This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com.
Shoulda, Woulda, Coulda: The U.S. Military Bombs in the Twenty-First Century
Here's my twenty-first-century rule of thumb about this country: if you have to say it over and over, it probably ain't so. Which is why I'd think twice every time we're told how "exceptional" or "indispensable" the United States is. For someone like me who can still remember a moment when Americans assumed that was so, but no sitting president, presidential candidate, or politician felt you had to say the obvious, such lines reverberate with defensiveness. They seem to incorporate other voices you can almost hear whispering that we're ever less exceptional, more dispensable, no longer (to quote the greatest of them all by his own estimate) "the greatest." In this vein, consider a commonplace line running around Washington (as it has for years): the U.S. military is "the finest fighting force in the history of the world." Uh, folks, if that's so, then why the hell can't it win a damn thing 14-plus years later?
If you don't mind a little what-if history lesson, it's just possible that events might have turned out differently and, instead of repeating that "finest fighting force" stuff endlessly, our leaders might actually believe it. After all, in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, it took the Bush administration only a month to let the CIA, special forces advisers, and the U.S. Air Force loose against the Taliban and Osama bin Laden's supporters in Afghanistan. The results were crushing. The first moments of what that administration would grandiloquently (and ominously) bill as a "global war on terror" were, destructively speaking, glorious.
If you want to get a sense of just how crushing those forces and their Afghan proxies were, read journalist Anand Gopal's No Good Men Among the Living: America, the Taliban, and the War Through Afghan Eyes, the best book yet written on how (and how quickly) that war on terror went desperately, disastrously awry. One of the Afghans Gopal spent time with was a Taliban military commander nicknamed -- for his whip of choice -- Mullah Cable, who offered a riveting account of just how decisive the U.S. air assault on that movement was. In recalling his days on the front lines of what, until then, had been an Afghan civil war, he described his first look at what American bombs could do:
"He drove into the basin and turned the corner and then stepped out of the vehicle. Oh my God, he thought. There were headless torsos and torso-less arms, cooked slivers of scalp and flayed skin. The stones were crimson, the sand ocher from all the blood. Coal-black lumps of melted steel and plastic marked the remains of his friends' vehicles.
"Closing his eyes, he steadied himself. In the five years of fighting he had seen his share of death, but never lives disposed of so easily, so completely, so mercilessly, in mere seconds."
The next day, he addressed his men. "Go home," he said. "Get yourselves away from here. Don't contact each other."
"Not a soul," writes Gopal, "protested."
Mullah Cable took his own advice and headed for Kabul, the Afghan capital. "If he somehow could make it out alive, he promised himself that he would abandon politics forever." And he was typical. As Gopal reports, the Taliban quickly broke under the strain of war with the last superpower on the planet. Its foot soldiers put down their arms and, like Mullah Cable, fled for home. Its leaders began to try to surrender. In Afghan fashion, they were ready to go back to their native villages, make peace, shuffle their allegiances, and hope for better times. Within a couple of months, in other words, it was, or at least shoulda, woulda, coulda been all over, even the shouting.
The U.S. military and its Afghan proxies, if you remember, believed that they had trapped Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaeda fighters somewhere in the mountainous Tora Bora region. If the U.S. had concentrated all its resources on him at that moment, it's hard to believe that he wouldn't have been in American custody or dead sooner rather than later. And that would have been that. The U.S. military could have gone home victorious. The Taliban, along with bin Laden, would have been history. Stop the cameras there and what a tale of triumph would surely have been told.
Shoulda, woulda, coulda.
Keeping the Cameras Rolling
There was, of course, a catch. Like their Bush administration mentors, the American military men who arrived in Afghanistan were determined to fight that global war on terror forever and a day. So, as Gopal reports, they essentially refused to let the Taliban surrender. They hounded that movement's leaders and fighters until they had little choice but to pick up their guns again and, in the phrase of the moment, "go back to work."
It was a time of triumph and of Guanta'namo , and it went to everyone's head. Among those in power in Washington and those running the military, who didn't believe that a set of genuine global triumphs lay in store? With such a fighting force, such awesome destructive power, how could it not? And so, in Afghanistan, the American counterterror types kept right on targeting the "terrorists" whenever their Afghan warlord allies pointed them out -- and if many of them turned out to be local enemies of those same rising warlords, who cared?
It would be the first, but hardly the last time that, in killing significant numbers of people, the U.S. military had a hand in creating its own future enemies. In the process, the Americans managed to revive the very movement they had crushed and which, so many years later, is at the edge of seizing a dominant military position in the country.