Will COVID Bring Down the American War Machine?

COVID is changing everything, including foreign policy. Just a few weeks ago, the United States thought it was a swell idea to station troops in more than 150 countries, five of them war zones. Even in Afghanistan, a hopeless quagmire if ever there was one, it found it easier to throw good money after bad rather than admit it was wrong and go home.

But that was long ago in a world that is no longer recognizable thanks to COVID-19. Now, with the stock market reeling and Goldman Sachs predicting a record 24-percent economic contraction in the second quarter, the damage is showing up not only on corporate balance sheets, but in the federal government as well.

Already running at around $1 trillion, the federal deficit could triple if a $2-trillion anti-COVID stimulus program makes it through Congress. That would boost it from five percent of GDP to fifteen, unprecedented since World War II. The pain will leave the Trump administration no choice but to cut, and pointless military adventurism is the most obvious place to begin, first and foremost in Afghanistan.

The war’s cost since October 2001 has been staggering. The death toll stands at around 157,000, including more than six thousand US military personnel and civilian contractors. Direct military outlays are upwards of $1 trillion while the cost of medical and disability payments for thousands of crippled veterans will eventually add another $1 trillion as well.

Yet the US has gotten little in return. The military situation is increasingly untenable. Government security forces are bleeding troops thanks in part to a casualty rate that the Pentagon describes as unsustainable. Despite stepped-up US bombings and – unsurprisingly – record levels of civilian casualties, the Taliban now contest or control 61 percent of local government districts. Even though the US has spent $9 billion to combat the opium trade, Afghanistan is now the top producer nations on earth. According to Transparency International, it is also among the ten most corrupt.

There is no chance of the US turning those numbers around for the simple reason that everything it has done over the last two decades has been seemingly designed to make them worse. Take the peace talks that the Trump administration recently entered into with the Taliban in the hope that it would enable it to start drawing down troops in time for the November elections. Not only did a Feb. 29 ceasefire deal lead to an upsurge in fighting, but, bizarrely enough, it allowed the Taliban to continue attacking government forces as long as US troops were left undisturbed. The Kabul government could hardly be blamed for wondering which side America was on.

Disturbing as this was, Kabul was astonished when US negotiators assured the Taliban that it would release five thousand Taliban prisoners even though the Americans never bothered to check with the Afghan government in the first place. President Ashraf Ghani was predictably outraged.

As if that wasn’t bad enough, the government has now split in two – not despite US efforts to preserve unity, but because heavy-handed political interference has left passions ever more inflamed. In 2009, the US engaged in a "clumsy and failed putsch" aimed at ousting then-President Hamid Karzai, according to Robert Gates, secretary of defense at the time. Ashraf Ghani, Karzai’s successor, engaged in massive electoral fraud in 2014 according to a European Union report that Secretary of State John Kerry did everything in his power to cover up. "Until today," observed a German-Afghan journalist named Emran Feroz, "many government critics believe that it was not the vote of the Afghan people that made Ghani president but Kerry’s decision."

But now the situation is worse. After being twice robbed of the presidency, Abdullah Abdullah, a Ghani rival who holds the unique title of Afghan CEO, declared Ghani’s election last September to be illegitimate due to massive fraud and, two weeks ago, held a parallel inauguration to swear himself in. Given that one of Abdullah’s backers is a brutal warlord named Abdul Rashid Dostum, famous for allegedly locking 2,000 Taliban prisoners into metal shipping containers in December 2001 and allowing them to suffocate to death, armed conflict is hardly out of the question.

Then there’s corruption. While no one pretends that Afghanistan was spotless before the Americans arrived, internal Pentagon discussions made public by the Washington Post last December show that mass infusions of US aid took low-level corruption and sent it shooting through the roof. "Our biggest single project, sadly and inadvertently, of course, may have been the development of mass corruption," former US ambassador Ryan Crocker said. "Once it gets to the level I saw, when I was out there, it’s somewhere between unbelievably hard and outright impossible to fix it."

Finally, there’s the Afghan invasion itself, an operation that was so ill-conceived that it couldn’t help but unleash wave after wave of confusion. Contrary to what the Bush administration told the American public, it did not invade Afghanistan in order to punish Al Qaeda and prevent a repeat of 9/11. Rather, it did so to prove that a "light footprint" military strategy based on special forces, air power, and local militia support could be used to topple a troublesome Third World government. The effort succeeded brilliantly. But once the Taliban were out of the way, US officials had no idea what to do next. As the Post put it:

"Was Al Qaeda the enemy or the Taliban? Was Pakistan a friend or an adversary? What about the Islamic State and the bewildering array of foreign jihadists, let alone the warlords on the CIA’s payroll? According to the documents, the US government never settled on an answer."

It didn’t because no one had thought to ask such questions before going in. In another internal interview made public by the Post, a military adviser described briefing an Army Special Forces team. "They thought I was going to come to them with a map to show them where the good guys and bad guys live," he recalled. "It took several conversations for them to understand that I did not have that information in my hands. At first, they just kept asking: ‘But who are the bad guys, where are they?’"

A war in which no one even knows who the enemy is one that can only in failure. Eventually, even Donald Trump will realize that a farcical misadventure like Afghanistan is a luxury he can no longer afford. Dark as the COVID cloud may be, at least it has one silver lining.

Daniel Lazare is the author of The Frozen Republic: How the Constitution Is Paralyzing Democracy (Harcourt Brace, 1996) and other books about American politics. He writes a weekly column for Antiwar.com. He has written for a wide variety of publications from The Nation to Le Monde Diplomatique and blogs about the Constitution and related matters at Daniellazare.com.