- Interview by
- Jason Farbman
Last week, the Washington Post published the “Afghanistan Papers,” a massive tranche of documents that confirmed the disaster of two decades of US military occupation in Afghanistan. Some $950 billion have been spent, and yet civilian casualties are on the rise. This past year, at least 3,804 Afghan civilians have been killed by the US military, the bloodiest year since the United Nations started counting in 2009.
According to the documents, the United States launched a “Lessons Learned Project” in 2014, collecting four hundred accounts from war planners and field officers to “diagnose policy failures in Afghanistan so the United States would not repeat the mistakes the next time it invaded a country or tried to rebuild a shattered one.” The assembled remarks were frank about the mistakes the United States has made: shifting and contradictory tactics, mismanagement of billions of dollars, allowing the drug trade to flourish, and enflaming an insurgency rather than defeating it.
While much of what the Afghanistan Papers have revealed won’t be news to longtime opponents of the war, the two thousand pages of documents have, at least for a time, pushed discussion of Afghanistan back to the front pages.
Anand Gopal has reported across the Middle East throughout the “war on terror,” writing major pieces on Iraq for the New York Times Magazine and Syria for the New Yorker. In 2014, Gopal’s book on Afghanistan, No Good Men Among the Living: America, the Taliban, and the War through Afghan Eyes, was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award. Jacobin’s Jason Farbman sat down with Gopal to discuss the machinations of US empire, the bipartisan roots of the Afghanistan disaster, and the socialist answer to imperialism: international solidarity.
The myriad failures revealed in the Afghanistan Papers suggest a military flailing in almost every way possible. Is anything working for the United States in Afghanistan?
Well, it’s actually possible for them to be both losing and, in a way, not losing the war. If you look at the original reasons why the United States went to war in Afghanistan in 2001, the immediate goal was to defeat al-Qaeda, expel them from the country, and degrade their capability to attack the United States. This is exactly what they managed to do in 2001–2. Al-Qaeda was defeated, and Afghanistan has never been a significant safe haven for the group ever since.
The Afghan war has also played an important role in allowing the US empire to remake its ability to exert its military might around the globe. Before 2001, the United States wasn’t able to openly intervene in countries as it had done earlier, because the effects of the stunning defeat in Vietnam and the backlash it spawned persisted. Over thirty years, the United States chipped away at its inability to wage open war: in the 1980s, there was a period of proxy conflict, especially in Central America. And then, in the nineties, we saw limited engagements like the first Gulf War and a series of “humanitarian interventions.” From the point of view of its framers, the Afghan war was part of a larger strategy to make it possible for the United States to openly and militarily exert its might when and where it chose to do so.
The idea of Bush and company was: first, overthrow the Taliban and install a friendly government in Afghanistan, then move on to Iraq. Iraq was very important, because unlike Afghanistan, it had oil and was central to the world economy. Next, overthrow Saddam. Then, move on to Iran. So in other words, Iraq was perceived to be low-hanging fruit, Afghanistan was the lowest-hanging fruit, and the ultimate prize was Iran.
But Iraq didn’t work out as planned, at all.
No, they failed. But Afghanistan, in a way, was successful because they were able to set the stage for the Iraq invasion. More enduringly, they were able to get the American public used to the idea of permanent war. We’ve been at war now for nineteen years. There’s not been any real outcry against the war in Afghanistan. The fact that we are completely used to permanent wars is actually a success of the Bush doctrine.
Now for the first time we’re seeing pushback, but it’s taken a long time to get here.
The US has spent around $950 billion in Afghanistan so far.
That’s a tremendous amount from a human perspective, or from the perspective of an austerity economy. But from the perspective of the American state, which is able, by borrowing, to basically spend an unlimited amount on the military, this is not a major cost.
Many corporations have gotten fabulously wealthy as a result of the United States going to war and, more broadly, as a result of the counterterrorism industrial complex.
This is one reason why, despite all the terrible consequences for Afghans, this war could go on in perpetuity. For the United States, there was very little political or financial cost to waging permanent war.
It’s striking to me how much from these documents was already well known and reported. Take your book No Good Men Among the Living, which was reviewed everywhere and was up for a National Book Award. That was during the Obama years. Why is this such big news now?
I don’t think there’s a single claim in these papers that hasn’t been reported before. The big difference is that the news is coming in the age of Trump. There’s a section of the liberal elite and the “resistance” that will see this and use it as a way to bludgeon Trump. But Trump’s military strategy is largely a continuation of Obama’s.
For example, US airstrikes have killed tens of thousands of people in the last few years in Iraq and Syria. This is an air campaign strategy designed under Obama and simply implemented by Trump. For example, in December 2016, just before Obama left office, he changed the rules of engagement to make it easier for certain frontline commanders to call in airstrikes in Mosul. The number of civilian deaths spiked shortly thereafter.
Then, in January, Trump is inaugurated and suddenly the news coverage focuses on civilian casualties, implying or stating explicitly that this was Trump’s doing. Trump’s foreign policy is largely still an extension of Obama’s. Of course, he’s much more erratic than Obama, and you can see that with his Syria policy. But both are committed to militarism and permanent war. When Trump pulled some troops from Syria, for example, he merely transferred them to Saudi Arabia.
What were the meaningful changes of strategy in the Afghan war from Bush to Obama to Trump?
Rumsfeld and company believed in a “light footprint” strategy, in which there would be few boots on the ground and most of the fighting would be done by CIA and special forces–backed militias. On the other hand, Obama massively surged troops — while keeping these same paramilitary forces on the US payroll. In 2014, Obama reverted to the Rumsfeld strategy, withdrawing most troops and keeping the militias and death squads. Trump has merely continued Obama’s approach.
Through these strategic changes, though, the underlying policy was remarkably consistent: to subordinate Afghan needs and interests to US counterterrorism. So while the United States spoke about “good governance,” it was arming and funding militias and death squads that were terrorizing the countryside. These Bush-Obama militias were guilty of horrific abuses, from torture to rape, and were responsible for creating and propelling the Taliban insurgency, which emerged as a reaction.
The Washington Post has brought renewed attention to the United States’ role in Afghanistan at the same time a very competitive Democratic primary is taking place. Is there anybody in this crowded field, aside from Bernie Sanders, who is likely to do anything meaningful to break the pattern in Afghanistan over the last twenty years?
No, absolutely not. Aside from Sanders, there is consensus on foreign policy: the status quo. When these candidates mention foreign policy, they’re reacting to the aesthetics of Trump; they don’t like the way he talks or conducts himself on the international stage.
But in terms of fundamental policies, there’s no difference between any of the other candidates, including Warren. All of them promote the status quo of a national security state, which means endless war abroad, and at home it means spying on citizens, the militarization of the police, and throwing away millions of dollars for the sake of defense contractors.
I want to end where we began: with the $11 million Lessons Learned Project, to “diagnose policy failures in Afghanistan so the United States would not repeat the mistakes the next time it invaded a country or tried to rebuild a shattered one.” If Bernie Sanders becomes president, what is he to do with this information? If President Sanders asked you what a socialist policy ought to look like, what would you advise?
We’re typically presented with two options when it comes to foreign policy: the status quo, which is imperialism and militarism, or isolationism, in which the United States isn’t involved in international affairs whatsoever.
That’s a false dichotomy. There’s a third option: internationalism. Internationalism would be allying the United States with the interests of ordinary people, not with the interests of the various states and particularly states that are autocratic and oppressive. It would mean aligning with the economic interests of ordinary people, not with those of the ruling elites and big business. It would mean not designing a foreign policy around trying to make the world profitable for corporations, or privileging the rights of markets over those of human beings.
An internationalist foreign policy would, for example, question the alliance with Saudi Arabia, which props up other key American allies such as Egypt and Bahrain. An internationalist policy would support and foster the popular movements from below that are trying to overthrow those dictatorships.
An internationalist foreign policy would try to find points of commonality between Americans and, for example, Afghans. Of course, there’s a world of difference between living standards and life experiences for the typical American and typical Afghan. But there are some things that connect us: for example, the hundreds of millions, if not billions, of dollars of US taxpayer money that is spent making bombs to drop on Afghans. Working-class people have an interest in not spending that money on bombs, but on human and social need.