17 Years of War (and More to Come)
By Tom Engelhardt
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 launched the 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 U.S. military.
This October 7th marked the 17th anniversary of that first of so many still-spreading conflicts. In league with various Afghan warlords, the U.S. 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 G.O.P. 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 U.S.-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 U.S. 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.
In other words, 17 years later, what was once known as the Global War on Terror and is now a set of conflicts that no one here even bothers to name has only grown worse. Meanwhile, the military that American presidents repeatedly hailed as the greatest fighting force in history continues to battle fruitlessly across a vast swath of the planet. Afghanistan, of course, remains America's "longest war," as articles regularly acknowledged some years ago. These days, however, it has become so eternal that it has evidently outgrown the label "longest."
(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 U.S. military and go fight in... well, Afghanistan, where about 14,000 American 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 twenty-first 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 5th, either the U.S. Air Force or the Afghan one that has been armed, trained, and supported by the U.S. 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.
All we know and probably will ever know is that, in the melee that is still Afghanistan, the obliteration of that wedding procession was just one more scarcely noted, remarkably repetitive little nightmare to which Americans will pay no attention whatsoever. Admittedly, when directly asked by pollsters 17 years later, a near majority of them (49%) do think that U.S. goals still remain unmet in that country and, according to other recent polls, somewhere between 61% and 69% of Americans would support the withdrawal of all U.S. forces there. That, however, is anything but a stunning figure given that, in 2011, a Washington Post-ABC News poll indicated that two-thirds of Americans believed the Afghan war "no longer worth fighting." Evidently it's now simply no longer worth giving a moment's thought to.
Essentially unnoticed here, the destruction of wedding parties by U.S. 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!)
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