More than 19 years ago, the U.S. launched the air war that would become the ground invasion and "liberation" of Afghanistan. More than 17 years ago, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld declared "major combat" over in that country with just 8,000 U.S. troops still stationed there. Approximately nine years after that, at the end of an Obama-era "surge," U.S. troop levels would reach around 100,000 (not counting contingents of NATO allies, as well as private contractors, CIA agents, and those involved in the American air war in that country). Today, those troop levels are finally down to 2,500 (plus, of course, those private contractors and that air power, which actually ramped up significantly in the Trump years). That, in other words, is how Donald Trump "ended" the American war in Afghanistan. Those remaining troops are supposed to be gone by May 1, 2021, but don't count on it in the Biden era, since our new president (who, as vice president, had indeed been against the Obama-era troop surge) is seemingly committed to keeping some kind of "counterterror" force in that country.
In any case, 19-plus years after Washington put everything it had into Afghanistan except nuclear weapons (something Donald Trump threatened to do at one point), the Taliban is the very opposite of defeated. As the PBS NewsHour described the situation in an on-screen note introducing a recent report on developments there: "The Taliban is stronger in Afghanistan than at any point since 2001, occupying one-fifth of the country with around 60,000 full-time fighters."
Isn't it strange when you think about it that, other than some antiwar efforts by veterans of those conflicts, Americans have been so little concerned with nearly two decades of constant military failure across the globe for which we've squandered trillions of taxpayer dollars? Worst of all, those "forever wars" show every sign of continuing in the Biden years and possibly beyond, as former Army officer and TomDispatch regular Danny Sjursen, author most recently of Patriotic Dissent: America in the Age of Endless War, explains so vividly (and painfully) today. Sjursen, who has in the past been all too accurate in his expectations about American war-making, offers a little crystal-ball look at what all of us might expect in the next four years from the country that just won't stop fighting and a citizenry that seems as if it could care less. Tom
The Future of War, American-Style
A Bidenesque Tour of America's Regional and Global Military Adventures
Hard as it is to believe in this time of record pandemic deaths, insurrection, and an unprecedented encore impeachment, Joe Biden is now officially at the helm of the U.S. war machine. He is, in other words, the fourth president to oversee America's unending and unsuccessful post-9/11 military campaigns. In terms of active U.S. combat, that's only happened once before, in the Philippines, America's second-longest (if often forgotten) overseas combat campaign.
Yet that conflict was limited to a single Pacific archipelago. Biden inherits a global war and burgeoning new Cold War spanning four continents and a military mired in active operations in dozens of countries, combat in some 14 of them, and bombing in at least seven. That sort of scope has been standard fare for American presidents for almost two decades now. Still, while this country's post-9/11 war presidents have more in common than their partisan divisions might suggest, distinctions do matter, especially at a time when the White House almost unilaterally drives foreign policy.
So, what can we expect from commander-in-chief Biden? In other words, what's the forecast for U.S. service-members who have invested their lives and limbs in future conflict, as well as for the speculators in the military-industrial complex and anxious foreigners in the countries still engulfed in America's war on terror who usually stand to lose it all?
Many Trumpsters, and some libertarians, foresee disaster: that the man who, as a leading senator facilitated and cheered on the disastrous Iraq War, will surely escalate American adventurism abroad. On the other hand, establishment Democrats and most liberals, who are desperately (and understandably) relieved to see Donald Trump go, find that prediction preposterous. Clearly, Biden must have learned from past mistakes, changed his tune, and should responsibly bring U.S. wars to a close, even if at a time still to be determined.
In a sense, both may prove right and in another sense, both wrong. The guess of this long-time war-watcher (and one-time war fighter) reading the tea leaves: expect Biden to both eschew big new wars and avoid fully ending existing ones. At the margins (think Iran), he may improve matters some; in certain rather risky areas (Russian relations, for instance), he could worsen them; but in most cases (the rest of the Greater Middle East, Africa, and China), he's likely to remain squarely on the status-quo spectrum. And mind you, there's nothing reassuring about that.
It hardly requires clairvoyance to offer such guesswork. That's because Biden basically is who he says he is and who he's always been, and the man's simply never been transformational. One need look no further than his long and generally interventionist past record or the nature of his current national-security picks to know that the safe money is on more of the same. Whether the issues are war, race, crime, or economics, Uncle Joe has made a career of bending with the prevailing political winds and it's unlikely this old dog can truly learn any new tricks. Furthermore, he's filled his foreign policy squad with Obama-Clinton retreads, a number of whom were architects of if not the initial Iraq and Afghan debacles then disasters in Libya, Syria, West Africa, Yemen, and the Afghan surge of 2009. In other words, Biden is putting the former arsonists in charge of the forever-war fire brigade.
There's further reason to fear that he may even reject Trump's "If Obama was for it, I'm against it" brand of war-on-terror policy-making and thereby reverse The Donald's very late, very modest troop withdrawals in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Somalia. Yet even if this new old hand of a president evades potentially existential escalation with nuclear Russia or China and offers only an Obama reboot when it comes to persistent low-intensity warfare, what he does will still matter most of all to the global citizens who are too often its victims. So, here's a brief region-by-region flyover tour of what Joe's squad may have in store for both the world and the American military sent to police that world.
The Middle East: Old Prescriptions for Old Business
It's increasingly clear that Washington's legacy wars in the Greater Middle East Iraq and Afghanistan, in particular are generally no longer on the public's radar. Enter an elected old man who's charged with handling old business that, at least to most civilians, is old news. Odds are that Biden's ancient tricks will amount to safe bets in a region that past U.S. policies essentially destroyed. Joe is likely to take a middle path in the region between large-scale military intervention of the Bush or Obama kind and more prudent full-scale withdrawal.
As a result, such wars will probably drag on just below the threshold of American public awareness, while avoiding Pentagon or partisan charges that his version of cutting-and-running endangered U.S. security. The prospect of "victory" won't even factor into the equation (after all, Biden's squad members aren't stupid), but political survival certainly will. Here's what such a Biden-era future might then look like in a few such sub-theaters.
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