Three Wars Uncompleted, the Price Unpaid

“Let contradictions prevail! Let one thing contradict another! And let one line of my poems contradict another!”

— Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass.

On May 30, at 10:06am, the United States exchequer turned over its trillionth dollar to the U. S. armed forces for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. A trillion dollars is a lot of money. As my friends at the National Priorities Project put it, if I made a $1 million a year, it would take me a million years to earn a trillion dollars. The U. S. government expended the same amount in nine years, fighting two wars. So what did our trillion tax dollars buy?

The best way to answer this question is to see if the U. S. government was able to attain its war aims in each theatre. But what are the war aims? These are unclear. Albeit a democracy, the United States government has been chary with its intentions. Of such silences are conspiracies made. The bilious Daniel Patrick Moynihan once wrote that most of what is classified by the government is meaningless (Secrecy, 1999). Much of it is already in the public domain. War aims are not hidden because they are secret. Most of the time they are unarticulated because the wars themselves are embarrassingly tied to certain limited class needs: power and resources lead the pack. Patriotism is much easier as social glue than patrimonial entitlement.

The banners at the anti-war demonstrations in 2002 and 2003 said, “No Blood for Oil.” At the time, the media decided to mock the linkage. Then along came Alan Greenspan, four years later, with this rather charmless sentence, “I am saddened that it is politically inconvenient to acknowledge what everyone knows: the Iraq war is largely about oil” (The Age of Turbulence, 2007, p. 463). Was the war for oil? Not entirely. The war was also about power, about the continued attempt by the G7, led by the United States, to maintain dominance over an increasingly unruly and unreliable planet. In 2007, the U. S. military formed AFRICOM and began to turn the drug-runners of the Sahel into a detachment of al-Qaeda, as well to pretend that the Somali pirates came out of Old History rather than the overfishing of the Indian Ocean. The answer to every question was military action, and if the question was simply, “could we have some more fish, please,” the answer (bombardment) began to produce an entirely different, and now a new, self-perpetuating question (why do they hate us?).

If the war aims were resources and power, they have largely failed. U. S. power is in drift, not yet in decline. Goldman Sachs is able to force New York City to move the West Side Highway so that its limousines can make a right turn; China Youth Daily calls Goldman Sachs a “gold slurping black-hand” (June 8, 2010). The steretypes are upended; it is the New Yorkers who are deferential to Money, and it is the Chinese who write their editorials with the Middle Finger. Oil plumes and the carcasses of potentially extinct species are blackening the Gulf of Mexico. Corporations run rings around Washington, D. C. Drift is hardly worth a trillion dollars.

Whether Bush or Obama, the government has failed to articulate definitive war aims. Without war aims, how do the military planners construct a strategy, and then, how do they produce tactics? The National Security strategy of the Bush years was simply a promissory note to the world that it would get a good clobbering every once in a while. The strategy was obvious; the tactics followed. At least it had the merit of being honest. It was war without end.

The Obama strategy, from May 2010, has been largely unheralded – very few analysts have given it the time of day. I don’t blame them. It is pabulum, all about interconnected worlds and enhanced prestige. The Obama team promises to “pursue a strategy of national renewal and global leadership – a strategy that rebuilds the foundation of American strength and influence.” To this end, the Obama team says, “Our Armed Forces will always be a cornerstone of our security, but they must be complemented. Our security also depends upon diplomats who can act in every corner of the world, from grand capitals to dangerous outposts.” Not much of this on offer. When the Brazilians and Turks produced a diplomatic gambit with Iran, the U. S. diplomats, in their dangerous outpost at the United Nations, went for new sanctions – all this during the same period as the Turks are up in arms about the Mavi Marmara, and the U. S. remains obdurate about not condemning Israel’s actions in the Mediterranean. It is hard to take the Obama strategy seriously when the administration seems not to be following its own promises.

What of those trillion dollars? Were they well spent? Let’s take four of the openly articulated war aims.


(1) Destroy and Disrupt al-Qaeda. After 9/11, the Taliban government informed the U. S. government that it was ready to hand over Osama Bin Laden and the rest of the al-Qaeda leadership to an international court, if the U. S. was able to provide a dossier on their crimes. This was a diplomatic opening. Rather than engage it, the U. S. went to war. Al-Qaeda has not been destroyed. Bin Laden remains at large, so does his deputy (Ayman al-Zawahiri). Al-Qaeda’s operation has now moved into Pakistan, where it threatens to disrupt the nuclear-armed State. For that, the U. S. government now uses the term Af-Pak. The existence of such a term is itself a sign of defeat.

(2) Bring Democracy to Afghanistan. In early June, the U. S. backed Afghan government conducted a jirga whose purpose was to bring the Taliban back into the corridors of power. This is a government that has already adopted much of the Taliban program, including a Supreme Court that banned female singing on television and permits husbands to starve wives who are unwilling to have sex. Recall that it was the U. S. in the 1980s that backed these Islamists in the first place, and used them to attack the progressive laws passed by the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan (including the right to divorce and land reform). Between the Taliban and the Warlords there is little difference; the U. S. government has empowered one against the other, and both against the Afghan people.


(3) Destroy Weapons of Mass Destruction. The United States government went to war in Iraq in 2003 on the pretext of weapons of mass destruction. None were found. Iraq had been starved by the sanctions of the 1990s. It barely had an army left, as the U. S. troops soon found. What army was left became the guerrilla force that morphed into the sectarian militias, which continue to bedevil Iraq. No weapons of mass destruction, although with the U. S. military bogged down in Afghanistan and Iraq, an emboldened North Korea went ahead and tested its own nuclear device. The next best thing for isolated Pyongyang is if its football team is able to make the quarter-finals at the 2010 World Cup (as it did during its last outing, in 1966).

(4) Create a Stable Ally in the Middle East. We were told that an Iraq absent Saddam Hussein would look like Lebanon before the 1975-1990 sectarian civil war, with Beirut, the Paris of the East, now to be found in Baghdad. The destruction of Iraq in 2003 resembled the invasion by the Mongol Helegu in 1258: all that remained were facades of a city that once was. From the ashes of a destroyed people rose the sectarian militias and a civil war as brutal as broke apart Lebanon for fifteen years. Iraq remains unstable, with suicide bombing a constant and unreported feature. Trapped in Iraq, trapped by Israel’s variances from normality, unable to find any allies among the Turks or the Iranians: a miserable soup for the planners at Foggy Bottom.

What did the American people get for the trillion dollars? At least a million dead in Iraq and Afghanistan, and instability in key parts of the world. The United States could continue to throw money into these two conflicts, but in neither case will the articulated and unarticulated war aims be attained. Iraq and Afghanistan deserve another future, one that is not to be determined by military force. No point being dragged again and again down what Martin Luther King, Jr. called, “the shameful corridor of time reserved for those who possess power without compassion.”

It is time to consider other solutions.

VIJAY PRASHAD is the George and Martha Kellner Chair of South Asian History and Director of International Studies at Trinity College, Hartford, CT His most recent book, The Darker Nations: A People’s History of the Third World, won the Muzaffar Ahmad Book Prize for 2009. The Swedish and French editions are just out. He can be reached at:




Vijay Prashad’s most recent book (with Noam Chomsky) is The Withdrawal: Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan and the Fragility of US Power (New Press, August 2022).