David Coates

The War on Terror: An Update



In one critical respect, the Obama Administration had a “good” first half of 2011 in their inherited war on terror. On May 1st a team of navy seals found and killed Osama bin Laden. The release of that news prompted some fairly distasteful domestic demonstrations of American jingoism. It also briefly improved the President’s polling numbers and the scale of popular support for the war in Afghanistan. It gave the war on terror a popular bounce – but only for a very short while.


Properly so, because whatever else can legitimately be said about the war in Afghanistan, any claims for its current success would be wildly misplaced. Even Obama’s senior general – David Petraeus – could only describe progress so far as “fragile and reversible.”(This, to the Senate Armed services Committee, March 15, 2011). Reports from the front continued to make clear that whenever the heavy footprint of the immediate U.S. military presence is withdrawn, Taliban (and al Qaeda) fighters immediately reappear.[1] Local recognition of this Taliban strategy of temporary tactical retreat fundamentally undermines the effective of the counter-insurgency strategy now in play. Local Afghan leaders cannot be pulled fully to the U.S. cause when that could prove personally fatal to them whenever military withdrawal begins. That withdrawal is simply a matter of time. As Daniel Dombey reported in The Financial Times, the Obama Administration is “riddled with skeptics about the conflict.”


One senior official likens battling the Taliban to a game of ‘whack-a-mole, a once ubiquitous US arcade game where the player uses a mallet to bash a random and increasingly frantic series of moles back into their holes. Another official compares it to a ‘definition of inanity;’ doing the same thing over and over again, while expecting a different result.[2]

The skepticism is understandable, given that the metrics of war in Afghanistan do not bode well for its supporters. As Representative Mike Honda put it immediately after the Petraeus hearings, “in the last year we had the largest number of U.S. casualties, the biggest single spike in insurgent attacks, the most devastating of Afghan civilian deaths (an air strike on nine kids gathering wood), an Afghan majority that says their basic security and basic services have worsened substantially, and majority populations in the United States and Afghanistan that want the troops to leave.”[3] Meanwhile the financial costs continue to soar. “The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have cost nearly $1.2 trillion since 2001….U.S. military spending has more than doubled over the past decade, now accounting for nearly 60 cents of every federal discretionary dollar and totaling more than $700 billion per year.”[4] In flows of funds of this magnitude, oversight is virtually impossible – which presumably helps explain why the scale of waste and fraud within the Pentagon budget is now of historic proportions. In February, a report from the bipartisan commission scrutinizing the use of subcontractors in both war zones concluded that “the United States has wasted billions of dollars of the nearly $177 billion that has been spent [on subcontracting] since 2002.”[5] A parallel report found U.U.-funded infrastructure deteriorating once control of it was handed on to Afghan authorities.[6] This is money that is not simply wasted or stolen. It is also money that could have been spent more productively elsewhere. The total amount spent so far on the Afghan war, for example, could finance over 15 years of Head Start.[7]


Finally this: the attempt to “win” the war without troops on the ground – primarily by the increased use of drone attacks – is simply antagonizing the civilian populations in the areas targeted, and where those areas lie in the sovereign territory of neighboring states, is destabilizing those states to the degree that their governments are seen to support the U.S. military mission. Fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan as a surrogate for Al Qaeda, and killing Pakistani citizens in a drone war across the Afghan border, is only serving to make Pakistan even less stable, and more prone to extremist capture further down the road.[8] Little wonder then that, when last polled, 43% of the American people thought the war not worth fighting, and 73% wanted American military personnel brought home this summer.[9] Little wonder also that, at last, political pressure for an orderly withdrawal from Afghanistan is coming from Senators like Kirsten Gillibrand and members of the House like Barbara Lee. More strength to their arm!


[1] Matthew Rosenberg and Julian E. Barnes, ‘As U.S. Leaves, al Qaeda makes Afghan Comeback,” The Wall Street Journal, April 6 2011


[2] David Dombey, ‘Time has come for Obama to reassess goals in Afghanistan,” The Financial Times, June 13, 2011


[3] Mike Honda, Petraeus’ Propaganda War on Congress: The Truth Behind His Testimony, The Huffington Post, March 16, 2011: available at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/rep-mike-honda/petraeuss-propaganda-war_b_836762.html


[4] Barbara Lee, A Responsible End to the War in Afghanistan, The Huffington Post, February 17, 2011: available at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/rep-barbara-lee/a-responsible-end-to-the_b_824454.html


[5] This from TPMDC, February 28, 2011. The report, At What Risk is available at www.wartimecontracting.gov/docs/CWC_InterimReport2-lowres.pdf


[6] Josh Boak, “U.S.-funded infrastructure deteriorates under Afghan control, report says,” The Wall Street Journal, January 4, 2011


[7] The calculation is Joshua Holland’s, posted on Alternet.org May 28, 2011: available at http://www.alternet.org/story/151119/five_eye-opening_facts_about_our_bloated_post-9_11_%27defense%27_spending


[8] See Anatol Lieven, “How the Afghan Counterinsurgency Threatens Pakistan,” The Nation, January 3, 2011


[9] Data in The Washington Post, June 7, 2011: available at www.washingtonpost.com/national/2011/06/06/AGFZebKH_graphic.html


David Coates holds the Worrell Chair in Anglo-American Studies at Wake Forest University. He is the author of Answering Back: Liberal Responses to Conservative Arguments, New York: Continuum Books, 2010.

He writes here in a personal capacity.

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