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Tomgram: Nick Turse, America's Plans to "Win" the Afghan War

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This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

Next August 6th and 9th will be the 75th anniversaries of the devastating U.S. atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. To this day, they remain the only wartime uses of nuclear weapons. Given the giant arsenals developed by the superpowers of the Cold War era (growing again in the twenty-first century) and the spread of such weaponry to a range of countries, including India, Israel, North Korea, and Pakistan, that should be considered a small miracle. Since 1945, there have been conflicts and near-conflicts involving nuclear powers, including, of course, the Cuban Missile Crisis. So count your blessings, especially since we now know that a "limited" regional nuclear war between India and Pakistan, two countries often at each other's throats, could create nuclear-winter conditions across the planet, possibly causing up to two billion deaths worldwide.

The question for 2020: Could this strange record be broken by an increasingly fiery and furious president with a special appreciation for the kinds of incendiary power he grew up with in the 1950s, whether of the fossil-fuelized or nuclear variety? After all, in addition to the open nuclear threats he's made, his administration has already torn up a crucial Cold-War-era nuclear treaty, while launching weapons tests once banned by it, and is now considering more of the same.

Of course, in the nuclear age, Donald Trump is hardly the first president to imagine that threats of nuclear war might enhance his foreign policy. Take Richard Nixon in the middle of the Vietnam War. As he explained to White House Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman in 1968:

"I call it the madman theory. I want the North Vietnamese to believe I've reached the point where I might do anything to stop the war. We'll just slip the word to them that, 'For God's sake, you know Nixon is obsessed about communism. We can't restrain him when he's angry -- and he has his hand on the nuclear button!' And [North Vietnamese leader] Ho Chi Minh himself will be in Paris in two days begging for peace."

As Nick Turse reminds us in TomDispatch's first piece of the new year, President Trump, an admirer of Nixon (whose "madman theory" actually went down in flames in the Vietnam years), threatened to use nuclear weapons again only last year (in Afghanistan) and, given his growing imbroglio with Kim Jong-un's North Korea (not to speak of Iran), more fire and fury could be in store. Under the circumstances, it's worth taking a moment to consider just what such threats, if ever carried out, might really mean on a planet already perched at the edge of who knows what. Tom

Trump Threatens Afghan Armageddon
U.S. "Plans" for the Afghan War Might Prove a Crime Against Humanity
By Nick Turse

On February 4, 2002, a Predator drone circled over Afghanistan's Paktia province, near the city of Khost. Below was al-Qaeda's founder Osama bin Laden -- or at least someone in the CIA thought so -- and he was marked for death. As Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld put it later, both awkwardly and passively: "A decision was made to fire the Hellfire missile. It was fired." That air-to-ground, laser-guided missile -- designed to obliterate tanks, bunkers, helicopters, and people -- did exactly what it was meant to do.

As it happened, though (and not for the first time in its history either), the CIA got it wrong. It wasn't Osama bin Laden on the receiving end of that strike, or a member of al-Qaeda, or even of the Taliban. The dead, local witnesses reported, were civilians out collecting scrap metal, ordinary people going about their daily work just as thousands of Americans had been doing at the World Trade Center only months earlier when terror struck from the skies.

In the years since, those Afghan scrap collectors have been joined by more than 157,000 war dead in that embattled land. That's a heavy toll, but represents just a fraction of the body count from America's post-9/11 wars. According to a study by the Costs of War Project of Brown University's Watson Institute, as many as 801,000 people, combatants and noncombatants alike, have been killed in those conflicts. That's a staggering number, the equivalent of the Rwandan genocide of 1994. But if President Donald Trump is to be believed, the United States has "plans" that could bury that grim count in staggering numbers of dead. The "method of war" he suggested employing could produce more than 20 times that number in a single country -- an estimated 20 million or more Afghans, almost all of them civilians.

It's a strange fact of our moment that President Trump has claimed to have "plans" (or "a method") for annihilating millions of innocent people, possibly most of the population of Afghanistan. Yet those comments of his barely made the news, disappearing within days. Even for a president who threatened to unleash "fire and fury" on North Korea and usher in "the end" of Iran, hinting at the possibility of wiping out most of the civilian population of an ally represented something new.

After all, America's commander-in-chief does have the authority, at his sole discretion, to order the launch of weapons from the vast U.S. nuclear arsenal. So it was no small thing last year when President Trump suggested that he might unleash a "method of war" that would kill at least 54% of the roughly 37 million inhabitants of Afghanistan.

And yet almost no one -- in Washington or Kabul -- wanted to touch such presidential comments. The White House, the Pentagon, and the State Department all demurred. So did the chief spokesman for Afghan President Ashraf Ghani. One high-ranking Afghan official apologized to me for being unable to respond honestly to President Trump's comments. A current American official expressed worry that reacting to the president's Afghan threats might provoke a presidential tweet storm against him and refused to comment on the record.

Experts, however, weren't shy about weighing in on what such "plans," if real and utilized, would actually mean. Employing such a method (to use the president's term), they say, would constitute a war crime, a crime against humanity, and possibly a genocide.

A Trumpian Crime Against Humanity

"Massive Soviet military forces have invaded the small, nonaligned sovereign nation of Afghanistan," President Jimmy Carter announced on January 4, 1980. "Fifty thousand heavily armed Soviet troops have crossed the border and are now dispersed throughout Afghanistan, attempting to conquer the fiercely independent Muslim people of that country." Nine years later, the Red Army would finally limp out of that land in the wake of a war that killed an estimated 90,000 Mujahideen fighters, 18,000 Afghan troops, and 14,500 Soviet soldiers. As has been the norm in conflicts since World War I, however, civilians suffered the heaviest toll. Around one million were estimated to have been killed.

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)

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