At long last, President Biden is taking the necessary and decades-overdue step of ending the war in Afghanistan. Misguided and aimless from the outset, the impulsive overreaction to the 9/11 terror attacks ultimately led to Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda achieving everything they ever wanted: a United States enmeshed in an endless, fruitless overseas conflict that accomplished nothing but drain treasure and lives while empowering the very terror groups we sought to eradicate.
As the years passed, it became clear that the twin forces of the military-industrial complex and the national security blob had no plan or vision for Afghanistan beyond the funneling of taxpayer dollars into the coffers of defense contractors and the meatgrinder of American military presence in Central Asia for the sole sake of projecting power near Iran and China. Even when it became painfully obvious to everyone involved that there would be no military solution to the war with Taliban, the generals and the war hawks fought tooth and nail to keep U.S. troops there forever.
You can hear their frustrated keening echoing through the op-ed pages of major publications as egg-headed pundits and grumbling spooks disingenuously pretend to care about the future of Afghan democracy and the human rights of Afghan civilians, never stopping to mention that in some years the United States and its allies killed more innocent civilians than the Taliban did. A war born out of sheer hubris and waged for two decades out of stubbornness, so is the resistance to its end borne out of selfish pride and increasingly thin delusions of grandeur.
Twenty years later, the war is finally coming to an end with nothing but bodies and uncomfortable questions to show for it. 157,000 Afghans are dead, including 43,000 civilians. 2,298 U.S. troops have been killed and 20,066 have been wounded. $2 trillion dollars wasted down the drain for a war that the government actively lied to the public and to themselves about. Considering that the Afghan and Iraq Wars were both catastrophic failures on every level, one might think that this would be the time to step back and reconsider the role and practicality of American empire in a vastly different world than the one in which it rose to power.
But it appears this withdrawal is merely setting the stage for the next big conflict, this time with the People’s Republic of China. The signs of a major shift in priorities have been clear ever since the Biden administration took over, exemplified in the announcement of a China-centric summit between Biden and Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga directly following the withdrawal announcement.
“China has an overall goal … to become the leading country in the world, the wealthiest country in the world, and the most powerful country in the world. That’s not going to happen on my watch because the United States is going to continue to grow” declared Biden late last month as the Pentagon openly frets about Chinese efforts to modernize their military and expand their nuclear missile capability. “Afghanistan just does not rise to the level of those other threats at this point,” said a senior administration official to the Washington Post.
With a rapidly accelerating climate crisis looming above the world and the nation still reeling from the ravages of the coronavirus, plunging headfirst into escalated tensions with a global superpower is the last thing the United States needs to be doing. It’s time for us to take a step back, tend to the myriad crises unfolding at the home front, and have a long and hard discussion with ourselves about America’s role on the international stage and the purpose of maintaining empire at all.
Tens of thousands of U.S. servicemembers struggle with PTSD, with the pain of lost limbs and grief of lost squadmates, their families forced to shoulder the burden of imperial sacrifice, and for what? Those brave men and women deserve an explanation and accountability from a political and military elite that deliberately misled both the American public and its own armed forces about the state of the Afghan War for years.
If the Biden administration is serious about restoring the integrity of American democracy, he must urge Congress to revoke the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force, which each presidential administration has used to wage indiscriminate war across the world wherever they see fit without approval from the people’s elected representatives. That violence includes the bombing of seven different countries, active participation in the genocidal Saudi Arabian military intervention in Yemen, airstrikes with over a hundred civilian casualties, and the political assassination of prominent Iranian officials in broad daylight.
How a 2001 Congressional approval for the invasion of Afghanistan legally justifies 2019 SEAL raids in Yemen or drone strikes in Mali is beyond anyone’s understanding and adds insult to the injury of knowing that the military and political elite are fundamentally unaccountable for anything they say or do in this country. That’s why President Biden should but certainly won’t hold some kind of tribunal or major investigation into the Pentagon to punish those responsible for lying to both Congress and the American people.
If we really want to prove to the world and to our own people that America is serious about transparency, oversight, accountability, and human rights, we need to see some proverbial heads roll for the unmitigated, murderous disaster that was the Global War on Terror.
If we want to break the cycle of white supremacist violence here at home, we must prove to both ourselves and the world that the innocent lives of nonwhite peoples lost in the interminable American rampage across the Middle East and Central Asia do have meaning to us and are worth enough for there to be some accountability. Hell, it’s the perfect excuse to drag Donald Trump out of whatever Floridian bog he’s nesting in and pop him in front of a war crimes tribunal for the 6,000 people who were killed in U.S. coalition bombings in 2017 alone!
But of course, none of that is going to happen. Once you hold one person accountable, you then open the doors to holding everyone accountable — and we just can’t be having that, can we?
Opinion columnist and former editor-in-chief of Occupy Democrats. He graduated from Bennington College with a Bachelor's degree in history and political science. He now focuses on advancing the cause of social justice and equality in America.