I have been asked to join my fellow panelists in speaking about U.S. interests in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria. For some reason, our government has never been able to articulate these interests, but, judging by the fiscal priority Americans have assigned to these three countries in this century, they must be immense – almost transcendent. Since we invaded Afghanistan in 2001, we have spent more than $5 trillion and incurred liabilities for veterans’ disabilities and medical expenses of at least another trillion dollars, for a total of something over $6 trillion for military efforts alone.
This is money we didn’t spend on sustaining, still less improving, our own human and physical infrastructure or current and future well-being. We borrowed almost all of it. Estimates of the costs of servicing the resulting debt run to an additional $8 trillion over the next few decades. Future generations of Americans will suffer from our failure to invest in education, scientific research, and transportation. On top of that, we have put them in hock for at least $14 trillion in war debt. Who says foreign policy is irrelevant to ordinary Americans?
At the moment, it seems unlikely our descendants will feel they got their money’s worth. We have lost or are losing all our so-called “forever wars.” Nor are the people of West Asia and North Africa likely to remember our interventions favorably. Since we began them in 2001, well over one million individuals in West Asia have died violent deaths. Many times more than that have died as a result of sanctions, lost access to medical care, starvation, and other indirect effects of the battering of infrastructure, civil wars, and societal collapse our invasions have inflicted on Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and Syria and their neighbors.
The so-called “Global War on Terrorism” launched in Afghanistan in 2001 has metastasized. The US. Armed forces are now combating “terrorism” (and making new enemies) in eighty countries. In Syria alone, where since 2011 we have bombed and fueled proxy wars against both the Syrian government and its extremist foes, nearly 600,000 have died. 11 million have been driven from their homes, five million of them into refuge in other countries.
Future historians will struggle to explain how an originally limited post-9/11 punitive raid into Afghanistan morphed without debate into a failed effort to pacify and transform the country. Our intervention began on October 7, 2001. By December 17, when the battle of Tora Bora ended, we had accomplished our dual objectives of killing, capturing, or dispersing the al Qaeda architects of “9/11” and thrashing the Taliban to teach them that they could not afford to give safe haven to the enemies of the United States. We were well placed then to cut the deal we now belatedly seek to make, demanding that the governing authorities in Afghanistan deny their territory to terrorists with global reach as the price of our departure, and promising to return if they don’t.
Instead, carried away with our own brilliance in dislodging the Islamic Emirate from Kabul and the ninety percent of the rest of the country it then controlled, we nonchalantly moved the goal posts and committed ourselves to bringing Afghans the blessings of E PLURIBUS UNUM, liberty, and gender equality, whether they wanted these sacraments or not. Why? What interests of the United States – as opposed to ideological ambitions – justified this experiment in armed evangelism?
The success of policies is measurable only by the extent to which they achieve their objectives and serve a hierarchy of national interests. When, as in the case of the effort to pacify Afghanistan and reengineer Iraq, there is no coherent statement of war aims, one is left to evaluate policies in terms of their results. And one is also left to wonder what interests those policies were initially meant to support or advance.
In the end, our interests in Afghanistan seem to have come down to avoiding having to admit defeat, keeping faith with Afghans whose hopes we raised to unrealistic levels, and protecting those who have collaborated with us. In other words, we have acted in accordance with what behavioral economists call “the fallacy of sunk costs.” We have thrown good money after bad. We have doubled down on a losing game. We have reinforced failure.
To justify the continuation of costly but unsuccessful policies, our leaders have cited the definitive argument of all losers, the need to preserve “credibility.” This is the theory that steadfastness in counterproductive behavior is better for one’s reputation than acknowledging impasse and changing course. By hanging around in Afghanistan, we have indeed demonstrated that we value obduracy above strategy, wisdom, and tactical flexibility. It is hard to argue this this has enhanced our reputation internationally.
We invaded Iraq in 2003 for reasons that, aside from the pursuit of imaginary weapons of mass destruction, have never really been explained. To parody Hughes Mearns’s famous poem, Antigonish:
Some time ago, Iraq was where
We looked for stuff that wasn’t there
We haven’t found it to this day,
And yet we feel obliged to stay.
By taking over Iraq, we successfully prevented Baghdad from transferring nonexistent weapons to terrorist groups that did not exist until our thoughtless vivisection of Iraqi society created them. We also destroyed Iraq as the balancer and check on Iran’s regional ambitions, an interest that had previously been a pillar of our policies in the Persian Gulf. This made continued offshore balancing impossible and compelled us for the first time to station U.S. forces in the region permanently. This, in turn, transformed the security relationship between the Gulf Arabs and Iran from regional rivalry into military confrontation, producing a series of proxy wars in which our Arab protégés have demanded and obtained our support.
Our intervention in Iraq ignited long-smoldering divisions between Shiite and Sunni Islam, fueling passions that have undermined religious tolerance and fostered terrorism both regionally and worldwide. The only gainers from our misadventures in Iraq were Iran and Israel, which saw their most formidable Arab rival flattened, and, of course, the U.S. defense and homeland security budgets, which fattened on the resulting threat of terrorist blowback. Ironically, the demise of Iraq as an effective adversary thrust Israel into enemy deprivation syndrome, leading to its (and later our) designation of Iran as the devil incarnate. Israel, joined by Saudi Arabia and the UAE, believes that the cure for its apprehensions about Iran is for the U.S. military to crush it on their behalf.
The other principal legacies of our lurch into strategy-free militarism, aside from debt and a bloated defense budget, are our now habitual pursuit of military solutions to non-military problems, our greatly diminished deference to foreign sovereignty and international law, domestic populism born of war weariness and disillusionment with Washington, declining willingness of allies to follow us, the incitement of violent anti-Americanism among the Muslim fourth of humanity, the entrenchment of Islamophobia in U.S. politics, and the paranoia and xenophobia these developments have catalyzed among Americans.
In March 2011, having unofficially cheered on the overthrow of our longtime Egyptian protégé, Hosni Mubarak, we joined some European allies in bombing and strafing Libya. The ostensible purpose for ignoring Libyan sovereignty was humanitarian – the alleged international “right to protect” civilians against their own governments (R2P). The immediate result was the overthrow and savage murder of Libya’s famously bizarre leader, Muammar Qadhafi. But the movement of the goal posts to encompass regime change was also the coup de grâce for any prospect that R2P might become established international law.
No matter. In April 2011, when unrest broke out in Syria, the Obama administration immediately called for the ouster of the Asad government. That government had the support of Iran, Iraq, and Lebanese Hezbollah, later joined by Russia. The insurgents enjoyed support from others in the region – primarily Qatar and Saudi Arabia, though each supported different factions. The Gulf Arabs were joined by the United States, France, and the U.K. Turkey facilitated these foreign interventions in Syria, as it did the passage through its territory of jihadis seeking to overthrow Asad. In 2015, Turkey intervened directly to confine hostile Syrian Kurds on its southwestern border.
Syria was soon the site of innumerable proxy wars. Saudi-supported Salafi jihadis fought Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated Salafis supported by Qatar and Turkey. Sunnis fought Shi`a. Saudi and Iranian-supported forces fought each other. Hezbollah fought Lebanese Sunni forces in Syria. Israel fought Iran and Hezbollah and supported selected anti-government jihadis. Russia escalated its support of the Asad government. The United States and Israel targeted Iranian forces and intervened against both Asad and the Islamist extremists who were his most effective antagonists. Lately, we have been at risk of war with our erstwhile ally, Turkey. Throughout, a very large number of Syrians have been more alarmed by the alternatives to Asad than they are by him.
It is widely claimed that the United States was inadequately engaged in the Syrian maelstrom. Nonsense! Since 2014, we have spent well over $50 billion in appropriated funds to train, arm, and otherwise support various factions in the conflict, including some with direct links to al Qaeda. This fiscal year alone, DoD has budgeted $15.3 billion and the Department of State about $1 billion for Syria. In total disregard of international law, we have carried out well over 11,000 air and missile strikes against both government and rebel forces in Syria and deployed about 2,000 U.S. troops there to support secessionist factions. We cannot escape a considerable measure of moral responsibility for both the perpetuation of the conflict in Syria and some of the 200,000 undocumented and 375,000 documented Syrian dead, about 125,000 of whom have been verified as pro-government, 133,000 as anti-government, and 112,000 as noncombatant, neutral civilians. But we have made it clear we will not contribute to Syria’s reconstruction.
In a very sad way, that’s progress. Our forever wars have repurposed much development assistance into support for warfare and the amelioration of its consequences. The humanitarian crises in Gaza and Yemen exemplify this tragic transformation. What we and our security partners knock down with one hand, we rebuild with another before knocking it down again. This has discredited our aid to foreign societies in the eyes of Americans as well as its recipients.
To say, “we meant well” is true – as true of the members of our armed forces as it is of our diplomats and development specialists. But good intentions are not a persuasive excuse for the outcomes wars contrive. We have hoped that the many good things we have done to advance human and civil rights in Afghanistan and Iraq might survive our inevitable disengagement from both. They won’t. The years to come are less likely to gratify us than to force us to acknowledge that the harm we have done to our own country in this century vastly exceeds the good we have done abroad.
Of course, we will leave behind some concrete legacies of our misadventures in West Asia. The region is now littered with depopulated American bases and fortified bastions serving as embassies. But this architectural legacy inevitably recalls Shelley’s “Ozymandias.”
I met a traveler from an antique land,
Who said – “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. . .. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal, these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”
For $14 trillion or more, we should get something more than that. But we won’t unless we finally figure out what our interests really are, build a strategy that addresses them rather than politically popular delusions, and rediscover the merits of diplomacy as an alternative to the use of force.
 These estimates are from the research done by the Cost of War Project at Brown University’s Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs, available online.
 His poem begins: “Yesterday, upon the stair, I saw a man who wasn’t there! He wasn’t there again today, Oh, how I wish he’d go away.”
Ambassador Chas W. Freeman, Jr. chairs Projects International, Inc. He is a retired US defense official, diplomat, and interpreter, the recipient of numerous high honors and awards, a popular public speaker, and the author of five books. He was a former US Assistant Secretary of Defense, ambassador to Saudi Arabia (during operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm), acting Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, and Chargé d’affaires at both Bangkok and Beijing. He began his diplomatic career in India but specialized in Chinese affairs. (He was the principal American interpreter during President Nixon’s visit to Beijing in 1972.) Reprinted with permission from his blog.