The forgotten war in Afghanistan, a senseless waste of money and lives, will soon turn 20, and there is no sign that Joe Biden is serious about ending it. When it comes to US militarism, the much-heralded leftward shift in American politics has so far had little effect.
Reading dispatches from the mainstream news organizations of America will tell you that we as a nation have just undergone a radical shift. Donald Trump, the unhinged terror, is no more, and Joe Biden has returned to restore decency and normalcy to the Oval Office. Like a liberated people, we have freed ourselves of a mad tyrant who threatened to ruin our long-running democratic experiment.
Most of this is true. Trump was a vehicle for revanchist forces, empowering billionaires, enabling racists, and denying the existence of climate change. He incited a deadly riot. Biden will do none of these things. Already we are beginning to see tangible change, including the ending of the Muslim ban and the canceling of the Keystone XL pipeline. If Biden’s promised $1.9 trillion stimulus proposal becomes law, it will deliver much-needed relief to beleaguered cities and states as the COVID-19 pandemic rages on.
But there has been no dramatic departure from Trump when it comes to unwinding America’s war machine abroad. While Trump was less hawkish than others in his party — despite welcoming the warmongering lunatic John Bolton into his inner sanctum — he did nothing to alter a surveillance state apparatus and military-industrial complex that has survived four different presidents.
George W. Bush, who has now been reinvented by blinkered liberals as a kindly elder statesman who paints clunky portraits, launched two of the most disastrous wars of the last half-century, one in Iraq and one in Afghanistan. He created the Department of Homeland Security, signed the Patriot Act into law, and initiated a program of domestic surveillance unprecedented in American history. He indefinitely detained and tortured people at Guantanamo Bay.
Barack Obama, despite promising to do so, never closed the Guantanamo Bay prison camp. Trump, of course, didn’t either. And Biden, who is surrounded by interventionists, has promised the same as Obama, but it’s unclear when or if it will ever happen.
Given the media’s long-running addiction to Trump, little attention has been paid to what happens in other countries. At the end of 2019, the Washington Post released two thousand pages of documents featuring hundreds of interviews with generals and diplomats who publicly insisted that the war in Afghanistan was going well while privately admitting it was a catastrophe, accomplishing nothing.
“We were devoid of a fundamental understanding of Afghanistan — we didn’t know what we were doing,” Douglas Lute, a three-star Army general who served as the White House’s Afghan war czar during the Bush and Obama administrations, told government interviewers in 2015. He added: “What are we trying to do here? We didn’t have the foggiest notion of what we were undertaking.”
The interviews were conducted by a governmental agency called the Office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), which in 2014 was working on a project called “Lessons Learned,” on the assumption that the war would be winding down soon. It didn’t, as we know, and the United States keeps a few thousand troops there, even with peace talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government ongoing.
Since 2001, more than 775,000 American troops have deployed to Afghanistan, many repeatedly. Of those, 2,300 died there and 20,589 were wounded in action, according to Defense Department figures. More than 100,000 civilians have died from the conflict. Military officials acknowledged that their combat strategies were fatally flawed and that Washington wasted extravagant sums of money trying to forcefully transform Afghanistan — into what, it was never clear.
It was imperialism at its worst, a scandal on par with Vietnam — but unlike the Pentagon Papers, it made hardly a splash. The rest of the prestige media focused on the spectacle of Trump’s impeachment. More crucially, the report seemed to have little impact on the questions reporters asked of Biden and what his administration, filled with foreign policy hawks, planned to do to extract us from the quagmire.
The deeper trouble, even if Afghanistan is unwound, is the potential for ongoing conflict elsewhere. Biden is a steward of the status quo. He will not dramatically reduce the American troop presence worldwide, slash Pentagon spending, or seek the mass closure of military bases. In the last half-century, there have arguably been only two years — 1977 and 1979 — when the United States was not invading or fighting in some foreign country.
There are as many as 750 military bases abroad, ensuring American troops will perpetually patrol countries like Iraq, Syria, Pakistan, Somalia, Niger, and many others. These bases only invite further war, stoking local resentment and incentivizing the military to respond. New conflicts lead to new bases in a very expensive and hellish cycle.
Biden, like Trump and Obama before him, sees nothing wrong here. He does not look upon the vast expansion of America’s war-making powers after 9/11 with skepticism; more polished than Trump, he is excited to wield this machinery for his own ends. America’s brief infatuation with the image of Bernie Sanders shivering in the cold with his Vermont-made mittens on Inauguration Day was a reminder of what was lost last year — the potential for a president who genuinely cared about ending America’s forever wars.
The Left should be excited about Sanders’s new position as chair of the Senate Budget Committee, but Sanders will have little say over where Biden decides to send troops next or whose lives he will deem worthy of sacrifice at the altar of permanent war. Like his predecessors, Biden will have the supreme power to drop bombs and launch missiles on distant shorelines. The imperial presidency is not dead yet.
This post was originally published on Jacobin.