Washington’s Drug of Choice in the War on Terror

As you read today’s piece by historian and TomDispatch regular Alfred McCoy, author most recently of In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power, think of Afghanistan as the gateway drug for three Washington administrations. Within weeks of the 9/11 attacks, George W. Bush and his top officials had launched their invasion of that country and soon knocked off the Taliban (rather than simply going after Osama bin Laden and his followers). That “victory,” however ephemeral, acted as the policy equivalent of a drug high for the president and his crew of geopolitical dreamers who promptly turned their attention to Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and nailing down the rest of the oil heartlands of the planet. (And you know just how well that went in mission-accomplished terms.) In 2009-2010, Afghanistan (“the right war“) would prove the gateway drug for Barack Obama as he surged in 30,000 troops, along with mini-surges of contractors, CIA agents, Special Forces soldiers, and others. Before he was done, from Libya to Iraq, the Afghan War would be the least of his problems. And finally, of course, there’s Donald Trump, who, in the years leading up to his election victory, spoke or tweeted as if he might take a different approach to Afghanistan, but then surrounded himself with three generals from America’s losing wars and once again decided to do the usual Afghan thing. Now, he, too, is hooked and, from Niger to Somalia and beyond, the results are already coming in.

Though seldom thought of that way (except perhaps by McCoy), Afghanistan is not just the longest war in American history but possibly the longest opium war in anyone’s history. And sixteen years later, here’s one thing we can take for granted about what’s likely to happen: in the end, it never goes well. If we know less than we should about how badly it’s going right now, part of that can be explained by the policies of those most deeply hooked on the war. When things go badly for them, they turn off the information spigot, as in 2015 when the American command in Afghanistan cut off all public release of material on “U.S.-taxpayer-funded efforts to build, train, equip, and sustain the Afghan National Security Forces.” That was, of course, at the point when almost $65 billion had already been poured into training and equipping those forces and they were failing nationwide. Since then, we know that Afghan police and military casualties have soared, desertions have risen, “ghost soldiers” fill many units (with their commanders and others skimming off their salaries), and the Taliban has gained control of ever more of the country. In response, the U.S. command there has again “classified and restricted once-public information regarding the state of Afghan security forces, including ‘casualties, personnel strength, attrition, capability assessments, and operational readiness of equipment.’”

And so it goes in America’s drug war in South Asia. Someday, the high will truly wear off and then who knows where we’ll be. In the meantime, read McCoy and think about what this repetitive version of war making means so many years later. ~ Tom

Into the Afghan Abyss (Again) 
How a Failed Drug War Will Defeat Trump’s Afghan Adventure 
By Alfred W. McCoy

After nine months of confusion, chaos, and cascading tweets, Donald Trump’s White House has finally made one thing crystal clear: the U.S. is staying in Afghanistan to fight and – so they insist – win. “The killers need to know they have nowhere to hide, that no place is beyond the reach of American might,” said the president in August, trumpeting his virtual declaration of war on the Taliban. Overturning Barack Obama’s planned (and stalled) drawdown in Afghanistan, Secretary of Defense James Mattis announced that the Pentagon would send 4,000 more soldiers to fight there, bringing American troop strength to nearly 15,000.

In October, as that new mini-escalation was ramping up, the CIA leaked to the New York Times news of a complementary covert surge with lethal drone strikes and “highly experienced” Agency paramilitary teams being dispatched to “hunt and kill” Taliban guerrillas, both ordinary fighters and top officials. “This is unforgiving, relentless,” intoned CIA Director Mike Pompeo, promising a wave of extrajudicial killings reminiscent of the Agency’s notorious Phoenix Program during the Vietnam War. CIA paramilitary officers, reported the Times, will lead Special Forces operatives, both Afghan and American, in expanded counterterrorism operations that, in the past, “have been accused of indiscriminately killing Afghan civilians.” In short, it’s game on in Afghanistan.


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