An Apt Metaphor for the Entire Afghan War

The Disastrous Final Drone Strike Says It All

As the US was making its exit from Afghanistan, on August 26th, thirteen US servicemen and -women were killed in a terrorist bomb at the Kabul airport; 20 more were wounded. The President saluted the coffins at Dover Air Force Base. Given the nature of a war like Afghanistan, this bombing put pressure on US forces to respond in kind with some kind of tit-for-tat violent attack.

Three days after the bombing, the US military reported it had destroyed an ISIS target, a white Toyota Corolla. Drone operators had followed the car for some time. By late afternoon the drone operators and their chiefs made a determination that the man driving the Corolla was an ISIS operative who had been loading bombs into his trunk — ready to be delivered and detonated. It was a GO! to “take him out.” As the Corolla pulled up to a house, a Hellfire missile obliterated it. The military reported a secondary explosion — ie. evidence of those bombs in the trunk.

Meanwhile, the Biden administration was fighting tooth and nail against a right-wing Republican onslaught suggesting the President was suffering from dementia and was the worst kind of inept commander-in-chief imaginable. He was raked over the coals for “leaving behind” over 100 Americans and many Afghans who had worked for Americans or still worked for them in some capacity. The press pushed hard for the government to ease up on visas and mind-boggling red tape to get these Afghans away from the Taliban and to safety. For a brief moment, the drone hit on the white Corolla was seen as a positive act: We’d gotten revenge on the ISIS bombers.

[ Marine General Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr., the last commander of US forces in Afghanistan, making his mea culpa speech, and the little brother of one of the dead children in the drone attack. ]

Then, in the September 11 issue of The New York Times, after the newspaper had investigated on the ground, we learned that the drone hit on an ISIS terrorist bomber was, in fact, a total screw-up; the person hit was, in fact, not an ISIS operator but a respected 43-year-old Afghan working for an American aid enterprise who was loading water and food into his trunk to aid refugees. To make matters worse, as this honorable US ally was pulling up to his home, his kids — glad to see him! — rushed out to meet him. At that point, the Hellfire missile hit, leaving ten dead, seven of them children. And many wounded.

The Pentagon soon accepted the Times’ story of their lethal screw-up, and the last commandant in Afghanistan — Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr. — fell on his sword and apologized. Reparations are on the way.

What are we to make of this story? Think of it not as a tit-for-tat gotcha! tale, but as a very human story involving flawed human beings. Think of all the various pressures working on all the characters in the story, all with differing motives. There’s the 43-year-old Afghan working for Americans and, as the Americans are leaving, concerned about his own family and his own people. There’s the drone operator working in an air-conditioned hut with a Diet Pepsi on the table in steady contact with his or her superiors anxious for a revenge killing. Let’s imagine the operator is a 27-year-old African American woman from Baton Rouge, Louisiana. She joined the Army because she had few options after high school, and the military looked like a good opportunity. She went from national hero to baby killer in the blink of an eye. Her head must be spinning; she’s maybe in counseling. Everyone in the story is operating under tremendous uncertainty and fear (the Fog of War?) that can begin to play tricks with the mind. Now that it’s clear you were wrong, what do you do? Do you rationalize and tell yourself the mistake cost only ten lives, but if you’d been right, it could have been 35 dead American warriors — maybe a lot more? Does that make the screw-up better?  Decisions are difficult, and second-guessing leads to psychological stress. Maybe it’s best just to move on and forget about it. The Afghan family in question, of course, will not forget about it. They’re reportedly quite angry.

Shooting First and Asking Questions Later

Think back to the beginnings of the war. Think of George W. Bush and the idea you’re either with us or you’re against us. Think how Dick Cheney felt the need to go to “the dark side.” Think of all the lies and the self-serving garbage told to the American people by Donald Rumsfeld as they exploited 9/11 and set in motion not one, but two full-fledged wars. Shoot first, ask questions later was too often the literal strategy in these wars. Thus, the story of the dead aid worker and the seven innocent dead kids is the perfect metaphor for both Bush wars, Afghanistan and Iraq. Metaphors are ever present in our language and lives because — by suggesting something familiar can help explain a larger, more confusing matter — they help us get a grip on complex things. They work in the realm of pattern recognition. As metaphor, the disastrous final drone hit is a very blunt punctuation.

In its coverage of the story, Times reporter Alissa J. Rubin wrote this: “Over much of the last 20 years, the United States has repeatedly targeted the wrong people in its efforts to go after terrorists. … [T]here is a well-documented record of strikes that killed innocents people from almost the very first months of its presence in Afghanistan.” Decisions were made and the “evidence” to back them up was too often either fabricated or it was inadequate and distorted — while good information that did not support the cavalier use of violence was ignored. Too often, the intelligence was back-filled to justify what they wanted to do — what they felt they had to do, which was to respond violently to the forces that had attacked the most powerful nation in the world. The point was to throw US military power around (Shock & Awe) until the local terrorist hierarchy realized opposition was futile and cried “uncle.”

So now the Afghan War is over and the United States is interred with the Brits and Russia in the famous Afghan Graveyard of Empires. It’s ungraceful to say “We told you so.” But the antiwar Left did just that starting 20 years ago. Some kind of response to 9/11 was certainly necessary. But two massive military invasions that evolved into a “nation building” boondoggle?

If having fewer costly, losing wars in the future matters at all (and it may not for some) then we need to fundamentally re-think — in a time of profound technological transformation — how Americans relate to other people in the world. The fact we are able to bomb a place into the Stone Age doesn’t mean we should. For one, morally, the world won’t let us get away with that. The place to start is to understand why Afghanistan went so wrong while focusing on the ongoing diplomatic negotiations with the Taliban government of Afghanistan. These negotiations are going on in Qatar, the nation that created and operates the legitimate news operations of Al Jazeera. They host a huge US base. And dialogue with Taliban leaders is hardly new. Before 9/11, Taliban leaders made a number of trips to Texas to speak with oil companies about oil deals; they met with Governor George W. Bush. This was OK, as long as the topic was oil deals and profits. Now, it’s how to work with the Taliban to make post-war Afghanistan a livable nation.

Reports suggest the current negotiations between the US and the Taliban are working. Americans and Afghans who worked with the US continue to trickle out through various routes, one being planes from airports other than the one in Kabul. When you think about it, a Taliban leadership that has, like the Vietnamese before them, successfully driven the powerful United States military from their land does not want the US to linger as it exits; it wants a clean exit. The more we linger the trickier things will get for them. While the Taliban may have “won” the war, they know the US can still cause great destruction and havoc if it wants to.

The Taliban of 2021 are not the Taliban of 2001. We’re told 70-percent of Afghans have a smart phone and 30-percent of them are on social media. Combatants learn a lot from their enemies over 20 years of war, and that goes for both sides. Taliban leaders are facing food shortages and other crises. Hard-ball negotiations in conjunction with food shipments would be wise; plus, we have billions of dollars of Afghan money locked up that we could negotiate with. As folk wisdom has it, you get more with sugar than with salt.

I recently listened to Texas Senator Ted Cruz demagogue the messy complexities of Biden’s exit plan from Afghanistan. Cruz was grilling Secretary of State Antony Blinken in a hearing; he was arrogant and belligerent and focused almost entirely on the 13 dead soldiers from an ISIS bomb. Although it had been made public, he made no mention of the 10 allies we killed with a US drone strike in response to those dead soldiers. Cruz was trying to employ the ISIS bombing of 13 dead US soldiers as his easy metaphor for the entire war; as if, the 9/11 attack itself could be used as a metaphor for understanding the 20-year war US leaders set in motion to revenge that terrorist act. Cruz and company want to make the original provocation a metaphor for the US response. Metaphor doesn’t work that way; propaganda and bullshit work that way.

As someone who has opposed the Afghan and Iraq Wars from the very beginning, the fact is at this late date we have a US administration with the courage to exit from the 20 year war. Meanwhile, on one extreme, ISIS opposes the US withdrawal and wants to stir up violence to keep the US in Afghanistan as the decadent western, imperial Boogie Man that justifies their existence. While on the other side, domestic extremists like Senator Cruz are doing exactly the same thing: Trying their best with rhetoric to keep US troops in Afghanistan — in the words of Fox’s Sean Hannity, to protect Americans and Afghans “stuck behind enemy lines.” It’s the right playing a classic Stabbed In The Back Myth blame game. The fact is Afghanistan’s borders are not the same thing as “enemy lines” — especially in the internet age.

In the US pursuit of American exceptionalism and self-interest, we conveniently forget how the Taliban came to leadership in Afghanistan. The United States funded and armed a mujahadeen force in Afghanistan to oppose the Russian occupation; some suggest the US, beginning under President Carter, sought to create a “Russian Vietnam.” When that worked and the Russians pulled out — so did the United States!  Afghanistan was left a roiling mess with a leadership vacuum. Importantly, it was the Taliban (the word means students or seekers) who filled that vacuum. Coming out of an especially brutal war and faced with a broken society, the Taliban managed the country with a very harsh hand. But the same goes for the Wahabi Bedouins in Saudi Arabia and leadership in many other places.

Everything changed with 9/11. A terrified and furious United States began to manage itself, not unlike the Taliban, with a harsh hand. Susan Sontag publicly said: “By all means let’s mourn together; but let’s not be stupid together.” But speaking truth to power at that juncture wasn’t encouraged. Sontag and others like her were damned and threatened to the point of silence. The need to project US imperial military violence was overwhelming, lest we lose the edge as the dominant world power.

Who’s To Blame?

In a recent New York Times column, Jamelle Bouie makes a very good case that, “The war on terror eroded the institutions of American democracy and fed our most reactionary impulses.” Thus, Bouie finds George W. Bush’s September 11, 2021, speech in Shanksville, PA, the site of Flight 93’s crash, to be disturbingly hypocritical. “The truth is that Bush is one of the leading architects of our present crisis.”

Former President Bush has been in hiding for a long time. His regime can arguably be seen as providing the US one of its worst foreign policy disasters. Since leaving office, he’s spent a lot of time developing a soft, human image as a painter of wounded veterans, the men and women he sent to Iraq and Afghanistan. One might argue he’s a wounded president looking for restitution. Now, with his Shanksville speech, he wants to have it both ways: He’s against Trump and Trumpism, while his regime arguably initiated many of the un-democratic problems that came to full flower in the Trump administration.

Let’s start with Bush’s election in 2000. Bush lost the popular vote; he only won the Florida recount because the Republican ground forces there were much more insistent and potentially more violent than Gore’s Democrats. The emotions went like this: Democrats had had their eight years; now it was the Republicans turn! The deal was sealed by a smelly Supreme Court ruling. Even the supreme court justices who sealed the deal seemed to know it smelled, because they said the ruling could not be used as precedent — as they sat in robes atop a legal system based entirely on precedent. Now, of course, Republicans have moved on to even more obnoxious and un-democratic postures, with the potential for violence and the possibility of more Supreme Court chicanery a looming reality.

In his column, Bouie quotes from Spencer Ackerman’s book Reign of Terror: How the 9/11 Era Destabilized America and Produced Trump:

“A war that never defined its enemy became an opportunity for the so-called MAGA coalition of white Americans to merge their grievances in an atmosphere of righteous emergency. . . . [T]his unlocked a panoply of authoritarian possibilities that extended far beyond the war on terror.” The idea of an enemy was shifted and shuffled around so that it now included US citizens. You’re either with us or against us. As a Trump sign in my neighborhood declares: “Make liberals cry again!”

In this sense, Donald Trump, Trumpism and the crippling of American democracy are not new phenomena. The roots are in the post WWII rise of US imperialist militarism and wars like Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan, corrupt election messes like 2000 in Florida and in the fundamental dishonesty of the George W. Bush administration and the preposterous idea of Mr. Bush as a “war president” appeasing scared citizens crying out for violent revenge. Like a bad prosecutor of a sensational murder needing an accused to execute, it didn’t seem to matter whether the target of the vengeful violence was guilty of the crime in question.

As such, George W. Bush and his administration provided the US with a suppurating disaster that no one until Joe Biden had the temerity to end. It left a terrible legacy. We need to apply the blame for the Afghan debacle where it belongs before we can even begin to get a grip on our wasteful militarism.