It began as it always seems to, with some entrenched stakeholder in the foreign policy establishment solemnly invoking their idea of The Right Thing To Do. “[B]ottom line is that our work is not done in Afghanistan,” said former Defense Secretary and CIA Director Leon Panetta during a CNN appearance on August 27. “I know we’ll be removing our troops by a certain date, but the bottom line is our work is not done…. We’re going to have to go back in to get ISIS.”
Twenty years, thousands of lives and trillions of dollars later, these people still think flapping “our work is not done” remains a viable argument for the Forever War, i.e. the so-called “war on terror.” Even after getting battered for days with images of the mayhem at Kabul airport, American opinion remains solidly against continuing our failed war in Afghanistan, which has prompted the stay-forever advocates to ramp up the volume.
“The chance of another 9/11 just went through the roof,” announced Lindsey Graham as he twirled the old, bloody shirt. “This is one of the worst foreign policy decisions in American history, much worse than Saigon,” snarled Mitch McConnell with brazen incoherence; does he think we should still be fighting the Vietnam War? “It’s been a catastrophe and I’m afraid it’s only going to get worse,” opined alpha warmonger John Bolton. Even Donald Trump, who ran for president on withdrawing from Afghanistan and brokered the deal that led to this mess, dropped in his two cents. “This is not a withdrawal,” he howled at a rally in Cullman, Alabama. “This was a total … surrender.”
In their haste to reactivate the war-profit ATM and trillion-dollar mineral/gas rights bonanza that is and has been Afghanistan, our pals in the establishment have either glossed over or gruesomely perverted a few pertinent facts.
First and foremost, the Taliban clearly perpetrates horrific violence, repression, and misogyny… but they also despise the Islamic State and ISIS-K (or “ISIS-X,” as Trump named them the other day when he flubbed the teleprompter again). Beyond cultural and religious differences is the fact that members of ISIS (also known as Daesh), like al-Qaeda, want to violently spread their influence worldwide. Allowing al-Qaeda to do so bought the Taliban 20 years of war and a prolonged near-death experience. They have not forgotten the lesson.
The Taliban were furious over the Kabul airport bombing, just as they were unhappy with the 9/11 attacks. They want to make Afghanistan into their own far-right religious fascist arena, and are not interested in going beyond their borders. When ISIS or al-Qaeda start murdering citizens of other countries within their borders and without, it messes with their plans. Because of this, it is not a reach to conclude that the best people to “get ISIS” are the ones who are already there.
This decision would not be unprecedented. An earlier phase of the war in Afghanistan bore witness to “an all-out military challenge by the Islamic State to the Taliban’s supremacy as Afghanistan’s Islamist guerrilla force,” according to Graeme Wood of The Atlantic. “These two factions fought a war — and even though the Taliban had a decades-long head start, the competition was a close one in certain areas, particularly eastern Afghanistan. The U.S. intervened to help the Taliban.”
It’s a bleak option, the very idea of considering the Taliban to be some sort of ally in this specific struggle. By doing so, we would be giving tacit endorsement to their nascent government, and through that, endorsement to the various shades of hell they will almost certainly inflict on civilians, particularly women. It is a jagged rock to swallow, but it is also what happens when you lose a war. When the Visigoths crested the seventh hill of Rome, Emperor Honorius was not waiting at the gate with a list of insistent demands. They would have flung his body from the walls with that list jammed down his throat. It just doesn’t work like that.
What demands we can make will come couched in a coalition of 98 countries, which have banded together with the U.S. to apply as much economic pressure on the Taliban as possible. “The United States and 97 other countries said on Sunday that they would continue to take in people fleeing Afghanistan after the American military departs this week,” reports The New York Times, “and had secured an agreement with the Taliban to allow safe passage for those who are leaving.”
The Times goes on to state that the dialog from these 98 countries “was meant to convey an implicit message about incentives — namely, foreign aid to the government — that the international community would use to enforce it.” Make no mistake: With hundreds of U.S. citizens and thousands of Afghan allies still trying to flee Afghanistan, this offer amounts to nothing more or less than a ransom, one these countries hope the Taliban will accept. Again, this is what happens when you lose a war.
It is to be hoped that this devil’s bargain will buy safe passage for those who have been left behind amid the efforts being put forth to extract as many as possible. Of course, efforts must be made to allow for many more people to leave — including people who haven’t collaborated with the United States.
But the war-shouters are looking desperately for any reason to return to Afghanistan, because they believe such a return will wipe the slate clean of the compounded follies that led us to this desperate place to begin with.
Make no mistake: The guilty parties passing as the “foreign policy establishment” — the Panettas, the Pompeos and the Boltons, the battalions of guilty-ass former administration bigheads who put us there in the first place and kept us there for a generation — will try, regardless of circumstances, to push us back into full and open conflict.
A subtle-not-subtle propaganda effort along these lines revealed itself over the weekend.
The papers on Sunday morning were filled with the faces of the 13 servicemembers who died in the Kabul airport bombing, after a Saturday release by the Pentagon of their personal information. The TV networks have been equally tenacious in putting the names to the faces, with anecdotes for each of the fallen — which is as it should be. Nicole Gee just made sergeant; her car is still parked at the base back home. Ryan Knauss was drawing pictures of himself as a Marine when he was in second grade. David L. Espinoza called his Mom the day before he died to tell her he loved her, and that he was safe with his teammates.
This is just and proper. These 13 were tasked with an impossible job amid lethal circumstances. They were not killing civilians, but saving them from the folly of their own government, and more than 100,000 people have been lifted to safety because of the efforts they and their compatriots have given. Their loss is utterly heartbreaking.
During another filthy, useless war, the one in Vietnam, my father won the Bronze Star for organizing and executing a similar rescue: Getting civilians out of the way of another of our lethally bad ideas. He wore a small lapel pin of that decoration to his dying day, most proudly whenever he found himself surrounded by the flapping chickenhawks of war in the aftermath of 9/11.
Yet I am freighted with too much dismal memory to take these recent tributes to fallen servicemembers at face value. During the long years of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, when “we don’t do body counts” was the watchword of the Pentagon, you had to do quite a bit of digging to find the names of the dozens, then hundreds, then thousands of US servicemembers who were killed over there. George W. Bush, may his name be forever cursed, closed Dover Air Force Base to the press, so the American people could not see the caskets coming home for processing.
The Pentagon did not hand out pictures and detailed biographies, as they did on Saturday. The dead were a dirty secret, and bad for the war effort.
There was a time — a long time, years — when I sometimes felt like I was one of the few people putting names to the numbers. I did so diligently with Truthout, as often as I could, and I would weep over my keyboard on occasion because of it… because after a while, some of the mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, the families of those fallen would reach out to me with emails asking why their beloved was dead. It was my own little John Kerry conundrum: How do you tell a mother her son died for a lie? I did my best, and it burned me down.
In 2004, I wrote an article called “The 500,” about the latest round of dead soldiers the Iraq war had produced. I named them, and at the beginning and end of the piece, I quoted Wilfred Owen, a WWI soldier/poet who died on the last day of the war, when they were ringing the church bells in celebration.
The similarity between Owen and these 13 — dying on the doorstep of the end of it — is almost too much to bear. But if we are to be honest citizens of this berserk nation, we have to ask why these 13 suddenly merit such attention, when the thousands who died in Iraq and Afghanistan over 20 years barely merited notice, and needed nigh-anonymous people like me to say their names.
These 13 deserve to be honored. They do not deserve to be exploited to whip up public emotion to re-enter a lost war because the “Establishment” wants back into Afghanistan to obscure its serial failures over the last two decades. That, I fear, is the case here. It’s the oldest goddamned trick in the book, and the “news” media fall for it each and every time. Ratings, you see.
President Biden met the bodies of the 13 at Dover when they arrived home. Because of his son, I do not believe this was theater, but I don’t trust the rest of them any further than I could throw them. These 13 names are worth running across the sky — they are — while most of the thousands and thousands of others who are equally dead thanks to the twin disasters of Afghanistan and Iraq remain as anonymous as a shadow in the dark.
There is deliberate purpose behind both the silence then and the siren now, and each purpose is equally gut-wrenching. Some 26,000 Afghan children have been killed or severely injured in our Afghanistan war since 2005. Do not let the “Establishment” get away with this again.