Fool’s Errand: Time to End the War in Afghanistan by Scott Horton (Chicago: The Libertarian Institute, 2017); 317 pages.
According to official U.S. government accounts, the body of Osama bin Laden slid off the deck of the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson into his watery grave in the Indian Ocean sometime on the morning of May 2, 2011. Nearly 10 years after 9/11, the terrorist leader of al-Qaeda responsible for nearly 3,000 murdered Americans was no more, and the rationale for the Afghan War gone with him.
Fast-forward another seven years. On September 2, 2018, Gen. Austin S. Miller assumed control of NATO and U.S. forces in Afghanistan, the 17th commander to inherit the longest military quagmire in the nation’s history. Miller replaced Gen. John W. Nicholson, who led the coalition war effort for 17 months. Upon his departure, Nicholson said, “It is time for this war in Afghanistan to end.”
The opposite, however, is happening.
What’s clear from Miller’s promotion from commander of the Joint Special Operations Command, the military’s most elite killing machines, is that Washington cannot leave well enough alone in this graveyard of empires. Seventeen years of unnecessary bloodshed and atrocity and wasted treasure and corruption in Afghanistan isn’t enough. In June, General Miller told lawmakers that there was no timeline for the end to the war, while the situation on the ground only worsens as the Taliban continues to gain territory at the expense of the U.S.-supported puppet government in Kabul.
As journalist Scott Horton documents in his exhaustive history of the Afghan War, Fool’s Errand: Time to End the War in Afghanistan, the U.S. invasion and occupation of Afghanistan was always a mistake. Upon close scrutiny, Horton shows, every rationale for the war — from destroying al-Qaeda or defeating the Taliban or denying a terrorist safe haven or, even more unbelievable, creating a stable and democratic nation ruled from the capital city of Kabul — falls apart.
And unlike most authors, Horton isn’t writing for academics, journalists, or any other elite constituency. His in-your-face, accessible prose has one goal: Convince ordinary Americans that they’ve been duped by both al-Qaeda and their own government and convince them to demand a withdrawal from this gut wound of a war.
Those familiar with the Horton of Antiwar Radio and his entertaining rants may be surprised at the restraint of his prose. This is a book light on polemics and heavy on facts and citations. And it’s a wise move on his part. Page after page, Horton exhaustively documents why the war in Afghanistan continues to be a pointless war of aggression full of waste, fraud, and abuse. Gratuitous use of adjectives and adverbs and going off on tangents would only detract from his masterful scholarship and sober assessment of the facts.
That also lets another side of Horton more fully come into view: his empathy and moral egalitarianism. What’s always been striking and admirable about Horton throughout the years, from his radio work to this book, is his concern for the victims of America’s imperial violence. On the very first page of the Introduction, he acknowledges that Obama’s counterinsurgency surge killed tens of thousands of Afghans.
There are no moral gymnastics in Horton’s prose. An Afghan life is of the same worth as an American service member’s. I even suspect he would value Afghan civilian lives more, considering they are people at the whim of forces they cannot control. U.S. service members can’t say the same thing. Unlike the case in the Vietnam War, they chose to enlist, and therefore, they must be held accountable, morally speaking, for their participation in this so-called just war.
But a just war this most certainly is not, which is one of the reasons ordinary Afghans haven’t welcomed American service members as their liberators. In May 2018, the U.S. government’s Special Investigator General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) reported that the Taliban controls nearly 15 percent of the country’s districts with nearly another 30 percent contested. The Long War Journal website, however, calls SIGAR’s outlook “optimistic.” According to its analysis, “the Taliban controls or contests 239 of Afghanistan’s 407 districts, or 59 percent.”
After 17 years of war, Afghanistan continues to be a mess of tribal warfare, and American intervention has only made matters worse. When American intervention in Afghanistan began, the U.S. government aligned with the Northern Alliance, the same group of warlords that sided with the Soviet Union during the disastrous Afghan-Soviet war of the 1980s. The Pashtun Taliban, or “students,” emerged in the mid 1990s as a successful resistance movement to pro-Soviet warlords who had plunged the country into criminality and constant civil war.
Religiously conservative and authoritarian, the Taliban “were cruel and oppressive, but they were not corrupt,” writes Horton. “Their religious rule was considered by the Pashtuns, and possibly even a majority of Afghans, to be peaceful compared to the endless violence of warlords from both sides of the 1980s Soviet war.” Yet the U.S. toppled the Taliban government and attempted to put the country back in control of the same corrupting forces the Taliban had defeated.
And that corruption is endemic and has been since the beginning.
The three B’s
According to a 2017 SIGAR report, “Adjusted for inflation, the $115 billion in U.S. appropriations provided to reconstruct Afghanistan exceeds the funds committed to the Marshall Plan, the U.S. aid program that, in between 1948 and 1952, helped 16 Western European countries recover in the aftermath of World War II.” Yet these funds never make it to the people who need it. In another report from April 2016, SIGAR explained that it couldn’t verify whether $759 million in education resources made one iota’s difference at all. Rather than going to the Afghan people, writes Horton, such funds end up in “corrupt officials’ private bank accounts in the Persian Gulf.”
Or worse: Sometimes they finance the Taliban, the very enemy the U.S. military is ostensibly trying to defeat once and for all. Because the Kabul government and U.S. military do not control vast swaths of the country, the U.S. government has paid protection money to the Taliban to ensure that needed supplies get to troops in the field. If average Americans only knew that their tax dollars were going to the enemy — “turning the war into a parody of itself,” writes Horton, “as the insurgency channeled those resources right back into the fight against the occupation” — maybe an end to this war would be in sight.
Horton also coins the perfect term for what the U.S. is experiencing in Afghanistan: backdraft, which he defines as what happens “when the direct consequences of the government’s openly declared foreign policies blow up right in all of our faces, undeniable to anyone but the most committed war hawks.” For many Afghan war proponents, the most plausible argument for Washington’s continued meddling in the country is to deny terrorist forces, such as al-Qaeda or the Islamic State, a safe haven from which to plan and launch attacks.
Yet it was America’s occupation of Afghanistan and the atrocities committed there that inspired Maj. Nidal Hasan’s Fort Hood massacre, Najibullah Zazi’s broken-up plot to bomb the New York subway system, Faisal Shahzad’s botched car bomb in Times Square, the Tsarnaev brothers’ attack on the Boston Marathon, and Omar Mateen’s massacre at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando. To Horton, our masters of war are those firefighters whose “ax-wielding or door-kicking intervention inadvertently provides oxygen to a heated and fuel-filled room, causing a massive explosion.”
Backdraft is a powerful explanatory concept. It is one that should enter the lexicon of American imperialism next to Chalmers Johnson’s “blowback”— the public consequences, like 9/11, of secret foreign policies, such as arming the mujahideen in the Soviet-Afghan war — and Christopher J. Coyne and Abigail R. Hall’s “boomerang effect” — how U.S. imperialism comes back to haunt Americans through the militarization of our society. Call them the three killer B’s of American imperialism.
Possibly the most infuriating aspect of the Afghan war is that bin Laden knew us better than we knew ourselves. The goal of 9/11, Horton reminds the reader, was to get the U.S. to invade Afghanistan and bleed it dry, as his mujahideen helped anti-Soviet Afghans do during the 1980s. George W. Bush took the bait — hook, line, sinker. In 2010, in an interview with Rolling Stone, bin Laden’s son Omar said as much. Asked if his father would attack the United States again, Omar replied, “I don’t think so. He doesn’t need to. As soon as America went to Afghanistan his plan worked.”
Horton’s solution to the Afghanistan war couldn’t be clearer: “It is time to just come home.” The big problem with Horton’s solution is that he explains in exquisite detail why it is so improbable. Aside from arguments that the United States needs to ensure Afghanistan doesn’t become a terrorist safe haven are the geopolitical factors.
Central Asia is home to vast energy and mineral wealth, and the United States, as empires are wont to do, wants to ensure that those resources are in the hands of regimes friendly to its interests rather than to Russia or China. During Obama’s disastrous surge campaign, its leading proponent, Gen. David Petraeus, held up Afghanistan’s riches of iron, copper, cobalt, gold, and lithium as reasons to continue the occupation. “There is stunning potential here,” he said. “There are a lot of ifs, of course, but I think potentially it is hugely significant.”
The only glimmer of hope for a quick withdrawal from our Afghan disaster, oddly enough, is none other than our vulgar and erratic houseguest at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. As a private citizen and a candidate, Donald Trump denounced the war. “Afghanistan is a complete waste,” he tweeted in 2012. “Time to come home!” Horton argues convincingly that Trump understands that no one, not the Macedonians or the British or the Soviets, could pacify the people who make up Afghanistan and repeatedly criticized the Afghanistan war for years before becoming president. Nevertheless, Trump caved in August 2017, agreeing to another escalation, though he did remind the American people, “My original instinct was to pull out, and historically I like following my instincts.”
Recent reporting continues to at least bolster Horton’s cautious optimism about Trump’s view of the war. According to the Washington Post in September, military officials are afraid Trump could withdraw from Afghanistan with little to no warning. “People joke about it, but it’s not really a joke,” one former official anonymously told the Post. “There’s concern that you could wake up one morning and see a tweet that we should be withdrawing.” If only military service members and the American taxpayers who finance this lunacy could be so lucky!
In the end, it didn’t matter that the United States finally got its man in neighboring Pakistan. The chants of “USA, USA” outside the White House on May 1, 2011, represented a pyrrhic victory. Bin Laden laid a trap on 9/11, and the U.S. government fell into it. Almost two decades after the towers fell, American soldiers continue to kill and die in vain in Afghanistan while propping up a corrupt regime in Kabul, a toxic combination that only ensures the insurgency never quits. Yet the powers that be continue to fight on, telling the American people that they can snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.
But this is a lie. Bin Laden, as Scott Horton masterfully documents, has already won. And nothing will change that fact, no matter how hard Washington spins various counter-narratives or promotes another commander to finally win the unwinnable in Afghanistan’s graveyard of empires.