Or How to Fight a War of Ultimate Repetitiousness
by Tom Engelhardt
Fair warning. Stop reading right now if you want, because I’m going to repeat myself. What choice do I have, since my subject is the Afghan War (America’s second Afghan War, no less)? I began writing about that war in October 2001, almost 17 years ago, just after the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan. That was how I inadvertently launched the unnamed listserv that would, a year later, become TomDispatch. Given the website’s continuing focus on America’s forever wars (a phrase I first used in 2010), what choice have I had but to write about Afghanistan ever since?
So think of this as the war piece to end all war pieces. And let the repetition begin!
Here, for instance, is what I wrote about our Afghan War in 2008, almost seven years after it began, when the U.S. Air Force took out a bridal party, including the bride herself and at least 26 other women and children en route to an Afghan wedding. And that would be just one of eight U.S. wedding strikes I toted up by the end of 2013 in three countries, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Yemen, that killed almost 300 potential revelers. “We have become a nation of wedding crashers,” I wrote, “the uninvited guests who arrived under false pretenses, tore up the place, offered nary an apology, and refused to go home.”
Here’s what I wrote about Afghanistan in 2009, while considering the metrics of “a war gone to hell”: “While Americans argue feverishly and angrily over what kind of money, if any, to put into health care, or decaying infrastructure, or other key places of need, until recently just about no one in the mainstream raised a peep about the fact that, for nearly eight years (not to say much of the last three decades), we’ve been pouring billions of dollars, American military know-how, and American lives into a black hole in Afghanistan that is, at least in significant part, of our own creation.”
Here’s what I wrote in 2010, thinking about how “forever war” had entered the bloodstream of the twenty-first-century U.S. military (in a passage in which you’ll notice a name that became more familiar in the Trump era): “And let’s not leave out the Army’s incessant planning for the distant future embodied in a recently published report, ‘Operating Concept, 2016-2028,’ overseen by Brigadier General H.R. McMaster, a senior adviser to Gen. David Petraeus. It opts to ditch ‘Buck Rogers’ visions of futuristic war, and instead to imagine counterinsurgency operations, grimly referred to as ‘wars of exhaustion,’ in one, two, many Afghanistans to the distant horizon.”
Here’s what I wrote in 2012, when Afghanistan had superseded Vietnam as the longest war in American history: “Washington has gotten itself into a situation on the Eurasian mainland so vexing and perplexing that Vietnam has finally been left in the dust. In fact, if you hadn’t noticed — and weirdly enough no one has — that former war finally seems to have all but vanished.”
Here’s what I wrote in 2015, thinking about the American taxpayer dollars that had, in the preceding years, gone into Afghan “roads to nowhere, ghost soldiers, and a $43 million gas station” built in the middle of nowhere, rather than into this country: “Clearly, Washington had gone to war like a drunk on a bender, while the domestic infrastructure began to fray. At $109 billion by 2014, the American reconstruction program in Afghanistan was already, in today’s dollars, larger than the Marshall Plan (which helped put all of devastated Western Europe back on its feet after World War II) and still the country was a shambles.”
And here’s what I wrote last year thinking about the nature of our never-ending war there: “Right now, Washington is whistling past the graveyard. In Afghanistan and Pakistan the question is no longer whether the U.S. is in command, but whether it can get out in time. If not, the Russians, the Chinese, the Iranians, the Indians, who exactly will ride to our rescue? Perhaps it would be more prudent to stop hanging out in graveyards. They are, after all, meant for burials, not resurrections.”
And that’s just to dip a toe into my writings on America’s all-time most never-ending war.
What Happened After History Ended
If, at this point, you’re still reading, I consider it a miracle. After all, most Americans hardly seem to notice that the war in Afghanistan is still going on. To the extent that they’re paying attention at all, the public would, it seems, like U.S. troops to come home and the war to end.
That conflict, however, simply stumbles on amid continuing bad news with nary a soul in the streets to protest it. The longer it goes on, the less — here in this country at least — it seems to be happening (if, that is, you aren’t one of the 15,000 American troops stationed there or among their families and friends or the vets, their families and friends, who have been gravely damaged by their tours of duty in Kabul and beyond).
And if you’re being honest, can you really blame the public for losing interest in a war that they largely no longer fight, a war that they’re in no way called on to support (other than to idolize the troops who do fight it), a war that they’re in no way mobilized for or against? In the age of the Internet, who has an attention span of 17 years, especially when the president just tweeted out his 47th outrageous comment of the week?
If you stop to think about it between those tweets, don’t you find it just a tad grim that, close enough to two decades later, this country is still fighting fruitlessly in a land once known by the ominous sobriquet “the graveyard of empires”? You know, the one whose tribal fighters outlasted Alexander the Great, the Mongols, the British, and the Russians.
Back in October 2001, you might have thought that the history lurking in that phrase would have given George W. Bush’s top officials pause before they decided to go after not just Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda in Afghanistan but the Taliban, too. No such luck, of course — then or since.
They were, of course, leading the planet’s last superpower, the only one left when the Soviet Union imploded after its Afghan war disaster, the one its leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, grimly dubbed “the bleeding wound.” They hadn’t the slightest doubt that the United States was exempt from history, that everyone else had already filled that proverbial graveyard and that there would never be a gravestone for them. After all, the U.S. was still standing, seemingly triumphant, when history officially “ended” (according to one of the neocon prophets of that moment).
In reality, when it comes to America’s spreading wars, especially the one in Afghanistan, history didn’t end at all. It just stumbled onto some graveyard version of a Möbius strip. In contrast to the past empires that found they ultimately couldn’t defeat Afghanistan’s insurgent tribal warriors, the U.S. has — as Bush administration officials suspected at the time — proven unique. Just not in the way they imagined.
Their dreams couldn’t have been more ambitious. As they launched the invasion of Afghanistan, they were already looking past the triumph to come to Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and the glories that would follow once his regime had been “decapitated,” once U.S. forces, the most technologically advanced ever, were stationed for an eternity in the heart of the oil heartlands of the Greater Middle East. Not that anyone remembers anymore, but Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, Douglas Feith, and the rest of that crew of geopolitical dreamers wanted it all.
What they got was no less unique in history: a great power at the seeming height of its strength and glory, with destructive capabilities beyond imagining and a military unmatched on the planet, unable to score a single decisive victory across an increasingly large swath of the planet or impose its will, however brutally, on seemingly far weaker, less well-armed opponents. They could not conquer, subdue, control, pacify, or win the hearts and minds or anything else of enemies who often fought their trillion-dollar foe using weaponry valued at the price of a pizza. Talk about bleeding wounds!
A War of Abysmal Repetition
Thought of another way, the U.S. military is now heading into record territory in Afghanistan. In the mid-1970s, the rare American who had heard of that country knew it only as a stop on the hippie trail. If you had then told anyone here that, by 2018, the U.S. would have been at war there for 27 years (1979-1989 and 2001-2018), he or she would have laughed in your face. And yet here we are, approaching the mark for one of Europe’s longest, most brutal struggles, the Thirty Years’ War of the seventeenth century. Imagine that.
And just in case you’re paying no attention at all to the news from Afghanistan these days, rest assured that you don’t have to. You already know it!
To offer just a few examples, the New York Times recently revealed a new Trump administration plan to get U.S.-backed Afghan troops to withdraw from parts of the countryside, ceding yet more territory to the Taliban, to better guard the nation’s cities. Here was the headline used: “Newest U.S. Strategy in Afghanistan Mirrors Past Plans for Retreat.” (“The withdrawal resembles strategies embraced by both the Bush and Obama administrations that have started and stuttered over the nearly 17-year war.”) And that generally is about as new as it gets when it comes to Afghan news in 2018.
Consider, for instance, a report from early July that began, “An American service member was killed and two others were wounded in southern Afghanistan on Saturday in what officials described as an ‘apparent insider attack’”; that is, he was killed by an armed Afghan government soldier, an ally, not an enemy. As it happened, I was writing about just such “insider” or “green-on-blue” violence back in July 2012 (when it was rampant) under the headline “Death by Ally” (“a message written in blood that no one wants to hear”). And despite many steps taken to protect U.S. advisers and other personnel from such attacks since, they’re still happening six years later.
Or consider the report, “Counternarcotics: Lessons from the U.S. Experience in Afghanistan,” issued this June by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan (SIGAR). Its focus: 15 years of American efforts to suppress opium growing and the heroin trade in that country (at historic lows, by the way, when the U.S. invaded in 2001). More than eight and a half billion American dollars later, SIGAR found, opium remains the country’s largest cash crop, supporting “590,000 full-time jobs — which is more people than are employed by Afghanistan’s military and security forces.” Oh, wait, historian Alfred McCoy was writing about just that at TomDispatch back in 2010 under the headline “Can Anyone Pacify the World’s Number One Narco-State?” (“In ways that have escaped most observers, the Obama administration is now trapped in an endless cycle of drugs and death in Afghanistan from which there is neither an easy end nor an obvious exit.”)
Recently, SIGAR issued another report, this one on the rampant corruption inside just about every part of the Afghan government and its security forces, which are famously filled with scads of “ghost soldiers.” How timely, given that Ann Jones was focused on that very subject, endemic corruption in Afghanistan, at TomDispatch back in… hmmm, 2006, when she wrote, “During the last five years, the U.S. and many other donor nations pledged billions of dollars to Afghanistan, yet Afghans keep asking: ‘Where did the money go?’ American taxpayers should be asking the same question. The official answer is that donor funds are lost to Afghan corruption. But shady Afghans, accustomed to two-bit bribes, are learning how big-bucks corruption really works from the masters of the world.”
I could, of course, go on to discuss “surges” — the latest being the Trump administration’s mini-one to bring U.S. troop levels there to 15,000 — such surges having been a dime-a-dozen phenomena in these many years. Or the recent ramping up of the air war there (essentially reported with the same headlines you could have found over articles in… well… 2010) or the amount of territory the Taliban now controls (at record levels 17 years after that crew was pushed out of the last Afghan city they controlled), but why go on? You get the point.
Almost 17 years and, coincidentally enough, 17 U.S. commanders later, think of it as a war of abysmal repetition. Just about everything in the U.S. manual of military tactics has evidently been tried (including dropping “the mother of all bombs,” the largest non-nuclear munition in that military’s arsenal), often time and again, and nothing has even faintly done the trick — to which the Pentagon’s response is invariably a version of the classic misquoted movie line, “Play it again, Sam.”
And yet, amid all that repetition, people are still dying; Afghans and others are being uprooted and displaced across Asia, South Asia, the Middle East, and deep into Africa; wars and terror outfits are spreading. And here’s a simple enough fact that’s worth repeating: the endless, painfully ignored failure of the U.S. military (and civilian) effort in Afghanistan is where it all began and where it seems never to end.
A Victory for Whom?
Every now and then, there’s the odd bit of news that reminds you we don’t have to be in a world of repetition. Every now and then, you see something and wonder whether it might not represent a new development, one that possibly could lead out of (or far deeper into) the graveyard of empires.
As a start, though it’s been easy to forget in these years, other countries are affected by the ongoing disaster of a war in Afghanistan. Think, for instance, of Pakistan (with a newly elected, somewhat Trumpian president who has been a critic of America’s Afghan War and of U.S. drone strikes in his country), Iran, China, and Russia. So here’s something I can’t remember seeing in the news before: the military intelligence chiefs of those four countries all met recently in Islamabad, the Pakistani capital, officially to discuss the growth of Islamic State-branded insurgents in Afghanistan. But who knows what was really being discussed? And the same applies to the visit of Iran’s armed forces chief of staff to Pakistan in July and the return visit of that country’s chief of staff to Iran in early August. I can’t tell you what’s going on, only that these are not the typically repetitive stories of the last 17 years.
And hard as it might be to believe, even when it comes to U.S. policy, there’s been the odd headline that might pass for new. Take the recent private, direct talks with the Taliban in Qatar’s capital, Doha, initiated by the Trump administration and seemingly ongoing. They might — or might not — represent something new, as might President Trump himself, who, as far as anyone can tell, doesn’t think that Afghanistan is “the right war.” He has, from time to time, even indicated that he might be in favor of ending the American role, of “getting the hell out of there,” as he reportedly told Senator Rand Paul, and that’s unique in itself (though he and his advisers seem to be raring to go when it comes to what could be the next Afghanistan: Iran).
But should the man who would never want to be known as the president who lost the longest war in American history try to follow through on a withdrawal plan, he’s likely to have a few problems on his hands. Above all, the Pentagon and the country’s field commanders seem to be hooked on America’s “infinite” wars. They exhibit not the slightest urge to stop them. The Afghan War and the others that have flowed from it represent both their raison d’être and their meal ticket. They represent the only thing the U.S. military knows how to do in this century. And one thing is guaranteed: if they don’t agree with the president on a withdrawal strategy, they have the power and ability to make a man who would do anything to avoid marring his own image as a winnner look worse than you could possibly imagine. Despite that military’s supposedly apolitical role in this country’s affairs, its leaders are uniquely capable of blocking any attempt to end the Afghan War.
And with that in mind, almost 17 years later, don’t think that victory is out of the question either. Every day that the U.S. military stays in Afghanistan is indeed a victory for… well, not George W. Bush, or Barack Obama, and certainly not Donald Trump, but the now long-dead Osama bin Laden. The calculation couldn’t be simpler. Thanks to his “precision” weaponry — those 19 suicidal hijackers in commercial jets — the nearly 17 years of wars he’s sparked across much of the Muslim world cost a man from one of Saudi Arabia’s wealthiest families a mere $400,000 to $500,000. They’ve cost American taxpayers, minimally, $5.6 trillion dollars with no end in sight. And every day the Afghan War and the others that have followed from it continue is but another triumphant day for him and his followers.
A sad footnote to this history of extreme repetition: I wish this essay, as its title suggests, were indeed the war piece to end all war pieces. Unfortunately, it’s a reasonable bet that, in August 2019, or August 2020, not to speak of August 2021, I’ll be repeating all of this yet again.