Revisiting America’s Longest War


The U.S.-led war in Afghanistan – the longest war in U.S. history – entered its 12th year last month (October). The war was launched ostensibly to bring those responsible for the attacks of 9/11 to justice and to prevent future acts of terror on American soil. To achieve these ends, the world was told that the Al Qaeda militant network must be eliminated, and that a war in Afghanistan was unavoidable.

In the days following 9/11, the American people were misled to believe that Al Qaeda’s numbers and geographic reach were much greater than they actually were. A Newsweek article published in 2006 reported that, “The intelligence community generally agrees that the number of true A-list Al Qaeda operatives out there around the time of 9/11 was no more than about 1,000, perhaps as few as 500, most in and around Afghanistan.” If this number is accurate, and the justifications given by the Bush administration for invading Afghanistan are taken at face value, then the mission, as it was defined by the government, could probably have been achieved through a combination of Special Forces and the re-establishment of diplomatic relations with neighboring nations. This was the argument offered by many in the anti-war and peace movements in the lead up to the war. But whether or not the mission could have been accomplished in this manner, we will never know.

Three days after 9/11, in a brief speech on the House floor, Democratic Congressmember Barbara Lee, the only lawmaker in Congress to vote against the resolution authorizing the use of force in Afghanistan, made this impassioned plea: “Some of us must urge the use of restraint. Our country is in a state of mourning. Some of us must say, let’s step back for a moment; let’s just pause, just for a minute, and think through the implications of our actions today, so that this does not spiral out of control.” Tragically, Rep. Lee’s appeal fell on deaf ears and revenge-filled hearts.

Although most of those directly responsible for 9/11 have either been captured or killed during the 11-plus-year war, including KhalidSheikh Mohammed and Osama bin Laden, and numerous Al Qaeda members have also been killed, much of this lost membership has been replenished by new recruits, and has spread internationally. A Wall Street Journal article published last year revealed that as of September 2011, Al Qaeda’s numbers were between 200 and 1000. When compared to the reported number of Al Qaeda in Afghanistan in 2001, a strong case can be made that the longest war in American history has essentially been ineffective in reducing the size of the network. The difference has been recruitment success, which many analysts believe is rooted in the United States’ so-called “War on Terror” and the power it gave the government to commit human rights violations and breach international law (e.g., the Guantánamo detention facility, prisoner torture, secret prisons, drone attacks, and extraordinary rendition).

If one of the objectives of the war was to neutralize Al Qaeda’s affiliates, funders and adherents as well, then we are talking about a mission that involved going up against numbers possibly in the hundreds of thousands (ibid). This statistic coupled with the simple fact that terror is a tactic, not a group or nation, illustrates that war is not the answer to hate and extremism, yet the “War on Terror” is being waged for this very purpose.

Since the 2001 invasion, 2,158 American troops have been killed, 294 this year alone. Over 18,000 soldiers have been wounded, many with permanent injuries. Thousands of combat veterans are suffering with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and traumatic brain injury (TBI). The Veterans Affairs (VA) Department is overwhelmed with returning soldiers in need of mental and other health services. Suicide is at epidemic levels among active-duty personnel and veterans. According to Gen. Raymond Odierno, the Army chief of staff, suicide has surpassed combat deaths and motor vehicle accidents as the most frequent cause of death among Army forces. The suicide rate within the Army doubled from 2004 to 2009. Today, suicide rates are at one a day among active-duty personnel and at 18 a day among veterans.

The war has had a particularly devastating impact on the Afghan civilian population. A New York Times article published in early 2010 reported that in video-conference with troops then senior military commander in Afghanistan Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal admitted, “We have shot an amazing number of people, but to my knowledge, none has ever proven to be a threat.” By most estimates, more than 20,000 Afghan civilians have been killed or injured since the war began.

The financial cost of the war is approaching $600 billion. War spending for Afghanistan in FY2012 alone was $111 billion. This is an amount which, if spent domestically, could have provided low-income health care to 57 million children for one year OR one year’s worth of groceries for an individual to 53 million people.

The war in Afghanistan has produced tens of thousands of veterans in need of assistance to re-integrate into society. Yet, only 5 percent of all federal discretionary spending in the proposed FY2013 budget was dedicated to veterans’ benefits. Military spending, on the other hand, accounts for a whopping 57 percent of this spending. In 2011, only 4.4 cents of every tax dollar went to veterans’ benefits, while 27 cents went to the military. In September 2012, Senate Republicans blocked legislation that would have allocated $1 billion to create new job-training programs for veterans. These actions suggest that Congress is fast to throw money at a bloated military budget, which for FY2011 was almost as large as the next 14 countries’ combined, but considers it acceptable to devote comparatively few dollars to provide adequate care and compensation to veterans.

High-ranking military personnel are now questioning the effectiveness of the mission. In early 2012, Lt. Col. Daniel L. Davis, who served two yearlong deployments in Afghanistan, wrote in an article published in Armed Forces Journal, “How many more men must die in support of a mission that is not succeeding and behind an array of more than seven years of optimistic statements by U.S. senior leaders in Afghanistan?” (Learn more about Col. Davis’s whistle-blowing activities here). The American people and Congress have a responsibility to the nation’s men and women in uniform to act diligently and with a sense of urgency on this question until a straightforward and unequivocal answer is received.

Even as U.S. and NATO troops and Afghan civilians continue to be killed and maimed, and reports of the failing mission are becoming more widely known, the war in Afghanistan was hardly mentioned by the Democratic and Republican candidates during the 2012 presidential campaign. Only third parties, including Green Party presidential nominee Jill Stein, addressed the war directly and with heavy concern. Unfortunately for the American people and the troops and civilians in harm’s way in Afghanistan, the political establishment and mainstream media decided for the electorate that third parties should receive virtually no consideration.

Despite retired U.S. military leaders and others warning that conditions on the ground have deteriorated, not improved, the ongoing war has received little coverage in the major media in recent years. Most of the media have moved on. But people of conscience have not. Active duty military and veterans and their families certainly have not. Only in the last few weeks has Afghanistan re-emerged as a topic of discussion. Sadly, it was not the war that rekindled the media’s interest; it was a sex scandal involving two military generals, the now-former CIA Director David Petraeus and the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Gen. John Allen.

Unless we work to challenge and change some of our values as a culture, the corporate-sponsored media will continue serving the interests of the military-industrial complex and disregarding their journalistic duty to the public to be critical and impartial. The war may not have reached its 12th year if the media had asked hard, probing questions from the beginning. Fortunately, independent media, such as Democracy Now! and Common Dreams, have taken this responsibility seriously and filled the void left by the major media. The problem is that the majority of Americans are either unaware of, or hold misconceptions about, these vital news sources.

There are currently around 68,000 U.S. troops still deployed in Afghanistan. So-called green-on- blue, or insider, attacks are increasing. President Obama has indicated that most combat troops will be withdrawn by the end of 2014. Mr. Obama has not said, however, that America’s occupation of the sovereign nation would end as well. Rather, it is likely that a U.S. presence, comprised of a small military security force and a number of private contractors, will carry on indefinitely – a situation similar to post-war Iraq.

The real motive for remaining in Afghanistan – perhaps even for invading the country in the first place – appears to be nation building, and it is precisely nation building which is failing. Many believe that the war in Iraq, and the ongoing occupation of that country, was conducted to take control of the nation’s oil reserves, or at least to install a government that would sell oil to the U.S. and its allies cheaply. The question must be asked, then, whether the nation building effort in Afghanistan is laying a foundation on which the trillion-dollar reservoir of natural resources held by the nation could be more easily accessed.

The timeline for the end of combat operations in Afghanistan must be moved up and the occupation must end simultaneously. A course forward that keeps a foreign military presence in Afghanistan will not result in peace and stability nor will it help to build a free and just future for the Afghan people. Violent blowback against occupation will persist as long as troops and contractors remain in country. Instead, diplomatic ties with the new Afghan government must be strengthened, and include greater humanitarian and development aid. History reveals that foreign occupations of lands and peoples result in greater violence and social injustice and the erosion of human dignity and rights.

The anti-war and peace movements must continue to debate the morality, necessity and legality of the war. This effort, however, should not take away from launching new and innovative initiatives to persuade President Obama to act immediately and remove all international forces from Afghanistan.

If the American people truly want this war and occupation to end, they must be willing to rise up and actively voice their opposition. They must write letters, support progressive political candidates, and participate in public forms of nonviolent protest and civil disobedience. They must seek out and connect with like-minded folks and support groups that are working for peace and justice, such as Occupy, Veterans for Peace (VFP), the ANSWER coalition, Code Pink, and the War Resisters League (WRL). If citizens cede their conscience to power, power will exploit and dominate people and resources in their name. This very thing is being done in Afghanistan.

Brian J. Trautman, of Albany, NY, is a military veteran and an instructor of peace studies at Berkshire Community College. Brian is active with several peace groups, including Veterans for Peace and Berkshire Citizens for Peace and Justice.

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