America’s Afghan project, to create a modern, democratic, centralized nation state in Central Asia, is over. What took 20 years, thousands of lives, and trillions of dollars to construct disappeared in little more than a week. Only a few days ago administration strategists were debating whether Kabul had three or six months left and imagining an orderly evacuation of thousands of Americans and Afghan friends. Then over a weekend the Taliban occupied the capital and paraded through the offices of President Ashraf Ghani, who abandoned his people and hopped on a plane out of the country.
The Islamic Republic of Afghanistan is not likely to be long remembered. It was essentially a sham state, with a corrupt and incompetent government, which deployed a faux military, most of whose members felt no loyalty the institutions they swore to defend. Central Asia is as far from the U.S., and as distant from its interests, as could be imagined. Certainly Americans will quickly forget the geopolitical wreck that so briefly passed as a nation and ally.
But readers of Antiwar.com will not forget. They have been reading multiple authors over multiple years describing the agony and tragedy of Afghanistan. The sufferings of the Afghan people. The lies told to the American people. And the abuse of patriotic young men and women sent to Central Asia, believing that they were defending the US, protecting liberty, promoting democracy, safeguarding human rights, and engaging in many other supposedly uplifting and ennobling activities.
This is not the first time Americans were lied into war, of course. But Afghanistan is a dramatic descent from past US conflicts, even those which also ended disastrously. For instance, Vietnam was a terrible and unnecessary war. It never was vital for US security. The lies began early and were embodied in the Tonkin Gulf resolution to win dubious congressional authority for years of war.
However, at least at that time America’s enemies were both evil and serious: North Vietnam was a communist dictatorship with all that meant. It was backed by two of the most murderous regimes in human history, the Soviet Union, only recently freed from Joseph Stalin’s bloody hand, and the People’s Republic of China, still ruled by an increasingly doddering Mao Zedong. And the Republic of Vietnam was an American outpost in an important region, with US allies and adversaries nearby.
To argue that Americans had to be prepared to die at least seemed initially plausible to many in Vietnam. And while the Vietnamese were understandably cynical about a government also corrupt and incompetent, even today, decades later, some ethnic Vietnamese look back on it as a haven from communist tyranny. Near where I live in Northern Virginia is a shopping center, filled with ethnic Vietnamese shops and eateries, that flies the old South Vietnamese flag. And given the repression that followed Saigon’s capture, there is method to what otherwise looks like madness, a rather bizarre form of nostalgia.
Also, consider how the US military has been used in the almost half century since American forces left Vietnam. The misadventures were limited, to start: Small-grade actions and conflicts in Grenada, Panama, Somalia, Balkans, Libya, Lebanon, Haiti, and Iraq (1). Although the justifications were dubious, the costs were low. Washington might have been a superpower, soon the only superpower, but Washington’s military ambitions remained measured.
And then came President George W. Bush. He ran for office advocating a "humble" foreign policy. After 9/11, however, he flipped, channeling the worst values, principles, and beliefs that suffused the Washington foreign policy establishment, later tagged "the Blob," by Ben Rhodes.
First came the attack on Afghanistan. Originally the US entered with a light touch, focused on wrecking al-Qaeda and punishing the Taliban. Although Bush soon seemed to lose interest in the war, he eventually decided on a new agenda, with a plan to remake Central Asia. Never mind how Afghans lived and what Afghans desired. Washington would create a Western-style democracy with centralized government control over a country long ruled at the village and valley level. That did not go well, but no worries. US officials and officers simply misled their superiors back home, who in turn assured the American people that all was well. Which sadly but obviously was not true—dramatically demonstrated as we watched with horror people dropping off of planes they had clambered aboard in a desperate bid to get out of Kabul.
Second was Iraq. George W. Bush criticized President Joe Biden for withdrawing troops from Afghanistan, the war he started, and Republican politicians claimed that Biden had blood on his hands. However, it was Bush, with almost lockstep backing from leading GOP politicians, who launched the ill-fated and immeasurably more destructive invasion of Iraq.
As a result, they are awash in blood. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians died in the sectarian war that resulted—400,000 by one estimate, derived from numbers produced by the Iraq Body Count organization. Millions of Iraqis were displaced. Communities of religious minorities were ravaged. The war also empowered Iranian militias and loosed al-Qaeda in Iraq, which morphed into the Islamic State, killing and destroying across Iraq and Syria. Even though Iraq is better off without Saddam Hussein, the result is no liberal society, but a semi-authoritarian state, unstable and violent, in which Iran’s influence metastasized.
Wars three and four were products of the Obama administration, pushed and backed by Republican legislators and the succeeding Trump administration. President Barack Obama pioneered techniques to kill other peoples in prodigious numbers while putting fewer Americans at risk.
Demanding UN authority to protect civilians in Libya’s civil war, the US and Europeans overthrew Muammar Khadafy and left the competing factions and militias to continue fighting off and on for the following decade. Thousands or tens of thousands of Libyans—estimates vary widely—died in a decidedly low-tech civil war. Neighboring countries, most American allies and partners, also intervened, inflaming and expanding the conflict. Finally, there is some hope, but no guarantee, of a political solution.
Worse was Yemen, in which the US worked through one of the most odious and authoritarian states on earth, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Only in Washington could an administration talk about human rights with seeming sincerity, while selling, arming, and servicing warplanes used to kill civilians and destroying civilian targets in one of the poorest nations on earth, which had not attacked or threatened anyone.
Unfortunately, the privileged and pampered Saudi monarchy preferred a lackey for president of its neighbor, and was prepared to kill, maim, and destroy to put him back into power. More than six years later the terrible conflict continues. Even the KSA, now a target of Yemeni missiles and drones, has grown tired of the conflict, but is still unwilling to abandon its attack.
All these conflicts have been covered extensively by Antiwar.com. It is a unique web community, battling the brutality of wars around the world and across time. There are many good antiwar activists, but most focus one cause or another. Antiwar.com looks at the Azerbaijan-Armenia slugfest as well as the Syrian civil war and explores America’s role in Somalia as well as Afghanistan. The War Party at times seems omniscient and omnipotent in Washington. Antiwar.com is determined to expose those who fuel conflict and mayhem around the globe. Knowledge of their activities empowers you to learn, to act, and to fight—for peace, not more endless wars.
And what might come in the future could be even worse. The overworked yet determined crew at Antiwar.com have detailed the horrors of conflicts past, but despite the high price paid America has been lucky in the post-9/11 era. The US wars have been reckless and needless, but not uniquely costly. However, conflict with a great power—especially nuclear conflict with a great power—would be a disaster. What we should most fear is not another Afghanistan, but something much worse.
The George W. Bush administration debated bombing Russian troops in the Georgian war. Republican Party presidential candidates proposed shooting down Russian planes in Syria. The Trump administration provided "lethal" aid to Ukraine for the purpose of killing Russian soldiers and ethnic Russian insurgents. Trump’s "maximum pressure" campaign delivered a hardline president in Tehran willing to return confrontation for confrontation, yet Joe Biden appears to be channeling Trump when negotiating with Iran to reenter the nuclear deal.
North Korea continues to bluster and threaten, with a nuclear arsenal that could kill hundreds of thousands or millions of people. And members of the Blob are demanding military confrontation with China, lest it dominate Asia and much more. Indeed, establishment analysts are debating making an explicit commitment to go to war to defend Taiwan, since, it is widely assumed, an otherwise rampaging Beijing would not dare test America.
If you think Iraq was bad, imagine an American attack on Iran. War with Russia growing out of Ukraine. A botched attempt at preventive war against Kim Jong-un in Pyongyang. Or the true blockbuster, a full-scale, Asia-wide conflict with the People’s Republic of China triggered by US intervention in a battle over Taiwan or the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands. Even a victory in the latter struggle, whatever that might mean, would only be the prelude to more war.
Of course, the War Party would be in full glory, dominating the airwaves, speaking of American exceptionalism, preaching liberty and honor, sending legions of young Americans forth, building bombs, imposing conscription, levying taxes, cracking down on dissent, and denouncing defeatists and traitors. When the many, many bodies began flowing home those responsible would hold their critics to be at fault, for allegedly impairing the war effort, preventing the unity necessary to deliver the enemy, whoever it might be, into America’s hands. And domestic repression would follow foreign follies.
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The collapse of Washington’s faux state in Afghanistan highlights the importance of having someone speak truth to the American people. It wasn’t the first disastrous US military intervention. Unfortunately, it won’t be the last. But the future is not fixed. Peace is possible. Antiwar.com is fighting for that future. In that way, Antiwar.com is fighting for you.
Doug Bandow is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute. A former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan, he is author of several books, including Foreign Follies: America’s New Global Empire.