Later in his life, Murray Rothbard said something to the effect that the whole “war question” was the single most important issue of our time. I have long agreed. But what is the war question?
For Americans born since 2001, they’ve never lived in an America not at war. Seventeen years is a long time to be at war. Actual combat in Vietnam ended after roughly ten years. If we consider the Persian Gulf War and other military conflicts throughout the 90s, we as a nation haven’t really had much of a break from war. What’s alarming is that younger Americans aren’t really aware that we’re at war. They probably don’t know where Afghanistan or Iraq is, or when we started wars there, or how long we’ve been there. They don’t know that we have bases and troops in about 130 different countries. They don’t know how many millions of tax dollars go into making bombs that are dropped on a country which they can’t locate on a map. They don’t know what factors led to these wars. If asked why we’re fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, what would they say? What would you say?
Build schools for girls?
To put it succinctly, we went into Afghanistan to capture al Qaeda operatives responsible for 9/11. However, within months, the Bush administration started deflecting this initial goal in favor of a more broad aim to remove the Taliban from power (a separate group than al Qaeda), and to eradicate terrorism in general. Not for nothing, Bush said that terrorists encompassed over sixty countries and territories. How long did he think it might take to eradicate terrorism in sixty countries?
We went into Iraq in 2003 as part of a UN coalition to remove Saddam Hussein from power for supposed weapons violations. Remember those weapons of mass destruction that the Bush Administration was positive he had? It’s also worth noting that the invasion of Iraq had nothing to do with the September 11 attacks, even though the Bush Administration intentionally misled Americans into conflating the two conflicts. As Scott Horton notes, “Before the sun had gone down on the evening of [September] 11th and anyone could even be certain the attacks were completely over, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld was already telling his staff to plan for war against Iraq.”
Saddam Hussein was removed from power in 2006 and bin Laden was killed in 2011, yet we still have active troops in both countries. Thousands of troops. In terms of the original stated mission for Afghanistan, most of the al Qaeda members responsible for 9/11 were captured, killed, or fled Afghanistan early on. By December 2001 our military was closing in on bin Laden and the remaining al Qaeda members. Several military higher-ups requested troops and permission to pursue the terrorist group across the border into Pakistan to finish the job, but to no avail. In the opinion of those military personnel in charge at the time, the targeted mission of seeking retribution for the terrorist attacks could have been over within months. But if the original mission were achieved within months, what justification would our government have for staying there indefinitely? Insightful are the words of Sec. Rumsfeld when he asked in September of 2001, “As part of the war on terrorism, should we be getting something going in another area, other than Afghanistan, so that success or failure and progress isn’t measured just by Afghanistan?”
Even when the Afghanistan mission was redirected toward removing the Taliban from power, this was mostly done by the end of 2002. Within a year of 9/11, Afghanistan had a “democratically elected” president and the Taliban was no longer in power or even actively fighting to regain power. For those familiar with the history of the region, you may recall that the Reagan Administration actually supported the Afghan freedom fighters in the 1980s against the Soviet Union. Many of these resistance fighters, such as Saudi born Osama bin Laden, later formed al Qaeda. Even in 1986, long before 9/11 or the War in Afghanistan, a notable organizer of the Arab resistance against the Soviet Union said “When we have finished driving the Soviet imperialists from Afghanistan, we mujahideen will then go and drive the American imperialists from Arabia, and then liberate Palestine.” This is but one of the innumerable examples of the US supporting a group that later became our enemy.
In the run-up to the 2000 election, George W. Bush criticized nation building and said it was unsustainable. Then he presided over the beginning of two of the longest wars in our nation’s history. Obama, the “peace candidate,” talked about ending foreign wars and bringing the troops home from Afghanistan. Then he sent more troops and escalated the conflict, in addition to starting new wars and proxy drone wars in places like Pakistan and Yemen. Scott Horton writes that “at the height of Obama’s troop ‘surge,’ there were more than 100,000 soldiers, marines, and special operators in the country.” Trump criticized the Iraq War during some Republican debates, but has done nothing to end it. In 2013, Trump said “Can you believe that the Afghan war is our ‘longest war’ ever – bring our troops home, rebuild the U.S., make America great again.” Not surprisingly, in 2016, he said “I think you have to stay in Afghanistan for a while.” Within the last few weeks he has escalated the conflict in Syria as well.
In the aftermath of Vietnam, many Americans vowed to stay out of future quagmires. They were tired of their young men dying in the jungles of Asia. How quickly we forget. And yet, actual fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq has gone on longer than Vietnam. It has become so commonplace that few Americans know we’re still there, much less what we’re doing. The term “perpetual war for perpetual peace” comes to mind. Just a little bit longer…a few more billion dollars…a few more dead servicemen, and you’ll get your peace.
While you might think apathy toward these constant wars is a byproduct of American militarism, it is in fact part of the overall goal. The war-makers – the Bushes, Clintons, Obama, Trump, and their ilk – have long desired to lull Americans to sleep when it comes to foreign policy. Don’t worry about what’s going on over there, they say, we’re keeping you safe. Do you think it’s a coincidence that presidents’ popularity ratings are always highest toward the beginning of a conflict? Or that historians routinely rank “war presidents” toward the top. If you’re conspiratorial, you would almost think there’s an incentive in starting a war.
The Constitutional basis Bush used to invade and maintain a presence in Iraq was so unprecedented that he needed a team of lawyers to craft and sell it. And at the end of the day, this new theory basically amounted to his lawyers telling the American public he could do whatever he wanted in the pursuit of ending terrorism. It is almost as though since we couldn’t possibly ever completely end terrorism, presidents can use this line of logic in perpetuity. And then Democrats want to gripe about federal overreach in the Trump administration, when they didn’t care about it for eight years with Obama. Likewise, Republicans had plenty of criticism for Obama, but failed to rein in George W. Bush despite majorities in both houses of Congress. It’s the pot calling the kettle a hypocrite.
The “war question” that Rothbard referenced means constant American warfare and how it has become so commonplace that no one notices it’s happening. In Nineteen Eighty-Four, Orwell’s protagonist talks about how war became so constant that no one knew who they were fighting or why; the old enemy had become the new ally, and the old ally the new enemy; and the citizens were told the wars were always just. Sound familiar?
To many Americans, foreign policy has become akin to sports…we have our team, and everyone else is on another team. Thousands of civilian deaths in Afghanistan and Iraq? Doesn’t matter, they’re not on our team. If they didn’t want to get bombed, they shouldn’t have lived there. Thousands of American deaths in the sands of the Middle East? All for a noble cause…collateral damage…etc. It doesn’t matter which side it is, it’s still death and destruction dressed up like a camo chess set.
We perceive our military to be “a global force for good,” but do we ever consider the perception of the people whose land we’re occupying? Do you think Iraqi and Afghani civilians care about the democracy or regime change or whatever it is we’re allegedly bringing them? Most of the civilians in Afghanistan have said they preferred living under the Taliban than US occupation.
We have troops and bases in around 130 countries. Globalists would argue that this is necessary to maintain our international presence; essentially, to be the world’s police. But would that logic apply if Germany or Italy or Japan or Afghanistan said they needed a base in the United States? What if they needed a base down the street from your home? Or does the necessity of a global military presence only apply to America? Imagine going to bed in fear that soldiers from another country could bust through your door at any moment and kill or detain you. Imagine being shot for simply stepping outside your door while soldiers were raiding your neighbor’s house. What if you were shot and killed for calling someone’s cell phone whose number came up on a hit list? What if you had family that had been killed as “collateral damage”? Would you be understanding since the occupying force said they were there for your benefit?
We revere the colonists of the American Revolution as patriots for defending the homeland against foreign invaders. But for some reason, we never consider ourselves to be invaders even if we have to cross a major ocean to fight our “defensive” wars.
Like Ron Paul said, they don’t hate us because of our freedoms, they hate us because we’re bombing them.
Scott Horton has noted that of the hundreds of small-scale attacks in the US over the last decade (such as the mass shooting at the Pulse Nightclub in 2016, to name just one), never once has the perpetrator said he did it because he hated Americans’ freedoms or ways of life. Always, the killer says he did it because of what our government is doing over there…in Iraq, and Afghanistan, and Yemen, and Pakistan. Obviously this doesn’t justify what these attackers are doing. They are just as bad as what they say they’re fighting against. But it does give us insight into their motives. It’s apparent that we’re not “fighting them over there to avoid fighting them over here.” We’re fighting them over here because we’re fighting them over there. Bin Laden himself cited US occupation of the Persian Gulf and US support for Israel’s occupation of Gaza and the West Bank as the reason he helped orchestrate the September 11 attacks. It should go without saying that simply acknowledging someone’s motives doesn’t condone their behavior. We can admit that bin Laden is a mass murderer and admit that he had an actual, stated motive. If we can’t objectively look at cause-and-effect and move beyond sheer emotionalism and the pounding of war drums, Americans will never be able to affect change when it comes to foreign policy and constant wars.
The war question is the government’s skeleton key. It opens the door to things that wouldn’t be possible without convincing the population that there is always an enemy lurking around the corner. During the Cold War it was Russia, then it became Radical Islamic Terrorists (which, if you recall, are apparently in over sixty countries), and now I think it’s either Russia again or China. Hard to keep up. If you consider the expansion of America’s bureaucracy during every major war, it has never gone back to pre-war levels when the conflict is over. And if the conflict never ends, then it can expand continually. Military brass at the highest levels throughout the Bush, Obama, and now Trump presidencies have pushed for troop increases by as much as 80,000, with an indefinite time commitment. General Petraeus himself said, after almost a decade of failed policy in Afghanistan, “I don’t think you win this war. I think you keep fighting.” And also, “This is the kind of fight we’re in for the rest of our lives and probably our kids’ lives.” In other words, the general that at one time was responsible for our Afghan policy said this war might go on so long that it will require your children to one day fight. It’s never enough for these people. Never enough money, never enough American sons and daughters, never enough time, power, or bloodshed.
The bigger and longer these wars, the more “war powers” needed by our government. No mind the fact that Congress never declared war against Afghanistan or Iraq. Presidents stopped caring about Constitutional process after WWII. As long as the government can keep the masses scared with buzzwords like terrorism, radical Islam, jihad, fatwa, and caliphate, most Americans are all too content to give up their money, liberties, and for some, tragically, their life, in pursuit of an unwinnable goal. We look back on Vietnam and mourn the deaths of sixty thousands Americans in what was an unwinnable war. Why do we think Afghanistan and Iraq are different? If the Soviet Union couldn’t subjugate Afghanistan, why does our government think it can? Wouldn’t seventeen years of conflict, thousands of American casualties, thousands of Afghani civilian casualties, and eighteen changes in command seem to hint at the unwinnableness of this war?
The book of Proverbs says “As a dog returns to his vomit, so a fool repeats his folly.”
It’s also said that a fool is someone who does the same thing over and over again, expecting different results. How many times is our government going to slightly adjust its strategy in Afghanistan and Iraq before we admit they are fools?
Nearly 3,000 Americans were killed on September 11.
Almost 2,500 Americans have been killed in Afghanistan between 2001 and today. (And nearly 4,500 in Iraq between 2003 and 2018).
How is losing more life making up for lost life?
Why is it un-patriotic to favor bringing the troops home, and patriotic to blindly support a war that has led to thousands of our soldiers dying?
We have to take a hard look at our government’s policies in the Middle East and ask some serious questions:
If we went into Afghanistan to run down al-Qaeda, and al-Qaeda was killed or run off by 2002, why are we still in Afghanistan?
If we stayed in Afghanistan to hunt down bin Laden, and he was killed in 2011 (in Pakistan), why are we still in Afghanistan?
If we’re in Afghanistan to establish a democratic government and train their army, and they have a democratic government and a national army, why are we still in Afghanistan?
If our own generals and CIA have admitted that “terrorist math” means one dead terrorist draws two moderates into the radical ranks, why are we still in Afghanistan?
If eighteen generals and trillions of dollars haven’t won “hearts and minds” by now, why are we still in Afghanistan?
If the CIA admits that what we’re doing over there leads to “blowback” over here, why are we still in Afghanistan?
If the war has led to tens of thousands of civilian deaths in Afghanistan, and we’re there supposedly for their benefit, why are we still in Afghanistan?
If Congress never declared war, why are we still in Afghanistan?
If Bush, Obama, and now Trump can’t make headway in this global War on Terror, why are we still in Afghanistan?
At the end of the day, I think the proposition is simple. Our own generals have said that the only way to keep Afghanistan from falling to the Taliban is for us to to stay there forever. If you didn’t know a single thing about our war in Afghanistan, just consider this: are you okay with our government and our military being in Afghanistan for the rest of your life, your children’s lives, and your children’s children’s lives? Will Afghanistan be their Vietnam? Is it your Vietnam? In a hundred years, will Afghanistan replace Vietnam as a euphemism for failed foreign policy? Has militarism become so pervasive and sacrosanct in American culture that we’ll continue to support unethical, unconstitutional wars just to seem patriotic?
Retired Army Colonel Andrew Bacevich (whose son died in Iraq in 2007) has this to say about America’s War on Terror-
“We’ve done counterinsurgency, we’ve done counter-terrorism, we’ve done advise-and-assist, we’ve done targeted assassination, we’ve done nation-building… We have run the gamut of approaches in terms of tactics and methods, and none of them have yielded the success that proponents have argued that we would achieve. So you come back to that basic question, maybe the entire enterprise is misguided.”
We have to ask, why are we still in Afghanistan?
For more on the War in Afghanistan, check out Scott Horton’s recent book called Fool’s Errand: Time to End the War in Afghanistan