America's longest war gets even longer

With Barack Obama covertly extending the U.S. occupation of Afghanistan further into the future, Helen Redmond examines the myths and realities of the longest U.S. war

Barack and Michelle Obama are greeted by troops during a visit to Fort Stewart (Sgt. Uriah Walker)Barack and Michelle Obama are greeted by troops during a visit to Fort Stewart (Sgt. Uriah Walker)

"BY THE end of this year, the transition will be complete and Afghans will take full responsibility for their security and our combat mission will be over. America's war in Afghanistan will come to a responsible end."

President Barack Obama spoke those words this past May during a visit to Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan. He no doubt delighted soldiers who have been fighting a futile war for over 13 years with no victory in sight.

But the combat mission in Afghanistan is not over. Obama has issued a secret directive allowing 10,000 troops to continue both combat operations and night raids. We only know about the directive because it was leaked to the New York Times--so much for government transparency. An unnamed military official said the Air Force would use F-16 fighters, B-1B bombers, and Predator and Reaper drones to attack the Taliban during 2015.

Why isn't Obama withdrawing all U.S. troops as promised?

One crucial factor is the unfolding catastrophe in Iraq, where the U.S. military was forced to withdraw completely in 2011 because the government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki government refused to grant immunity from prosecution or lawsuits for U.S. soldiers. Since then, the Iraqi military has all but collapsed in the face of the advance of Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) forces.

The Pentagon fears a similar fate could happen to the Afghan army after U.S. troops pulled out. According to Sonali Kolhatkar, author of Bleeding Afghanistan:

It appears as though President Obama is worried about appearing soft on foreign policy given the rise of ISIS. Perhaps that is what has led to this quiet escalation in combat operations in Afghanistan. Sadly, it is precisely American military aggression and political interference that has fueled the likes of ISIS and the Taliban and made countries like Afghanistan, Syria and Iraq far more dangerous than they were.

U.S. military commanders don't believe the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF), which number around 350,000, are capable of defeating the Taliban or other insurgent forces without the help of American air support. Even with that, over 4,000 Afghan soldiers and police have died this year alone, compared to 2,147 U.S. soldiers killed in more than 13 years.

In truth, the Obama administration and the Pentagon were never committed to a complete withdrawal because Afghanistan has too much geopolitical importance in the so-called "war on terror." The plan was to keep several thousand troops in the country to conduct clandestine special operations and control air bases as a launching point for drone attacks.

This is why the U.S. put so much pressure, first on Afghan President Hamid Karzai and then on his successor Ashraf Ghani, to sign a Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) guaranteeing legal immunity to U.S. troops. Ghani, a former World Bank executive, eagerly signed the BSA the day after he was sworn in to office, after which he received $8 billion in aid, which his government needs to avoid collapse.

The continuing dependence of Afghanistan's government on U.S. aid and air strikes underscores a larger failure. After 13 years of war and a massive troop surge in 2010 that put 33,000 more U.S. boots on the ground, the Taliban still controls most of southern Afghanistan. And in recent months, suicide bombings and targeted assassinations have rocked Kabul, creating a panic that not even the heavily fortified capital is secure from Taliban attacks.

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THE LONGEST war in U.S. history started on October 7, 2001, three weeks after the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon.

The Bush administration, led by neoconservatives Dick Cheney, Condoleezza Rice and Donald Rumsfeld, saw the chance to end the "Vietnam Syndrome" and directly influence geopolitics in the key energy-producing regions of the Middle East and Central Asia. Rumsfeld stated that the 9/11 attacks created "the kind of opportunities that World War II offered, to refashion the world."

Barack Obama has tried to distinguish the war in Afghanistan as a "good" war, unlike the Iraq invasion he had opposed. "The United States did not seek this fight," he claimed this past May. "We went into Afghanistan out of necessity."

In fact, months before the 9/11 attacks, the Taliban was negotiating with U.S. diplomats to bring Osama bin Laden--accused of leading the al-Qaeda network that organized the attacks--to trial.

Abdul Salam Zaeef, then the ambassador to Pakistan, recounted in his book My Life With the Taliban how he offered the Bush administration three options. The Taliban agreed that if the U.S. could prove to the Supreme Court of Afghanistan that bin Laden was involved in the bombings in Nairobi and Tanzania, he would be found guilty and punished. They offered to form a new court to try bin Laden and agreed to restrict his movement and activities.

Bush rejected every proposal and insisted that bin Laden be extradited to the U.S. But the White House wanted revenge for 9/11. No deal that avoided war was ever going to happen.

The invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 inflicted a massive defeat on the Taliban. Initially, the majority of Afghans supported the U.S. military in the mistaken belief that the Taliban and the warlords who had tortured and killed with impunity would be brought to justice.

A survey by the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission found that 76 percent wanted the warlords tried as war criminals and 90 percent wanted them barred from public office. But just a few years later, as a result of the U.S. occupation that slaughtered civilians and installed hated and corrupt warlords in positions of power from Kabul to Kandahar, the Taliban was resuscitated and reconstituted.

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THE WAR in Afghanistan has been sold to the American public on a variety of pretexts. In the initial months, it was promoted as a way to emancipate Afghan women. "Imperialist feminists" like Laura Bush and Hillary Clinton insisted that American troops occupying Afghanistan would promote women's rights. "The fight against terrorism is also a fight for the rights and dignity of women," declared the then-first lady.

Shamefully, some feminist organizations like the Feminist Majority Fund endorsed the Bush administration rhetoric that the war would liberate women from abusive husbands and from wearing burqas.

Thirteen years on, it's clear that the lives of the vast majority of Afghan women are not better. Dropping bombs on wedding parties and children collecting firewood, detaining and torturing thousands of Afghan men, raiding homes in the middle of the night and shooting pregnant women didn't bring equality.

Women are still imprisoned in their homes and cannot leave without a mahram (a male escort). They are incarcerated for "moral crimes." Afghan women continue to endure horrific levels of violence. Gang rape, domestic violence, forced marriages, opium brides and honor killings are the lived reality for millions of Afghan women and girls. As Malalai Joya, a former member of the Afghan parliament, has often said, "Killing a woman is like killing a bird in Afghanistan."

In small pockets of the country, mainly in cities in the north, a minority of women have attained higher education, started small businesses or been elected to office. But even those modest gains are tenuous.

In 2011, a senior official in the Obama administration revealed how little the lives of Afghan women really mattered to the warmongers in Washington: "Gender issues are going to have to take a back seat to other priorities. There's no way we can be successful if we maintain every special interest and pet project. All those pet rocks in our rucksack were taking us down."

Meanwhile, another supposed goal of the war was to fight and win the war on drugs in a country that produces 80 percent of the world's supply of heroin.

To scare up support for the drug war, government officials called the Taliban "narco-terrorists" and warned that Afghanistan was on the brink of becoming a "narco-state." The mainstream media published thousands of uncritical stories backing the drug war and cheered when alleged Afghan drug traffickers were extradited to the U.S., prosecuted and given life sentences.

The Drug Enforcement Administration partnered with the Department of Defense to fund and execute drug raids and poppy eradication campaigns across Afghanistan. Guess what? It has been an expensive failure.

The title of a report released in October by John Sopko, the special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction, says it all: "Poppy cultivation in Afghanistan: After a decade of reconstruction and over $7 billion in counter-narcotics efforts, poppy cultivation levels are at an all-time high."

Testifying before Congress, Sopko said: "On my trips to Afghanistan in 2013 and earlier this year, no one at the U.S. embassy could convincingly explain to me how the U.S. government counter-narcotics efforts are making a meaningful impact on the narcotics trade or how they will have a significant impact after."

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THE WAR in Afghanistan has a steep price tag at home and abroad. The American taxpayer has funded the war to the astonishing tune of $700 billion. The cost of deploying one soldier is $1million per year. There is never a problem finding money for the military, but try to bail out the bankrupt city of Detroit, find the funds to keep schools, hospitals and mental health centers open, or fix crumbling buildings and bridges? No way.

Money for the reconstruction of Afghanistan tops out at $100 billion. But a staggering $85 billion has been misspent, according to the Afghanistan Study Group. Billions have been stolen, lost to waste and corruption, or simply unaccounted for.

The problem lies with the U.S. Agency for International Development, the Defense Department and other agencies. These entities handed out multimillion-dollar construction projects to private, for-profit contractors with little financial oversight or project accountability. Contractors like DynCorp, KBR and Northrup Grumman made millions, while all over Afghanistan, abandoned or half-finished roads, dams, clinics and schools dot the landscape.

The spigot of money for million-dollar projects was wide open in Kabul because it was the most secure city in the country. A "surge" of NGOs arrived, set up shop and started raking in the cash. Matthieu Aikens, a reporter based in Kabul, wrote in Rolling Stone magazine:

If you could string a few coherent sentences together into a grant application, odds were that there was some contracting officer out there who was willing to give you money, no matter how vapid your idea. Want to put on a music festival in Kabul? Here's a few hundred thousand. Shoot a soap opera about heroic local cops? A million for you. Is your handicraft business empowering Afghan women? Name your bid. The "Kabubble" economy was so hot that kids out of college were making six-figure salaries and former mid-level paper pushers were clearing a thousand a day as consultants for places like the World Bank.

And the Afghan people? Most of the aid money didn't improve their lives in the long-term. After more than a decade of uninterrupted aid from not only the United States but dozens of other nations, Afghanistan still occupies the bottom rung of nearly every human development index: per capita income, literacy, life expectancy, infant mortality, electricity usage and Internet access.

The war and occupation in Afghanistan has been a 13-year-long series of defeats and disasters for the U.S military and it has brought death and destruction to the people of Afghanistan. The continued presence of American troops won't change that reality.