The Afghanistan Papers: Another Blip in the History of a Forever War

By Ben Heili

I remember my 14th birthday well. That day, my grandparents’ newspaper told me the USA had started to bomb Afghanistan—Operation Enduring Freedom, they called it. Something in my 14-year-old brain approved of that name at the time, and it turned out to be partially accurate — one thing that operation did is endure. One generation later, over 100,000 people have died in the conflict. 14,000 American troops and an undisclosed number of private contractors remain in Afghanistan. They project imperial power aimlessly 6,000 miles from home.  Their mission is pointless, devastating, and forgotten all at the same time.

In the blur of December 2019, The Washington Post released a trove of documents known as the Afghanistan papers. I invite you to read their summary. These documents were released after a years-long FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) battle, and they revealed real opinions of US military leaders and other stakeholders throughout the long war. The goals were lies, the outcomes were lies, even the measurable accomplishments were lies. A series of leaders inherited a mess, painted it however best it would suit their careers, and soon after rotated elsewhere. “Every data point was altered to present the best possible picture,” said one colonel.

In the wake of 9/11 and the intense militarization of U.S. culture, how did the military define “best?” This is a hard question to answer in a war defined by mission creep. It surely didn’t align with what was best for the invaded people of Afghanistan. For a while, finding Osama Bin Laden was a priority. Killing Taliban and Al-Qaeda leaders would bring prestige. Building a government in Kabul that could seem democratic and independent would earn medals. Building schools and bridges looked nice. Winning fights against insurgents earned accolades for valor, never mind where the insurgents had come from in the decades-long occupation. The only line connecting these goals stems from a ghastly colonial mindset: we know better than these people what’s best for these people.

As these documents reveal, the resources set aside to fit the hero narrative of the day were nearly limitless. Of course there was the military material shipped over at great expense, then often burned. But the nation-building efforts were misguided and wasteful as well. “One unidentified contractor told government interviewers he was expected to dole out $3 million daily for projects in a single Afghan district roughly the size of a U.S. county.” How much housing could we build in Dane or Milwaukee county for $3 mill a day? How much renewable energy? How much public transit? Reinvested to help us thrive, that spending would certainly be attacked as wasteful. In service of empire, it goes unquestioned.

Naturally, the revelations of the Afghanistan papers slid straight out of the public consciousness along with every other bombshell that week. We knew the truth of this already, felt it, didn’t we? War is old news, and this one is the oldest. Goalposts had already been moved, hidden, moved again, buried, all right out in the open. The war now runs solely on bureaucratic inertia and the need to build more swimming pools for North Virginia defense contractors. A few weeks later, Trump declared a new war with the assassination of Qassem Soleimani (remember that? I barely do). We can be thankful tensions subsided there for now, but the war drums are always beating.

So what does it mean to be anti-war in the third decade of the forever war? What can we do? The specific culture of militarism that took root in the Bush years has made a permanent home in the hearts of many Americans. Worshipping the troops and devaluing the lives of non-white non-Americans did not die with John McCain. We need clear and consistent messaging outside of the corporate media that illuminates the real consequences of war. When a pruny oligarch wants to start a conflict, we must be clear that he wants hundreds or thousands of children to die for oil or lithium. When generals tut-tut a withdrawal from the Middle East, we must be clear about the generational harm that can never heal if we keep killing there. When (not if) a hypothetical President Bernie Sanders is pressured into unjust uses of military power, we must pressure him just as hard as anyone else. Finally, the war machine needs material. That material is made and transported by workers. And if organized workers can’t have an effect, what are we all doing here?

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