“To President Theodore Roosevelt – you are like the Wind and I like the Lion. You form the Tempest. The sand stings my eyes and the Ground is parched. I roar in defiance but you do not hear. But between us there is a difference. I, like the lion, must remain in my place. While you like the wind will never know yours. – Mulay Hamid El Raisuli, Lord of the Riff, Sultan to the Berbers, Last of the Barbary Pirates.” From the movie the Wind and the Lion starring Sean Connery as the Raisuli and Brian Keith as T. Roosevelt
President Joe Biden plans to hold a Summit of Democracies in December of 2021. This meeting will bring together all the usual cast of characters of “heads of state, civil society, philanthropy, and the private sector” according to a White House statement. Private citizens will be included but most likely those participants will be screened and have a question to pose to the “leaders” that will undoubtedly be carefully scripted. Nothing will come of this as the US will seek to steer the narrative towards America’s creation of the Post World War II order over which it lords and to trumpet its questionable premise that only it alone is capable of leading because, after all, Americans always work in the best interests of global peace and prosperity and, besides, it has the mightiest military with which to back up its words with violent deeds.
What Biden should do and the American people should demand is that a national summit or summits take place within the United States the purpose of which would be to figure out what America is and what it wants to be going forward. New England style Town Hall meetings should be held across the country. The Arsenal of Democracy is in rough shape and, at least from the perspective of millions of its citizens, the national government has lost much of its legitimacy only holding the three branches of government—legislative, judicial and executive—together by virtue of controlling state sanctioned violence. Even that is questionable as a rag-tag band of then President Donald Trump’s supporters could storm the legislative branch with impunity (the US House and Senate on January 6, 2021) and terrorize members of congress who were affirming Biden’s electoral victory. As of this writing, there are members of congress who still believe Trump won the 2020 presidential election and millions of American citizens who agree with them.
What is an American and the United States?
The defeat of US and NATO forces by the Taliban in August 2021 makes a mockery of the new US national security strategy of Great Power Competition which would, in a worst case scenario of a kinetic/shooting war, pit the US and its allies against Russia, China and perhaps Iran and North Korea. How would American forces and its cronies fare against a “real” military with conventional intermediate range and ballistic missiles, tanks and tactical wheeled vehicles, and special forces of their own, and that would likely include partisan fighters modeled on the Taliban? It makes no sense at all to pursue a national security strategy that is doomed from the start just as the US led war in Afghanistan and nation building project was.
The US military and its civilian leaders have no one to blame but themselves for the fall of Afghanistan; that, and the tenacity and tactical ability of the Taliban. Many government officials have said that the fall of Afghanistan was not like the fall of Vietnam. They are right. For the most part, Americans forgot about Afghanistan or just didn’t care unlike the during the Vietnam War millions of Americans would ultimately take to the streets to protest against the war. The US military would claim that it did not have the support of the American people and that was one of the reasons it lost the war, but won most of the tactical battles. Well, in Afghanistan the American military had a free hand with a compliant media, US congress and presidency supporting them along the way. And what of the American people/citizens? Where were they for the last 20 years? Who are they and what do they care about? Freedom, they will say, the freedom to buy and sell as George W. Bush once said. Freedom is not free, they will add and a whole host of other bumper sticker sayings that are nonsensical. Americans do not know their place on this Earth or their country other than as a violent country not bound by any constraints against war.
Afghanistan was not a Total Waste
Over the course of 20 years the US officer corps, and defense contractors who were once uniformed soldiers, were able to pay their bills, put their kids through college or maybe even themselves. Many lower ranking officers in the US Army, Air Force, Marines and Navy punched their tickets to promotion to colonel or maybe even general by serving a combat tour or two in Afghanistan and maintaining the Big Lie of “success” in Afghanistan. Enlisted soldiers, who did most of the fighting, could rotate out of their low paying positions to become well paid defense contractors earning many times more in the private sector. Thinks Tanks like the Center for Strategic and International Studies and dozens like it would house intellectuals—or former Pentagon employees— (Kathleen Hicks, Deputy Secretary of Defense comes to mind) who would go on to positions as advisors or full time employees of the Pentagon or White House.
Retired military/intelligence personnel would become pundits for CNN, Fox, CBS. Young journalists in their 20’s or 30’s would become embedded with military units in Afghanistan (and Iraq) and go on to positions in the main stream media or to schools of journalism around the United States. Thousands of PhDs were likely handed out to those who roamed around Afghanistan studying the culture or those who analyzed the war from afar behind a computer screen.
It is difficult to fathom who did not make money to meet the needs of US troops in Afghanistan over a 20 year period. Perhaps the best piece of journalism on just how tied in private companies—let alone defense contractors—are to the Pentagon’s economic needs is by Nick Turse in his book How the Pentagon Invades Our Everyday Lives. Turse provides a humorous example through a character named Rick:
“Rick drags himself to the bathroom (fixtures by Pentagon contractor Kohler, purchased at defense contractor Home Depot). There, he squeezes the Charmin, brushes with Crest toothpaste, washes his face with Noxzema; then, hopping into the shower, he lathers up with Zest and chooses Donna’s Herbal Essences over Head & Shoulders — “What the hell,” he mutters, “I deserve an organic experience.” (The manufacturer of each of these products, Procter & Gamble, is among the top 100 defense contractors and raked in a cool $362,461,808 from the Pentagon in 2006.)
Yes, the Afghanistan War was good for business. It was also good for fielding new weapons and testing them on the Taliban. In 2010 ABC news reported on the XM-25: “Looking like it came straight out of a sci-fi movie, the XM-25 fires highly specialized rounds that can be programmed to explode at the precise location where the enemy is hiding behind cover.”
Improvements to the Kill Chain were made by compressing the time from target identification to munitions on target. In an Air Force Magazine article titled All In One Kill Chain the machinery used to kill one or many Taliban (or ISIS terrorists) is described as:
As the US continues to fight the war against ISIS and resumes a more proactive role in Afghanistan, the 379th Air Expeditionary Wing is intimately involved—at every step of the kill chain.Nicknamed the Grand Slam Wing, the 379th is the largest expeditionary air wing in the world. It comprises intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance from RC-135s and E-8s, global strike capabilities from B-52s or B-1s, mobility with the C-17, C-130, and C-21, and refueling from the KC-135. It also runs the Mideast Combined Air Operations Center (CAOC), critical command and control functions, and has space and cyber capabilities It ‘touches every aspect’ of the war effort, both kinetic and nonkinetic, ’24/7, 365 days a year,’ The kill chain is the process by which USAF will find, fix, track, target, engage, and assess in its wartime operations, before repeating the cycle again, as needed.
Drones, satellites, handheld communications devices are also part of the kills chain.
Sacrificed on the Altar of American Hubris and Exceptionalism
Thousands of US soldiers killed and maimed, Afghan civilians—women and children— obliterated, and yes, Taliban fighters slaughtered by Apache gunships and artillery fire. Where are the resignations letters of the politicians and generals who lied repeatedly about the progress of the war over the last 20 years? Or why don’t the think tank creeps and media personalities who were complicit in it all just disappear from view?
The images from the long war that are truly remarkable are those circulating on Twitter or You Tube of Taliban fighters, AK-47’s slung over their shoulders, driving bumper cars into each other or riding toy horses on a merry-go-round at an amusement park. Others show them working the weights and machines in abandoned fitness centers, playing on a seesaw or jumping on a trampoline, all of this with childlike enthusiasm. You’ve got to figure that these fighters have never seen or known such things engaging in combat for so many years as they have. As an American it is tough to reconcile within the self the fact that these are the fearsome warriors that pushed the US and NATO out of Afghanistan, and yet they possess the ability to laugh as they engage in children’s activity. That’s not the portrait of the Taliban that Americans have become accustomed to over the years.
US soldiers did not sacrifice in vain. Those that came back home in one piece or not, fought to keep each other alive while in Afghanistan. Many died there so that others would live. The care they showed for each other under combat/duress is remarkable and that’s a victory in and of itself.
Arguably the best novel on Afghanistan is the gut wrenching Wasted Vigil by Nadeem Aslam. One of the characters in the book, Marcus, laments that: “Both sides in Homer’s war, when they arrive to collect their dead from the battlefield, weep freely in complete sight of each other. Sick at heart. This is what Marcus wants, the tears of one side fully visible to the other”
It seems it’s time for that.
John Stanton can be reached at email@example.com