Most Americans agree that we should have never invaded Afghanistan. Just about all Americans agree that we shouldn’t have attacked Iraq either, except for Dick Cheney and (presumably) the corporations that feasted on that country’s destruction.
There was never a good reason for going into Afghanistan, a country we’d helped to destroy and render ungovernable long before 9/11. There was never a reason at all for invading Iraq, except for the private profit of the George W. Bush clan and its business buddies.
14 years into the first disaster and 12 years into the second, we find ourselves in an endgame that will result in the elimination of our influence, if not necessarily our presence, in both countries. The Afghan government we brokered has turned to Russia, the country that invaded it before we did, to buy weapons systems and supplies. The Iraqi government we put in place has turned to our foremost regional enemy, Iran, and to Iran’s sponsor, Russia again, and is coordinating intelligence with them in the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. We’re on call to provide air cover for military operations designed by others. The exit sign could not be more brightly lit for us in both places, but, like a drunk weaving out of the bar at 4 a.m., we can’t seem to find the door.
Barack, it’s over here.
The difficulty of our situation in both countries has been dramatically illustrated by two incidents, one in each. In Afghanistan, the army we’d trained turned tail and ran from an important regional center, Kunduz, just as the one we’d trained in Iraq did in Mosul, that country’s second largest city, and in Fallujah, the scene of our own heaviest losses in the Iraq war. The Taliban troops who took Kunduz, with widespread popular support in the city, had no strategic intention of keeping it; like insurgents who brought off the Tet Offensive during the Vietnam War, the point to be made was that cities presumed safe and secure could be occupied at will. Before they left, however, American planes staged out a nighttime raid that bombarded a hospital maintained by Doctors Without Borders despite frantic pleas, incinerating patients in their beds and killing a dozen staff. 22 were reported dead, and, days later, 33 were still missing.
Shortly after, American Special Forces—which, on any given day, operate in between 70 and 90 countries—carried out a raid that allegedly “freed” 75 ISIS captives. Despite the fact that President Barack Obama had given repeated assurances that American troops would not be involved in combat operations following the expiration of our status of forces agreement with Iraq in 2011, this caper involved dozens of servicemen in a firefight that resulted in the reported death of the first American killed there in action since then. Whether this was the first or the thousandth action that put American soldiers back in harm’s way is for your president to know, and for you to guess.
What was an American plane doing bombing a hospital in a remote Afghan city? We have yet to get a straight answer. At first, the attack was attributed to Afghan forces, which had supposedly called the strike in. A day later, that story was, in the celebrated Nixonian phrase, inoperative. Gradually, it emerged that the strike had been ordered by us, the Americans, against a target clearly identified as off limits by all the rules of war.
What were we doing rescuing hostages from a battle zone in Iraq? At first, those to be rescued were described as Kurds, the last group in the Middle East willing to do some of our fighting for us. Scratch that too, though. The prisoners were subsequently identified as a (probable) mix of ISIS deserters and Baathist soldiers from the old, long-disbanded army of former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein: in short, as mercenaries. The rationale for committing American troops to their rescue was then changed from liberating to interrogating them. About whom? About what?
Does anyone actually know what is going on? Does anyone know the rules of engagement in the war we supposedly left four years ago, or in the one we are still fighting after 14?
America has, officially, 9,800 troops remaining in Afghanistan, not counting our own mercenaries and special operation forces units off the books. These were to have been phased out by the end of next year. After Kunduz, Obama announced that American forces would remain in the country indefinitely. The grounds given were that the stability of Afghanistan is vital to American security.
Despite the fact that our current security perimeter extends to Mars, it is a fact that Afghanistan has never had a stable day in its history. Regrettable, but true. Just ask Alexander the Great, or any would-be pacifier since.
Iraq, thanks to our good offices, exists as a state in name only. Various Shiite factions and militias dominate the south, where Iran has established a protectorate in all but name. Sunni jihadists, notably ISIS, dominate much of the north and west. An unofficial Kurdish state occupies the northeast; it, too, is riven by internal strife. It is, however, the closest thing to a fighting ally we now have in the Middle East, which may explain why it was able to use American forces as a cat’s paw in the hostage business. But it is regarded by everyone else—Turkey, Syria, Iran and what is left of Iraq—as the most dangerous long-term threat in the region, since its goal is a greater Kurdistan that would embrace the twenty million ethnic Kurds spread out over those countries.
No wonder the Russians are looking good as a great power patron in so many places these days. Uncle Sam has stampeded through the Middle East like a bull elephant on a rampage since 9/11, leaving a trail of failed or broken states—Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and, if the Russians are too late to the rescue, Syria. Egypt has escaped the same fate, so far, by a hair, though a smoldering rebellion in the Sinai Peninsula continues to tie down much of its military.
By a factor of three, world opinion now regards the United States as the greatest threat to world peace. This reputation has been well earned. For a while, at least, American interests seemed to have had some definition, if not necessarily justification. When Henry Kissinger decided to sponsor a dictator or overthrow an elected government, you knew he had a reason. The Devil is always comforting in this respect. If there’s any reason for our futile mayhem nowadays, though, or any thought process behind it at all, it has yet to be explained.
Republicans keep wanting to shut down the Department of Education, and liberals want to cut the Pentagon. But I’d suggest that the Department of State, especially the one run over the past decade by Condoleezza Rice, Hillary Clinton and John Kerry, would be a more appropriate target. If Foggy Bottom can’t do any better than this, maybe we ought to leave the world to Putin, and, as Rand Paul suggests, take a 50-year vacation from foreign affairs. Perhaps it would clear the mind.
Meanwhile, I am tired of our destroying hospitals, or, to name two other specializations of our precision bombing, weddings and funerals. Enough’s enough. Let’s get out of Afghanistan and Iraq, now. The warlords and the ayatollahs will do just fine without us, and—to put it personally—I’ll feel just a little bit less like the Ugly American. Maybe you will, too.