The recent 20th anniversary of the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 has caused me to reflect on the two years (2007-08) that I worked as a field-level civilian advisor in Iraq followed by six years in Afghanistan (2009-14) and to correlate this experience to the current proxy war the US is funding and shadow fighting against Russia in Ukraine.
Although various rationales were given for these wars, each was undertaken primarily to expand worldwide US military hegemony by gaining permanent American military bases in these countries. The delusionary impetus of these costly and destructive enterprises is captured by the definition of the philosophical phrase reductio AB absurdum: "a method of proving the falsity of a premise by showing that its logical consequences is absurd or contradictory."
As an USAF civil engineer officer in the ‘70s, I quickly comprehended the discrepancy between the reality on the ground in Iraq and the erroneous statements made on the rationale for the war, the promise of a short-term occupation, and the claim our military was successfully quelling the insurgency. I was stunned by the sprawling full-amenity military bases (like Camp Ramadi where I lived next to hundreds of Abrams tanks) housing over 100,000 US troops; the five permanent-construction, NATO-grade airfields the Army Corps of Engineers had built (or upgraded); and weapons depots and logistical support facilities throughout the country. What I saw told me, "The people in charge of this war never plan to leave this place."
I was at one of these big airbases – al-Asad in Anbar province – when Air Force One landed with President Bush and his entourage in September 2007. The purpose of Bush’s trip was to laud the proclaimed success of his "troop surge" that had presumably turned around the flagging war then in its 5th year. The Iraqis were so glad the US was staying around and pouring in more soldiers that a local reporter threw a shoe at Bush (a sign of disrespect in the Arab world) at a subsequent press conference in Baghdad. Turns out, the US soldiers sent to Iraq as part of the surge also were not thrilled about being there and having their in-country tours extended from 9 to 14 months. To wit, graffiti in a Camp Ramadi bathroom stall: "Let Bush spend 14 months in this sh—hole!"
The "three amigo senators" (Lindsey Graham, John McCain, and Joe Lieberman) were frequent visitors to Iraq while I was there. Publicly opining about Washington’s desired endgame after General Petraeus’ ballyhooed surge had quelled the insurgency (which never happened), they boasted that America planned to keep two or three large bases as permanent U.S. installations to house 50,000 soldiers. I doubt the senators and other Iraq war dogmatists in Washington knew it, but their "Army of Mesopotamia" plan portended to be an eerie repeat of the British occupation of Iraq (1920-32) in the post-Ottoman colonial era. Most airfields the Corps of Engineers upgraded for Operation Iraqi Freedom (I still have my ballcap) were old British installations. No wonder our soldiers were scorned as neocolonialists and not welcomed as liberators as the Bushies had promised.
The amigo senators naively compared Iraq to America’s retention of troops in postwar South Korea and Germany. I was stationed on a NATO airbase in West Germany in the ‘70s. Serving there was a two-year paid vacation in Europe. In Iraq, our soldiers were largely confined to their bases, not allowed alcoholic beverages, and had to kill time watching pirated videos and working-out in the gym. Virtually every soldier I worked with in Iraq (and later in Afghanistan) had a calendar on their desk counting down the days until their tour in this "sh—hole" was over.
Fortunately for our troops, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani – Shi’a cleric in Najaf who was the most revered authority in Iraq – issued a religious edict (fatwa) after the infidels occupying his country declared their intention to stay forever. His July 2008 fatwa mandated that all foreign soldiers had to leave his part of sacred Dar al-Islam by a date certain (later established as December 2011). Over the objections of the amigo senators and the Bushies, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki (also Shi’a naively put into office by Washington as a presumed malleable functionary) acceded to his co-religionist’s decree. The Iraqi parliament ratified his decision. Shi’a Iran (the real winner of the Iraq war) was instrumental in orchestrating this eviction of US troops from its neighborhood.
So ended the neocons’ quest for a second western power’s Army of Mesopotamia.
What happened? Lacking an understanding of Islamic sects, local factions, and power brokers, the Iraq war zealots did not realize that installing a nominal democratic government in Shi’a-majority Iraq (meaning Iran could control it) would be the death knell for their goal of retaining a permanent military presence in Iraq. In the end, the Iraq war was a tragedy of the neocons’ fallacious prewar premises being contradicted by the realities of the country as a classic case of reductio AB absurdum.
(The US still has a small number of troops in Iraq who were allowed back in 2014 with Iran’s blessing to fight ISIS as a common enemy. This residual US military presence may be short-lived given the recent reproachment between Iran and the Sunni Arab states.)
Moving to Afghanistan, Washington’s 20-year military campaign in this "graveyard of empires" was characterized by the same lack of understanding and appreciation of the history, tribal society, and the ethnic and religious tensions that doomed the neocons’ Iraq war effort. Inexplicitly, the same counterinsurgency strategy (developed by Generals Petreaus and Mattis as the "best and brightest" generals of their generation) and troop-surge tactic employed and proven to be ineffectual in Iraq were reapplied in Afghanistan. The reductio ab absurdum contradictions between the Pentagon’s military operations and its counterinsurgency strategy were farcical. No wonder we lost both wars.
The Petraeus/Mattis counterinsurgency doctrine relied on "winning the hearts and minds" of the local population so they would support the US-installed governments instead of the insurgents. What better way not to accomplish this objective than conducting daily bombing campaigns and drone-launched missile strikes that terrorized neighborhoods and frequently killed innocent civilians. The same contradiction goes for setting up roadblock checkpoints, racing military convoys through the streets, and frightening women and children when turret gunners randomly aimed their crew weapons at them. Not surprisingly (except to the Pentagon brass), the insurgency increased – instead of decreasing — as more US troops came into each country. Thus, an "attrition effect" (the purpose of the surges) was never achieved in either war. The billions in US money poured in both countries exacerbated grift and corruption at all levels of society. These realities and the legion of unruly westerners with guns roaming around their country revived the phrase "Ugly American" in both Iraq and Afghanistan.
In both countries, the premise of standing up, training, and equipping a local national army for keeping a pro-US government in power was portrayed as a viable exit strategy for US forces. As history proved, this premise was never credible. It was just a ruse for keeping the annual war-funding spigot open. It was preposterous to believe that local nationals – devout Muslims with ancestral loyalties – would side with the colonialist infidels and fight against their co-reglionists to advance US geopolitical interests.
The prize in Afghanistan for the Washington neocons was retaining sprawling Bagram Airbase north of Kabul as a permanent US military base. This location was ideal for bombing runs into southern Russia and western China. Before leaving office in 2018, Representative Mac Thornberry, Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, made one last visit to Bagram. After returning from this trip, his office released this statement: "Reconciliation [of the warring factions in Afghanistan] can lead to a representative political solution and a sustainable US presence in Afghanistan . . . [and that] is the only way we can reliably defend America from the dangerous terrorist organizations that continue to operate in Afghanistan." The last part of the his statement was the trite "terrorist threat exaggeration" canard (already disproved) used throughout the Afghan war to mask the real reason (retaining Bagram) congressional neocons (led by Senator McConnell) wanted a "forever war" in Afghanistan.
As the expatriate advisor for a USAID local governance project over a 3-year period, I traveled dozens of times with my Afghan staff out of Kabul to engage with local officials in the eastern and southern provinces of Afghanistan. Invariably, on my first encounter, these tribal elders would recount to me (as translated by my staff) how their country had never been conquered by foreign armies and how Afghans prided their sovereignty. Always friendly to travelers and visitors, their subtle message was: "Thanks for your money for fixing our streets, but you Americans should not expect to stay. We do not tolerate foreign soldiers on our ancient homelands" – a historically true fact. Unfortunately, visiting US officials in policy-making roles (including most CODELS) rarely, if ever, left the Embassy and ISAF headquarters in Kabul. They even ignored the scathing SIGAR reports and instead relied solely on Pentagon happy talk to justify their $2.3 trillion in Afghan war spending over 20 years.
Like Iraq, there was never a realistic possibility the US military could retain permanent bases in Afghanistan – despite propping up pro-US governments to obtain basing rights. These multi-trillion-dollar delusions were Fool’s Errands. The last US-backed Afghan president – Ashraf Ghani — was installed specifically for this purpose. Ghani had lived longer in the Washington D.C. area than in Afghanistan. As a fitting end to Washington’s 20-year Afghanistan fiasco, Ghani absconded with a reported $169 million in cash after the US military withdrew in August 2021 and the Taliban took back their country. This theft of US taxpayers’ funds was astonishing, but probably didn’t even get Ghani into the top twenty in the Kabul Kleptocracy Club.
In light of this history, it is ominous to realize the proxy war the US (joined by its NATO tagalongs) is waging against Russia in Ukraine is a three-peat of Washington’s post-9/11 wars for expanding US global hegemony. Bringing Ukraine into NATO – the aim of this current war — would allow the US to establish permanent military bases on Russia’s border. Unlike prior post-Cold War NATO expansions, Ukraine is the bloodlands that European nations have used for centuries to invade Mother Russia. President Putin cites NATO’s bombing and dismemberment of Yugoslavia in 1999 as evidence that NATO is not the benign defensive alliance it claims to be.
Once again, this "war of choice" in Ukraine (several opportunities to resolve this conflict peacefully have been squelched) is a case of Washington ignoring history and the realities of the world that bear upon prudent foreign and military policy decisions. But there is a frightening difference this time. The adversary being challenged is not ragtag groups of largely unorganized Islamic insurgents fighting from the back of pickups with AK-47s and IEDs to preserve their way of life. Instead, the enemy is the largest nuclear power on earth that possess terrifying and unstoppable hypersonic missiles.
Can there be any question that prolonging the Ukraine war and attempting to expel nuclear-war-capable Russia from its historic naval base in Crimea and the centuries old ethnic Russian areas in the Donbas it now occupies is the very definition of reductio AB absurdum?
Ronald Enzweiler is a Harvard MBA, MIT graduate, and US Air Force veteran who has lived, worked, and traveled extensively in the Greater Middle East, including working as an USAID contractor and US Foreign Service (limited) Officer in Iraq and Afghanistan from 2007 through 2014. He is retired and lives in California and Mexico with his wife Elena. He’s written a book critiquing US foreign and military policy titled, When Will We Ever Learn?, and has written other articles for Antiwar.com and the Libertarian Institute.