The Afghanistan War And The Dissenters We Should've Listened To
Let's seek out such voices next time a presidential administration moves the United States toward launching a war.
President Joe Biden delivered a speech where he stood by the withdrawal of United States military forces from Afghanistan, but he crudely blamed the people of Afghanistan for the chaos that has unfolded over the past several days.
It was a lie to assert the war in Afghanistan was never about nation-building. Neoconservatives in President George W. Bush’s administration, who launched the war, deployed troops for an open-ended mission to establish a government that could secure the country against the Taliban and be a reliable ally in the region.
Biden also lied about opposing a surge in Afghanistan when he vice president in President Barack Obama’s administration. He backed sending an additional 20,000 troops but was opposed to sending more than 20,000 like Obama did.
The president had nothing to say about the Pentagon and CIA’s resistance to adequately planning for withdrawal, even though that could have helped avoid some of the scenes of panic which were broadcast.
As Matthew Hoh, former State Department official who resigned in protest against Obama’s surge, put it in a CODEPINK webinar, the speech reflected the willingness and ease in which U.S. officials can lie and get away with it. They do not have to fear being called out or confronted. And that has allowed “all wars throughout the Muslim world to continue” and evolve into wars that are hidden and secret. (But of course, not secret and hidden to the people suffering from their impacts.)
Plenty of time should be spent sifting through the lies and delusions spread about the Afghanistan War because many of those lies and delusions contributed to a collective shock as the Taliban took control of Kabul. However, just as important are the truths that were uttered by dissenters against the agenda of perpetual war promoted by war hawks and craven politicians.
So let’s elevate those voices that were right and remember to seek out such voices next time a presidential administration—with the support of legislators—moves toward launching a war.
War Will Not Prevent International Terrorism
Representative Barbara Lee was the sole vote in the House of Representatives against the resolution that gave Bush the authority to use whatever force was deemed necessary in response to the 9/11 attacks. Through her vote, she opposed the military invasion of Afghanistan.
“I am convinced that military action will not prevent further acts of international terrorism against the United States. This is a very complex and complicated matter. Now, this resolution will pass, although we all know that the president can wage a war even without it. However difficult this vote may be, some of us must urge the use of restraint,” Lee declared on September 14, 2001.
In November 2009, U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan Karl Eikenberry warned in two classified cables against expanding the war through a “strictly military counterinsurgency effort.” He was concerned the U.S. would become “more deeply engaged” with “no way to extricate ourselves, short of allowing the country to descend again into lawlessness and chaos.”
“We agree that more troops will yield more security wherever they deploy, for as long as they stay. But the last time we sent substantial additional forces, a deployment totaling 33,000 in 2008-2009, overall violence and instability in Afghanistan intensified.”
Eikenberry thought the surge would deepen Afghan dependence on U.S. troops. “Many areas need not just security but health care, education, justice, infrastructure, and almost every other basic government function. Many have never had these services at all. Establishing them requires trained and honest Afghan officials to replace our own personnel. That cadre of Afghan civilians does not now exist and would take years to build.”
The Truth Has Become Unrecognizable
When Matthew Hoh resigned around this time, he wrote a letter to Obama that stated, “I have observed that the bulk of the insurgency fights not for the white banner of the Taliban, but rather against the presence of foreign soldiers and taxes imposed by an unrepresentative government in Kabul. The United States military presence in Afghanistan greatly contributes to the legitimacy and strategy message of the Pashtun insurgency.”
For Jeremy Scahill’s 2013 book Dirty Wars, Hoh described how Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) forces were in Afghanistan “chasing after mid-level Taliban leaders” who posed no threat to the United States. “We found ourselves In this special operations form of attrition warfare.” (By his estimate, there were fewer than 100 al Qaida operatives left in Afghanistan.)
In 2012, Lt. Col. Daniel Davis blew the whistle on the war after a second tour in Afghanistan and submitted a classified and unclassified report to Congress and the Obama administration. ”Senior ranking U.S. military leaders have so distorted the truth when communicating with the U.S. Congress and American people in regards to conditions on the ground in Afghanistan that the truth has become unrecognizable,” he declared.
Afghanistan War supporter and Washington Post columnist Max Boot feebly insulted Davis as a “reservist,” but Davis was in a position to reach out to people in power. He managed to brief four members of Congress and share his reports with the Pentagon’s inspector general.
According to Rolling Stone journalist Michael Hastings, Davis detailed “the gross failure of training the Afghan Army, the military’s blurring of the lines between public affairs and ‘information operations’ (meaning, essentially, propaganda), and the Pentagon’s manipulation of the U.S. media.
“It is my recommendation that the United States Congress—the House and Senate Armed Services Committees in particular—should conduct a bipartisan investigation into the various charges of deception or dishonesty in this report and hold broad hearings as well,” Davis urged. “These hearings need to include the very senior generals and former generals whom I refer to in this report so they can be given every chance to publicly give their version of events."
The vast majority in the media establishment did not question what they were told by military brass. But in his 2012 book, The Operators: The Wild and Terrifying Inside Story of America's War in Afghanistan, Hastings documented the role of General Stanley McChrystal and other generals behind counterinsurgency operations. He determined based on his observations as a correspondent that the war was unwinnable.
Used to the culture among elite journalists who desire access, McChrystal tried to shape a magazine profile on him in Rolling Stone. Hastings was not about to publish a fawning portrait and wound up publishing an article that set off a chain of events leading to McChrystal’s resignation.
Following the raid on Osama bin Laden, Hastings wrote, “Bin Laden’s death revealed the biggest lie of the war, the ‘safe haven’ myth, Afghanistan’s version of WMDs. The concept of waging an extremely expensive and bloody counterinsurgency campaign to prevent safe havens never truly made sense. Terrorists didn’t need countries.”
Sparking A Domestic Debate On The Military
In 2010, U.S. Army whistleblower Chelsea Manning released the Afghanistan War Logs, which were military incident reports from 2004-2009. At her court-martial, she reflected on the documents.
“I felt that we were risking so much for people that seemed unwilling to cooperate with us, leading to frustration and anger on both sides. I began to become depressed with the situation that we found ourselves increasingly mired in year after year,” Manning stated. “The SigActs [significant activity reports] documented this in great detail and provide a context of what we were seeing on the ground.”
She added, “I believe that if the general public, especially the American public, had access to the information contained within [the reports] this could spark a domestic debate on the role of the military and our foreign policy in general.”
“I also believed the detailed analysis of the data over a long period of time by different sectors of society might cause society to reevaluate the need or even the desire even to engage in counterterrorism and counterinsurgency operations that ignore the complex dynamics of the people living in the affected environment every day,” Manning shared.
The documents exposed the use of assassination squads, unreported civilian casualties by CIA and U.S. military forces, the use of psychological warfare, and U.S. military suspicions of foreign support for the Taliban.
Manning was sentenced to 35 years in a military prison and convicted of several Espionage Act-related offenses.
For Daniel Hale, who was an Air Force intelligence analyst in Afghanistan, Manning was a kind of an inspiration. He provided Scahill with documents that were published as part of “The Drone Papers,” which were published in 2015.
Hale revealed that the U.S. military designated all people killed as “enemies killed in action” or EKIA, regardless of whether those killed were targets.
“Unless evidence posthumously emerged to prove the males killed were not terrorists or ‘unlawful enemy combatants,’ EKIA remained their designation,” Hale shared. “[That process] is insane. But we’ve made ourselves comfortable with that. The intelligence community, JSOC, the CIA, and everybody that helps support and prop up these programs, they’re comfortable with that idea.”
Hale further described “official U.S. government statements minimizing the number of civilian casualties inflicted by drone strikes as ‘exaggerating at best, if not outright lies.’”
Similar to Manning, the Justice Department targeted Hale with an Espionage Act prosecution. He was sentenced to 45 months in prison on July 27.
Toward the end of 2019, documents from the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) were published by the Washington Post as the “Afghanistan Papers.” Much like the Pentagon Papers that exposed the Vietnam War, they showed that high-ranking U.S. officials were well aware that the war was not winnable and had deliberately misinformed the public.
Undoubtedly, there are voices in this overview of dissent, including some who were lesser known. A number of veterans returned home and joined with antiwar groups to protest the continued occupation. CODEPINK was one organization that constantly mobilized opposition on milestone dates.
Additional members of Congress, particularly after Obama’s election, joined Rep. Barbara Lee and were against extending the war in Afghanistan. A few were even Republicans, like Representatives Ron Paul and Walter Jones.
Anyone in the U.S. government or U.S. establishment media could have listened to these voices and acknowledged that they were correct and their assessments demanded immediate action to end the war. Their objections were covered widely by the press. However, presidential administrations, lawmakers, and media organizations repeatedly dismissed the facts on the ground, or worse, recommitted forces and escalated the war.
Sadly, the costs of their ignorance, as well as the lack of accountability, will continue to be felt by Afghans well after the images of the Taliban taking Kabul fade from our collective consciousness.