This SIGAR report makes it crystal clear that the US lost its “hat, ass and overcoat” in Afghanistan. We should wise up and go home resolved never, never to listen to the siren song of the COIN fantasy.
From the report:
Our analysis reveals the U.S. government greatly overestimated its ability to build and reform government institutions in Afghanistan as part of its stabilization strategy. We found the stabilization strategy and the programs used to achieve it were not properly tailored to the Afghan context, and successes in stabilizing Afghan districts rarely lasted longer than the physical presence of coalition troops and civilians. As a result, by the time all prioritized districts had transitioned from coalition to Afghan control in 2014, the services and protection provided by Afghan forces and civil servants often could not compete with a resurgent Taliban as it filled the void in newly vacated territory
just as you wouldn’t hold a bank teller responsible for the behavior of his CEO, you cannot hold rank and file soldiers responsible for the orders their military and political leaders give or the decisions they make. When we talk about the military here, we’re speaking specifically of those decision-makers and how they use the armed forces to accomplish their own goals, whether or not they serve the rest of us.
And if we’re not afraid to be honest—not worried about people calling us “unpatriotic” for questioning the military’s actions, just as we question the actions of every other part of government—we can admit that the military is not being deployed in ways that serve our country.
We can admit that politicians use the military in ways that have nothing at all to do with our nation’s security. We can admit that corporations are generating blockbuster profits at our expense. And we can admit that the call to patriotism blinds us to the fact that the military is host to some of the most incompetent, spendthrift leaders in the world.
How Big Is Our Military?
How often have you heard politicians talking about “restoring our military,” acting as if they’ve faced steep budget cuts and are starved for resources? It’s a safe political rallying cry, but it’s nowhere close to the truth. The fact is, our military is the largest in the world by far.
Consider how much we spend on our military compared to other countries: The U.S., at $596 billion in 2015, spends more on its military than the next seven countries combined ($567.2 billion).
We also have the second-largest military in terms of soldiers currently serving, with 1.5 million active duty personnel as of 2014. Only China has more, with 2.3 million currently serving there.
Our funding and size allows us to maintain a sprawling global network of approximately eight hundred military bases; in comparison, Britain, France, and Russia have a combined total of thirty foreign bases. Many of our bases are in affluent, first-world countries simply because we fought wars there decades ago, including 174 in Germany, 113 in Japan, and 83 in South Korea. The rest are scattered around the world, from Antigua to the United Kingdom.
Military Engagements—an Honest Assessment
Why do we invest so much in our armed forces? With the exception of Mexico and Canada, we are separated from the rest of the world by great distance, making a war on American soil unlikely. In fact, with the exception of the Pearl Harbor attack in Hawaii, there has been no foreign military attack of any substance on U.S. soil in the past hundred years.
The government tells us that all of this spending is for our protection—to defend our country, to defend our way of life. In fact, they even changed the name of the military institution from the “War Department” to the “Department of Defense” in 1947 to reinforce that idea.
But the wars that we’ve fought have been wars of choice. Most people will find some of those, like World Wars I and II, to be justifiable, despite the tremendous cost in terms of money and lives: We were coming to the aid of longstanding allies who had asked for our help. But to the majority of our military adventures, both before and after these world wars, has involved advancing American interests, as opposed to defending ourselves or our allies. “Might makes right” became our motto—diplomacy at the end of a gun. And while most of us are probably comfortable with the idea of the military defending our country, I doubt that nearly as many would agree with using our military to force others to bend to our will in international matters.
The terrorist attack of September 11, 2001 seems to be a particular turning point—the moment at which we decided to wage war on numerous countries, despite the fact that none had attacked us. As former General Wesley Clark noted in a 2007 interview on Democracy Now:
I had been through the Pentagon right after 9/11. About ten days after 9/11, I went through the Pentagon and I saw Secretary Rumsfeld and Deputy Secretary Wolfowitz. I went downstairs just to say hello to some of the people on the Joint Staff who used to work for me, and one of the generals called me in. He said, “Sir, you’ve got to come in and talk to me a second.” I said, “Well, you’re too busy.” He said, “No, no.” He says, “We’ve made the decision we’re going to war with Iraq.” This was on or about the 20th of September. I said, “We’re going to war with Iraq? Why?” He said, “I don’t know.” He said, “I guess they don’t know what else to do.” So I said, “Well, did they find some information connecting Saddam to al-Qaeda?” He said, “No, no.” He says, “There’s nothing new that way. They just made the decision to go to war with Iraq.” He said, “I guess it’s like we don’t know what to do about terrorists, but we’ve got a good military and we can take down governments.” And he said, “I guess if the only tool you have is a hammer, every problem has to look like a nail.”
So I came back to see him a few weeks later, and by that time we were bombing in Afghanistan. I said, “Are we still going to war with Iraq?” And he said, “Oh, it’s worse than that.” He reached over on his desk. He picked up a piece of paper. And he said, “I just got this down from upstairs”—meaning the Secretary of Defense’s office — “today.” And he said, “This is a memo that describes how we’re going to take out seven countries in five years, starting with Iraq, and then Syria, Lebanon, Libya, Somalia, Sudan and, finishing off, Iran.”
The focus of our military adventures has changed since that list was shared with General Clark, possibly because it seems that we’ve been unable to achieve anything of significance in Afghanistan and Iraq, even after one and a half decades. But we have been active nonetheless: We did turn Libya into a failed state thanks to our support of insurgents and an associated bombing campaign, and we have worked for years to destabilize Syria and encourage regime change, though Russia’s involvement has turned the tide in the government’s favor. In fact, President Obama became the first president in history to be at war for every day of his eight-year term, and we dropped more than 26,000 bombs in seven different countries just in 2016:
Why? Why have we invested so much in our military, and why are we almost constantly instigating military action against supposedly sovereign countries? The answer to those questions can be found in the pockets of corporations and bankers.
All Wars Are Banker Wars
For people who lend money, and people who sell things to the military, war can be an immensely profitable activity. In his landmark book, War is a Racket, Smedley Butler, one of the most decorated Marines in American history, reflected back on his military career only to realize that all of his actions were done for the benefit of American corporations overseas, and had nothing to do with protecting the country or preserving American ideals.
Politicians are natural advocates for military growth and spending: In the public’s eyes, support for the military is patriotism personified, and members of congress benefit greatly from the military spending that takes place in their districts, either from military personnel on bases or from the defense contractors and their suppliers who hire people and pay taxes. It doesn’t hurt that politicians receive big donations from defense firms—$74 million in lobbying in 2015 alone. That may help to explain why politicians are so supportive of military spending that they actually pass legislation forcing the military to buy things they don’t even want, such as the hundreds of millions of dollars allocated to the purchase of Abrams tanks that the military has repeatedly said it doesn’t want.
Defense firms obviously benefit from military spending, and in addition to direct political lobbying, one of the ways that they push for more spending and larger contracts is to hire people directly from the field. Mid-level and upper-level military leaders know that if they want a career in industry when they retire from the service, they had better build up some relationships now.
When people think of the military, most think of young, clean-cut men and women in uniform engaged in drills or going into battle. Few probably think about the service members sitting behind a desk, balancing the books. But there is a saying that an army marches on its stomach, and for an army that relies on funding to do its work, that role is nearly as important.
Unfortunately, it’s a role that the military has proven completely incapable of fulfilling. On September 10, 2001, the day before the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld admitted that the Pentagon could not track $2.3 trillion in spending. Several years later, in 2016, the Pentagon announced a much larger number: $6.5 trillion in erroneous adjustments to their books. Weeks later, they made an additional announcement—that they had identified $125 billion in wasteful spending on administration. Simply put, the Pentagon’s financial systems are so bad they have no ability to correctly track what they’re spending.
To make matters worse, they have a bad habit of losing matériel in war zones, such as $420 million worth of weapons systems, vehicles, encryption devices, and communications gear in Afghanistan in 2014, and then the next year more than $500 million in military aid in Yemen.