Officially, the war in Afghanistan that began on Oct. 7, 2001 has ended. In a secret ceremony last month — secret because of fear of attack — the United States struck the colors and headed home. Well, not quite.
A “residual” force of 18,000 soldiers, nearly 11,000 of them Americans, will remain indefinitely as part of something called Operation Resolute Support. (Who are the guys who dream up these names for our
Translation: Afghanistan, like Japan, Korea, et al., will remain part of the permanent American Occupation Zone, stakeout points in the permanent American war. Who’s the war against? Doesn’t really matter. We’ll always find an enemy when we need one — or invent one, as the case may be.
The lesson we learned in Iraq was that when you engage in a protracted exercise in nation-wrecking (to borrow Robert Kohler’s phrase), you can’t pull out without expecting chaos in the rubble. It’s not that we actually did care at any point what happened to the general population; our goal in Iraq, as that fiery radical Alan Greenspan pointed out long ago, was to secure our private gas pump.
As it turned out, we didn’t really need it, because we’ve discovered since that we can squeeze more oil out at home by blasting the planetary bedrock. But chaos, especially chaos in which so-called terrorists thrive, is bad for the Pentagon’s image, not to mention the commander in chief’s.
The moral is, if you’re going to lose a war, don’t leave it. So, we’re back in Iraq as if we never left. And we have no intention of quitting Afghanistan. Ever.
We will someday, no doubt, because if you lose a war that means that somebody else has won it. In the case of Afghanistan, it’s the Taliban. Once we drove them out of Kabul — or, rather, once our hired mercenaries in the Northern Alliance did (against our instruction) — they were able to disperse into the countryside where, in classic Maoist fashion, they gained a grip on the outlying provinces they’d never had when they were officially in power, and slowly began to tighten the noose around the capital.
This is familiar experience for us. It happened in Vietnam, the prototype of our modern wars of empire, where we indulged the fond illusion that prancing around in Saigon, at least by daylight, was the same as controlling the country.
No one is in the slightest doubt that, were all foreign troops withdrawn from Afghanistan, the Taliban would be running the country again the next day, as they unofficially are already. That is my definition of a lost war.
Years ago, the British, who have more experience of colonial defeat than we do so far, were advising us that the best option available was to strike a deal with the Taliban that would allow us room for a face-saving withdrawal. That didn’t happen; the Taliban had no reason to take the bait, and bided their time.
So, with our “mission” in Afghanistan (Pentagon-speak for invasion) supposedly accomplished, it seems a good time to ask the question of why we attacked the country in the first place.
The short answer would be 9/11. Al-Qaida forces (remember them?) trained in Afghanistan as guests of the Taliban, invited or not. A hitherto-shadowy figure named Osama bin Laden, formerly on the CIA’s payroll and resident in Afghanistan, claimed credit for the attack on the World Trade Center, and sneered at us in videos. This was the “casus belli.”
That the actual plot against us was operationally planned in Hamburg, Germany, funded substantially through Saudi Arabia, and carried out primarily by Saudi nationals (Osama himself being a Saudi prince) did not suggest that our real enemies were elsewhere, or was not permitted to.
Saudi Arabia was supposedly our chief Arab ally, and the fount of much of our oil. It was also the principal source of personal wealth for the family of George W. Bush, whose first reaction to the 9/11 attacks, after scrambling into a bunker, was to permit the Saudi diplomatic entourage to fly home by private plane from Washington on the day, Sept. 12, when all other nonmilitary air traffic in the United States was grounded.
We knew, in short, who our real attackers were, and we deliberately shielded them. Any wonder that the events of 9/11 have attracted conspiracy theories like bees to a flower ever since?
Like everyone else, I was stunned in the aftermath of 9/11, even as I understood that what had happened was, in the broadest sense, blowback from our adventures in the Middle East over nearly a century. We’d been attacked, and we had to respond.
We were under attack, and no one could tell — our intelligence services having apparently failed us in the most spectacular manner possible — where the next blow might fall. Afghanistan was not the correct target, but it was a plausible one, especially with Osama bin Laden helpfully putting a public face on our anonymous assailants (more grist for conspiracy theorists).
Technically, we had an excuse for military action; politically, we needed to make someone pay for what had happened to us.
At first, Bush made a distinction between al-Qaida and the Taliban. He demanded that Osama bin Laden be surrendered, which was unlikely to have been in the Taliban’s power. When their leader, Mullah Omar, demurred, air strikes followed, and then ground invasion. America was at war.
It was a phony war from the beginning. We tried fighting it by proxy, with native Afghan rebels. Until Barack Obama took office, we had little more than 30,000 troops on the ground, plus a smaller NATO contingent. This was laughably insufficient to control the country.
Even supporting this force was scanted, as Bush secretly (and illegally) diverted appropriations for Afghanistan to prepare the attack on Iraq that had been planned from his first day in power, and which was duly executed on March 19, 2003.
By that time, Afghanistan was an afterthought. It has remained so ever since — a war we pretended to fight against an adversary we no more than
In other words, 9/11 remained, and remains to this day, unavenged.
Whether we could or should have sought to avenge it, or instead have taken the opportunity to reflect on the imperial hubris that had brought the carnage we had so lightly inflicted on others to our own shores, is another matter.
What is clear is that Afghanistan was never more than a sideshow, at least until Barack Obama decided to make a statement about it. This, over the past six years, has doubled the number of fatalities in the war without altering its result. The war was lost in 2008.
It was lost from day one, because it was never anything more than a politically expedient placeholder for the real war planned against Iraq. It is lost today, and it will be tomorrow.
John F. Kerry, in his days as a Vietnam War protester, posed a question: How do you ask a soldier to be the last man to die for a mistake? Vietnam was a lot more than a mistake, more even than a criminal folly.
Afghanistan has been the same, and, if anything, more cynically entered and fecklessly prosecuted. But we won’t be asking that sacrifice from the last soldier, not anytime soon. A war without end promises only death without end.
Robert Zaller is a history professor at Drexel University. He can be contacted at [email protected]