Apologists for militarism, particularly liberal Democrats, justify those who enlist in America’s murderous military by saying that many soldiers come from parts of the country where good jobs are hard to come by. It’s time to point out that the real act of heroism is personal sacrifice rather than killing innocent people overseas for a slightly better paycheck and benefits.
December 11, 2001: Three months after 9/11, two months after George W. Bush ordered bombs to begin raining on Kabul, the day The Village Voice published one of my war reports from the front in Afghanistan.
“We’ve lost this war,” I wrote. To drive my point home, the headline was: “How We Lost Afghanistan.”
I continued: “So how much will it cost?”
Seventeen years later, the end of America’s longest war—since history suggests Afghans will keep killing each other long after our departure, it would be more precise to say the end of America’s involvement in Afghanistan—appears to be drawing near. Peace talks between the Trump Administration and the Taliban in Qatar have culminated with an “agreement on principle” whose main U.S. demand is easy for the Taliban to grant. Afghanistan, the Taliban must assure the U.S. and the Afghan puppet regime in Kabul, cannot again become a “platform for international terrorist groups or individuals.” Even according to estimates by the Obama-era CIA, Al Qaeda’s presence in Afghanistan was more of a coincidence than a fearsome terrorist organization: “about 50 to 100 Qaeda operatives.”
They could have fit on one bus. For this we fought a war?
Now we know the pricetag of the invasion and long occupation: 2,400-ish U.S. troops killed, 4,000-ish U.S. “civilian contractors” killed, 59,000-ish Afghan soldiers and police killed, 38,000-ish Afghan civilians killed, 42,000 “enemy” Afghan soldiers killed, 50-ish journalists killed, 400-ish NGO workers killed, 20,000-ish U.S. troops wounded. No one counts the other non-fatal casualties. Obviously the non-U.S. death counts are way lowball.
U.S. taxpayers spent $5 trillion—enough to wipe out all outstanding student loans three times over—on bombing and pillaging and torturing Afghans. Wind-down costs, interest on the national debt, etc. will cost more still. Caring for wounded veterans adds another $8 trillion going forward. For that total of $13 trillion you could pay off every debt owed by every American citizen: home mortgages, car loans, credit cards, student loans, everything.
No one estimates the total cost of the buildings and other Afghan infrastructure destroyed by the war.
Of course no one can begin to calculate America’s loss of moral standing in the world. You don’t get to invade the world’s poorest nation, kidnap the locals and torture them in gruesome concentration and death camps, coddle local perverts and child rapists and come out looking half-decent.
Special Forces captain Dan Quinn beat a U.S.-backed Northern Alliance commander he found sexually abusing an Afghan boy chained to his bed on a U.S. military base. “The reason we were here is because we heard the terrible things the Taliban were doing to people, how they were taking away human rights,” Quinn said. “But we were putting people into power [the Northern Alliance] who would do things that were worse than the Taliban did—that was something village elders voiced to me.” Quinn was drummed out of the military.
As I mentioned at the top of this essay, the war was lost before it really began, in 2001.
Anyone who paid attention knew losing was inevitable.
So why did we lose?
It’s too facile to say: graveyard of empires. Afghans really did welcome us as liberators in 2001. We had a better shot at success than the Brits and the Russians.
The short answer is: we did both too little and too much.
Too much cash spent, too little reconstruction.
“It would take billions of dollars to even begin rebuilding this country,” an American officer told me for my 2001 Voice piece. “Billions of dollars and many, many years. We don’t have that kind of attention span. Bombing Iraq will be a lot sexier than teaching Afghans how to read.” Afghanistan didn’t have phones, electricity, paved roads, bridges or public records. Streets didn’t have names, houses had no numbers—which was fine since there was no mail. There was no central bank or monetary system. People didn’t know their own last names.
Billions were spent, some of it on rebuilding public infrastructure. “A year ago it took about two days to drive between Kabul and the southern city of Kandahar. Today it takes about five hours on a smoothly tarmacked road paid for by millions of US taxpayers’ dollars,” the BBC reported in 2004.
Problem was, reconstruction money didn’t go to ordinary Afghans or even their towns. The U.S. installed a puppet president, Hamid Karzai, whose corrupt family looted millions, possibly billions, of dollars in cash. The drug trade, suppressed by the Taliban government before the U.S. invasion, exploded. “Private money, a substantial portion of it thought to be from the illegal drugs trade, is also funding a spurt of new building in the cities, but many say they have seen little change, especially in rural areas where most Afghans live, where villages without even basics like running water, power or schools remain the norm,” reported the BBC. By 2010 half of Afghans told pollsters they hadn’t seen any reconstruction whatsoever paid for by foreign aid. It’s just as bad now.
If an Afghan wanted to fix his house after it was damaged by a U.S. drone attack, that was on him.
Too little self-determination.
“The Afghan people have lost faith in the democratic political process, and regardless of the Taliban’s intimidation they have already boycotted the ongoing voter registration throughout the country,” Asia Times reported in 2018. What “democratic” process? Fraud was widespread in presidential and parliamentary elections. “Everyone was cheating in my polling station. Only 10% voted, but they registered 100% turnout. One man brought five books of ballots, each containing 100 votes, and stuffed them in the boxes after the elections were over,” an Afghan voting official said in 2009.
The message that elections can be fixed came straight from the self-declared crusaders of electoral democracy. In November 2001 while the initial invasion was still underway the U.S. staged a farcical political conference in Bonn, Germany where the Bush Administration attempted to foist the exiled king Zahir Shah, an 87-year-old exiled in Italy since the early 1970s, on the Afghans as a weak English-style constitutional monarch. Ironically, the Afghans present liked the idea—then the Americans pushed him out of the way to make room for Karzai.
The message was clear: American-style democracy is BS.
P.S. Afghanistan, it turns out, has vast mineral wealth worth more than $1 trillion. China has locked up the rights to exploit those reserves.
(Ted Rall (Twitter: @tedrall), the political cartoonist, columnist and graphic novelist, is the author of “Francis: The People’s Pope.” You can support Ted’s hard-hitting political cartoons and columns and see his work first by sponsoring his work on Patreon.)
The U.S. occupation of Afghanistan is in its 17th year with no end in sight. The U.S. has killed a million Iraqis over the last 15 years. We’re killing Syrians, Yemenis and Somalis. None of the victims threatened us. We murdered them for fun and profit.
Some of the killers feel guilty. Twenty military veterans and active-duty personnel commit suicide each day.
Militarism is a gruesome sickness. Some people are trying to cure our country of this cancer. But pacifists are fighting an uphill battle.
On Sunday, October 23rd “About 1,500 women and allied men marched on the Pentagon on Sunday to demand an end to perpetual war and the funding of education, health care and other social needs instead,” reported Joe Lauria of the progressive website Consortium News.
Mainstream/corporate journalistic outlets memory-holed the event with a total media blackout.
One commenter on Facebook bemoaned national priorities: what does it say that so few attended the Women’s March on the Pentagon? More than 200,000 people crowded the Washington Mall for comedian Jon Stewart’s inane 2010 “Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear,” a piss-take parody of protest, literally and by the definition of its organizers an apolitical march for nothing!
Cindy Sheehan, an activist who made national news by protesting her son’s death in the Iraq War at George W. Bush’s Texas ranch, responded on Facebook that people should show up rather than sit at home criticizing those who did on their computers.
Cindy is right. She usually is.
But apathy and laziness aren’t the main causes of low attendance at real, bona-fide Left protests and demonstrations (as opposed to coopted-by-the-Democratic Party marches like the annual January 20th Women’s Marches against Trump).
Our real problem is that there isn’t a real, bona-fide Left journalism outlet in the United States.
One that’s smart, i.e., well-managed. Not in the derpy leaderless consensus style that destroyed the Occupy movement, but top-down by brilliant Machiavellian can’t-be-bought leftist schemers who know how to motivate and build an organization.
One that’s well-funded. Not by some control-freak billionaire who can petulantly renege on his big promises after he loses interest or gets corrupted, but by generous ongoing crowdsourcing that guarantees editorial independence to an uncompromisingly left-wing team of editors with big budgets to hire kickass investigative reporters, back out-of-the-box journalists, humorists and editorialists. Give me $50 million a year (wonder if the person who won the $1.6 billion MegaMillions lottery is progressive?) and I could build and run an operation that could change the world. It’s not impossible: Bernie Sanders raised $100 million from small donors in one year.
One that’s entertaining. The way FoxNews and Rush Limbaugh are entertaining but MSNBC and Air America aren’t/weren’t. Because humor and entertainment are what attract new readers/listeners/watchers and keep loyalists coming back.
I only heard about the Women’s March on the Pentagon one day before. It was by happenstance. (I live in New York, six hours from DC, but like most people I can’t just drop everything and skip town with a night’s notice.)
I’ve been a leftie cartoonist and columnist for nearly three decades. Yet I have hardly ever received an email from a left-leaning organization inviting me to publicize or attend or cover a protest demonstration, or a press release explaining that one was about to occur. I’ve asked other pundits; they never hear from the Left either.
Meanwhile I’m constantly getting talking point lists, action memos, press releases and all sorts of sundry propaganda from right-wing organizations as well as the mainline Republican and Democratic party apparatuses. Which is all redundant because all that crap gets ample coverage on cable news, network news, talk radio, NPR, newspapers and news websites, not to mention social media.
I don’t need more junk email. Point is, my leftism-free inbox is a barometer of the state of the Left: disorganized and disconnected and incapable of broadcasting its message. If a protest march falls in the woods—or on the Washington Mall—does it make a sound? Not if the word doesn’t get out. Not if no one reports it after the fact.
Speaking for myself, I would push out events like the Women’s March on the Pentagon via my social media feeds if I knew about them in advance. I would attend some. I would cover some. I’m sure my left-leaning colleagues feel the same.
Grassroots organizing will never build into 1960s-level mass demonstrations without big, rich, smart, cool media distribution channels to give it space to breathe and expand.
First, we need a big-ass left-wing media group to educate people about what’s going on. You can’t expect people to get riled up about what the U.S. is doing in Yemen if they don’t know what’s going on there. Mainstream corporate media doesn’t cover the U.S. role in the proxy civil war.
Second, to redefine what’s “normal.” In the current media landscape, opposing war is abnormal. That message is subliminal: when’s the last time, during a foreign policy crisis, that a mainstream pundit suggested the U.S. simply stay out of it? A smart, well-funded, entertaining-as-hell media organization would provide an alternative to the establishment narrative. You can’t dream of peace if it’s not in your brain as a possibility in the first place.
Third, to showcase activism and direct action as feasible, fun and effective. 1,500 people is a good turnout for a wedding but a bit depressing if you drove hundreds of miles to attend a national protest demonstration. Movement-based media could get more people to rallies. It could frame such gatherings as exciting, fun and important. That framing would create real political pressure on the powers that be.
In the 1960s the corporate mainstream media allowed antiwar, pro-civil rights and other antiestablishment journalists and pundits to disseminate their views on TV (Cronkite criticizing the Vietnam War), on the opinion pages of major newspapers and in bestselling books. And they covered protests.
No more. The Left has been ruthlessly purged.
Not one single opinion writer or staff columnist or cartoonist employed by an American newspaper is a real, bonafide leftist—not a single one even supported Bernie Sanders (whose politics are basically McGovern in 1972 and was supported by half of Democrats) during the 2016 primaries.
Not one single TV or major radio talk show host is a real, bonafide leftist. None supported Bernie.
The same goes for “liberal” outlets like The Atlantic, Salon, Slate, etc.
It’s censorship. It’s systemic. It’s killing the Left.
Considering that it’s impossible for the Left to get coverage for anything, it’s a miracle that 1,500 people showed up for the Women’s March on the Pentagon.
If we had a real, smart, well-funded, organized media organization to publicize the news and the world from a socialist or communist viewpoint—an ideology shared by at least one out of three American voters overall and 57% of Democrats—there could easily have been 150,000 or 1,500,000.
(Ted Rall (Twitter: @tedrall), the political cartoonist, columnist and graphic novelist, is the author of “Francis: The People’s Pope.” You can support Ted’s hard-hitting political cartoons and columns and see his work first by sponsoring his work on Patreon.)
What if other countries mourned their national tragedies the way we do? The United States reads off the names of the dead during annual commemoration ceremonies and builds walls with names. Other countries have far bigger death counts, often due to us, but the scale of the carnage makes it impossible for them to wallow in such niceties.
Personnel is policy, they say in Washington. The appointment of John Bolton as national security advisor is by far President Trump’s most dangerous decision.
When the president considers foreign policy, no one is closer to his ear than his national security advisor. He will discuss questions of war and peace with military generals and members of his cabinet, but when there’s a diversity of opinion, the views of a national security advisor can be determinative.
“Brent Scowcroft defined the role of the National Security Advisor (NSA),” wrote Stephen J. Hadley, former National Security Advisor under George W. Bush. “The only person to hold the job twice [under Ford and George H.W. Bush], Brent established the ‘Scowcroft Model’ for all who followed him in the job: Be an ‘Honest Broker,’ running a fair, transparent, and inclusive process for bringing issues to the president.”
John Bolton is not an honest broker. John Bolton cannot be an honest broker. No human being on earth is less qualified to be Donald Trump’s national security advisor.
Given the fact that Donald Trump already leans hard to the right wing of the Republican Party, and that his advisers are drawn from the extreme right as well, and “honest broker” national security advisor would by definition need to provide balance. Ideally it would come from the NSA himself. At minimum he would bring in people with opposing views. Bolton is congenitally incapable of either.
Bolton must be stopped.
His nomination does not require Senate confirmation. But there’s nothing preventing members of both parties from traveling to the White House to inform the president that Bolton is a nonstarter. Congress should have nothing to do with this president as long as this dangerous man is whispering sweet bellicose nothings into his ear.
If you haven’t been paying much attention, I don’t blame you for smelling a whiff of hysteria. How bad could this guy really be?
Bolton was the king of the George W. Bush-era neocons, a man who made Dick Cheney and Paul Wolfowitz look like wimps. As Bush’s ambassador to the United Nations, he remarked that it wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing if the institution disappeared or, evoking the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the building housing UN headquarters were to lose a few floors.
These days Bolton is touting “regime change” against Iran. Evoking the same arguments he used to justify the invasion of Iraq, he paints dark portraits of North Korea selling or giving nuclear weapons to Al Qaeda or some other terrorist organization despite the fact that there is no evidence whatsoever that there are any links for common ideology between the two. Just after Trump — correctly, in my view — announced that he would meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un, Bolton wrote an opinion essay laying out the so-called “legal” argument in favor of a preemptive nuclear strike against North Korea. I’d love to be a fly on the wall when that comes up between American and North Korean officials setting up the summit in May.
Most foreign-policy experts, most ordinary Americans, and most sane people generally agree that the 2003 invasion of Iraq was a military, political, economic, and propaganda disaster for the United States and the world. We were not “welcomed as liberators.” The war was sold (in large part by Bolton) based on the lie that the U.S. knew that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction (they didn’t have them so we know that “knowledge” was a lie).
Anti-Americanism increased, as did terrorist attacks and the appeal of terrorist organizations that targeted Americans. Thousands of American troops were killed, tens of thousands wounded, and millions of Iraqis died because of the war. Billions of dollars were squandered and oil prices went up, not down as the neocons had hoped and expected, because of the resulting instability. Perhaps most damning of all, the long simmering Sunni-Shia divide widened into a gaping chasm that continues to chew up the Middle East in places like Yemen.
No one was more in favor of that war than John Bolton. For that reason alone, he’s unqualified to provide foreign policy advice to anyone more important than a small marsupial. But Bolton is more than just a warmonger — he’s a stupid warmonger. Which is why he still can’t accept the fact that he screwed up.
“I still think the decision to overthrow Saddam was correct,” he told The Washington Examiner in 2015. “I think decisions made after that decision were wrong, although I think the worst decision made after that was the 2011 decision to withdraw U.S. and coalition forces. The people who say, ‘Oh, things would have been much better if you didn’t overthrow Saddam,’ miss the point that today’s Middle East does not flow totally and unchangeably from the decision to overthrow Saddam alone.”
“I think the Iraqi people would be unique in history if they didn’t welcome the overthrow of this dictatorial regime,” Bolton bloviated in a breathtakingly embarrassing 2002 interview. “And Iraqi opposition leaders of a variety of positions and views are discussing now what will happen after Saddam Hussein. I expect that the American role actually will be fairly minimal. I think we’ll have an important security role. I think concluding the destruction of the weapons of mass destruction themselves will be important.”
Wonder if the families of those dead and injured American soldiers think their role was “fairly minimal.”
I tell you what, John: you go and find those weapons of mass distraction and we’ll let you be national security advisor.
(Ted Rall’s (Twitter: @tedrall) brand-new book is “Francis: The People’s Pope,” the latest in his series of graphic novel-format biographies. You can support Ted’s hard-hitting political cartoons and columns and see his work first by sponsoring his work on Patreon.)
Donald Trump plans to ban transgender soldiers from the military. The reason he gives for this move is twofold. First, he claims paying for transitions is too expensive. But the military doesn’t cover them. He also thinks troops will be distracted from their duties by the mere presence of transgender soldiers.
Military spending is the biggest waste of federal taxdollars ever. Both political parties are equally complicit.
The militarism scam is the best-kept secret in American politics.
When you think about it — but no one in the halls of Congress ever does — it’s hard to think of a country that has less to fear than the United States. Two vast oceans eliminate our vulnerability to attack, except by countries with sophisticated long-range ballistic missiles (5 out of 206 nations). We share long borders with two nations that we count as close allies and trading partners.
Historically, the U.S. has only faced an invasion once, by the British during the War of 1812. (There have been other minor incursions, by Mexico during the 19th century and the Japanese occupation of two remote islands in the Aleutian chain during World War II. The Pearl Harbor attack was a raid, not an invasion.)
Objectively, we have little to worry about beside terrorism — and that’s a job for domestic police and intelligence agencies, not the military. Yet a whopping 54% of discretionary federal spending goes to the Pentagon. The Bush Administration put the Afghanistan and Iraq wars “off the books” of the Pentagon budget. And that’s not counting interest on debt or benefits paid out for old wars. We’re still paying $5 billion a year for World War II. We’re still paying off beneficiaries for the Civil and Spanish-American Wars!
The U.S. accounts for less than 5% of the world’s population. We account for 37% of military spending worldwide, equal to the next seven countries (China, Saudi Arabia, Russia, the United Kingdom, India, France, Japan) combined. (And the U.S. sells a lot of hardware to most of those countries.)
Russia spends roughly a tenth as much on defense as the U.S. And they have a lot more (and twice as much territory) to defend against: NATO/American missiles to their west in Europe, a southern border full of radical Islamists in unstable countries like Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, Afghanistan a stone’s throw away, historical regional superpower rival China next door. Despite its relatively small defense budget, Russia somehow manages to soldier on.
No matter how you look at it, America’s military budget is due for a haircut. If it were up to me, I’d scale quickly down to the Russian level, pro rata for square mileage — lob 95% of this bloated $600 billion a year monstrosity right off the top. But even a less radical budget cutter could do some good. A 10% cut — $60 billion a year — would buy universal pre-school or allow half of America’s four-year college and university students to have free tuition.
Insanely, we’re going the opposite direction.
President Trump wants to increase military spending by $54 billion — roughly 10% — per year.
Republican hypocrisy is brazen and obvious. Most are channeling Dick Cheney’s “deficits don’t matter” to justify huge tax cuts to rich individuals and big business. “I’m not the first to observe that a Republican Congress only cares about the deficit when a Democrat is in the White House,” the economist Alan Krueger says. But even the most strident deficit hawks, though uncomfortable with the tax cuts, have no problem whatsoever with Trump’s proposed hike in military spending.
“Any time we spend more money — even if it’s for something that we need — we need to cut spending in a corresponding aspect to the budget,” says Rand Paul. Slashing other, more needed programs — which is pretty much anything other than the military — is what passes for sanity in the Republican Party.
No one is proposing zero increase, much less a cut.
If anything, the Democrats are even worse. Democrats have promised a fierce Resistance to Trump and his works. But their oft-stated resolve is noticeably absent when it comes to He-Who-Must-Be-Impeached’s lust to jack up a crazy-ass defense budget that doesn’t have much of a justification to exist at all.
“This budget shifts the burden off of the wealthy and special interests and puts it squarely on the backs of the middle class and those struggling to get there … Democrats in Congress will emphatically oppose these cuts and urge our Republican colleagues to reject them as well,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said.
Notice what’s missing? Like other Democratic leaders, Schumer’s beef is with Trump’s proposed cuts to the arts, EPA and other domestic spending, and the tax cuts. He doesn’t say boo about the defense increase.
As usual, Bernie Sanders was better than other Democrats. But even he didn’t explicitly reject the idea of a military increase on its face.
As we move past Memorial Day — the holiday when we remember the war dead, the vast majority who died not to defend America but to oppress people in other countries who never posed a threat to the United States — we should reconsider the assumption that all military spending is good spending.
(Ted Rall (Twitter: @tedrall) is author of “Trump: A Graphic Biography,” an examination of the life of the Republican presidential nominee in comics form. You can support Ted’s hard-hitting political cartoons and columns and see his work first by sponsoring his work on Patreon.)
The Washington Post reports that President Trump wants to go after — really, really go after — the Taliban in Afghanistan:
President Trump’s most senior military and foreign policy advisers have proposed a major shift in strategy in Afghanistan that would effectively put the United States back on a war footing with the Taliban.
The new plan, which still needs the approval of the president, calls for expanding the U.S. military role as part of a broader effort to push an increasingly confident and resurgent Taliban back to the negotiating table, U.S. officials said.
The plan comes at the end of a sweeping policy review built around the president’s desire to reverse worsening security in Afghanistan and “start winning” again, said one U.S. official, who like others spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.
This will not, cannot work.
Give Trump’s military advisers points for clarity. Their war aim is clear:
“The review is an opportunity to send a message that, yes, the U.S. is going to send more troops, but it’s not to achieve a forever military victory,” said Andrew Wilder, an Afghanistan expert at the U.S. Institute of Peace. “Rather, it’s to try to bring about a negotiated end to this conflict.”
Still can’t work. Americans, American allies and Afghans are going to die for nothing. Here’s why.
I’ll spare you the Afghanistan As Graveyard of Empires argument that I’ve written about before. Yes, the Afghans beat the Brits thrice, the Russians once, and us every day since 9/11. Though the time (1842) they killed everyone in the British army except one guy is well worth reading about. A “signal catastrophe,” they called it. History repeats, especially in Afghanistan, but it isn’t predestination. Theoretically, the United States could defeat the Taliban. The reason they won’t is that they don’t have the political will to do so.
Militarily? Of course the U.S. can defeat the Taliban. The Taliban don’t have planes, long- or medium-range missiles. The U.S. can bomb the Taliban (and lots of non Talibs) to smithereens with a carpet-bombing campaign the likes of which the world has never seen before. They can drone them. They can send hundreds of thousands of highly trained and well-armed troops to invade and occupy the cities and villages and roads in between. If the U.S. declared Total War against the Taliban, if the U.S. were willing to dedicate its stunning economic and military power toward the goal of defending its puppet regime in Kabul, the Taliban would be killed and captured and driven over the mountains to Pakistan.
But that would be expensive. It wouldn’t take for very long before voters, and some journalists, began asking why the U.S. was willing to take tens of thousands of deaths in Afghanistan and willing to spend billions of dollars a week to occupy the country.
Supply lines to Afghanistan are long and difficult. There is no obvious geopolitical payoff, not one worth such a high price. At this point, the U.S.’ involvement in Afghanistan boils down to (a) let’s fuck with Iran and (b) it’s a launching pad for bombing attacks on the Tribal Areas of Pakistan along the Afghan border. Not much payoff there.
Yes, there are mineral resources. But this isn’t Iraq or Libya — natural resources aren’t coming out of the ground in significant numbers for years to come. Not that the U.S. is particularly good at looting natural resources, as we’ve seen in Iraq.
What about forcing the Taliban to negotiate? First, no one figure speaks for the whole movement. It’s a diverse alliance of tribes, ethnicities and political impulses. Second, we’ve been here before. Nixon bombed Vietnam to soften up the communists before negotiating. Bush used back channels to try to talk to the Taliban. Such efforts are fruitless against an adversary with the tactical advantages that come from fighting a guerrilla war as an indigenous. They’re local. They live there. Time is on their side. They’ll wait us out.
In the end, it’s simple cost-benefit analysis: low gain, high expense. Afghanistan just isn’t worth it.
Unfortunately, Trump and his henchmen won’t figure that out before more people have died over nothing.