Joe Biden’s Early Report Card

Joe Biden and his alleged nemesis

W.J. Astore

Joe Biden’s been president for a year and a few months; it’s time to award him a provisional grade for his performance as president.  Here are a few factors to consider:

* Biden ended the Afghan War.  Sure, it was a disordered ending, a pell-mell evacuation, a calamitous collapse that saw Afghan innocents killed in a final drone strike (nothing new about that, I suppose).  But he did end a twenty-year war, so credit to him for that.

* Biden was able to pass an infrastructure bill, though it was disappointingly small.  Still, America truly needs to invest in its infrastructure (rather than, for example, nuclear weapons), so credit again to Biden.

* Biden kept his promise to nominate an African American woman to the Supreme Court.  The court is still overwhelmingly conservative, so her presence won’t make a critical difference to decisions, but dare I say, it’s about time the court looked more like the diversity of America.

* When Biden announced his candidacy, the first thing he did was meet with Comcast executives and other high and mighty media- and business-types.  He told them nothing would fundamentally change under his administration.  That’s a campaign promise he’s kept.

* Another promise Biden has kept is sizable increases to the Pentagon’s budget.  If you’re part of the military-industry complex, you’re probably more than satisfied with Biden’s budgets.

* Finally, some people assert that Biden has stood firm against Russia and Putin, marshaling the West against Putin’s war of aggression in Ukraine.  I beg to differ with this assertion, but more on that below.

Now, let’s look at where Biden has failed or proven to be a disappointment.

* Biden has kept none of his progressive promises, which is unsurprising, given his track record as a senator from Delaware.  No $15 federal minimum wage.  No public option for health care.  No student debt relief (just moratoriums on payments).  On these and similar issues, Biden’s defenders place the blame on obstinate “centrist” senators like Manchin and Sinema, or they blame the Senate Parliamentarian for ruling against the $15 wage increase due to a technicality.  It’s all special pleading.  When their own Senate Parliamentarian got in their way, the Republicans simply replaced that unelected person with someone more tractable.  Chuck Schumer could easily have done the same.  Manchin and Sinema can be cajoled or coerced if Biden had the will to do so.  But “centrist” Democrats adore Manchin and Sinema because they serve as convenient scapegoats for why Biden can’t be more progressive.

* Biden’s “Build Back Better” plan died a meaningless death, but, once again, this was more by design.  Recall Biden’s key promise that nothing would fundamentally change under his administration.

* Again, withdrawing from the Afghan War was a sound decision, but it was poorly implemented.

* The Russia-Ukraine War: Biden has gone all-in with his military approach to the war, meaning more money for the Pentagon, more weapons for Ukraine, harsh sanctions that hit ordinary Russians the hardest, and rhetoric that declares Putin to be a genocidal war criminal.  Diplomatic efforts have taken a back seat to efforts to effect regime change in Russia.  Some people may see this as tough and hard- minded; I see it as provocative and incredibly foolhardy.  Brinksmanship with Russia risks nuclear war, with Biden’s harsh rhetoric leaving little room for a negotiated settlement.  More than a few people see the U.S. as weakening Russia in a proxy war in which Biden is willing to fight to the last Ukrainian.  Toughness is not about more weapons and war; it’s about finding ways to build fewer weapons and to end war.

* Inflation is reaching new highs and many Americans are struggling economically, but Biden’s main approach here has been to blame Putin.  Unlike Harry Truman, the buck never stops with Joe Biden.

* The Biden team made a disastrous choice for his vice president.  Biden has no affinity with Kamala Harris, and Harris herself has wilted on the world stage.  High staff turnover suggests she’s a polarizing figure and a poor boss.  The only good thing about Harris, from the Biden perspective, is that people dislike her more than they do the president.

* Biden’s unpopularity.  Predictions for the midterm elections this November are dire for Democrats.  It’s possible, even likely, Republicans will regain both the Senate and House, leaving Biden a lame duck for his final two years in office.  Few if any Democratic candidates are seeking Biden’s support or planning to ride his coattails to victory.

* Biden’s mental status.  Biden will be 80 this November.  I’m not an expert on dementia.  But I’ve seen plenty of speeches by Biden where he’s become forgetful; when he can’t remember words; when he gets frustrated.  I feel for him.  He can read from a teleprompter but get him off-script and he becomes unpredictable and says nonsensical things.  Occasionally, he looks lost or at a loss.  Something similar was happening to Ronald Reagan in his second term.

Always looming in the background and foreground is the party of Trump.  To my mind, the best way to defeat rightwing popular authoritarianism is to have leaders who answer to the people rather than to corporations and oligarchs.  The Democratic Party is venal and corrupt, which allows Trump & Co. an opening to play a (false) populist card.  The Democrats, as presently led by Biden, Schumer, Pelosi, et al., are easy foils for authoritarian dipshits like Trump.

Trump would be far less dangerous if the Democrats actually believed and acted on their various campaign promises to help people rather than oligarchs and corporations.

The ultimate grade of Joe Biden’s presidency will depend on whether through his actions and inaction he gives Trump an opening to win the presidency in 2024.  Assuming Trump wins again in 2024, Biden’s final grade will be an “F.”

His provisional grade?  First, I’m not a Democrat.  Second, I despise Trump, a man totally unqualified to serve the public in any capacity.  Overall, my grade for Biden is a “C-,” and on less generous days I’m inclined to give him a “D.”  He is a man who’s often out of his depth, a man well past his prime, a man who perhaps shouldn’t have run in 2020 and who most certainly shouldn’t run again in 2024, given the demands of the presidency. (Recall that when Biden suggested a run for the presidency in 2020, Obama told him, You don’t have to do this, Joe. Not exactly an inspiring vote of confidence!)

What do you think, readers?  What grade has Joe Biden earned so far in your opinion?  

What Would It Take for the Pentagon Budget to Shrink?

W.J. Astore

In my latest article for TomDispatch.com, I examine what it would take for the Pentagon budget to go down. You can read the entire article here. What follows is the concluding section.

Ever since 9/11, endless conflict has been this country’s new normal.  If you’re an American 21 years of age or younger, you’ve never known a time when your country hasn’t been at war, even if, thanks to the end of the draft in the previous century, you stand no chance of being called to arms yourself.  You’ve never known a time of “normal” defense budgets.  You have no conception of what military demobilization, no less peacetime might actually be like. Your normal is only reflected in the Biden administration’s staggering $813 billion Pentagon budget proposal for the next fiscal year.  Naturally, many congressional Republicans are already clamoring for even highermilitary spending.  Remember that Mae West quip[Too much of a good thing can be wonderful]?  What a “wonderful” world!

And you’re supposed to take pride in this.  As President Biden recently told soldiers from the 82nd Airborne Division now stationed in Poland, this country has the “finest fighting force in the history of the world.”  Even with the mountains of cash we give to that military, the nation still “owes you big,” he assured them.

Well, I’m gobsmacked.  During my 20-year career in the military, I never thought my nation owed me a thing, let alone owed me big.  Now that I think of it, however, I can say that this nation owed me (and today’s troops as well) one very big thing: not to waste my life; not to send me to fight undeclared, arguably unconstitutional, wars; not to treat me like a foreign legionnaire or an imperial errand-boy.  That’s what we, the people, really owe “our” troops.  It should be our duty to treat their service, and potentially their deaths, with the utmost care, meaning that our leaders should wage war only as a last, not a first, resort and only in defense of our most cherished ideals.

This was anything but the case of the interminable Afghan and Iraq wars, reckless conflicts of choice that burned through trillions of dollars, with tens of thousands of U.S. troops killed and wounded, and millions of foreigners either dead or transformed into refugees, all for what turned out to be absolutely nothing.  Small wonder today that a growing number of Americans want to see less military spending, not more.  Citizen.org, representing 86 national and state organizations, has called on President Biden to decrease military spending.  Joining that call was POGO, the Project on Government Oversight, as well as William Hartung at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft.  And they couldn’t be more on target, though they’re certain to be ignored in Washington.

Consider the recent disastrous end to the Afghan War.  Viewing that conflict in the aggregate, what you see is widespread corruption and untold waste, all facilitated by generals who lied openly and consistently to the rest of us about “progress,” even as they spoke frankly in private about a lost war, a reality the Afghan War Papers all too tellingly revealed.  That harsh story of abysmal failure, however, highlights something far worse: a devastating record of lying on a massive scale within the highest ranks of the military and government.  And are those liars and deceivers being called to account?  Perish the thought!  Instead, they’ve generally been rewarded with yet more money, promotions, and praise.

So, what would it take for the Pentagon budget to shrink?  Blowing the whistle on wasteful and underperforming weaponry hasn’t been enough.  Witnessing murderous and disastrous wars hasn’t been enough.  To my mind, at this point, only a full-scale collapse of the U.S. economy might truly shrink that budget and that would be a Pyrrhic victory for the American people.

In closing, let me return to President Biden’s remark that the nation owes our troops big.  There’s an element of truth there, perhaps, if you’re referring to the soldiers, Marines, sailors, and airmen, many of whom have served selflessly within its ranks. It sure as hell isn’t true, though, of the self-serving strivers and liars at or near the top, or the weapons-making corporations who profited off it all, or the politicians in Washington who kept crying out for more.  They owe the rest of us and America big.

My fellow Americans, we have now reached the point in our collective history where we face three certainties: death, taxes, and ever-soaring spending on weaponry and war.  In that sense, we have become George Orwell’s Oceania, where war is peace, surveillance is privacy, and censorship is free speech.

Such is the fate of a people who make war and empire their way of life.

To read the entire article, visit TomDispatch.com.

Let’s (Not) Go To War!

W.J. Astore

Remember the days when America had to be attacked before it went to war? And when it did, it made formal Congressional declarations of the same?

In December 1941, the Japanese attacked the U.S. Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor as well as elsewhere in the Pacific. In response to those attacks, President Franklin Roosevelt asked Congress for a formal declaration of war. Nazi Germany then declared war on the U.S., after which the U.S. responded in kind. Compared to the future wars of U.S. empire, Americans were generally united and had some understanding of what the war (World War II, of course) was about.

We haven’t had that kind of unity and clarity since 1945, which is certainly the biggest reason America has suffered so many setbacks and defeats in unpromising places like Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan. In all three of those places, there really wasn’t a clear and compelling cause for war, hence there was no Congressional declaration of the same. Hmm … maybe that should have told us something?

In Vietnam, the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution by Congress followed on the heels of an “attack” that had never happened. In Iraq, the “evil dictator” didn’t have the weapons of mass destruction we accused him of having, nor had he played any role in the 9/11 attacks. In Afghanistan, the Taliban had played a secondary role in providing a safe haven to Osama bin Laden prior to 9/11, but it was Al Qaeda, not the Taliban, that was behind the 9/11 attacks.

Indeed, since 15 of the 19 Al Qaeda terrorists were Saudi, as well as their leader, Osama bin Laden, it would have made much more sense to have declared war on Saudi Arabia and invade that country than to have invaded Afghanistan. Of course, it made no sense at all to have declared a general “war on terror,” and rather unsurprisingly, that 20-year-war has only succeeded in spreading terror further.

Now we turn to today’s situation between Russia and Ukraine. Frankly, I don’t see a border dispute between these two countries as constituting a major threat to U.S. national security. It’s certainly no reason for America to go to war. Yet the Biden Administration is taking a hard line with its economic sanctions, its weapons shipments, and its troop deployments to the region.

Somehow, America’s leaders seem to think that such actions will deter, or at least punish, Russia and its leader. But there’s another possibility, one equally as likely, that sanctions and weapons and troops will lead to escalation and a wider war, and for what reason? A Russian-Ukrainian border dispute? This dispute might resolve itself if the U.S. and NATO just had the sense and patience to mind its own business.

A rush to war made sense in 1941, when the U.S. faced powerful and implacable enemies that were focused on its destruction. It hasn’t made sense since then, nor does it make sense today.

In short, let’s not go to war.

America’s Disastrous 60-Year War

W.J. Astore

In my latest for TomDispatch.com, I tackle America’s disastrous 60-year war (1961-2021), which began with Ike’s warning of the pernicious threat to democracy of the military-industrial complex and ended with last year’s humiliating retreat from Afghanistan. Has America learned anything? Based on recent events with Russia and Ukraine, together with bellicose acts toward China, it doesn’t seem so.

Here’s an excerpt from my article; you can read it in its entirety at TomDispatch.com.

Three Generations of Conspicuous Destruction by the Military-Industrial Complex

BY WILLIAM ASTORE

In my lifetime of nearly 60 years, America has waged five major wars, winning one decisively, then throwing that victory away, while losing the other four disastrously. Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq, as well as the Global War on Terror, were the losses, of course; the Cold War being the solitary win that must now be counted as a loss because its promise was so quickly discarded.

America’s war in Vietnam was waged during the Cold War in the context of what was then known as the domino theory and the idea of “containing” communism. Iraq and Afghanistan were part of the Global War on Terror, a post-Cold War event in which “radical Islamic terrorism” became the substitute for communism. Even so, those wars should be treated as a single strand of history, a 60-year war, if you will, for one reason alone: the explanatory power of such a concept.

For me, because of President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s farewell address to the nation in January 1961, that year is the obvious starting point for what retired Army colonel and historian Andrew Bacevich recently termed America’s Very Long War (VLW). In that televised speech, Ike warned of the emergence of a military-industrial complex of immense strength that could someday threaten American democracy itself. I’ve chosen 2021 as the VLW’s terminus point because of the disastrous end of this country’s Afghan War, which even in its last years cost $45 billion annually to prosecute, and because of one curious reality that goes with it. In the wake of the crashing and burning of that 20-year war effort, the Pentagon budget leaped even higher with the support of almost every congressional representative of both parties as Washington’s armed attention turned to China and Russia.

At the end of two decades of globally disastrous war-making, that funding increase should tell us just how right Eisenhower was about the perils of the military-industrial complex. By failing to heed him all these years, democracy may indeed be in the process of meeting its demise.

The Prosperity of Losing Wars

Several things define America’s disastrous 60-year war. These would include profligacy and ferocity in the use of weaponry against peoples who could not respond in kind; enormous profiteering by the military-industrial complex; incessant lying by the U.S. government (the evidence in the Pentagon Papers for Vietnam, the missing WMDfor the invasion of Iraq, and the recent Afghan War papers); accountability-free defeats, with prominent government or military officials essentially never held responsible; and the consistent practice of a militarized Keynesianism that provided jobs and wealth to a relative few at the expense of a great many. In sum, America’s 60-year war has featured conspicuous destruction globally, even as wartime production in the U.S. failed to better the lives of the working and middle classes as a whole.

Let’s take a closer look. Militarily speaking, throwing almost everything the U.S. military had (nuclear arms excepted) at opponents who had next to nothing should be considered the defining feature of the VLW. During those six decades of war-making, the U.S. military raged with white hot anger against enemies who refused to submit to its ever more powerful, technologically advanced, and destructive toys.

Please read the rest of my article here.

Being Right For the Wrong Reasons

W.J. Astore

Were you against the Afghan War? The Iraq War? Events proved you right, of course, but for the wrong reasons. And if you were pro-war in both cases, you were of course wrong but for the right reasons. Therefore you will still be celebrated and featured on mainstream media outlets, whereas those “right” people will still be ignored because, again, they may have been right about those disastrous wars, but their reasons were all wrong.

I think I heard this formulation first in Jeremy Scahill’s book “Dirty Wars.” An official said opponents of the war on terror had been “right for the wrong reasons,” but that proponents of war, the Kristols and Krauthammers of the necon world, had been “wrong for the right reasons.”

Nick Turse picks up on this theme in his latest for TomDispatch.com. In 2010, Turse edited a book of essays: “The Case for Withdrawal from Afghanistan.” In his latest essay, and with tongue firmly in cheek, Turse asks why he’s not being invited to speak on the mainstream media networks, why he’s not being celebrated for his prescience, why he’s not being lauded for being right. And of course Turse knows the answer: he was right — but for the wrong reasons.

If you’re confused, allow me to translate. It’s OK, even laudable, to argue that the Pentagon will win; that wars should be fought; and that U.S. generals are so many reincarnations of Napoleon and Alexander and Caesar.  Because being “wrong” here means that the Pentagon grows ever more powerful; that the U.S. always looks tough (if perhaps dumb); and that America’s generals are celebrated as the “finest” while never being called to account. Again, all these things are “right,” even when, indeed especially when, they’re so obviously wrong.

But it’s not OK, indeed it’s deplorable, to suggest the Pentagon will lose; that wars should not be fought; that U.S. generals are mostly time-serving mediocrities.  Because being “right” here means a weaker Pentagon; it means America fights fewer wars, an obvious sign of national weakness and a calamity to the military-industrial complex; it means holding generals responsible for their self-serving lies and obfuscations.

Being right about all this weakens militarism in America and could lead to lower “defense” budgets and fewer wars. And we can’t have that in America!

So, remember, in America it’s better to be wrong and thus feed the military-industrial complex than to be right and thus possibly to chart a wiser and less bellicose course. To paraphrase Mister Spock, it is not logical, but it is often true.

Sorry, Nick: You were right but for the wrong reasons

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.

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.