Almost 20 years after the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, as the Taliban takes district after district, withdrawing American troops are discarding vast piles of junk on bases they are now abandoning. In the process, the war on terror has become a retreat of terror, leaving behind horrified Afghans in a wrecked land. Now, as some of those troops actually return to the U.S. (minus the 650 still "guarding the embassy" in Kabul and another few hundred on call at that city's airport), what exactly are they coming home to?
After all, Afghanistan didn't get its nickname, "the graveyard of empires," for nothing. In 1989, if you remember, when the Red Army finally limped home after its Afghan fiasco from what its leader had by then begun calling its "bleeding wound" it was returning to a Soviet Union only two years from implosion. For the American troops now "coming home" (that's in quotes because some of them will undoubtedly be reshuffled elsewhere in the Greater Middle East), they probably won't come back to a total implosion two years from now. After all, the U.S. remains richer and more powerful than the Soviets ever were. Still, they'll certainly return to a land of staggering inequality whose political system seems to be cratering. And don't think that our never-ending wars of this century and the untold trillions of taxpayer dollars poured into them didn't play a role in the arrival of Donald Trump in the White House or the creation of an ever less functional political system seemingly at war with itself.
Today, TomDispatch regular, military spouse, and co-founder of the Costs of War Project Andrea Mazzarino offers an up-close-and-personal look at this country's "bleeding wounds" I make that phrase plural because, unlike the Soviets, in these years we've been fighting from Iraq to Somalia, Yemen to Libya. When you think about it, it's quite a remarkable record of failed war. Tom
Who Authorized America's Wars?
And Why They Never End
Sometimes, as I consider America's never-ending wars of this century, I can't help thinking of those lyrics from the Edwin Starr song, "(War, huh) Yeah! (What is it good for?) Absolutely nothing!" I mean, remind me, what good have those disastrous, failed, still largely ongoing conflicts done for this country? Or for you? Or for me?
For years and years, what came to be known as America's "war on terror" (and later just its "forever wars") enjoyed remarkable bipartisan support in Congress, not to say the country at large. Over nearly two decades, four presidents from both parties haven't hesitated to exercise their power to involve our military in all sorts of ways in at least 85 countries around the world in the name of defeating "terrorism" or "violent extremism." Such interventions have included air strikes against armed groups in seven countries, direct combat against such groups in 12 countries, military exercises in 41 countries, and training or assistance to local military, police, or border patrol units in 79 countries. And that's not even to mention the staggering number of U.S. military bases around the world where counterterrorism operations can be conducted, the massive arms sales to foreign governments, or all the additional deployments of this country's Special Operations forces.
Providing the thinnest of legal foundations for all of this have been two ancient acts of Congress. The first was the authorization for the use of military force (AUMF) that allowed the president to act against "those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons." It led, of course, to the disastrous war in Afghanistan. It was passed in the week after those attacks on New York City and Washington, D.C. That bill's lone opponent in the House, Representative Barbara Lee (D-CA), faced death threats from the public for her vote, though she stood by it, fearing all too correctly that such a law would sanction endless wars abroad (as, of course, it did).
The second AUMF passed on October 15, 2002, by a 77-23 vote in the Senate. Under the false rationale that Saddam Hussein's Iraq harbored weapons of mass destruction (it didn't), that AUMF gave President George W. Bush and his crew a green light to invade Iraq and topple its regime. Last month, the House finally voted 268-161 (including 49 Republican yes votes) to repeal the second of those authorizations.
Thinking back to when America's "forever wars" first began, it's hard to imagine how we could still be fighting in Iraq and Syria under the same loose justification of a war on terror almost two decades later or that the 2001 AUMF, untouched by Congress, still stands, providing the fourth president since the war on terror began with an excuse for actions of all sorts.
I remember watching in March 2003 from my home in northern California as news stations broadcast bombs going off over Baghdad. I'd previously attended protests around San Francisco, shouting my lungs out about the potentially disastrous consequences of invading a country based on what, even then, seemed like an obvious lie. Meanwhile, little did I know that the Afghan War authorization I had indeed supported, as a way to liberate the women of that country and create a democracy from an abusive state, would still be disastrously ongoing nearly 20 years later.
Nor did I imagine that, in 2011, having grasped my mistake when it came to the Afghan War, I would co-found Brown University's Costs of War Project; nor that, about a decade into that war, I would be treating war-traumatized veterans and their families as a psychotherapist, even as I became the spouse of a Navy submariner. I would spend the second decade of the war on terror shepherding my husband and our two young children through four military moves and countless deployments, our lives breathless and harried by the outlandish pace of the disastrous forever (and increasingly wherever) wars that had come to define America's global presence in the twenty-first century.
Amid all the talk about Joe Biden's Afghan withdrawal decision which came "from the gut," according to an official close to the president, it's easy to forget that this country continues to fight some of those very same wars.
What Keeps Us Safe?
Take, for example, late last month when President Biden ordered "defensive" airstrikes in Iraq and Syria against reportedly Iran-backed Iraqi militia groups. Those groups were thought to be responsible for a series of at least five drone attacks on weapons storage and operational bases used by U.S. troops in Iraq and Syria. The June American air strikes supposedly killed four militia members, though there have been reports that one hit a housing complex, killing a child and wounding three other civilians (something that has yet to be verified). An unnamed "senior administration official" explained: "We have a responsibility to demonstrate that attacking Americans carries consequences, and that is true whether or not those attacks inflict casualties." He did not, however, explain what those American troops were doing in the first place at bases in Iraq and Syria.
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