A friend of mine, a veteran of America’s 21st-century wars in the Greater Middle East, recently sent along his most recent commentary on Afghanistan. It would be his last, he said. “I’m done writing on how we got here – at this point I’ve said my piece, and I’m tired of being angry”. He’s moving on.
I can’t say that I blame him. A legion of critics, including many who, like my friend, base their testimony on first-hand experience, have described in compelling detail the havoc caused by post-9/11 US military misadventures in Afghanistan and elsewhere. Their efforts have yielded a vast and ever-expanding trove of memoirs, novels, histories, essays, movies, and documentaries that record their disappointment, dismay, and, in more than a few cases, sense of betrayal or despair.
Someday, perhaps in the not-too-distant future, some aspiring scholar will set out to assess this voluminous archive of antiwar literature. Yet however diligent or creative, that scholar will necessarily reach one irrefutable conclusion: The practical impact of this accumulated criticism, no matter how thoroughly documented or artfully presented, has been negligible.
To put it another way, after nearly 20 costly years of war with little to show by way of positive results, the assumptions, ambitions, structures, and habits that constitute what Washington types are pleased to call national security policy remain firmly in place.
Not without cause, critics have lambasted the Catholic Church (to which I belong) for being slow to address the epidemic of clergy sex abuse. Yet when it comes to acknowledging institutional failure and initiating remedial action, Rome moves with gazelle-like swiftness in comparison with the Pentagon. Pope Francis knows that he has a serious problem on his hands. In Washington, the defense secretary and the Joint Chiefs of Staff either haven’t noticed or don’t care that the military establishment over which they preside may excel at spending money, but when it comes to winning wars has achieved a less than stellar record.
For proof we need look no further than Afghanistan. I will not rehearse here the pertinent statistics that summarize what the United States has done in (and to) Afghanistan – the treasure expended, the lives lost and ruined, the populations put to flight, the opium crops destroyed only to reappear, the local forces trained only to evaporate, the reconstruction projects undertaken only to be abandoned. The relevant figures are readily available, occasionally reported, and promptly ignored. Taken as a whole, they illustrate the truth of Stalin’s cynical remark about one death qualifying as a tragedy whereas a billion deaths become a mere data point.
I will cite only a single statistic: 6,345 (and counting). That describes the war’s duration – the number of days that the United States has been attempting, without success, to impose its will on Afghanistan. That number, I submit, constitutes a definitive judgment on recent US national security policy.
Now national security deserves a place alongside nuclear strategy as a phrase employed in Washington to defend the indefensible or rationalize the irrational. It also provides a mechanism to dodge accountability.
The Afghanistan War that has exhausted my friend’s capacity for anger is a case in point. It offers an exquisite example of how the people in charge employ the supposed imperatives of national security to sustain the pretense that they know what they are doing. After all, unlike you and me, they have access to the latest intelligence reports. So they are in the know. And they are always on the go, visiting the troops, consulting field commanders, testifying before Congress and, as it suits them, even deigning to inform the public. Throughout, they project calm resolve. Never for an instant do they even hint that when a war drags on for more than six thousand days something might be amiss.
It now becomes increasingly clear that the official rationale for initiating the Afghanistan War was bogus from the very outset. When United States and allied forces invaded Afghanistan in the fall of 2001, their purpose was to overthrow the Taliban and therefore demonstrate the price to be paid for harboring radical groups plotting terrorist attacks against the United States. To endow this undertaking with a simulacrum of moral purpose, the war’s proponents insisted that the United States would also liberate the Afghan people from oppression and confer on them all the benefits of Western-style liberal democracy, not least of all by guaranteeing the rights of women.
This article has been excerpted from: ‘The US Quietly Negotiates ‘Peace with Honor’ in Afghanistan’.
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