We’re already two years past the crystal anniversary and eight years short of the silver one, or at least we would be, had it been a wedding—and, after a fashion, perhaps it was. On October 7, 2001, George W. Bush launchedthe invasion—“liberation” was the word often used then—of Afghanistan. It was the start of the second Afghan War of the era, one that, all these years later, still shows no signs of ending. Though few realized it at the time, the American people married war. Permanent, generational, infinite war is now embedded in the American way of life, while just about the only part of the government guaranteed ever more soaring dollars, no matter what it does with them, is the US military.
This October 7 marked the 17 anniversary of that first of so many still-spreading conflicts. In league with various Afghan warlords, the US military began moving into that country, while its Air Force launched a fierce campaign, dropping large numbers of precision munitions and hundreds of cluster bombs. Those were meant not just for Al Qaeda, the terror outfit that, the previous month, had dispatched its own precision air force—hijacked American commercial jets—to take out iconic buildings in New York and Washington, but the Taliban, a fundamentalist sect that then controlled most of the country. By early 2002, that movement had been ejected from its last provincial capital, while Osama bin Laden had fled into hiding in Pakistan. And so it began.
The 17th anniversary of that invasion passed in the heated aftermath of the Kavanaugh hearings, as the president was rallying his base by endlessly bashing the Democrats as an “angry mob” promoting “mob rule.” So if you weren’t then thinking about Afghanistan, don’t blame yourself. You were in good company.
On October 8th, for instance, the front page of my hometown newspaper had headlines like “Court Showdown Invigorates GOP in Crucial Races” and “20 Dead Upstate as Limo Crashes on Way to Party.” If you were old like me and still reading the paper version of The New York Times, you would have had to make your way to page seven to find out that such an anniversary had even occurred. There, a modest-sized article, headlined “On 17th Anniversary of U.S. Invasion, 54 Are Killed Across Afghanistan,” began this way:
Kabul, Afghanistan: At least 54 people have been killed across Afghanistan in the past 24 hours, according to a tally based on interviews with officials on Sunday—17 years to the day [after] American forces invaded the country to topple the Taliban regime. The violence was a reminder that the war has only raged deadlier with time, taking a toll on both the Afghan security forces and the civilians caught in the crossfire…
And that, really, was that. Little other mention anywhere and no follow-up. No significant commentary or major op-eds. No memorials or ceremonies. No thoughts from Congress. No acknowledgement from the White House.
Yes, 3,546 American and NATO troops had died in those long years (including seven Americans so far in 2018). There have also been Afghan deaths aplenty, certainly tens of thousands of them in a country where significant numbers of people are regularly uprooted and displaced from their homes and lives. And 17 years later, the Taliban controls more of the country than at any moment since 2002; the US-backed Afghan security forces are reportedly taking casualties that may, over the long run, prove unsustainable; provincial capitals have been briefly seized by insurgent forces; civilian deaths, especially of women and children, are at their highest levels in years (as are US and Afghan air strikes); Al Qaeda has grown and spread across significant parts of the Middle East and Africa; a bunch of other terror outfits, including ISIS, are now in Afghanistan; and ISIS, like Al Qaeda (of which it was originally an offshoot), has also franchised itself globally.
(Un)Happy Anniversary indeed!
WEDDED TO WAR
If you consider this the anniversary of a marriage made in hell, then you would also have to think of the war on terror that started in Afghanistan as having had a brood of demon children—the invasion of Iraq being the first of them—and by now possibly even grandchildren. Meanwhile, the first actual American children born after the 9/11 attacks can now join the US military and go fight in… well, Afghanistan, where about 14,000American military personnel, possibly tens of thousands of private contractors, and air power galore (as well as the CIA’s drones) remain active indeed.
And keep in mind that Americans aren’t the only people wedded to war in the 21st century. However, when it comes to the others I have in mind, it’s not a matter of anniversaries ignored, but anniversaries that will never be. Let’s start with a recent barely reported incident in Afghanistan. On October 5, either the US Air Force or the Afghan one that has been armed, trained, and supported by the US military destroyed part of a “wedding procession” in Kandahar Province, reportedly killing four and wounding eight, including women and children. (By the way, on the day of the 17th anniversary of the war, an Afghan air strike reportedly killed 10 children.) We don’t know—and probably never will—which air force was responsible, nor do we know if the bride or groom survived, no less whether they will marry and someday celebrate their 17th anniversary.
Essentially unnoticed here, the destruction of wedding parties by US air power has, in fact, been a relative commonplace in these years of endless war across the Greater Middle East. The first time American air power obliterated a wedding in Afghanistan was in late December 2001. U.S. B-52 and B-1B bombers mistakenly took out much of a village in Paktia Province, killing more than 100 civilians while wedding festivities were underway, an event barely noted in the American media. We do not know if the bride and groom survived. (Imagine, however, the non-stop media attention if a terrorist had attacked a wedding in this country and killed anyone, no less the bride or groom!)
And that’s just what I happen to know about wedding parties in Afghanistan in these years. Don’t forget Iraq either, where in May 2004 US jets attacked a village near the Syrian border filled with people sleeping after a wedding ceremony, killing at least 42 of them, including “27 members of the [family hosting the wedding ceremony], their wedding guests, and even the band of musicians hired to play at the ceremony.” Of that attack, the man who was then commander of the US 1st Marine Division and is now secretary of defense, James “Mad Dog” Mattis, said dismissively, “How many people go to the middle of the desert…to hold a wedding 80 miles from the nearest civilization?”
And don’t forget the 15 or so Yemenis on the way to a wedding in December 2013 who were “mistaken for an al-Qaeda convoy” and taken out by a US drone. As I’ve written elsewhere, since September 11, 2001, we’ve been number one…in obliterating wedding parties. Still, we’ve had some genuine competition in recent years—above all, the Saudis in their brutal American-backed and -supplied air war in Yemen. From an incident in September 2015 in which their missiles killed more than 130 Yemenis at a wedding reception (including the usual women and children) to a strike on a weddingin April of this year that took out the groom, they’ve run a close second to the US. And then there’s ISIS, which, from Afghanistan to Turkey, seems to have a knack of its own for sending its version of a precision air force (suicide bombers) to take out weddings.
All of these, of course, represent anniversaries that will never be, which couldn’t be sadder. In truth, if you live in any of the battle zones of the still-expanding war on terror, you should probably think twice about getting married or at least having a wedding ceremony. Since Americans don’t focus on such moments in our never-ending conflicts, they have no way of seeing them as the heart and soul of the 21st-century American way of war. And of course there’s always the question that General Mattis raised to take into account: What are you going to do with people who insist on getting married in the desert—other than slaughter them?
Only days after the 9/11 attacks, every member of Congress but one voted in favor of the Bush administration’s authorization of military force that opened the way not just for the Afghan invasion, but so much else that followed. The sole no vote came from Representative Barbara Lee (D-CA), who warned that “a rush to launch precipitous military counterattacks runs too great a risk that more innocent men, women, children will be killed.” How right she proved to be.
By now, there is the equivalent of unending “towers” of dead women and children in the Greater Middle East, while millions of Afghans and others have been displaced from their homes and recordmillions more sent fleeing across national boundaries as refugees. That, in turn, has helped fuel the “populist” right in both Europe and the United States, so in a sense, Donald Trump might be said to be one result of the invasion of Afghanistan—of, that is, a 21st-century American push to unsettle the world. Who knows what else (and who else) America’s wars may produce before they end, as they will someday?
Here, however, is one possibility that, at this point, isn’t part of any thinking in this country but perhaps should be. In the wake of America’s first Afghan War (1979–89), the Red Army, the stymied military forces of the other Cold War superpower, the Soviet Union, finally limped out of that “bleeding wound”—as Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev called Afghanistan. They would return to a sapped, fragmenting empire and a country that would implode less than two years later.
In that post-Afghan moment of victory—the end of the Cold War—nothing of the Russian experience was recognized as instructive for the last superpower on planet Earth. Here’s my question, then: What if that first Afghan War was the real-world equivalent of a movie preview? Someday, when the second Afghan War finally ends and the US military limps home from its many imperial adventures abroad as the Red Army once did, will it, too, find an empire on the verge of imploding and a country in deep trouble?
Is that really beyond imagining anymore? And if it were so, wouldn’t that be an anniversary to remember?
Truth to Power & Distressing Portland's Elites
And no kidding, that’s the literal truth when it comes to war, American-style
U.S. Army soldiers from the 2nd Platoon, B battery 2-8 field artillery, fire a howitzer artillery piece at Seprwan Ghar forward fire base in Panjwai district, Kandahar province southern Afghanistan, June 12, 2011. (Photo: Reuters/Baz Ratner)
It may be hard to believe now, but in 1970 the protest song “War,” sung byEdwin Starr, hit number oneon theBillboardHot 100 chart. That was at the height of the Vietnam antiwar movement and the song, written by Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong, became something of a sensation. Even so many years later, who could forget its famed chorus? “War, what is it good for? Absolutely nothing.” Not me. And yet heartfelt as thesongwas then -- “War, it ain't nothing but a heartbreaker. War, it's got one friend, that's the undertaker...” -- it has little resonance in America today.
But here’s the strange thing: in a way its authors and singer could hardly have imagined, in a way we still can’t quite absorb, that chorus has proven eerily prophetic -- in fact, accurate beyond measure in the most literal possible sense. War, what is it good for? Absolutely nothing. You could think of American war in the twenty-first century as anongoing experimentin proving just that point.
Looking back on almost 15 years in which the United States has been engaged in something like permanent war in the Greater Middle East and parts ofAfrica, one thing couldn’t be clearer: the planet’s sole superpower with a military funded and armed like none other and a “defense” budget larger than thenext seven countriescombined (three timesas large as number two spender, China) has managed to accomplish -- again, quite literally -- absolutely nothing, or perhaps (if a slight rewrite of that classic song were allowed) less than nothing.
Unless, of course, you consider an expanding series offailed states, spreading terror movements,wrecked cities, countries hemorrhagingrefugees, and the like as accomplishments. In these years, no goal of Washington -- not a single one -- has been accomplished by war. This has proven true even when, in the first flush of death and destruction, victory or at least success was hailed, as in Afghanistan in 2001 ("YouhelpedAfghanistan liberate itself -- for a second time," Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld to U.S. special operations forces), Iraq in 2003 ("Mission accomplished"), or Libya in 2011 ("We came, we saw, he died," Hillary Clinton on thedeathof autocrat Muammar Gaddafi).
Of all forms of American military might in this period, none may have been more destructive or less effective than air power. U.S. drones, for instance, have killed incessantly in these years, racking upthousandsof dead Pakistanis, Afghans, Iraqis, Yemenis, Syrians, and others,includingtop terrorleadersand their lieutenants as well as significant numbers of civilians and evenchildren, and yet the movements they weresent to destroyfrom the top down have onlyproliferated. In a region in which those on the ground are quite literallyhelplessagainst air power, the U.S. Air Force has been repeatedly loosed, from Afghanistan in 2001 to Syria and Iraq today, without challenge and with utter freedom of the skies. Yet, other than dead civilians and militants and a great deal of rubble, the long-term results have been remarkably pitiful.
From all of this no conclusions ever seem to be drawn. Only last week, the Obama administration and the Pentagon again widened their air war against Islamic State militants (as they hadfor weeksbeen suggesting they would),strikinga “suspected Islamic State training camp” in Libya and reportedly killing nearly 50 people, includingtwo kidnappedSerbian embassy staff members and possibly “a militant connected to two deadly attacks last year in neighboring Tunisia.” Again, after almost 15 years of this, we know just where such “successes” lead: to even grimmer, more brutal, more effective terror movements. And yet, the military approach remains the American approachdu jouron any day of the week, any month of the year, in the twenty-first century.
Put another way, for the country that has, like no other on the planet in these years, unleashed its military again and again thousands of miles from its “homeland” in actions ranging from large-scale invasions and occupations to small-scale raids and drone assassination strikes, absolutely nothing has come up roses. From China’s Central Asian border to north Africa, the region that Washington officials began referring to as an “arc of instability” soon after 9/11 and that they hoped togarrisonand dominate forever has only become more unstable, less amenable to American power, and ever more chaotic.
By its very nature, war produces chaos, but in other eras, particularly for great powers, it has also meant influence or dominance and created the basis for reshaping or controlling whole regions. None of this seems in the cards today. It would be reasonable to conclude, however provisionally, from America’s grand military experiment of this century that, no matter the military strength at your command, war no longer translates into power. For Washington, war has somehow been decoupled from its once expected results, no matter what weaponry has been brought to bear or what kind of generalship was exercised.
An Arms Race of One
Given that, sooner or later, the results of any experiment should be taken into account and actions recalibrated accordingly, here’s what’s curious. Just listen to the ferventpledgesof the presidential candidates in the Republican debates to “rebuild” the U.S. military and you’ll sense the immense pressure in Washington not to recalibrate anything. If you want the definition of a Trumpian bad deal, consider that all of them are eager to pour further staggering sums into preparing for future military endeavors not so different from the present ones. And don’t just blame the Republicans. Such behavior is nowhardwiredinto Washington’s entire political class.
The essential failure of air power in these years has yielded the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, a plane once expected to cost in the$200 billionrange whose price tag is now estimated at a trillion dollarsor more over the course of its lifetime. It will, that is, be themost expensive weapons system in history. Air power's powerlessness to achieve Washington's ends has also yielded thenewly unveiledLong-Range Strike Bomber for which the Pentagon has already made a down payment to Northrop Grumman of $55 billion. (Add in the usual future cost overruns and that sum is expected to crest the$100 billion marklong before the plane is actually built.) Or at the level of planetary destruction, consider the three-decade, trillion-dollar upgrading of the U.S. nuclear arsenal now underway and scheduled to include, among other things, smaller, more accurate“smart” nukes-- that is, first-use weaponry that might indeed be brought to future battlefields.
That none of this fits our world of war today should be -- but isn't -- obvious, at least in Washington. In 2016, not only has military action of just about any sort been decoupled from success of just about any sort, but the unbelievably profitable system of weapons production woven into the fabric of thecapital, thepolitical process,and the country has also been detached from the results of war; the worse we do militarily, that is, the more frenetically and expensively we build.
For the conspiratorial-minded (and I get letters like this regularly atTomDispatch), it's easy enough to see the growing chaos and collapse in the Greater Middle East as purposeful, as what the military-industrial complex desires; nothing, in other words, succeeds (for weapons makers) like failure. The more failed states, the more widespread the terror groups, the greater the need to arm ourselves and, as the planet'sleading arms dealer, others. This is, however, the thinking of outsiders. For the weapons makers and the rest of that complex, failureorsuccess may increasingly be beside the point.
Count on this: were the U.S. now triumphant in an orderly Greater Middle East, the same Republican candidates would still be calling for a build-up of the U.S. military to maintain our victorious stance globally. If you want proof of this, you need only step into your time machine and travel back a quarter-century to the moment the Soviet Union collapsed. Thought of a certain way, that should have been the finale for a long history of arms races among competing great powers. What seemed like the last arms race of all between the two superpowers of the Cold War, the one that brought the planet to thebrink of annihilation, had just ended.
When the Soviet Union imploded and Washington dissolved in a riot of shock and triumphalism, only one imperial force -- “the sole superpower” -- remained. And yet, despite a brief flurry of talk about Americans harvesting a “peace dividend” in a world bereft of major enemies, what continued to be harvested were new weapons systems. An arms race of one rolled right along.
And of course, it goes right on today in an almost unimaginably different world. A quarter century later, militarily speaking, two other nations might be considered great powers. One of them, China, is indeedbuilding upitsmilitaryand acting inmore provocativeways innearby seas. However, not since its disastrous 1979border warwith Vietnam has it used its military outside its own borders in a conflict of any kind.
The Russians are obviously another matter and they alone at this moment seem to be making an imperial success of warfare -- translating, that is, war making into power, prestige, and dominance. In Syria (and possibly also Ukraine), think of that country as experiencing its version of America’s December 2001 Afghanistan or April 2003 Iraq moments, but don’t for a second imagine that it will last. The Russians in Syria have essentially followed the path Washington pioneered in this century, loosing air power, advisers, and proxy forces on an embattled country. Their bombing campaign and that of the allied Syrian air force have been doing in spades what air power generally does: blow away stuff on the ground, includinghospitals, schools, and the like.
Right now, with the Syrian Army and its Iranian and Lebanese helpersadvancingaround the city of Aleppo and elsewhere, everything looks relatively sunny for the Russians (as long as your view is an airborne one), but give it a year, or two or three. Or just ask yourself, what exactly will such “success” translate into, even if a Bashar al-Assad regime regains significant power in a country that, in most senses, has simply ceased to exist? Its cities, after all, are in varying states ofdestruction, a startling11.5%of its people are estimated to have been killed or injured, and a significant portion of the resttransformedinto exiles and refugees (with more beingproducedall the time).
Even if the Islamic State and other rebel and insurgent groups, ranging from those backed by the U.S. to those linked to al-Qaeda, can be “defeated,” what is Russia likely to inherit in the Middle East? What, in far better circumstances, did the U.S. inherit in Afghanistan or Iraq? What horrendous new movements will be born from such a “victory”? It’s a nightmare just to think about.
Keep in mind as well that, unlike the United States, Vladimir Putin’s Russia is no superpower. Despite its superpower-style nuclear arsenal and its great power-ish military, it’s a rickety energy stateshaken bybargain-basement oil prices. Economically, it doesn’t have the luxury of waste that the U.S. has when it comes to military experimentation.
Generally speaking, in these last years, war has meant destruction and nothing but destruction. It’s true that, from the point of view of movements like al-Qaeda and the Islamic State, the chaos of great power war is a godsend. Even if such groups never win a victory in the traditional sense (as the Islamic Statehas), they can’t lose, no matter how many of their leaders and followers are wiped out. In the same way, no matter how many immediate successes Washington has in pursuit of its war on terror, it can’t win (and in the end neither, I suspect, can Russia).
Has War Outlived Its Usefulness?
Relatively early in the post-9/11 presidency of George W. Bush, it became apparent that his top officials had confused military power with power itself. They had come to venerate force and its possible uses in a way that only men who had never been to war possibly could. (Secretary of State Colin Powell was the sole exception to this rule of thumb.) On the U.S. military, they werefundamentalistsand true believers, convinced that unleashing its uniquely destructive capabilities would open the royal road to control of the Greater Middle East and possibly the planet as well.
About this -- and themselves -- they were supremely confident. As an unnamed “senior adviser” to the president (later identified as Bush confidant Karl Rove)toldjournalist Ron Suskind, “We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality -- judiciously, as you will -- we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors... and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”
Ever since then, no small thanks to the military-industrial complex, military power has remained the option of choice even when it became clear that it could not produce a minimalist version of what the Bush crew hoped for. Consider it something of an irony, then, that the U.S. may still be the lone superpower on the planet. In a period when military power of the first order doesn’t seem to translate into a thing of value, American economic (and cultural) power still does. The realm of the dollar, not the F-35, still rules the planet.
So here’s a thought for the songwriters among you: Could it be that war has in the most literal sense outlived its usefulness, at least for the United States? Could it be that the nature of war -- possibly any war, but certainly the highly mechanized, high-tech, top-dollar form that the United States fights -- is now all unintended and no intended consequences? Do we need another Edwin Starr singing a new song about what war isn’t good for, but with the same punch line?
In fact, give it a try yourself. Say it with me: Absolutely nothing.
One more time and really hit that “nothing”: Absolutelynothing!