It started with three air strikes on September 11, 2001. The fourth plane, heading perhaps for the Capitol (a building that wouldn't be targeted again until last January 6th), ended up in a field in Pennsylvania. Those three strikes led to an American invasion of Afghanistan, beginning this country's second war there in the last half-century. Almost 20 years later, according to the New York Times, there have been more than 13,000 U.S. air strikes in Afghanistan. Call that payback after a fashion. There's only one problem: the greatest military on the planet, with a budget larger than that of the next 10 countries combined, has visibly lost its war there and is now in full-scale retreat. It may not be withdrawing the last of its forces on May 1st, as the Trump administration had agreed to do, but despite the pressure of the American military high command, President Biden "overrode the brass" and announced that every last American soldier would be gone by the 20th anniversary of those first airstrikes against the Pentagon and the World Trade Center.
At this late date, consider it grimly fascinating that the generals who all those years kept claiming that "corners" were being turned and "progress" made, that we were "on the road to winning" in Afghanistan, as the present Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Mark Milley insisted back in 2013, simply can't let go of one of their great failures and move on. Under the circumstances, don't for a second assume that the American war in Afghanistan is truly over. For one thing, the Taliban have not yet agreed to the new withdrawal date, as they did to the May 1st one. Instead, some of its commanders are promising a "nightmare" for U.S. troops in the months to come. Were they, for instance, to attack an air base and kill some American soldiers, who knows what the reaction here might be?
In addition, the Pentagon high command and this country's intelligence agencies are still planning for possibly making war on Afghanistan from a distance in order to "prevent the country from again becoming a terrorist base." As Eric Schmitt and Helene Cooper of the New York Times reported recently, "Planners at the military's Central Command in Tampa, Fla., and Joint Staff in Washington have been developing options to offset the loss of American combat boots on the ground."
In other words, the American war in Afghanistan may be ending but, as with so much else about that endless experience, even the finale is still up for grabs. In that context, consider the thoughts of TomDispatch regular Rajan Menon on what has, without any doubt, been the American war from hell of this century. Tom
The Graveyard of Empires Redux
America's Ruinous Pursuit of Mission Impossible in Afghanistan
By Rajan Menon
On May 1st, the date Donald Trump signed onto for the withdrawal of the remaining 3,500 American troops from Afghanistan, the war there, already 19 years old, was still officially a teenager. Think of September 11, 2021 the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks and the date Joe Biden has chosen for the same as, in essence, the very moment when its teenage years will be over.
In all that time, Washington has been fighting what, in reality, should have been considered a fantasy war, a mission impossible in that country, however grim and bloody, based on fantasy expectations and fantasy calculations, few of which seem to have been stanched in Washington even so many years later. Not surprisingly, Biden's decision evoked the predictable reactions in that city. The military high command's never-ending urge to stick with a failed war was complemented by the inside-the-Beltway Blob's doomsday scenarios and tired nostrums.
The latter began the day before the president even went public when, in a major opinion piece, the Washington Post's editorial board distilled the predictable platitudes to come: such a full-scale military exit, they claimed, would deprive Washington of all diplomatic influence and convince the Taliban that it could jettison its talks with President Ashraf Ghani's demoralized U.S.-backed government and fight its way to power. A Taliban triumph would, in turn, eviscerate democracy and civil society, leaving rights gained by women and minorities in these years in the dust, and so destroy everything the U.S. had fought for since October 2001.
By this September, of course, 775,000-plus Americans soldiers will have served in Afghanistan (a few of them the children of those who had served early in the war). More than a fifth of them would endure at least three tours of duty there! Suffice it to say that most of the armchair generals who tend to adorn establishment think tanks haven't faced such hardships.
In 2010 and 2011, the Obama surge would deploy as many as 100,000 U.S. troops to Afghanistan. The Pentagon states that, as of this month, 2,312 American soldiers have died there (80% killed in action) and 20,666 have been injured. Then there's the toll taken on vets of that never-ending war thanks to PTSD, suicide, and substance abuse. Military families apart, however, much of the American public has been remarkably untouched by the war, since there's no longer a draft and Uncle Sam borrowed money, rather than raising taxes, to foot the $2.26 trillion bill. As a result, the forever war dragged on, consuming blood and treasure without any Vietnam War-style protests.
Not surprisingly, most Americans know even less about the numbers of Afghan civilians killed and wounded in these years. Since 2002, at least 47,000 non-combatants have been killed and another 43,000 injured, whether by airstrikes, artillery fire, shootings, improvised explosive devices, or suicide and car bombings. A 2020 U.N. report on civilian casualties in Afghanistan notes that 2019 was the sixth straight year in which 10,000 civilians were killed or wounded. And this carnage has occurred in one of the world's poorest countries, which ranks 187th in per-capita income, where the death or incapacitation of an adult male (normally the primary breadwinner in a rural Afghan home) can tip already-poor families into destitution.
So how, then, can the calls to persevere make sense? Seek and you won't find a persuasive answer. Consider the most notable recent attempt to provide one, the Afghanistan Study Group report, written by an ensemble of ex-officials, retired generals, and think-tank luminaries, not a few of them tied to big weapons-producing companies. Released with significant fanfare in February, it offered no substantive proposals for attaining goals that have been sought for 19 years, including a stable democracy with fair elections, a free press, an unfettered civil society, and equal rights for all Afghans all premised on a political settlement between the U.S.-backed government and the Taliban.
Still Standing After All These Years
Now, consider Afghanistan's bedrock reality: the Taliban, which has battled the world's most fearsome military machine for two decades, remains standing, and continues to expand its control in rural areas. The U.S., its NATO allies, and the Afghanistan National Security and Defense Forces have indeed killed some 50,000 Taliban fighters over the years, including, in 2016, its foremost leader Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansoor. In 2019-2020 alone, several senior commanders, also members of the Taliban's shadow government, were killed, including the "governors" of Badakshan, Farah, Logar, Samangan, and Wardak provinces. Yet the Taliban, whose roots lie among the Pashtun, the country's historically dominant ethnic group, have managed to replenish their ranks, procure new weapons and ammunition, and raise money, above all through taxes on opium poppy farming.
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