The truth about the war on terror
The national security establishment is pushing against the withdrawal of American forces from Afghanistan by President Trump following almost two decades of combat. Even Republicans are warning Trump that he is repeating one of the foreign policy mistakes of Barack Obama.
One of the most astonishing recent arguments against a withdrawal from Afghanistan was made by former national security adviser H.R. McMaster, who said that terrorist groups that “pose a threat to us are stronger now” than they were before 9/11. He said the United States faces Al Qaeda and Islamic State alumni who are “orders of magnitude greater” than before and who “have access to much more destructive capabilities.”
How are we worse off than 2001? According to the Watson Institute, the war on terror has cost the United States over $6 trillion, 800,000 people have died as a direct result of the violence of these conflicts, and nearly 38 million people have been displaced or made refugees. According to the Washington Post, some 775,000 American forces have been sent to Afghanistan since 2001, and more than 2,000 of them died.
The United States poured billions of dollars into reconstruction projects in Iraq and Afghanistan under the notion that economic development would check the growth of terrorism. Yet after all this blood and treasure, one of the most senior American officials and a former combat general in the war on terror says Al Qaeda is stronger than it was before 9/11.
If McMaster is correct, it shatters promises made by three presidents that victory was close, if only we would stay the course. Toward the end of his second term, George Bush all but declared victory when he said, “A nation that was once a safe haven for Al Qaeda is now a young democracy where boys and girls are going to school, new roads and hospitals are now being built, and people are looking to the future with new hope.”
As he sent a new surge of forces into Afghanistan, Obama said it was all part of a plan “to prevent Afghanistan from becoming the Al Qaeda safe haven that it was before 9/11.” In 2011, Defense Secretary Leon Pannetta said we had to stay the course in Afghanistan, as the United States was “within reach of strategically defeating Al Qaeda.” In 2017, when Trump sent his own unlikely surge of forces into Afghanistan, he said it would have a “clear definition” of victory for “crushing Al Qaeda.”
But as we know, the Washington Post published the Afghanistan Papers, which made clear we were not simply deceived by a string of presidents, but rather by a national security bureaucracy that “failed to tell the truth about the war” and made “rosy pronouncements they knew to be false.” However, if correct, the revelation of McMaster is an order of magnitude worse than what had been noted in the Afghanistan Papers.
Several officials on record concluded that the government of Afghanistan was corrupt, that democracy efforts would likely fail, and that the war was probably “unwinnable.” But what McMaster is asserting is that the war did nothing. Things are worse than ever. Politicians and military leaders from many nations have tried to spin such defeats as successes.
American national security officials often lied about the true progress for the Vietnam War. As Napoleon Bonaparte famously said, “History is a set of lies that people have agreed upon.” But this notion should not apply to the United States. In a democracy such as ours, where there are allegedly checks and balances to drive federal accountability, these prevarications should have turned into one of our monumental scandals.
The assertion from McMaster should have been headline news. A republic such as ours needs an internal mechanism. Those officials who deceived the public should be cashiered, those generals who promised victory but failed to deliver it should be retired, the media should launch a thousand investigations into what went wrong, and the members of Congress who enabled this great failure should be voted out. Yet accountability seems unlikely, which leaves us an ominous signal for the republic.
William Smith is the director of the Center for the Study of Statesmanship with Catholic University. He is the author of “Democracy and Imperialism.”