A quick review…
When will we learn? War is quicksand. The destruction of one evildoer usually gives way to a second evildoer, the latter of which we find ourselves “obligated” to fight for the same reasons we were “obligated” to fight the former.
Look at Syria, where ISIL’s downfall has left the region’s other competitors squabbling for control. Tehran and Tel Aviv are feuding after an Iranian drone allegedly drifted into Israel’s airspace and triggered a confrontation with Syrian troops that brought down an Israeli F-16 on Saturday. Meanwhile, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has proceeded with Operation Olive Branch, an offensive he began in January to counter the Kurds in Afrin before his probable incursion into the Kurdish territory of Manbij.
Atop it all, Bashar al-Assad has continued fighting anti-government holdouts—and his Russian patrons have continued supporting him—as civilians in the Idlib war zone find themselves caught in what The Washington Post on Wednesday characterized as a “death trap.”
Still hankering for war after ISIL’s defeat, the United States military apparatus has stuck around for this slugfest as well. The ostensible purpose of our government’s continued involvement, beyond engaging in general “counter-terrorism,” is to bolster the Kurds’ Syrian Democratic Forces, even though that puts the U.S. on a direct collision course with the Syrian, Russian, and Turkish governments. For its part, the Syria-Russia tandem wants to rout the Kurdish fighters so that Assad can tighten his grip on the country, while Erdogan continues to view any Kurdish stronghold in Syria as a potential breeding ground for attacks on Ankara.
Neither Assad loyalists nor Turkish leaders have hesitated to make these feelings known, by the way; Syrian troops have already battled the Kurds’ U.S. allies, and Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu demanded last month that U.S. personnel evacuate Manbij so the Turks can overrun it.
Against that backdrop, with the U.S. sticking to its guns, it is difficult not to wonder what the point of all of this is. Our leaders (in this century, anyway) first dragged us to the region to oust Saddam Hussein in Iraq; when ISIL replaced him, our leaders decided to stay for more. Now that ISIL is greatly weakened, they want more still, perhaps in order to defeat Assad, the Kurds’ Turkish adversaries, and pockets of Islamist stragglers in Syria. But new rogues will crop up after them, and then what? Will this game ever end?
Our only hope is to abandon the logic of a Pax Americana, which holds that malefactors abroad—through an apparently permanent US war footing—generally can and should be eliminated. It is a tempting system of thought, not least for its simplicity, but history suggests that it is more likely to produce carnage than to bring peace.
If it is peace we want for the people of Syria, then we should heed the advice of libertarians, progressives, and certain conservatives who advocate opening the United States to innocent refugees. Save for that, let us leave the Syrian matter alone.
This piece originally appeared at CounterPunch.org the morning of February 16, 2018.
Thank you to the amazing Leona Amosah for recording it.
Assume for a moment that the popular allegations of Russian interference in the 2016 election are all true. How should the US government retaliate?
Short answer: it shouldn’t (any more than it already has). If the Kremlin sneakily helped Donald Trump to victory, then it is likely that our government’s longstanding and unnecessary “punishment” of Russia largely motivated the interference. To reduce the chances of something so appalling from happening in future elections, we should therefore move to relieve the dangerously high tensions that have been mounting between the US and Russia for decades.
For détente to succeed, leaders in the US must try to understand and allay Russia’s legitimate security concerns. That begins with acknowledging the profound Russian trauma caused by World War II, a tragedy to which the Soviet Union lost hundreds of towns and more than 20 million people in less than a decade. Given the depth of that horror, the US should appreciate why Russians today get squeamish when foreign powers start flexing their muscles on Russia’s western border.
Russian statesmen have explained their fears before, but to seemingly little effect. Strong evidence suggests that Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, scared of Western encroachment, agreed to NATO’s incorporation of a reunified Germany in 1990 only because the US in turn agreed not to expand the alliance any further east than that. But in flagrant disregard for the objections that the Russians had previously articulated, NATO exploited its newfound strength in post-Soviet Europe by subsuming Hungary, the Czech Republic, and Poland under President Bill Clinton in 1999.
Tasked with ushering Russia into the new century, President Vladimir Putin established some rapport with the incoming US President George W. Bush in 2001. However, relations chilled in 2002 when the US officially abandoned the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and thereby opened the door to a US defense system capable of stopping Russia from effectively using its own nuclear arsenal in response to a US nuclear attack. Against that backdrop, Russia grew even more worried about US recklessness when Bush defied Putin by beginning a protracted and bloody occupation of Iraq in 2003.
Meanwhile, US activity in Europe continued to drive the two governments further apart. In 2004, NATO reignited the Kremlin’s unease about Western military expansion by admitting another set of European countries, this time bringing the alliance all the way up to Russia’s border. Then, shortly before Bush left office, the friction became even more palpable when the United States’ Georgian clients fought Russian troops in the brief but devastating Russo-Georgian War of 2008.
Although President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton tried initiating a so-called “reset” in US-Russia relations upon taking office, the new Cold War raged on. In the wake of Russia’s 2011 parliamentary election, Clinton proclaimed that Russian leaders should be “accountable” and requested a “full investigation” into allegations of election “fraud and intimidation.” These thinly veiled jabs at Putin, combined with Clinton’s role in the then-recent ouster and killing of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, increased Moscow’s disquiet about Clinton’s aggressively meddlesome tendencies.
Clinton resigned before Obama levied sanctions in response to Russia’s 2014 invasion of Crimea, but she continued to promote militarism from the sidelines. Notably, she advocated a no-fly zone to check the power of Kremlin-backed President Bashar al-Assad in Syria, endorsed sanctions against Russia itself, and criticized European leaders for their generally weak response to the authoritarian, pugnacious Putin. Of course, Assad’s Islamist enemies and Putin’s various fascist enemies in Ukraine were not exactly peaceniks either, but Clinton didn’t seem to mind much. Even if it meant strengthening a few terrorist rebels and neo-Nazis along the way, the aspiring Democratic president was apparently intent on putting Russia in its place.
What happened next is still unclear, but let us again consider what it would mean if Russia—likely in hopes of keeping a proven warmonger out of the White House—then executed the alleged plans to undermine Clinton’s campaign. For one, it would mean that the Kremlin behaved despicably, especially because vulnerable Americans who played no role in our government’s provocation of Russia may now be paying the price for it under the rule of an erratic President Trump. However, it would not mean that the US should heighten its attacks on Russia. In fact, any conceivable Russian interference in the 2016 election would give Washington an additional reason to reduce tensions with Moscow today, to try to keep the Kremlin from destabilizing our country again.
Although conventional wisdom may suggest otherwise, the US can pursue this type of détente without sacrificing its national assertiveness. It is no contradiction for the US to promote de-escalation—by lifting sanctions, refusing lethal assistance to Ukraine, and generally scaling down military involvement in Europe—while retaining the option of strongly penalizing Russia if the Kremlin later proves to be the incorrigible, chaos-craving, empire-enhancing government that so many in Washington seem to imagine. At this point, though, it seems likely that Russia is more interested in softening the United States’ aggressive geopolitical posture than in triggering American chaos for the sheer heck of it. That is why peace with Russia is probably still achievable through diplomacy, but we will have to seize the moment before the new Cold War spirals even further out of control.
Donald Trump is no peacenik. In the footsteps of Barack Obama, he has worsened the man-made famine in Yemen, now the epicenter of the world’s largest humanitarian crisis since 1945. He has decertified Iranian compliance with the JCPOA, even though the IAEA, U.S. intelligence agencies, and Israeli intelligence agencies all agree that Iran is respecting the agreement. On top of that, he has killed civilians in Iraq, extended the 16-year occupation of Afghanistan, and issued terrifying verbal threats to the North Korean government. But just as a broken clock is right twice a day, an otherwise dependable militarist sometimes falls into a peaceful position. For Trump, who earlier this month seemed to lament that “Russia has been very, very heavily sanctioned,” now might be one of those times.
Criticizing sanctions against Russia, even in the implicit way that Trump does, means questioning the widespread assumption that our government has a moral obligation to punish Russia’s crimes. But this mainstream wisdom, which sometimes construes Russian President Vladimir Putin as an almost uniquely evil and implacable Hitlerian, dangerously misrepresents the nature and context of the Kremlin’s misbehavior. In reality, many of Putin’s battlefield opponents are just as illiberal as he is, and nonviolent engagement with Putin—the sort that Trump pursued earlier this week—is probably adequate to improve Putin’s treatment of the United States. Even if we disregard the general failure of sanctions to achieve their supporters’ stated objectives, then, we have good reason to oppose our government’s provocative, lopsided, and civilian-harming sanctions against Russia.
For a glimpse of the misguided anti-Russia fervor currently motivating U.S. action, consider the sanctions bill that Congress passed in July to punish Putin for supporting nefarious activities in such places as Syria. Proponents of that legislation certainly have great reasons to despise Russia’s allies in the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad, but exactly which of the real-world alternatives to Assad would our pro-sanctions compatriots prefer? Having struck out for Syria’s “moderate” rebels, a good many of whom joined forces with Islamists, the U.S. should realize that Assad is quite possibly the least atrocious figure capable of maintaining some semblance of Syrian stability through these final (or simply newest) stages of the Syrian Civil War. Putin’s aid to Assad is still condemnable, of course, but it does not justify the United States’ sweeping retaliatory sanctions and the resulting deterioration in U.S.-Russian relations.
The same is true of Russia’s interventions in Ukraine, where Putin is not the only criminal and maybe not even the most malevolent one. Although our government endlessly criticizes the Kremlin for annexing the once-Ukrainian Crimea, many Crimeans—probably most—actually prefer Russian rule. Their lives under Moscow are far from perfect, but the majority of them are ethnic Russians who tend to consider Kiev the greater enemy for its attacks on Russian culture. By trying to force a Russian withdrawal, the U.S. is therefore working to undermine many Crimeans’ pursuit of self-determination.
Russian violence in the Donbas does not justify sanctions either. Put simply, the region’s Russian separatists align with Moscow’s villains, while the Ukrainian counterinsurgents align with Kiev’s villains, some of whom are genuine fascists and even more of whom routinely overlook fascist hooliganism in their country. Neither warring party is particularly attractive, in other words, so the U.S. should stay out of the melee and eliminate sanctions that increase hardship in Russia without decreasing it in Ukraine.
As for Putin’s interference in the U.S. presidential election? We still do not know precisely what happened, but it seems likely that any Russian intrusion was largely defensive. Putin was understandably discomfited by the West’s illegal invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the killing of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, the former of which Hilary Clinton endorsed as a voting U.S. senator and the latter of which she helped facilitate as secretary of state. It is no far stretch to suppose that when Clinton then joked about the grisly assassination of Gaddafi, questioned the legitimacy of Russia’s 2011 parliamentary elections, and called Putin’s militarism “reminiscent” of Hitler’s, the Kremlin resolved to prevent this tried-and-true militaristic busybody from antagonizing Russia as the United States’ next president.
We should take comfort in the fact that Russia has not always been this confrontational towards the U.S. Although his authoritarian sympathies and skepticism of the West probably date back to the Cold War, Putin actually managed to maintain an amicable relationship with President George W. Bush before the Bush administration’s headlong march to Baghdad. It was only after more than a decade of Western mischief overseas that Putin may have decided to defend himself by striking back in such a significant way. That being the case, it might not be too late for Trump to reverse our course by talking to Putin, removing sanctions, and promoting a more nuanced understanding of the Kremlin’s foreign policy. If he does not, peace will slip further away.
For the past 16 years, the American war machine has been acting like a two-tiered sadist in Afghanistan. While facilitating the Kabul government’s destruction of the communities it oversees there, our military apparatus has also harmed the U.S. itself by spilling American blood for an unnecessary and futile mission.
Granted, most Americans have not literally bled for the war in Afghanistan. Our sacrifice has been merely (merely?) financial. U.S. taxpayers have paid – and will continue paying – for our government’s $1 trillion excursion there, an escapade already more expensive than the Marshall Plan to rebuild post-WWII Europe. Not all Americans have been as fortunate as civilian taxpayers, though. 2,400 U.S. soldiers have died and upwards of 17,000 have suffered physical injuries in Afghanistan. Still other troops have returned home physically intact but psychologically scarred, motivating their retreat into a lonely depression.
Suicide has been a tragically fitting end to the lives of our most traumatized Afghanistan war veterans, whose premature deaths provide a chilling reminder that the US military apparatus has pursued a program of ruinous overexertion since its war against the Taliban began in 2001. Despite the popular impression that al-Qaeda and the Taliban were comrades in arms in the lead-up to 9/11, the reality is that Taliban leaders resented Osama bin Laden for issuing fatwas against the West and had even tried alerting the U.S. of bin Laden’s diabolical plans beforehand. When the attacks happened anyway, the Taliban remained fairly pliant, offering to surrender bin Laden to the Organization of the Islamic Conference if the U.S. could prove that bin Laden was behind the attacks. After President George W. Bush rejected that overture and bombed Afghanistan in October 2001, the Afghan government quickly gave up its “proof of guilt” condition and sought a settlement that would involve surrendering bin Laden to a U.S.-selected third party. But in his apparently implacable desire to fight, Bush again rejected negotiations in favor of a mutually destructive war.
When the invasion began, General Tommy Franks instructed American troops to support the corrupt Northern Alliance in battle against the Taliban, even though al-Qaeda, not the Taliban, bore primary responsibility for the 9/11 attacks. At the very outset, then, the US was fighting somebody else’s war in Afghanistan, buttressing warlords and drug dealers against a government clearly uninterested in going to bat for our actual enemies. With the U.S. distracted and unwilling to destroy al-Qaeda in the now-infamous standoff at Tora Bora, bin Laden’s men successfully fled to Pakistan before the year ended.
With those few hundred al-Qaeda fighters no longer inhabiting their ostensible “safe haven” in Afghanistan, the U.S. should have left Afghanistan as well. After all, our military’s job there was done. With al-Qaeda then in Pakistan, the Bush administration could have enlisted special operations forces to capture bin Laden before removing U.S. personnel from the area altogether.
Unfortunately, President Bush had no interest in leaving Afghanistan after just a few short months. Within days of al-Qaeda’s departure, the U.S. began “rebuilding” the country by installing Hamid Karzai as president and helping the newly inaugurated Afghan National Army in battle against the Taliban. A full-fledged war was on the horizon, and these were the Bush administration’s chosen “allies against terror.”
But however optimistic some Americans may have been that Karzai’s men would expedite Bush’s efforts, the ANA proved to be a feckless force, what with members abusing drugs on the job, stealing weapons, and retreating prematurely in battle. That faithlessness has done a great disservice to the U.S. in places like the Kunar Province, where twenty of our soldiers died just to hand over the Marawara Valley to ANA members who surrendered it shortly after acquiring it. But the suicidal sadism of U.S. support for the ANA has probably found its most literal and poignant expression in more than 100 “green-on-blue attacks,” wherein Afghan trainees have revealed a mixture of pro-Taliban sympathies and personal grievances by directly targeting their Coalition “allies.”
Of course, our troops’ sacrifices for the ANA might be “worth it” if the Afghan government were promoting liberal values in the places where it actually has secured control. In reality, though, U.S. allies in Afghanistan may be more brutal than the Taliban. Lest we forget, Taliban members gained relative popularity in the 1990s by making some effort to crack down on sexual crimes. Though a far cry from humane, Taliban members to this day “rape less” than do ANA members, whose institutionally condoned molestation of children may itself be adequate to discredit all American claims of “humanitarianism” in Afghanistan over the past 16 years.
Alongside children, grown Afghan women have suffered tremendously under the post-Taliban government. Though nominally committed to gender equality, U.S. allies adopted a “Shi’ite personal status law” in 2009 defining women as property, thereby legalizing men’s rape of their wives and treating external assaults on women as simple violations of male property rights. To this day, the Afghan National Police uphold this barbaric system by kidnapping and returning female escapees of abusive households to their tyrannical spouses and fathers.
Like their seedy Afghan allies, many U.S. forces have themselves been brutalizing civilians since the occupation began. For instance, in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, invading U.S. forces relied on demonstrably unreliable sources – i.e., random Afghan civilians with unrelated axes to grind – to find “terrorists” to imprison. U.S. servicemen have since initiated some relatively high-profile killings, like the lethal attacks on 33 people at Garloch in 2009, the Maiwand District slaughter of 3 people in 2010, the unprovoked massacre of 16 people in Kandahar in 2011, and the 2015 bombing of a Doctors Without Borders hospital in Kunduz. But some of the less reported aspects of the U.S. occupation have also been disastrous. For example, when “night raids” came to dominate U.S. strategy in Afghanistan during President Barack Obama’s troop surge, thousands of Afghan civilians ended up detained or dead because of U.S. forces’ over-reliance on suspects’ misleading phone call data for information.
Although he suggested before taking office that he would withdraw from Afghanistan, the predictably erratic President Donald Trump is now exacerbating this tragedy by deploying thousands of additional troops to confront Afghanistan’s encroaching Islamists. But the only two conceivable justifications for such a move – to protect people in the US, and to protect people in Afghanistan itself – hold as little water now as they did under Presidents Bush and Obama. Though President Trump claims that the U.S. needs an Afghan foothold in order to prevent terrorists from seizing Pakistan’s nuclear weapons, the reality is that the U.S. could withdraw from Afghanistan tomorrow and no less effectively send special operations forces to strike terrorists in Pakistan if the need ever arose.
That Afghanistan could become an Islamist “sanctuary” after the U.S. leaves is also a poor excuse to stay. For even if we grant that the Taliban would exploit an American withdrawal by overrunning Afghanistan and safeguarding jihadists there, Afghanistan’s threat to the U.S. would remain tiny, seeing as Afghan Islamists lack nuclear weapons and have no other reliable means of striking us from Southwest Asia. Of course, it is still possible that a group of Afghan terrorists could try to travel here and coordinate an attack without raising any red flags, but the chances of such an attempt are small. As University of Chicago Professor Robert Pape notes, Middle Eastern terrorist groups are today focusing less on training militants to infiltrate our country than on inspiring US residents themselves to attack Americans around them. That being the case, it is probably riskier for the U.S. to stay in Afghanistan indefinitely and intensify the vengeful sentiments that inspired the domestic Fort Hood, Boston Marathon, and Orlando nightclub attackers to commit crimes from within.
Humanitarian arguments for staying in Afghanistan are equally unconvincing. Even if we assume that the US can maintain the occupation without committing any more war crimes, our “humanitarian” mission will continue to fail for the simple reason that our Afghan “allies” lack the will and organizational cohesion necessary to defeat anybody but themselves. As it stands, the Afghan government is a union of adversarial factions that Secretary of State John Kerry strung together after the contested 2014 Afghan presidential election. Reigning leaders Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah, political rivals who each tried stealing the election from the other, hate each other at least as much as they hate the Taliban. Various warlords are sparring viciously beneath them, evincing little desire to defeat the Taliban and virtually no desire to create anything resembling a liberal democracy. For their part, the Afghan “police” are basically indistinguishable from the criminals themselves, changing allegiances whimsically and assaulting civilians left and right. It is this loose confederation of bloodthirsty Afghans – not peaceful Afghans who want nothing to do with war – benefiting from our military aid.
Some leaders of the U.S. occupation have recognized these realities for what they are. For his part, the State Department’s Matthew Hoh resigned his post in 2009 when he determined that U.S. troops in Afghanistan were often killing the wrong people and dying for no good reason. U.S. Ambassador Karl Eikenberry also publicly expressed similar misgivings a few weeks later, doubting that US support for (what was then) Karzai’s government could effectively reform what was a fundamentally unmotivated and corrupt institution. But no matter how clear the futility of the U.S. occupation of Afghanistan has always been, the war machine rages on in a sadistic craze, consuming U.S. energy and dollars while immiserating whatever innocent foreigners stand in its way. At a certain point, though, we have to put our collective foot down and refuse to allow our military’s leadership to continue depleting resources and destroying lives just to play silly games in Afghanistan. U.S. troops are losing. U.S. taxpayers are losing. Afghan civilians are losing. The whole situation is a bloody mess that our military is helpless to fix and liable to worsen. It is time to withdraw.
Many of the historical details in this essay come from Scott Horton’s Fool’s Errand: Time to End the War in Afghanistan, a lucid and insightful assessment of US activity in Afghanistan. This piece originally appeared at Antiwar.com.
I met some amazing folks at DC Veg Fest a few weeks ago (including Grey, who appears at the end of this video!). Sharing “Where War Begins” with so many passionate vegans and soon-to-be vegans absolutely made my day. Shout out to davidjwalls for recording everything and Compassion Over Killing for organizing this awesome event!