The war in Afghanistan, now in its 19th year, is the longest and most intractable of America’s forever wars. There are now American soldiers fighting in Afghanistan who were born after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the ostensible casus belli. The American public has long ago grown tired of the war. A YouGov poll conducted in July of 2020 showed that 46 percent of Americans strongly supported withdrawing troops from Afghanistan, with another 30 percent saying they “somewhat” approved of troop withdrawal.
But this 76 percent majority is deceptive. Given the fact that America has a volunteer army and American casualties in Afghanistan remain sporadic, this is not an issue that the public is passionate about. An inchoate dissatisfaction is compatible either with disengagement or just a lack of interest. Conversely, those in the national security establishment who do passionately support the war are able to thwart political leaders who want a drawdown. Under both Barack Obama and Donald Trump, presidential efforts to disengage from Afghanistan and the larger Middle East were met with resistance from a foreign policy elite that sees any withdrawal as a humiliating defeat.
Trump tried to resolve the contradiction between his desire to remove troops and the foreign policy elite’s commitment to the Afghan war by loosening the rules of war. The thinking of the Trump administration was that by unleashing the military and intelligence agencies, it could subdue the Taliban—thus preparing the way for a drawdown of troops. Special priority was given to CIA-run covert operations using Afghan paramilitaries, with the belief that this would lead to a more sustainable war that didn’t require American soldiers to participate in fighting.
A report in The Intercept, written by reporter Andrew Quilty, documents the horrifying consequences of this policy: Afghan paramilitary units, known as 01 and 02, have acted as death squads, launching raids against civilians that have turned into massacres. Many of these raids have attacked religious schools, the famous madrassas, leading to the death of children as young as 8 years old.
According to Quilty, “Residents from four districts in Wardak—Nerkh, Chak, Sayedabad, and Daymirdad—spoke of a string of massacres, executions, mutilation, forced disappearances, attacks on medical facilities, and airstrikes targeting structures known to house civilians. The victims, according to these residents, were rarely Taliban. Yet the Afghan unit and its American masters have never been publicly held accountable by either the Afghan or U.S. governments.”
These raids all involve Afghan paramilitaries who are outside the control of the Afghan government and working in conjunction with American handlers who provide high-tech aid and direction, Quilty reports.
The units’ American CIA advisers go by pseudonyms or call signs rather than names.They not only train Afghan unit members, but also choose their targets, which the Americans call “jackpots”; issue detailed pre-mission briefings; and accompany Afghan paramilitaries on the ground during raids. The Afghans and Americans are ferried to remote villages at night by American helicopters, and American assault aircraft hover overhead while they conduct their raids, providing lethal firepower that is sometimes directed at health clinics, madrassa dormitories, or civilian homes.
Despite providing detailed accounts of American-led war crimes, The Intercept’s report has been met with near-silence from the American media. Jake Tapper of CNN retweeted the article, but otherwise there is little indication that the American media cares.
As Intercept reporter Ryan Grim notes, “It’s been two days since this story was published, and the mainstream media has been largely silent on it. Imagine if the media treated the My Lai massacre this way.” (In fact, the mainstream press sat on whistleblower Ron Ridenhour’s warnings about My Lai for a year before Seymour Hersh and the scruffy Dispatch News Service finally broke the silence.)
Grim also suggested that the Biden administration might want to bring justice to the perpetrators of these alleged war crimes. “One of the most outspoken proponents of bringing a fine legal eye to war has been Avril Haines, who will be Joe Biden’s Director of National Intelligence,” Grim observes. “She’ll have the authority and the ability to discover who in the CIA was involved in these operations, and bring them to justice.”
This is a forlorn hope given the Obama administration’s failure to go after war crimes committed by the CIA under George W. Bush. Further, Biden himself is ambiguous on Afghanistan in a way that calls to mind Trump himself.
As Quincy Institute president Andrew Bacevich noted in The Nation earlier this month, Biden “wants to have it both ways” on the Afghan war. Biden will occasionally say, “These ‘forever wars’ have to end,” but he will also say that America needs to keep a contingent of forces in Afghanistan. As Bacevich observes, “Biden proposes to declare that the longest war in US history has ended, while simultaneously underwriting its perpetuation.” Biden’s support for a light military footprint could very easily lead him to the same position as Trump: using covert CIA operations to maintain American power in Afghanistan with minimal use of uniformed troops. This is a recipe for more massacres.
Writing in The Washington Post last month, veteran Afghanistan analyst Carter Malkasian made a compelling case that the United States is facing a “stark choice” between “complete withdrawal by May or keeping 2,500 troops in place indefinitely to conduct counterterrorism operations and to try to prevent the collapse of the Afghan government. There’s no doubt that withdrawal will spell the end of the Afghan government that the United States has supported for 19 years.”
Malkasian makes clear that the counterterrorism operations would merely be an exercise of staving off defeat, with no prospect of an end to the war. Given the enormous moral costs of this counterterrorism, unflinchingly described by The Intercept, the argument for complete withdrawal becomes stronger.
It’s likely that Biden will continue the policy of previous presidents of kicking the can down the road by using covert CIA operators to fend off defeat. But Americans should have no illusions: That means perpetuation of horrific war crimes in a conflict that cannot be won.