupt and ineffectual, and the Afghan military and police forces, which we’ve expended eight years and $10+ billion training and equipping, are still unready to fight or provide security.

Of Rifles and Fighting Effectiveness

A question that rarely gets asked in the mainstream media is why, despite all our money and training, the Afghan national army and police remain unreliable and ineffective, whereas Taliban fighters on shoestring budgets are tough, resilient, and effective.

We can’t place all the blame on our Afghan allies. As Ann Jones has noted, much of our training and equipment is haphazard, insufficient, or inappropriate. To cite one of her examples, Americans provided M-16 rifles – precise but overly sensitive and prone to jam in the pervasive dust of Afghanistan – to Afghan army trainees, when Taliban fighters get by with Soviet-era AK-47s or even SMLEs (the British Lee-Enfield of World War 1 vintage).

Taliban fighters armed with century-old bolt-action rifles are giving us fits; our Afghan allies armed with M-16 automatic rifles are giving us fits for an entirely different reason. Such vivid discrepancies on the micro scale are sadly consistent with the failures of our strategy on the macro scale. They are both indicative of a war gone very wrong.

Changing the general in charge and tinkering with the controls will not bring victory in Afghanistan. “Victory” will come when we face up to our own limitations — and leave.

For Most Americans, Afghanistan Never Existed

W.J. Astore

How can you win a war when the country and peoples you’re fighting never existed?

Most Americans have little knowledge of Afghanistan. When we think of it, if we think of it at all, it exists as a battlefield. A place where some of America’s troops serve; a distant and obscure land where more than a few of them come home from with physical and mental wounds that may plague them for the remainder of their lives. Afghanistan, in sum, is an abstraction to most Americans, a “war,” an utterly foreign place where dangerous bearded “terrorists” now rule.

But is Afghanistan really that foreign to us? It shouldn’t be.

A friend sent me a terrific article by Jim Lobe with the title, “Three major networks devoted a full five minutes to Afghanistan in 2020.” You read that right. In 2020 America’s three major networks (ABC, CBS, NBC) spent a total of five minutes (!) covering the U.S. war in Afghanistan. Keep that in mind as you today view blanket coverage of the collapse of America’s position there. What the mainstream media truly cares about is ratings and money, and a military collapse that threatens Americans is sure to glue more than few eyeballs to the screen. The networks can also play a hyper-partisan blame game, pitting Republicans against Democrats as the former accuse the latter of appeasement and weakness of some sort. That “game” is always good for ratings.

Of course America loses in Vietnam, in Iraq, in Afghanistan, and elsewhere. These countries and peoples only exist as a backdrop to our collective national drama. And as soon as the curtain falls on America’s latest dramatic flop, it’s quickly forgotten until the next major flop.

But there’s always money to be made, and the war-show must go on. Which distant nation shall it be next? Somalia? Iran? Somewhere-istan? Does it matter?

Update: When you truly care about something or someone, you care consistently. You pay attention. You devote yourself to it. Certain talking heads are now telling Americans they need to care about Afghanistan after suppressing information about the war for the last two decades. Sorry. You can’t cover up and lie about the U.S. war effort for two decades and then expect Americans deferentially to listen to you.

In A Functioning Democracy, What Would War Look Like?

W.J. Astore

In a functioning democracy, which the USA decidedly isn’t, what would be the features of a necessary war, as in a war fought for defensive (and for defensible) reasons and purposes? Here are ten features that occur to me:

  1. A necessary war would readily gain the approval of Congress, and indeed there would be a formal declaration of war issued by Congress.
  2. National mobilization would be required to win as swiftly as possible.
  3. All Americans could clearly state the reasons for the war and the end goals.
  4. Americans would reject, as much as possible, a long and open-ended war, knowing that long wars are the enemy of democracy.
  5. Nearly all sectors of society would share the war’s burdens. (Think here of celebrities like Jimmy Stewart and sports stars like Ted Williams, among so many others, doing their bit for the war effort in World War II.)
  6. Sacrifices would be made on a national scale, including rationing of materials needed for the war effort.
  7. Taxes would go up to pay for the war effort. War bonds might be sold as well. Deficit spending wouldn’t be used to hide the costs of the war.
  8. Civilian leaders would be in control of the war effort. Military leaders who failed to produce results would be reassigned, demoted, or fired.
  9. As much as possible, freedom of the press would be encouraged so that Americans knew the true course and costs of war.
  10. When the war ended, again as quickly as possible, the nation would return to its default state of peace; military establishments bolstered during wartime would be demobilized.

Now let’s consider every U.S. war since World War II. Let’s focus especially on Iraq and Afghanistan. How many of these ten features would apply to these wars?

I’d argue that none of them apply.

That’s how you know these wars are not in the service of democracy, whether at home or overseas. They are also not defensive wars, nor are they defensible in ways that pass rigorous and honest debate among the people. (This is precisely why none of them came with Congressional declarations of war.)

I know my “top ten” list isn’t all-inclusive, but I think it’s a reasonable guide to whether the next war (and I’m sure more are coming) will be necessary and justifiable. It’s a safe bet it won’t be.

Readers, can you think of other ways we can tell whether war is truly justifiable? History teaches us that most wars are unjustifiable, offensive in nature, and therefore crimes against humanity.

In fact, since 1945 it’s often been America’s putative “enemies” who are more likely to be fighting a necessary war — it’s perhaps the chief reason why they so often win.

In sum, war is the enemy of democracy. You wage war long, you wage it wrong, assuming you want to keep a democracy. That so many American “thought-leaders” are still advocating for more war in Afghanistan is a clear sign that our country’s operating system is infected by malware that promotes militarism and war.

James Madison: No nation can preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare

The Collapse of America’s Position in Afghanistan

W.J. Astore

It didn’t take long, did it? The Taliban are already in Kabul and the American-supported central government has scattered to the winds. What happened? What can we learn from this dramatic collapse?

Images of Saigon in 1975 keep appearing in minds and on TV screens, but let’s not forget the collapse of the American-trained Iraqi military in 2014. It turns out that a special product of America’s military-industrial-Congressional complex is junk militaries, whether in Vietnam in 1975 or Iraq in 2014 or Afghanistan in 2021. As I wrote about in 2014 at TomDispatch.com, the U.S. really knows how to invest in junk armies. And when they inevitably collapse, no one is held responsible, whether in the military or in Congress or in the various mercenary corporations that ostensibly trained and equipped Afghan security forces.

What follows is an excerpt from my article written in 2014 when Iraqi forces collapsed. The lessons I drew from that collapse are applicable to the latest one in Afghanistan. Just substitute “The Taliban” for ISIS and Afghan security forces for Iraqi ones in the paragraphs below.

A Kleptocratic State Produces a Kleptocratic Military

In the military, it’s called an “after action report” or a “hotwash” — a review, that is, of what went wrong and what can be learned, so the same mistakes are not repeated. When it comes to America’s Iraq training mission, four lessons should top any “hotwash” list:

1. Military training, no matter how intensive, and weaponry, no matter how sophisticated and powerful, is no substitute for belief in a cause.  Such belief nurtures cohesion and feeds fighting spirit.  ISIS has fought with conviction.  The expensively trained and equipped Iraqi army hasn’t.  The latter lacks a compelling cause held in common.  This is not to suggest that ISIS has a cause that’s pure or just. Indeed, it appears to be a complex mélange of religious fundamentalism, sectarian revenge, political ambition, and old-fashioned opportunism (including loot, plain and simple). But so far the combination has proven compelling to its fighters, while Iraq’s security forces appear centered on little more than self-preservation. 

2. Military training alone cannot produce loyalty to a dysfunctional and disunified government incapable of running the country effectively, which is a reasonable description of Iraq’s sectarian Shia government.  So it should be no surprise that, as Andrew Bacevich has noted, its security forces won’t obey orders.  Unlike Tennyson’s six hundred, the Iraqi army is unready to ride into any valley of death on orders from Baghdad. Of course, this problem might be solved through the formation of an Iraqi government that fairly represented all major parties in Iraqi society, not just the Shia majority. But that seems an unlikely possibility at this point.  In the meantime, one solution the situation doesn’t call for is more U.S. airpower, weapons, advisers, and training.  That’s already been tried — and it failed. 

3. A corrupt and kleptocratic government produces a corrupt and kleptocratic army.  On Transparency International’s 2013 corruption perceptions index, Iraq came in 171 among the 177 countries surveyed. And that rot can’t be overcome by American “can-do” military training, then or now. In fact, Iraqi security forces mirror the kleptocracy they serve, often existing largely on paper.  For example, prior to the June ISIS offensive, as Patrick Cockburn has noted, the security forces in and around Mosul had a paper strength of 60,000, but only an estimated 20,000 of them were actually available for battle. As Cockburn writes, “A common source of additional income for officers is for soldiers to kickback half their salaries to their officers in return for staying at home or doing another job.”

When he asked a recently retired general why the country’s military pancaked in June, Cockburn got this answer:

“‘Corruption! Corruption! Corruption!’ [the general] replied: pervasive corruption had turned the [Iraqi] army into a racket and an investment opportunity in which every officer had to pay for his post. He said the opportunity to make big money in the Iraqi army goes back to the U.S. advisers who set it up ten years ago. The Americans insisted that food and other supplies should be outsourced to private businesses: this meant immense opportunities for graft. A battalion might have a nominal strength of six hundred men and its commanding officer would receive money from the budget to pay for their food, but in fact there were only two hundred men in the barracks so he could pocket the difference. In some cases there were ‘ghost battalions’ that didn’t exist at all but were being paid for just the same.”

Only in fantasies like J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings do ghost battalions make a difference on the battlefield. Systemic graft and rampant corruption can be papered over in parliament, but not when bullets fly and blood flows, as events in June proved.

Such corruption is hardly new (or news). Back in 2005, in his article “Why Iraq Has No Army,” James Fallows noted that Iraqi weapons contracts valued at $1.3 billion shed $500 million for “payoffs, kickbacks, and fraud.” In the same year, Eliot Weinberger, writing in the London Review of Books, cited Sabah Hadum, spokesman for the Iraqi Ministry of the Interior, as admitting, “We are paying about 135,000 [troop salaries], but that does not necessarily mean that 135,000 are actually working.” Already Weinberger saw evidence of up to 50,000 “ghost soldiers” or “invented names whose pay is collected by [Iraqi] officers or bureaucrats.”  U.S. government hype to the contrary, little changed between initial training efforts in 2005 and the present day, as Kelley Vlahos noted recently in her article “The Iraqi Army Never Was.”    

4. American ignorance of Iraqi culture and a widespread contempt for Iraqis compromised training results.  Such ignorance was reflected in the commonplace use by U.S. troops of the term “hajji,” an honorific reserved for those who have made the journey (or hajj) to Mecca, for any Iraqi male; contempt in the use of terms such as “raghead,” in indiscriminate firing and overly aggressive behavior, and most notoriously in the events at Abu Ghraib prison.  As Douglas Macgregor, a retired Army colonel, noted in December 2004, American generals and politicians “did not think through the consequences of compelling American soldiers with no knowledge of Arabic or Arab culture to implement intrusive measures inside an Islamic society.  We arrested people in front of their families, dragging them away in handcuffs with bags over their heads, and then provided no information to the families of those we incarcerated.  In the end, our soldiers killed, maimed, and incarcerated thousands of Arabs, 90 percent of whom were not the enemy.  But they are now.”

Sharing that contempt was Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, who chose a metaphor of parent and child, teacher and neophyte, to describe the “progress” of the occupation.  He spoke condescendingly of the need to take the “training wheels” off the Iraqi bike of state and let Iraqis pedal for themselves.  A decade later, General Allen exhibited a similarly paternalistic attitude in an article he wrote calling for the destruction of the Islamic State.  For him, the people of Iraq are “poor benighted” souls, who can nonetheless serve American power adequately as “boots on the ground.”  In translation that means they can soak up bullets and become casualties, while the U.S. provides advice and air support.  In the general’s vision — which had déjà vu all over again scrawled across it — U.S. advisers were to “orchestrate” future attacks on IS, while Iraq’s security forces learned how to obediently follow their American conductors. 

The commonplace mixture of smugness and paternalism Allen revealed hardly bodes well for future operations against the Islamic State.   

What Next?

The grim wisdom of Private Hudson in the movie Aliens comes to mind: “Let’s just bug out and call it ‘even,’ OK? What are we talking about this for?”

Unfortunately, no one in the Obama administration is entertaining such sentiments at the moment, despite the fact that ISIS does not actually represent a clear and present danger to the “homeland.” The bugging-out option has, in fact, been tested and proven in Vietnam.  After 1973, the U.S. finally walked away from its disastrous war there and, in 1975, South Vietnam fell to the enemy.  It was messy and represented a genuine defeat — but no less so than if the U.S. military had intervened yet again in 1975 to “save” its South Vietnamese allies with more weaponry, money, troops, and carpet bombing.  Since then, the Vietnamese have somehow managed to chart their own course without any of the above and almost 40 years later, the U.S. and Vietnam find themselves informally allied against China.

To many Americans, IS appears to be the latest Islamic version of the old communist threat — a bad crew who must be hunted down and destroyed.  This, of course, is something the U.S. tried in the region first against Saddam Hussein in 1991 and again in 2003, then against various Sunni and Shiite insurgencies, and now against the Islamic State.  Given the paradigm — a threat to our way of life — pulling out is never an option, even though it would remove the “American Satan” card from the IS propaganda deck.  To pull out means to leave behind much bloodshed and many grim acts.  Harsh, I know, but is it any harsher than incessant American-led bombing, the commitment of more American “advisers” and money and weapons, and yet more American generals posturing as the conductors of Iraqi affairs?  With, of course, the usual results.

One thing is clear: the foreign armies that the U.S. invests so much money, time, and effort in training and equipping don’t act as if America’s enemies are their enemies.  Contrary to the behavior predicted by Donald Rumsfeld, when the U.S. removes those “training wheels” from its client militaries, they pedal furiously (when they pedal at all) in directions wholly unexpected by, and often undesirable to, their American paymasters.

And if that’s not a clear sign of the failure of U.S. foreign policy, I don’t know what is.

America Is a Sinking Warship on a Melting Iceberg

W.J. Astore

More sweltering heat, wildfires, and other extreme weather and weather-related events remind us that global warming and climate change are here to stay. When I taught about global warming a decade ago, most scientists were predicting harsh events in 2030 or 2040. Yet here it is, the year 2021, and we’re already seeing the implacable face of Mother Nature, shaking her head at our naughtiness and thoughtlessness vis-a-vis her planet. She won’t be appeased by our excuse-making or our lying or our attempts to pass the buck. As we bicker, she acts.

Mother Nature: Implacable (Josh Addessi at Blogspot.com)

Climate change is here to stay with a take no prisoners vibe, notes Tom Engelhardt in his latest post at TomDispatch.com. Tom’s message is clear: we’re reaping or about to reap what our “leaders” and corporate elites have sown for us, a much hotter, much less hospitable, planet. As Tom puts it, we’re about to witness, and indeed are already witnessing, a climate Armageddon in slow motion. Check out his article for all the grim details.

Here’s the thing. A half-century ago, America’s wonderful fossil-fuel companies knew all about this threat. More than 40 years ago, President Jimmy Carter tried to persuade America to conserve fuel and live thriftier, more meaningful, lives. But America rejected Carter’s hard facts for Reagan’s sunny optimism (or, put bluntly, his lies) and so here we are.

After Carter, the Democrats swiftly moved to the right and embraced those same fossil-fuel companies. Democrats may have made fun of Sarah Palin and her “drill, baby, drill” message, but that is exactly what Presidents Obama and Biden decided to do: drill, baby, drill. A recent article puts it well from The Guardian: Joe Biden has approved two thousand (!) drilling and fracking permits. Not exactly a green new deal, is it?

President Obama was even worse, notes David Sirota at The Guardian. He loved to boast of how he made America the world’s number one oil producer. He even asked Americans to thank him for it! Remind me again how the Democrats are so much different on this issue than the big bad Republicans?

Here’s the kicker. Even as America’s leaders acted to accelerate fossil fuel production, despite all the warnings about climate change, they squandered $6 trillion on the Iraq and Afghan wars, money that would have made a dramatic difference in preparing America for climate change while also facilitating alternative energy sources, which also would have created millions of “green” jobs in America.

I think a key inflection point for America came in the immediate aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union three decades ago. If America had invested its peace dividend into creating a cleaner, safer, better world, perhaps by leading the way, as Carter had suggested, in solar energy and in efforts at conservation, we truly could have been a shining city on a hill, a beacon of sanity. But we chose more weapons and more war. We chose more fossil fuel consumption. Indeed, we chose more consumption (and more guns) in general.

And thus we are where we are today, caught on a sinking warship on a rapidly melting iceberg. OK, perhaps it’s not the most clever metaphor, but you try coming up with a better one when you’re typing in a room at 87 degrees with 73% humidity. Must keep that image of an iceberg in my head …

Must keep cool …