Losing the Wars

by Andrew Leber

Two decades have passed since the terrorist attacks that ultimately took the lives of 2,605 U.S. citizens and 372 citizens of other nationalities at the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and on United Airlines Flight 93. This weekend, memorial services across the United States honored the memory of the thousands killed on 9/11, including hundreds of first responders in New York City, and the deaths of thousands of US service-members in the wars that followed.

This weekend also marks a time to reckon with the U.S. foreign policy choices that led to those wars. 

A military campaign against Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan quickly transformed into an expansive project of remaking a country that US officials barely understood and made little effort to understand (as documented at length in the Washington Post’s “Afghanistan Papers” series). 

We released the furies and then went home.

Stephen Hadley, Fmr. Deputy National Security Advisor, September 16, 2015

The attacks also set the political calculations and machinations in motion that would culminate in the disastrous invasion of Iraq in 2003. A war of choice sent of thousands of U.S. soldiers to the Persian Gulf, removed Saddam Hussein from power, smashed the capabilities of the Iraqi state, and sparked wave upon wave of violence. 

I saw dozens of bodies piled outside the morgue, covered with blue sheets, rotting in the sun. Relatives of the dead and injured sobbed, but the doctors went stoically about their business. “Today is nothing special,” one told me. “We see catastrophes like this every week.”

That evening, I met a group of [Coalition Provisional Authority] staffers for dinner in the palace [i.e. headquarters of the occupation administration]. They talked about the interim constitution that had just been drafted, with its expansive bill of rights. “It’ll be a model for the Middle East,” one said.

Rajiv Chandrasekaran in Imperial Life in the Emerald City (2006) on the U.S. occupation c. 2003

In the name of preventing deaths from political violence at home, the United States has fueled a generation of political violence abroad–some 46,000 civilian deaths and 69,000 national military and police deaths in Afghanistan, at least 185,000 civilian deaths and at least 45,000 national military and police in Iraq (per estimates from the Costs of War Project). 

US air strikes and drone strikes alone have resulted in anywhere from 22,000 to 48,000 civilian deaths in theaters ranging from Afghanistan to Yemen, per the UK-based organization Airwars. Even a more conservative New America estimate suggests hundreds of civilians killed as part of US drone campaigns in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, and Libya.

Emphasizing the decades-long fallout of the 9/11 terror attacks–the death, injury and destruction stirred up thousands of miles away–is a necessary step toward winding down the far-reaching military commitments of the post-9/11 era. Focusing solely on direct US casualties otherwises obscure the ways that the Global War on Terror (GWOT) has been little short of disastrous for Muslim communities from the Afghan countryside to the LA suburbs. Yet it is far from clear that a fragile coalition centered around skepticism of US military force can extend public opposition to large-scale U.S. military deployments to constraining the less-visible “violence management” of the GWOT.

Discussions of the withdrawal from Afghanistan over the course of this year suggest that, at least at present,  there are sharp limits on public and even elite support for any large-scale, “boots-on-the-ground” military venture in the Middle East Despite a clear gap between more pro-war elite opinion and the general US public, the idea of retaining troops in Afghanistan did not command the kind of broad elite consensus that, say, the invasion of Iraq did in 2002-3. No less a hawk than Jennifer Rubin–who once blogged that President Obama’s “sympathies for the Muslim World take precedence over those… for his fellow citizens”–has come out in force to defend the withdrawal from Afghanistan.

True, this Spring saw political figures such as Sen. Bernie Sanders and Rep. Ro Khanna have emphasized diplomatic engagement with the Taliban and using of foreign aid as a positive incentive (rather than wielding sanctions as a cudgel) to support human rights in Afghanistan. Others have pressed the Biden administration to limit the possibility of future “forever wars” by reigning in an expansive US drone-strike program and enacting stronger Congressional constraints on presidential use-of-force powers writ large.

However, support for the Afghanistan withdrawal has equally reflected a belief in the “smarter” use of US military might. This entails raining death and destruction on terrorist networks (and civilian bystanders) through air wars and drone strikes, while redirecting personnel and material towards more pressing strategic threats” – namely Russia and China. When Fareed Zakaria frames a US commitment to Afghanistan as “imperial overextension,” it his problem seems to be with the overextension, not the imperial presence. 

At the same time, for all the efforts of conservative “restrainers,” the return of a Republican Presidency would almost certainly undo any efforts toward military “restraint.” Despite talk of “Donald the Dove,” the Trump administration maintained US troop commitments abroad and unleashed unprecedented bombing campaigns in Afghanistan, while seemingly wrecking the Iran nuclear deal for good.

A true test of a US anti-war movement is whether it can build public support for further troop drawdowns beyond mass deployments to these two countries. Thus far, recent shifts in US foreign policy thinking are far from sufficient to secure tangible reductions in Defense spending even in a Democratic-controlled Congress. Should efforts to present “great power competition” as a global threat to the United States gain traction, it is not clear that a coalition counseling restraint could forestall the kind of broad public backing that the Bush administration secured for both the war in Afghanistan and the invasion of Iraq.

In reflecting on the Second World War, the Chicago writer Lee Sandlin once wrote of the war’s memory “trailing off into nothingness and doubt,” and of wars ending “when peace permanently wins out.” Our challenge now lies not only in reminding US society of the costs of endless wars, but also in convincing the US public and its leadership that the United States can one day again be at peace.


Andrew Leber is a PhD Candidate at Harvard University’s Department of Government. Follow him on Twitter at @AndrewMLeber.

One thought on “Losing the Wars

  1. Pingback: Links 9/13/2021 | naked capitalism

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