We hear it all the time. The most crucial decision of this century was the vote to go to war against Iraq. It’s meant to serve as a political line of demarcation, a sure-fire way to determine which politicians, celebrities and news personalities you can trust.
But there’s little question, to my mind at least, that the impulsive decision to invade Afghanistan was the more consequential and enduring tragedy, a political bloodletting that nearly every political leader, left and right, fell for, even putative peaceniks like Bernie Sanders and Ron Paul. This was the true moral test of our time and almost everyone failed, except Barbara Lee. She was the lone voice of conscience in the fall of 2001, a vote of dissent in a time of mass hysteria that has been vindicated time and again over the past 18 years.
Remember, the vote to go to war against Afghanistan, enacted only seven days after the 9/11 attacks, was actually a vote for an open-ended war waged against nebulous “terrorists” anywhere on the planet: Pakistan, Niger, Yemen, Somalia, Algeria. You name it. No questions asked. It was only Barbara Lee foresaw the consequences, how even a highflying critic of the rush to invade Iraq like Barack Obama could 14-years later use the hastily-written AUMF as a legal basis for launching airstrikes on ISIS forces inside Syria. Now, Donald Trump has claimed the same unilateral authority and used it to justify strikes against the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad and to justify the assassination of Qasem Suleimani. It’s the gift that keeps on killing.
What has the AUMF wrought? More than 18 years after the first US airstrikes hit Kabul, Kandahar and Jalalabad, the Taliban now control more of Afghanistan than they did on October 6, 2001, the day before a cruise missile strike destroyed Mullah Omar’s house. Last year was the deadliest year for US troops in Afghanistan since 2014 during Obama’s ill-fated surge. The Pentagon has long since stopped tracking the Afghan dead, but Neta Crawford, of Brown University’s Cost of War Project, estimated that by 2016 more than 111,000 Afghans had been killed in the war, at least 31,000 of them civilians.