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.
Trump has repeatedly boasted about having secret plans in his desk draw to win the Afghanistan war in a week, but it would “kill 10 million people.” On April 13, 2017, US planes dropped a MOAB bomb on a suspected tunnel complex in Khorasan Province, the most destructive non-nuclear bomb in the Pentagon’s arsenal. Trump has since implied a willingness to consider using tactical nuclear weapons against Taliban, Al Qaeda and ISIS positions in Afghanistan.
Because of the Pentagon’s $1.7 trillion secret slush fund for “anti-terror” operations, it’s almost impossible to calculate the total cost of the Afghanistan war to date. At a minimum, the US is spending about $52 billion a year waging war in Afghanistan. But, even as Trump expresses a desire to pullout US troops before the fall elections, this number is likely to rise, as US combat missions and airstrikes in Afghanistan have increased steadily since 2017 with little public debate or justification.
As recently as December 2019, top US military brass have described the war as a “strategic stalemate.” But it’s hard to determine precisely what this means since under Trump the Pentagon is “no longer producing its district-level stability assessments of Afghan government and insurgent control and influence”–the only real metric for judging the progress of the war. These reports, known as the SIGAR assessments, had provided quarterly estimates of the amount of land area and population under Taliban control or influence.
The final SIGAR report, issued in January 2019 before Trump pulled the plug, showed that only 53.4 percent of Afghanistan was under government control or influence, the lowest amount since SIGAR began tracking the data in 2015. The clear message is that 18 years into a war that has killed and maimed hundreds of thousands of people, the US is losing, even as one administration after another lies about the reasons we are there and the consequences, political and moral, for staying.
The so-called Afghanistan Papers, an internal review of the conduct of the war by the Inspector General’s Office, reveals that the Pentagon knew the war was hopeless from the earliest days and went to extraordinary lengths to hide this reality from the public and from the politicians who hold the purse-strings. The fraudulent depictions of the war spread virulently across three administrations. As Bob Crowley, a counter-terrorism advisor to CENTCOM during the Obama surge said derisively: “Every data point was altered to present the best picture possible.”
When revealed in the Washington Post, the story made a splash for a couple of days and then, like every other revelation about the Afghan catastrophe, dissipated from the headlines and from the political debate. The tempo of US airstrikes once again increased. A suicide bomber blew himself up in Charikar at a rally for Afghan president Ashraf Ghani, killing 26 and wounding 42. Trump proclaimed negotiations with the Taliban “dead” and put a hold on reconstruction funds. US troops were ambushed by the Taliban. A CIA special ops plane was shot down. And the UN reported that US airstrikes had killed 579 civilians and wounded 306 in the last year, an increase of 35 percent over 2018.
Just another few weeks in the war that time forgot.