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Culture war games: self-congratulation and selective memory

20 Years On, the War on Terror Grinds Along With No End in Sight
By Mark Landler

“If you had said on 9/12 that we’d have only 100 people killed by jihadi terrorism and only one foreign terrorist attack in the United States over the next 20 years, you’d have been laughed out of the room,” said Daniel Benjamin, the State Department’s coordinator for counterterrorism in the Obama administration.

“The fact that it had to be accompanied by two wars makes it hard for people to disaggregate how successful counterterrorism policies have been,” said Mr. Benjamin, now president of the American Academy in Berlin.

There are other explanations for the lack of a major foreign attack: tighter border security and the ubiquity of the internet, which has made it easier to track and disrupt jihadi movements; or the upheavals of the Arab Spring, which shifted the sights of extremists to their own societies.

Nor is it accurate to say that the West has been shielded from the scourge of terrorism. The 2004 Madrid train bombing; the 2005 London bus and subway bombings; and the 2015 attacks on a nightclub and stadium in Paris — all bore the hallmarks of the kind of well-organized attack that brought fire and death to Lower Manhattan and the Pentagon.

“The war on terror can only be assessed as relatively successful inside the Western world, more within the United States than with respect to Western Europe as a whole,” said Fernando Reinares, director of the Program on Violent Radicalization and Global Terrorism at the Elcano Royal Institute in Madrid.

Still, in comparison to the comprehensive failures in Iraq and Afghanistan, the “other” war on terror has so far achieved its bedrock goal of protecting the United States from another 9/11-type attack.

The question is: At what cost?

Memory Loss in the Garden of Violence
By John Dower

Certain traumatic historical moments such as “the Alamo” and “Pearl Harbor” have become code words — almost mnemonic devices — for reinforcing the remembrance of American victimization at the hands of nefarious antagonists. Thomas Jefferson and his peers actually established the baseline for this in the nation’s founding document, the Declaration of Independence, which enshrines recollection of “the merciless Indian Savages” — a self-righteous demonization that turned out to be boilerplate for a succession of later perceived enemies. “September 11th” has taken its place in this deep-seated invocation of violated innocence, with an intensity bordering on hysteria.

Such “victim consciousness” is not, of course, peculiar to Americans. In Japan after World War II, this phrase — higaisha ishiki in Japanese — became central to leftwing criticism of conservatives who fixated on their country’s war dead and seemed incapable of acknowledging how grievously Imperial Japan had victimized others, millions of Chinese and hundreds of thousands of Koreans foremost among them. When present-day Japanese cabinet members visit Yasukuni Shrine, where the emperor’s deceased soldiers and sailors are venerated, they are stoking victim consciousness and roundly criticized for doing so by the outside world, including the U.S. media.

Worldwide, war memorials and memorial days ensure preservation of such selective remembrance. My home state of Massachusetts also does this to this day by flying the black-and-white “POW-MIA” flag of the Vietnam War at various public places, including Fenway Park, home of the Boston Red Sox — still grieving over those fighting men who were captured or went missing in action and never returned home.

In one form or another, populist nationalisms today are manifestations of acute victim consciousness. Still, the American way of remembering and forgetting its wars is distinctive for several reasons. Geographically, the nation is much more secure than other countries. Alone among major powers, it escaped devastation in World War II, and has been unmatched in wealth and power ever since. Despite panic about Communist threats in the past and Islamist and North Korean threats in the present, the United States has never been seriously imperiled by outside forces. Apart from the Civil War, its war-related fatalities have been tragic but markedly lower than the military and civilian death tolls of other nations, invariably including America’s adversaries.

Asymmetry in the human costs of conflicts involving U.S. forces has been the pattern ever since the decimation of Amerindians and the American conquest of the Philippines between 1899 and 1902. The State Department’s Office of the Historian puts the death toll in the latter war at “over 4,200 American and over 20,000 Filipino combatants,” and proceeds to add that “as many as 200,000 Filipino civilians died from violence, famine, and disease.” (Among other precipitating causes for those noncombatant deaths, U.S. troops shot most of the water buffalo farmers relied on to produce their crops.) Many scholarly accounts now offer higher estimates for Filipino civilian fatalities.

Much the same morbid asymmetry characterizes war-related deaths in World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the Gulf War of 1991, and the invasions and occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq following September 11, 2001.

While it is natural for people and nations to focus on their own sacrifice and suffering rather than the death and destruction they themselves inflict, in the case of the United States such cognitive astigmatism is backlighted by the country’s abiding sense of being exceptional, not just in power but also in virtue. In paeans to “American exceptionalism,” it is an article of faith that the highest values of Western and Judeo-Christian civilization guide the nation’s conduct — to which Americans add their country’s purportedly unique embrace of democracy, respect for each and every individual, and stalwart defense of a “rules-based” international order.

Such self-congratulation requires and reinforces selective memory. “Terror,” for instance, has become a word applied to others, never to oneself.

A Question of Torture: CIA Interrogation, From the Cold War to the War on Terror
By Alfred W. McCoy

Through its use in judicial interrogation, torture had played a central role in European law for more than two thousand years. While ancient Athens had limited torture to extraction of evidence from slaves, imperial Rome extended the practice to freemen, for both proof and punishment. “By quaestio [torture] we are to understand the torment and suffering of the body in order to elicit the truth,” wrote the imperial jurist Ulpian in the third century A.D. But he also recognized that torture was a “delicate, dangerous, and deceptive thing,” often yielding problematic evidence. “For many persons have such strength of body and soul that they heed pain very little, so that there is no means of obtaining the truth from them,” he explained, “while others are so susceptible to pain that they will tell any lie rather than suffer it.” …

With the rise of Christian Europe, the use of torture in courts of law faded for several centuries. Torture was antíthetical to Christ’s teachings and so, in 866, Pope Nicholas I banned the practice. … But after a Church council abolished trial by ordeal in 1215, European civil courts revived Roman law with its reliance on torture to obtain confessions—an approach that persisted for the next five centuries. … With the parallel rise of the Inquisition, Church interrogators also used torture for both confession and punishment, a procedure that was formalized under Pope Innocent IV in 1252. By the fourteenth century, the Italian Inquisition used the strappado to suspend the victim by ropes in five degrees of escalating duration and severity—a scale preserved in modern memory in the phrase “the third degree” to mean harsh police questioning. …

But in the eighteenth century, evaluation of evidence on its merits replaced forced confessions. For several centuries, there had been growing disquiet among continental jurists about the accuracy of evidence extracted by torture. As one sixteenth-century criminal hand- book observed, those tortured often succumb to “the pain and torment and confess things that they never did:” Indeed, the burgomaster of Bamberg, Germany, Johannes Julius, wrote his daughter from a dungeon where he awaited execution for witchcraft: “It is all falsehood and invention, so help me God … They never cease to torture until one says something.” A slow shift away from these medieval blood sanctions in the seventeenth century-to a lesser penal servitude, akin to modern imprisonment, laid the foundation for torture’s abolition. After his coronation in 1740, Frederick II of Prussia banned ordinary torture and wrote a dissertation calling the practice “as cruel as it is useless.” His friend Voltaire famously condemned the practice in polemics denouncing judicial torture, both the question ordinaire and question extraordinaire, sparking a movement that led to its abolition across Enlightenment Europe by the early 1800s. With its jury system and common law precedents, England had no judicial foundation for torture. Its sole experience came from eighty-one torture warrants for treason under Tudor-Stuart rule–which derived from the doctrine of sovereign immunity and soon faded, leaving no legal basis for torture in British common law. …

During the nineteenth century, European states gradually replaced the symbols of torture-the Tower of London, the Bastille, and public execution-with the apparatus of a scientific criminology that included police, courts, and prisons. By 1874, Victor Hugo could claim “torture has ceased to exist.” But the respite proved short-lived for, in the years following World War I, rival authoritarian states-Hitler’s Third Reich and Stalin’s Soviet Union-revived the practice, applying modern methods to expand the diversity and intensity of physical pain. …

In the 1920s, torture thus reappeared in Europe, in the words of a famed English jurist, as “an engine of the state, not of law.” After taking power in 1922, Benito Mussolini declared “man is nothing” and used his OVRA secret police to torture the enemies of his all-powerful state. Similarly, Hitler’s Gestapo engaged in limited, largely concealed torture during the regime’s first years, relying on protracted isolation, crude beatings, and humiliation to break political opponents, whether Communist or Gypsy, Catholic or Jew. Then, in June 1942, SS chief Heinrich Himmler ordered interrogators to use the third degree of beatings, close confinement, and sleep deprivation. At the Dachau concentration camp in the late 1930s, SS doctors under Kurt Plotner tested mescaline on Jews and Gypsies, finding that it caused some to reveal their “most intimate secrets. But the Gestapo was “not ready to accept mescaline as a substitute for their more physical methods of interrogation.” … At war’s end, the United States prosecuted the “Nazi doctors” at Nuremberg, producing principles known as the Nuremberg Code prescribing, under Artícle Four, that medical experiments “should be so conducted as to avoid all unnecessary physical and mental suffering.” …

Despite the Third Reich’s defeat in 1945, its legacy persisted in the former occupied territories, particularly among French officers in colonial Algeria. As partisans who fought the German occupation during World War II, some of these officers had suffered Nazi torture and now, ironically, used the experience to inflict this cruelty on others. In a vain attempt to crush a national revolution with repression, France launched a massive pacification that, from 1954 to 1962, resulted in the forcible relocation of two million Algerians, the deaths of 300,000 more, and the brutal torture of several hundred thousand suspected rebels and their sympathizers. By branding the guerrillas “outlaws” and denying them the Geneva protections due lawful combatants, the French kept such brutality within the bounds of formal legality through the seven-years of war. To contain the political damage from these excesses, the government’s Wuillaume Report excused the army’s systematic torture of the rebels: “The water and electricity methods, provided they are carefully used, are said to produce a shock which is more psychological than physical and therefore do not constitute excessive cruelty.” Forcing water down a victim’s throat to simulate drowning, a technique then favored by the French army and later used by the CIA, was, the report insisted, perfectly acceptable. “According to certain medical opinion, the water-pipe method,” Wuillaume wrote, “involves no risk to the health of the victim.” …

When the Front de Libération National launched an urban uprising in Algiers in 1956-57, the Tenth Paratroop Division under Colonel Jacques Massu employed such tortures to break the resistance infrastructure in the old Casbah. Knowing well the inevitability of interrogation, the FLN command asked only that its fighters stay silent for the first twenty-four hours after capture. But the French mix of water pipe, electric shock, beating, and burning extracted sufficient intelligence to track down guerrillas in the Casbah’s narrow confines. And all the rebel suspects taken to the army’s Villa des Tourelles safe house for torture under cover of dark were dead by dawn, dumped in shallow graves outside the city. These secret “summary executions,” which one senior officer called “an inseparable part of the task associated with keeping law and order,” were so relentless that 3,024 of those arrested in Algiers went “missing”—crippling blow to the FLN. …

Although the French army won the battle for Algiers, its campaign proved counterproductive as the revolt spread, transforming the FLN from small cells into a mass party, and France itself recoiled against the costs of counterinsurgency, moral and material. The editor of an Algiers newspaper, Henri Alleg, who was tortured by the Tenth Paratroop during the battle, wrote a moving memoir titled, with a bow to Voltaire, The Question, describing the effect of the army’s water-pipe method. “I tried, by contracting my throat, to take in as little water as possible and to resist suffocation by keeping air in my lungs for as long as I could,” Alleg recalled. “But I couldn’t hold on for more than a few moments. I had the impression of drowning, and a terrible agony, that of death itself, took possession of me.” With an angry introduction by Jean-Paul Sartre, the book, published in 1958, became a cause célèbre when the French government banned it, making it an underground bestseller in Paris and prompting well-publicized translations in both English and German. …

“The French army won an uncontested military victory,” argues the distinguished French historian of the Algerian war, Benjamin Stora. “But in fact the political victory was far from being won because the use of torture heightened awareness among the French public. The society went through a serious moral crisis.” As the fighting ground on without end, the Paris press focused on the army’s torture; and public support for the war effort, once nearly unanimous, slowly eroded to the point that France finally quit Algeria in 1962, after 130 years. In the war’s painful aftermath, as Pierre Vidal-Naquet argued in Torture: Cancer of Democracy, public indifference to torture abroad had the long-term effect of eroding civil liberties at home-even in a democratic society.”

Sidney Gottlieb, 80, Dies; Took LSD to C.I.A.
By Tim Weiner

Sidney Gottlieb, who presided over the Central Intelligence Agency’s cold-war efforts to control the human mind and provided the agency poisons to kill Fidel Castro, died on Sunday in Washington, Va. He was 80 and had spent his later years caring for dying patients, trying to run a commune, folk dancing, consciousness-raising and fighting lawsuits from survivors of his secret tests.

Friends and enemies alike say Mr. Gottlieb was a kind of genius, striving to explore the frontiers of the human mind for his country, while searching for religious and spiritual meaning in his life. But he will always be remembered as the Government chemist who dosed Americans with psychedelics in the name of national security, the man who brought LSD to the C.I.A.

In the 1950’s and early 1960’s, the agency gave mind-altering drugs to hundreds of unsuspecting Americans in an effort to explore the possibilities of controlling human consciousness. Many of the human guinea pigs were mental patients, prisoners, drug addicts and prostitutes — ”people who could not fight back,” as one agency officer put it. In one case, a mental patient in Kentucky was dosed with LSD continuously for 174 days.

Other experiments involved agency employees, military officers and college students, who had varying degrees of knowledge about the tests. In all, the agency conducted 149 separate mind-control experiments, and as many as 25 involved unwitting subjects. First-hand testimony, fragmentary Government documents and court records show that at least one participant died, others went mad, and still others suffered psychological damage after participating in the project, known as MK Ultra. The experiments were useless, Mr. Gottlieb concluded in 1972, shortly before he retired.

The C.I.A. awarded Mr. Gottlieb the Distinguished Intelligence Medal and deliberately destroyed most of the MKUltra records in 1973.

John Gittinger, a C.I.A. psychologist who vetted Mr. Gottlieb — ”one of the most brilliant men I’ve ever known” — and worked with him for 22 years, said the agency began the tests because it was gripped by ”a great fear” in the cold war. It was afraid that the Soviet Union would corner the market on LSD and use it as a chemical weapon or that China would perfect the black art of brainwashing, Mr. Gittinger said.

The agency and Mr. Gottlieb believed the United States had to fight by any means necessary.

The Secret History of Fort Detrick, the CIA’s Base for Mind Control Experiments
By Stephen Kinzer

CIA officers in Europe and Asia were regularly capturing suspected enemy agents and wanted to develop new ways to draw prisoners in interrogation away from their identities, induce them to reveal secrets and perhaps even program them to commit acts against their will. Allen Dulles, who ran the CIA’s covert-operations directorate and would soon be promoted to direct the agency, considered his mind control project—first named Bluebird, then Artichoke, then MK-ULTRA—to be of supreme importance, the difference between the survival and extinction of the United States.

Gottlieb searched relentlessly for a way to blast away human minds so new ones could be implanted in their place. He tested an astonishing variety of drug combinations, often in conjunction with other torments like electroshock or sensory deprivation. In the United States, his victims were unwitting subjects at jails and hospitals, including a federal prison in Atlanta and an addiction research center in Lexington, Kentucky.

In Europe and East Asia, Gottlieb’s victims were prisoners in secret detention centers. One of those centers, built in the basement of a former villa in the German town of Kronberg, might have been the first secret CIA prison. While CIA scientists and their former Nazi comrades sat before a stone fireplace discussing the techniques of mind control, prisoners in basement cells were being prepared as subjects in brutal and sometimes fatal experiments.

The Untold Story of the CIA’s MK Ultra: A Conversation with Stephen Kinzer
By James Penner and Ed Prideaux

ED PRIDEAUX: Another question I have relates to the Nazi connection, the fact that the CIA hired many ex-Nazi doctors who tortured people during World War II, including experimenting with mescaline on prisoners at Dachau. But Gottlieb was Jewish. How the hell did he compartmentalize that? Was he conscious of this contradiction?

He could not have failed to recognize it. Gottlieb was the son of Jewish immigrants who came to the Bronx from Central Europe. If they had not emigrated, if they had remained in Central Europe, quite possibly they would have been swept up in some Nazi roundup and young Sidney might have become a victim in one of those grotesque experiments in a concentration camp. Nonetheless, he didn’t seem to have any hesitation about working shoulder to shoulder with the very same Nazi doctors who carried out those experiments.

I can imagine different ways he might have justified that to himself. But that’s only my imagination. It may be part of the same reason he could justify killing people in his experiments. That is, “We are facing a life-or-death threat. We don’t have the luxury to be ethical and legal.” I think this is actually one of the great lessons of MK Ultra. One of the greatest motivations or justifications for committing immoral acts is commitment to a great cause. Patriotism is one of the most seductive causes of all. And when you can convince yourself that your nation is under imminent threat, it makes sense to relax some of your moral and legal standards.

American Psychological Association Bolstered C.I.A. Torture Program, Report Says
By James Risen

The involvement of health professionals in the Bush-era interrogation program was significant because it enabled the Justice Department to argue in secret opinions that the program was legal and did not constitute torture, since the interrogations were being monitored by health professionals to make sure they were safe.

The interrogation program has since been shut down, and last year the Senate Intelligence Committee issued a detailed report that described the program as both ineffective and abusive.

The Bush administration relied more heavily on psychologists than psychiatrists or other health professionals to monitor many interrogations, at least in part because the psychological association was supportive of the involvement of psychologists in interrogations, a senior Pentagon official explained publicly in 2006.

The Hidden History of CIA Torture
By Alfred W. McCoy

Just as interrogators are often seduced by a dark, empowering sense of dominance over victims, so their superiors, even at the highest level, can succumb to fantasies of torture as an all-powerful weapon. Our contemporary view of torture as aberrant and its perpetrators as abhorrent ignores both its pervasiveness as a Western practice for two millennia and its perverse appeal. Once torture begins, its perpetrators, plunging into uncharted recesses of consciousness, are often swept away by dark reveries, by frenzies of power and potency, mastery and control — particularly in times of crisis. “When feelings of insecurity develop within those holding power,” reads one CIA analysis of the Soviet state applicable to post-9/11 America, “they become increasingly suspicious and put great pressures on the secret police to obtain arrests and confessions. At such times police officials are inclined to condone anything which produces a speedy ‘confession’ and brutality may become widespread.”

​​Will the United States Officially Acknowledge That It Had a Secret Torture Site in Poland?
By Raymond Bonner

After the CIA seized Zubaydah in Pakistan in March 2002 and secretly took him to a black site in Thailand, Bush administration officials asserted that he was al-Qaida’s third-highest-ranking leader. The government has since acknowledged that he was not a senior terrorist leader and that he had no known connection to the 9/11 attacks. He had been in and out of Afghanistan and Pakistan for nearly a decade and had suffered a serious head injury while fighting against the Soviet-backed government. Intelligence officials concluded he was more of a facilitator, providing false passports, housing and other arrangements for men, some potential terrorists, who moved between the two countries.

In December 2002, when journalists began asking questions about a black site in Thailand, it was shut down, and Zubaydah was secretly transferred to Poland.

For years, the Polish government denied the existence of a CIA detention site. But after the 2014 Senate Intelligence report and after the European Court for Human Rights ruled in 2015 that it was “beyond a reasonable doubt” that Zubaydah had been held in Poland, Polish prosecutors began their investigation. Invoking a mutual legal assistance treaty, which commits each country to support the other’s criminal investigations, Warsaw asked Washington for assistance. Their request went unanswered.

As the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, a nonprofit organization in London, put it in a brief recently filed with the Supreme Court in support of Zubaydah, “Study after study, report after report, emerging from the CIA, DOJ and SSCI, along with flight record after flight record, flight invoice after invoice, have confirmed, in graphic and granular detail, what the world already knows: that the CIA had black sites in Thailand, Poland, Romania, Lithuania, Afghanistan and Guantánamo Bay.”

Even the former Polish President Aleksander Kwaśniewski has acknowledged that the CIA had set up a black site in his country. “Of course, everything took place with my knowledge,” he told Poland’s leading newspaper, Gazeta Wyborcza, in 2012. “The President and the Prime Minister agreed to the intelligence co-operation with the Americans, because this was what was required by national interest.”

None of this has slowed the U.S. government’s efforts to avoid acknowledging what is now accepted fact. In their briefs, government lawyers argue that the Polish site, if it ever existed, remains a state secret because the federal government has never officially admitted to its existence. They contend that all those public reports and statements could be part of a CIA disinformation campaign.

Cruel Science: CIA Torture and U.S. Foreign Policy
By Alfred W. McCoy

In the turmoil of the late 1970s, Iran showed the long-term instability fostered by U.S. tolerance of an ally’s torture and human-rights abuse. After launching a coup in 1953 that restored the Shah to direct rule, the CIA, in the decades that followed, helped consolidate his control. By 1959, U.S. and Israeli advisers were involved in the reorganization of the “Iranian secret police.” Most importantly, the CIA helped establish the Shah’s main secret police unit, the Savak, and trained its interrogators.” …

In 1962, for example, the Kennedy administration’s top-level Special Group (CI), which included CIA director John McCone, approved $500,000 in riot control equipment to expand the Iranian capital’s contingent from 350 to 500 men. … Consequently, in early 1964, the U.S. State Department reported that “with the arrival of most of the AID-programmed riot-control equipment for the Tehran police,” training was now starting that would allow the Gendarmerie “to deal with any likely and foreseeable civil disturbance in Tehran.” …

Former CIA analyst Jesse Leaf recalled that senior agency officials had trained Savak in interrogation methods that “were based on German torture techniques from World War II.” Although no Americans participated in the torture, Leaf recalled “people who were there seeing the rooms and being told of the torture. And I know that the torture rooms were toured and it was all paid for by the U.S.A.” … As opposition to the Shah grew in the 1970s, Savak tortured dissidents cruelly and indiscriminately, fueling angry Iranian student protests in Europe and the United States against the brutality of the Shah’s police and his detention of 50,000 political prisoners.” … Defending his regime in an interview with Le Monde, the Shah spoke candidly: “Why should we not employ the same methods as you Europeans? We have learned sophisticated methods of torture from you. You use psychological methods to extract the truth: we do the same.” … After the Shah fell from power in 1979, Savak’s torture and the ClA’s role were heavily publicized, both in Iran and the United States. One former CIA analyst told the New York Times that the Agency had sanctioned the torture. … Writing in The Nation, Iranian poet Reza Baraheni claimed that “at least half a million people have… been beaten, whipped, or tortured by Savak” -a cruelty that he illustrated with gruesome autopsy photos of mangled bodies, scabbed and scarred. …

The Islamic revolutionary government’s prosecution of former Savak agents for torture and murder received extensive international coverage, including several reports in the New York Times. At his trial in June 1979, a former Savak interrogator, Bahman Naderipour, confessed in “excruciating detail” to years of “interrogation, torture, and killing.” Despite such coverage, there was little public reaction in the United States to revelations about the CIA’s ties to the Shah’s brutal secret police. Yet Iran provided an important cautionary tale. By buttressing the Shah’s rule with riot police and ruthless interrogation, the CIA had unwittingly contributed to the rising opposition that eventually toppled his regime. After training his police, Washington underestimated the stigma attached to torture and stood by, confused, while the regime slowly lost legitimacy. The lesson was clear: Torture introduced to defend the Shah had helped discredit and destroy the Shah.

It’s Time for a Reckoning on Torture
By Noha Aboueldahab

In a recent declassification of intelligence following a New York court order, it emerged that FBI agents gathered crucial intelligence related to a planned al Qaeda attack in Israel without having to torture the man who provided the information. As Bruce Riedel, director of the Brookings Intelligence Project, points out, the plot was kept a secret for years to hide from the public the fact that intelligence officers did not need to resort to the use of torture to obtain accurate information. The long-delayed declassification of this piece of information, Riedel writes, “was about protecting the use of torture.”

The Legacy of America’s Post-9/11 Turn to Torture
By Carol Rosenberg

The United States has long since stopped employing the so-called enhanced interrogation techniques used in what studies have concluded was a fruitless or counterproductive effort to extract lifesaving information from detainees in secret C.I.A. prisons and at Guantánamo Bay.

But the choice to turn to government-sanctioned torture remains a stain on the country’s reputation, undercutting its authority to confront repression elsewhere. Even today, some former Bush administration officials risk questioning when traveling to Europe by investigators invoking the United Nations Convention Against Torture.

The United States also sent 119 people into the C.I.A.’s overseas network of secret prisons — including the accused plotters of the Sept. 11 attacks — where detainees were routinely sleep deprived, shackled in excruciating ways and subjected to rectal abuse and other brutal treatment.

The C.I.A. has acknowledged that three detainees were waterboarded. One died of abuse. Many more were brutalized in U.S. or allied detention as interrogators improvised their own methods.

A comprehensive study by the Senate Select Intelligence Committee of the agency’s program concluded that the techniques did not save lives or disrupt terrorist plots and were not necessary, findings that the C.I.A. disputed. (A lengthy executive summary of the report was made public in 2014, but the full report remains classified.)

Confronting the CIA’s Mind Maze
By Alfred W. McCoy

Even as they exercise extraordinary power over others, perpetrators of torture around the world are assiduous in trying to cover their tracks. They construct recondite legal justifications, destroy records of actual torture, and paper the files with spurious claims of success. Hence, the CIA destroyed 92 interrogation videotapes, while Vice President Cheney now berates Obama incessantly (five times in his latest Fox News interview) to declassify “two reports” which he claims will show the informational gains that torture offered — possibly because his staff salted the files at the NSC or the CIA with documents prepared for this very purpose.

Not only were Justice Department lawyers aggressive in their advocacy of torture in the Bush years, they were meticulous from the start, in laying the legal groundwork for later impunity. In three torture memos from May 2005 that the Obama administration recently released, Bush’s Deputy Assistant Attorney General Stephen Bradbury repeatedly cited those original U.S. diplomatic “reservations” to the U.N. Convention Against Torture, replicated in Section 2340 of the Federal code, to argue that waterboarding was perfectly legal since the “technique is not physically painful.” Anyway, he added, careful lawyering at Justice and the CIA had punched loopholes in both the U.N. Convention and U.S. law so wide that these Agency techniques were “unlikely to be subject to judicial inquiry.”

Just to be safe, when Vice President Cheney presided over the drafting of the Military Commissions Act of 2006, he included clauses, buried in 38 pages of dense print, defining “serious physical pain” as the “significant loss or impairment of the function of a bodily member, organ, or mental faculty.” This was a striking paraphrase of the outrageous definition of physical torture as pain “equivalent in intensity to… organ failure, impairment of bodily function, or even death” in John Yoo’s infamous August 2002 “torture memo,” already repudiated by the Justice Department.

Above all, the Military Commissions Act protected the CIA’s use of psychological torture by repeating verbatim the exculpatory language found in those Clinton-era, Reagan-created reservations to the U.N. Convention and still embedded in Section 2340 of the Federal code. To make doubly sure, the act also made these definitions retroactive to November 1997, giving CIA interrogators immunity from any misdeeds under the Expanded War Crimes Act of 1997 which punishes serious violations with life imprisonment or death.

No matter how twisted the process, impunity — whether in England, Indonesia, or America — usually passes through three stages:

1. Blame the supposed “bad apples.”

2. Invoke the security argument. (“It protected us.”)

3. Appeal to national unity. (“We need to move forward together.”)

Over a 40-year period, Americans have found themselves mired in this same moral quagmire on six separate occasions: following exposés of CIA-sponsored torture in South Vietnam (1970), Brazil (1974), Iran (1978), Honduras (1988), and then throughout Latin America (1997). After each exposé, the public’s shock soon faded, allowing the Agency to resume its dirty work in the shadows.

Unless some formal inquiry is convened to look into a sordid history that reached its depths in the Bush era, and so begins to break this cycle of deceit, exposé, and paralysis followed by more of the same, we’re likely, a few years hence, to find ourselves right back where we are now. We’ll be confronted with the next American torture scandal from some future iconic dungeon, part of a dismal, ever lengthening procession that has led from the tiger cages of South Vietnam through the Shah of Iran’s prison cells in Tehran to Abu Ghraib and the prison at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan.

The next time, however, the world will not have forgotten those photos from Abu Ghraib. The next time, the damage to this country will be nothing short of devastating.

John Rizzo, C.I.A. Lawyer Who Sanctioned Waterboarding, Dies at 73
By Sam Roberts

Mr. Rizzo, a 34-year C.I.A. veteran, presumed from the beginning that the morality and legality of waterboarding, sleep deprivation, starvation and other techniques, euphemistically described as enhanced interrogation, would later be second-guessed.

Preventively, he insisted on first getting the Justice Department to stipulate formally that no American laws or foreign treaties would be violated by the techniques, and that no one working for the C.I.A. would be subject to prosecution. The stipulation concluded that only pain linked to organ failure would constitute illegal torture.

Mr. Rizzo later recalled that in early 2002, after Abu Zubaydah became the first high-level Al Qaeda operative to be captured, he left his office, strolled around C.I.A. headquarters smoking a cigar and pondered the possibility of a second terrorist attack after which Mr. Zubaydah would “gleefully tell our interrogators, ‘Yes, I knew all about them, and you didn’t get me to talk.’

“There would be hundreds, perhaps thousands of Americans dead on the streets again,” he told the German newsmagazine Der Spiegel in 2014. “And in the post-mortem investigations, it would all come out that the C.I.A. considered these techniques but was too risk-averse to carry them out, and that I was the guy who stopped them.

“I couldn’t live with the possibility of that someday happening,” he said.

“Sure, I thought about the morality of it,” he said in an interview with The Hill in 2015. “But as I say, the times were such that what I thought would have been equally immoral is if we just unilaterally dismissed the possibility of undertaking a program that could have potentially saved thousands more American lives.”

While Mr. Rizzo unfailingly defended the C.I.A., he distinguished himself from most of his colleagues by second-guessing some of what went on under his watch, including the enduring physical and psychological impact of torture.

“In hindsight, that should have come to the fore,” he told The New York Times in 2016. “I don’t think the long-term effects were ever explored in any real depth.”

He told the PBS program “Frontline” in 2011: “To me, the more intriguing question — and, I think, unknowable question — is, Could the same information have been elicited without the use of these extraordinarily controversial techniques? And, as I say, I think that is ultimately unknowable.” (He did at one point acknowledge a former F.B.I. interrogator’s conclusion that the techniques had no effect on their subjects.)

To protect agency employees, Mr. Rizzo sought annual reassurance from the attorney general that the interrogation techniques “did not ‘shock the conscience’ or violate international treaty obligations or violate U.S. domestic law,” Bill Harlow, a former spokesman for the agency, said by email.

“When the attorney general declined to do so in the spring of 2004,” he added, “the agency promptly suspended the program.”

Mr. Rizzo said suspected terrorists were detained at secret “black sites” overseas only because the Defense Department had refused to house them on military bases.

“We brainstormed,” he told The Times in 2014. “Do we put them on ships? We considered a deserted island. It was born out of necessity. It wasn’t some diabolical plot.”

Mr. Rizzo was upset that he had not been consulted before videotapes of the interrogations were destroyed in 2005. He acknowledged that some interrogation tactics were “sadistic and terrifying,” but he said, without elaborating, that “there was another technique so gruesome that the Justice Department later stopped short of approving it.” That technique was later identified as a mock execution.

Although Mr. Rizzo was the most visible defender of the interrogation program — a nattily-attired public face of the spy agency — he was more introspective about it than many of his colleagues.

“I know what the first paragraph of my obituary is going to read,” he told The Hill. “‘John Rizzo, lead counsel, legally approved the torture programs.’” He conceded, though, that “if I had chosen to, I could have stopped them before they started.”

Barring another major terror attack, he said, “I can’t see any administration ever going down the road of anything like the interrogation program.” He added, “If there is another attack, then I’m confident the political winds will once again shift, and C.I.A. will be told to stop being so risk averse.”

John Rizzo, CIA lawyer who approved torture program, dies at 73
By Harrison Smith

As the CIA’s top lawyer after 9/11, Mr. Rizzo approved targeted killings through drone strikes, which also killed and wounded numerous civilians. A manila envelope was delivered to him once or twice a month, containing information on suspected terrorists who were slated to be “blown to bits,” as he put it, if he signed off on the operation.

“It’s basically a hit list,” he told Newsweek in 2011, two years after retiring from the CIA. He then pointed a finger at the reporter’s forehead and pretended to pull a trigger. “The Predator is the weapon of choice,” he remarked, referring to the drone, “but it could also be someone putting a bullet in your head.”

Mr. Rizzo said he sometimes wondered what his parents would have thought of the killings and his role in them. “The thought never left my mind that I was giving legal approval for killings and I had never done that before,” he said in an interview for the book “Top Secret America,” by journalists Dana Priest and William M. Arkin. “I just had to stay focused and detached.”

The Rise of the Killer Drones: How America Goes to War in Secret
By Michael Hastings

The use of drones is rapidly transforming the way we go to war. On the battlefield, a squad leader can receive real-time data from a drone that enables him to view the landscape for miles in every direction, dramatically expanding the capabilities of what would normally have been a small and isolated unit. “It’s democratized information on the battlefield,” says Daniel Goure, a national security expert who served in the Defense Department during both Bush administrations. “It’s like a reconnaissance version of Twitter.” Drones have also radically altered the CIA, turning a civilian intelligence-gathering agency into a full-fledged paramilitary operation – one that routinely racks up nearly as many scalps as any branch of the military.

But the implications of drones go far beyond a single combat unit or civilian agency. On a broader scale, the remote-control nature of unmanned missions enables politicians to wage war while claiming we’re not at war – as the United States is currently doing in Pakistan. What’s more, the Pentagon and the CIA can now launch military strikes or order assassinations without putting a single boot on the ground – and without worrying about a public backlash over U.S. soldiers coming home in body bags. The immediacy and secrecy of drones make it easier than ever for leaders to unleash America’s military might – and harder than ever to evaluate the consequences of such clandestine attacks.

The idea of aerial military surveillance dates back to the Civil War, when both the Union and the Confederacy used hot-air balloons to spy on the other side, tracking troop movements and helping to direct artillery fire. In 1898, during the Spanish-American War, the U.S. military rigged a kite with a camera, producing the first aerial reconnaissance photos. When airplanes were introduced to warfare in the First World War, they charted the same pattern later followed by drones – technology deployed first as a means of surveillance, then as a means to kill the enemy.

During World War II, Nazi scientists experimented with radio-controlled missiles for their bombardment of England – creating, in essence, the first kamikaze drones. But it wasn’t until the end of the 1950s, when America and Russia were competing to conquer space, that scientists figured out how to fly things without a human onboard: launching satellites, for instance, or remotely controlling the path of rockets and missiles. There were also significant technological shifts that began to make drones feasible. “We were building smaller engines and guidance systems, and we were upgrading our communication and computing abilities,” says Goure.

The first use of modern drones came during the Vietnam War, when the Pentagon tested unmanned aerial vehicles for what the military called ISR: intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance. “Vietnam was decisive to the development of drones as the perfect tools to perform dangerous missions without the risk of losing a pilot,” says aviation historian David Cenciotti. By the war’s end, drones had flown some 3,500 recon missions in Vietnam. The Air Force also developed two attack drones – the BGM-34A and BGM-34B Firebee – but never used them in combat: The sensors weren’t yet capable of identifying and hitting camouflaged targets with the accuracy the military needed.

In the years after Vietnam, many of the technological advances on drones were made by Israel, which has used them to monitor the Gaza Strip and carry out targeted assassinations. During the 1980s, the Israeli air force sold several of its models to the Pentagon, including a drone called the Pioneer. The Pioneer, which could be launched from naval vessels or from military bases, had a flight range of 115 miles. The Americans quickly put it to use during the First Gulf War: In one of the more absurd moments of the conflict, a group of Iraqi soldiers surrendered to a Pioneer, waving white bedsheets and T-shirts at the drone as it circled overhead. The Pioneer would eventually be used in more than 300 missions in the Persian Gulf, and would later be deployed in efforts to stabilize Haiti and the Balkans during the 1990s.

By 2000, the Pentagon was pushing for a massive expansion of the drone program, hoping to make a third of all U.S. aircraft unmanned by 2010. But it was the War on Terror that finally enabled the military to weaponize drones, giving them the capability to take out designated targets. The first major success of killer drones was a Predator strike on a convoy in 2002, which assassinated the leader of Al Qaeda in Yemen. By 2006, the Pentagon had upped its goal, aiming to convert 45 percent of its “deep-strike” aircraft into drones. “Before drones, the way you went after terrorists was you sent your troops,” says Goure. “You sent your Navy, you sent your Marines, like Reagan going after Qaddafi in the Eighties. You bombed their camp. Now you have drones that can be operated by the military or the CIA from thousands of miles away.”

But for every “high-value” target killed by drones, there’s a civilian or other innocent victim who has paid the price. The first major success of drones – the 2002 strike that took out the leader of Al Qaeda in Yemen – also resulted in the death of a U.S. citizen. More recently, a drone strike by U.S. forces in Afghanistan in 2010 targeted the wrong individual – killing a well-known human rights advocate named Zabet Amanullah who actually supported the U.S.-backed government. The U.S. military, it turned out, had tracked the wrong cellphone for months, mistaking Amanullah for a senior Taliban leader. A year earlier, a drone strike killed Baitullah Mehsud, the head of the Pakistani Taliban, while he was visiting his father-in-law; his wife was vaporized along with him. But the U.S. had already tried four times to assassinate Mehsud with drones, killing dozens of civilians in the failed attempts. One of the missed strikes, according to a human rights group, killed 35 people, including nine civilians, with reports that flying shrapnel killed an eight-year-old boy while he was sleeping. Another blown strike, in June 2009, took out 45 civilians, according to credible press reports.

Drone assaults on high-value targets – known as “personality strikes” – usually require approval from a lawyer like Rizzo, the CIA chief and sometimes the president himself. But the CIA’s more common use of drones – known as “signature strikes” – involves attacks on groups of alleged militants who are behaving in ways that seem suspicious. Such strikes are reportedly the brainchild of the CIA veteran who has run the agency’s drone program for the past six years, a chain-smoking convert to Islam who goes by the code name “Roger.” In a recent profile, The Washington Post called Roger “the principal architect of the CIA’s drone campaign.” When it comes to signature strikes, say insiders, the decision to launch a drone assault is essentially an odds game: If the agency thinks it’s likely that the group of individuals are insurgents, it will take the shot. “The CIA is doing a lot more targeting on a percentage basis,” says the former official with knowledge of the agency’s drone program.

But to countries like Pakistan, what America considers a legitimate strike against terrorists appears to be little more than a militarized version of homicide. “From the perspective of Pakistani law, we probably committed a murder,” says the former CIA official. “We commit espionage every day, breaking the laws of other countries.” To absolve itself in the most sensitive strikes, the CIA has become skilled at using lawyers to cover its tracks.

According to sources in the U.S. Embassy in Pakistan, Ambassador Cameron Munter was furious that the CIA was conducting drone strikes without consulting him over the potential diplomatic fallout. The strikes had stopped briefly in January 2011 after Raymond Davis, a CIA contractor, was taken into custody for killing two Pakistanis in broad daylight; the day after Davis was released, the CIA drone strikes began again. Munter, according to U.S. officials, complained to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and senior military officials about the drone program, and his concerns were brought to the White House. At issue was a particularly deadly drone strike in March 2011 that the Americans claimed killed 21 militants, and the Pakistanis claimed killed 42 civilians.

The crisis sparked a miniature blowup in the White House between the president’s national security team and the CIA. Last spring, National Security Adviser Tom Donilon ordered a review of the drone program – not to halt it, but to figure out a way to deploy drones that might ease the concerns of Munter and other diplomats. The prospect of any additional oversight, however modest, set off alarms at the CIA. When first confronted with the idea of the review, according to administration officials, the agency flipped out. “One CIA guy gave Donilon the ‘You want me on that wall’ speech,” says a senior U.S. official familiar with the exchange, referring to the scene in the movie A Few Good Men in which a Marine commandant played by Jack Nicholson argues that he’s above the law.

In the end, though, the CIA lost the larger battle over drones. After Donilon completed the White House review, Ambassador Munter and the State Department were granted more say in decisions over the timing and targeting of drone strikes. Although the move was intended to provide more civilian oversight of covert attacks, it outraged human rights activists, who blasted the White House for putting a U.S. ambassador in the position of signing off on extralegal death warrants in a foreign country. “Giving a civilian diplomat veto power on an assassination campaign is incredible,” says Clive Stafford Smith, the executive director of Reprieve, a human rights group that is suing over the use of drones. “Can you imagine what the reaction would be if the Pakistani ambassador in Washington was overseeing a campaign of targeted killing in America?”

Many who oversee the drone program, in fact, seem to have little but contempt for those who worry about the poten­tial dangers presented by drones. At a human rights seminar at Columbia University last summer, John Radsan, a former attorney for the CIA, admitted that the agency has no interest in debating the legal niceties of drone strikes. “The CIA is laughing at you guys,” he told the assembled human rights lawyers. “You’re worried about international law, and the CIA is laughing.”

Times Investigation: In U.S. Drone Strike, Evidence Suggests No ISIS Bomb
By Matthieu Aikins

It was the last known missile fired by the United States in its 20-year war in Afghanistan, and the military called it a “righteous strike” — a drone attack after hours of surveillance on Aug. 29 against a vehicle that American officials thought contained an ISIS bomb and posed an imminent threat to troops at Kabul’s airport.

Times reporting has identified the driver as Zemari Ahmadi, a longtime worker for a U.S. aid group. The evidence, including extensive interviews with family members, co-workers and witnesses, suggests that his travels that day actually involved transporting colleagues to and from work. And an analysis of video feeds showed that what the military may have seen was Mr. Ahmadi and a colleague loading canisters of water into his trunk to bring home to his family.

While the U.S. military said the drone strike might have killed three civilians, Times reporting shows that it killed 10, including seven children, in a dense residential block.

When Mr. Ahmadi pulled into the courtyard of his home — which officials said was different than the alleged ISIS safe house — the tactical commander made the decision to strike his vehicle, launching a Hellfire missile at around 4:50 p.m.

Although the target was now inside a densely populated residential area, the drone operator quickly scanned and saw only a single adult male greeting the vehicle, and therefore assessed with “reasonable certainty” that no women, children or noncombatants would be killed, U.S. officials said.

But according to his relatives, as Mr. Ahmadi pulled into his courtyard, several of his children and his brothers’ children came out, excited to see him, and sat in the car as he backed it inside. Mr. Ahmadi’s brother Romal was sitting on the ground floor with his wife when he heard the sound of the gate opening, and Mr. Ahmadi’s car entering. His adult cousin Naser had gone to fetch water for his ablutions, and greeted him.

While the U.S. military has so far acknowledged only three civilian casualties, Mr. Ahmadi’s relatives said that 10 members of their family, including seven children, were killed in the strike: Mr. Ahmadi and three of his children, Zamir, 20, Faisal, 16, and Farzad, 10; Mr. Ahmadi’s cousin Naser, 30; three of Romal’s children, Arwin, 7, Benyamin, 6, and Hayat, 2; and two 3-year-old girls, Malika and Somaya.

Neighbors and an Afghan health official confirmed that bodies of children were removed from the site. They said the blast had shredded most of the victims; fragments of human remains were seen inside and around the compound the next day by a reporter, including blood and flesh splattered on interior walls and ceilings. Mr. Ahmadi’s relatives provided photographs of several badly burned bodies belonging to children.

Family members questioned why Mr. Ahmadi would have a motivation to attack Americans when he had already applied for refugee resettlement in the United States. His adult cousin Naser, a former U.S. military contractor, had also applied for resettlement. He had planned to marry his fiancée, Samia, last Friday so that she could be included in his immigration case.

“All of them were innocent,” said Emal, Mr. Ahmadi’s brother. “You say he was ISIS, but he worked for the Americans.”

They wanted a new life in America. Instead they were killed by the US military
By Sandi Sidhu, Julia Hollingsworth, Anna Coren, Abdul Basir Bina and Ahmet Mengli

The law around drone strikes is complicated, and full transparency is not always possible, said Gloria Gaggioli, the director of the Geneva Academy on International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights. “It does not mean that a complete lack of accountability is acceptable,” she said.

William Boothby, an international humanitarian law expert who wrote a book on the law of targeting, said states are required to do all that was feasible to verify the status of their target as lawful. But failing to take proper precautions isn’t a war crime under the Rome Statute for the International Criminal Court — and regardless, the US isn’t a party to the statute, Boothby said.

But while the strike might not be illegal, it raises moral questions. The US has previously shown a “level of negligence” in distinguishing civilians from targets, and was often slow to admit to civilian casualties or pay compensation, Castner said. With the US pulling out of Afghanistan, strikes with less intelligence could happen more often, he cautioned.

“In some ways it’s more of the same, and in some ways, it’s going to be even more so lack of oversight, challenges with intelligence, and more of these cases where they may or may not have hit the right thing,” Castner said.

The Human Cost of ‘Over the Horizon’
By Benjamin Schwartz

American hawks don’t like to talk about this because it undermines public support for drone strikes, which are far more humane than other instruments of violence that the military can deploy and are safer for American service members. Doves don’t like to talk about it because it undermines the case for “ending forever wars” by bringing troops home.

To further their propaganda efforts, terrorist groups and their supporters frequently claim U.S. drone strikes kill innocents even when that isn’t the case. The U.S. government has no interest in publicizing its failures. In remote areas of Yemen, Somalia, Afghanistan and elsewhere, it often is difficult to determine the truth.

Trump’s Secret Rules for Drone Strikes Outside War Zones Are Disclosed
By Charlie Savage

The Biden administration suspended the Trump-era rules on its first day in office and imposed an interim policy of requiring White House approval for proposed strikes outside of the war zones of Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria. At the same time, the Biden team began a review of how both Obama- and Trump-era policies had worked — both on paper and in practice — with an eye toward developing its own policy.

The review, officials said, discovered that Trump-era principles to govern strikes in certain countries often made an exception to the requirement of “near certainty” that there would be no civilian casualties. While it kept that rule for women and children, it permitted a lower standard of merely “reasonable certainty” when it came to civilian adult men.

Drone Dilemma
By Anouk S. Rigterink

Since 2004, the United States has reportedly launched over 14,000 such strikes in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen alone.

Judging purely by the number of terrorist leaders killed, the United States’ use of drones has been remarkably successful. Between 2004 and 2015, U.S. drones killed at least 15 high-value terrorist leaders from five terrorist groups in Pakistan alone, including top figures in al Qaeda and the Taliban.

Such killings might weaken terrorist groups by reducing their ability to conduct attacks in the United States and by forcing them to compromise with governments in the areas where they operate. However, eliminating a leader can also have the opposite effect. In a leadership vacuum, low-level members of the group are freer to do what they want rather than what the leader may have preferred. If they tend toward more violence than did the leader, terrorist attacks might increase. In the words of a Hazara proverb, “Broken glass becomes sharper.”

In the six months after the drone strikes that targeted the terrorist leaders, groups whose leaders were hit carried out between 43 percent to 70 percent more attacks (depending on the month) than groups whose leaders were missed. Groups whose leaders were hit were also substantially more likely to splinter, which resulted in new groups—many of which announced their arrivals with fresh attacks.

In the case of Pakistan, U.S. drone strikes on terrorist leaders also complicated negotiations that the Pakistani government intermittently held with terrorist groups. For example, the leader of one of the most lethal groups in Pakistan, Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, agreed to engage in peace talks with the Pakistani government in 2013. The day before the two parties were due to meet, however, he was killed by a U.S. drone strike. At the time, Pakistan’s interior minister said this spelled “the death of all peace efforts.” Indeed, the TTP splintered into three factions, and attacks spiked.

The U.S. squandered the world’s sympathy by invading Afghanistan and Iraq. What will it learn from defeat?
By Fawaz A. Gerges

In a 1999 memo to his lieutenants in Yemen, unearthed subsequently by the U.S. army and cited in my book “The Far Enemy: Why Jihad Went Global,” Ayman al-Zawahiri, who is now the head of al-Qaeda, tried to convince the group that attacking the United States was the only way to resuscitate a dying Islamist militant movement (in the late 1990s, the Islamist militants were on the brink of defeat in Egypt, Algeria and elsewhere).

Zawahiri wrote that if the American homeland were attacked, the United States would lash out angrily not just against the Islamist militants , but also Muslim nations. This would allow the Islamist militants to portray themselves as defenders of the ummah, or the Muslim community, and gain more followers.

Zawahiri’s strategy worked. At the height of its prowess in 2001, al-Qaeda’s membership did not exceed 1,000-2,000 combatants. Twenty years into the War on Terror, there are approximately between 100,000 and 230,000 active Islamist militants in dozens of countries worldwide.

The Last Word on GWOT
By Robert Wright

After a headline that was clear and accurate (“20 Years On, the War on Terror Grinds Along, With No End in Sight”) came this subhead: “The failures in Iraq and Afghanistan obscure what experts say is the striking success of a multilateral effort that extends to as many as 85 countries.”

Wait. How much of a “striking success” can the war on terror be if we’re now pursuing it in “as many as 85 countries”? You don’t hear doctors say, “Our treatment of the patient’s cancer has been a striking success, and we’re now targeting more of his organs than ever with chemotherapy.”

So what’s going on here? Why has the war on terror gone pretty well by one metric—number of people killed in America by terrorists—and pretty badly by another: the proliferation of terrorist groups? And which metric should we use? Should we applaud or indict the various presidents who shaped and pursued the Global War on Terrorism?

I vote for indictment. I think these presidents have something in common that helps explain both metrics—and that in the long run will be seen as strategically misguided and morally problematic. Namely: All of them focused, not surprisingly, on preventing terrorist attacks in the US on their watch—but they pursued that goal in ways that aided the spread of jihadism and that have planted the seeds for more terrorism down the road.

The drone strike Obama launched in response to the underwear incident illustrates how little thought he gave to long-term consequences.

It targeted Anwar al-Awlaki, a Muslim cleric who had moved from America to Yemen, where he had encouraged and advised the underwear bomber. A bit of calm reflection might have led Obama to wonder whether, given the number of video lectures by Awlaki available online, turning him into a famous martyr might prove ill-advised. And indeed, in 2015 the New York Times reported: “Four years after the United States assassinated the radical cleric in a drone strike, his influence on jihadists is greater than ever… The list of plots and attacks influenced by Awlaki goes on and on. In fact, Awlaki’s pronouncements seem to carry greater authority today than when he was living, because America killed him.”

Call Me a Traitor
By Kerry Howley

In early 2001, the U.S. did not know how to launch a missile from a Predator drone without damaging the drone. In early 2001, one could not have run an assassination program based on geolocation, simply because terrorism was not yet run on cell phones. Fourteen years later, the Pentagon was planning to spend nearly $3 billion on unmanned aerial vehicles in a single year. The president had access to technologies available to no president before him, and he opted to use them.

Obama, Daniel concluded, was “a clown,” “just a complete fraud,” who would uphold the worst policies of his secretive predecessor. But now it was 2010, and the national security state’s ability to keep its secrets was beginning to break down. While at the Defense Language Institute, Daniel says, an officer came into his classroom and forbade them from searching for a term relatively new to the world: WikiLeaks. If they did so, they’d lose their security clearance. Julian Assange had packaged, edited, and dramatically unveiled leaked footage of American soldiers shooting a man holding a camera because they had thought the camera was a gun. On YouTube, one could watch the photographer die and one could watch a van pull up and a man jump out to help the photographer the Americans had shot. One could watch, on YouTube, as the Americans shot up the van, though if one were watching closely, one would already have seen that in the front of the van were two small children. One could hear a deep silence as the American soldiers watched the limp children being carried from the van.

“Well, it’s their fault,” one hears a soldier say, “for bringing their kids into battle.”

The intuitive argument against drones is that they introduce space between target and assassin, that they remove the element of danger from the act of killing. This is an argument that has followed every advance in military technology beyond the perfect reciprocity of the swordfight: There was safety too behind a cannon. Guns were considered cowardly. Snipers were cowards and so were men who fired from submarines. But remove is not necessarily the experience of drone warfare, which is really surveillance warfare. Day after day, the drone will send video feed of the same man leaving the same house and returning again. One becomes familiar with the patterns of his life, and what one cannot know, imagination builds out. At night, when the infrared camera is operative, people appear as red blobs. It is hot, and they go on the roof to sleep. “I saw them having sex with their wives,” said one drone pilot. “It’s two infrared spots becoming one.” A lit cigarette is a sun bobbing before a mouth. This is not the straight path of increasing distance between assassin and target. This is deep, half-imagined, crazy-making intimacy. This is something new.

Over the course of the War on Terror, as we used to call it before it simply became American foreign policy, swathes of Pakistan and Yemen came to be under 24-hour surveillance by drone, which is to say that people living in these areas today cannot cross the street without knowing that they are being recorded and that the recording will be sent to a satellite and sucked into a receiver, where the footage will be stored in the service of someone’s idea of American security. It will very likely never be watched, because there are not enough analysts to analyze all of the footage that the U.S. produces; where privacy is afforded, it is afforded by the grace of inefficiency. Drones, writes Michael Boyle, a senior fellow in national security at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, have “led the United States to displace its original goal — to fight al Qaeda more effectively — in favor of a larger one of knowing, and possibly even controlling, greater portions of the earth than it had previously imagined possible.”

Shortly before Daniel Hale arrived in Afghanistan, the Air Force deployed what it called “Gorgon Stare”: a drone video system that involves 368 cameras covering 40 square miles at a time. It used to be that, in watching, we suffered a “soda straw” problem; one could watch, as if through a tube, a single figure cut his way across a landscape to the exclusion of the surrounding land. Wide-area aerial surveillance, familiar from films shot from above, is in fact new to the world; only in the past decade has it become possible to watch a whole landscape, to track a whole network of men who meet at a location and watch them each walk home. This view is enabled by something called a high-altitude long-endurance drone, the acronym for which is HALE.

In the months when he worked in the drone program, Daniel Hale never touched a drone, never flew one, never even worked on a base from which they lifted into the air. The idea that his own moral righteousness could affect the war in any way now struck him as absurd. Sometimes the machine for which he worked was called “one warhead one forehead,” because each mission targeted only one man. But the men were very often surrounded by other men as the missile found them. This is what ate at him. He knew nothing about these people; none of them would have been the target of the attack. But they would die too. And though the Obama administration would deny this, many men would reportedly not be counted as civilians but as “enemies killed in action.” Daniel knew cell phones could have been passed from presumed terrorists to other people entirely, and innocent people and those around innocent people would then be killed instead. He knew no one back home was thinking about this. “There were two worlds,” Chelsea Manning once said. “The world in America, and the world I was seeing.” The gap between what America did and what Americans knew was part of the horror, and it was the part that appeared ameliorable.

Daniel began searching on his work computer, using terms he’d picked up in Afghanistan. For the most part, the documents he found were as new to him as they would be to the public; he was learning about what he had been involved in as he both read his screen and tried to monitor the room so he could switch back to his work if someone passed by his computer. There was a graphic of the “kill chain,” the bureaucratic process through which Obama approved a strike: little yellow arrows pointing on a diagonal all the way up the page, landing at POTUS. There was further evidence that when military-age males were murdered in a strike, they were classified as militants, an accounting trick that lowers civilian-death counts, and there was an account of a five-month period in Afghanistan in which U.S. forces hit 19 people who were targets of strikes and 136 who were not the targets. There were admissions that the intelligence on which strikes were based was often bad and that strikes made it difficult to get good information because the people who might have provided that information had just been killed by the strike. There was the report detailing the secret rules the government uses to place people on the terrorist watch list. “Each thing that I would discover would lead to something else,” Daniel said, “something more.” Together, these documents form a picture of a country vacuuming up massive amounts of information and struggling to transform that information into knowledge. One gets the sense that the Obaman air of “certainty” and “precision” around drones is possible only if one has considerable distance from the process.

Two months into his time in Afghanistan, Daniel recalls connecting a phone number to a predator drone. The phone number belonged to someone they’d been surveilling for a long while in Jalalabad, and now the phone was inside a sedan, and the sedan was speeding toward the border. It was an attempt to escape. The drone struggled against the wind, but the shot was the best shot the commander was going to get. Daniel watched “an explosion onscreen, bright white light, dust.” When the dust settled, Daniel could see that the car was still intact, though it had taken damage in the back. The car kept going, and he kept watching. They stopped at a village, and a woman got out. Daniel hadn’t realized anyone but the man with the cell phone was inside the car. She opened the trunk and riffled around. She pulled something out. Then she pulled out something smaller. And they drove away.

This is what Daniel saw through the soda straw, images that haunt him and a story for which he is the only source. It was his captain, he says, who added the context a week later. The family had been trying to leave together, and after shrapnel from the missile hit two little girls, around ages 3 and 5, the target “ordered his wife to get rid of their bodies so they could escape.”

The story, Daniel says, was related to him as a tale about the inhumanity of the Taliban, but that was not the lesson Daniel took. He can’t really argue with Michael’s assessment. He thinks about the girls every day, and when he does, he thinks about killing himself.

Moral Injury and the Forever Wars
By Kelly Denton-Borhaug

A new report by Brown University’s Costs of War Project calculates that, in the post-9/11 era so far, four times as many veterans and active-duty military have committed suicide as died in war operations.

The term moral injury is now used in military and healthcare settings to identify a deep existential pain destroying the lives of too many active-duty personnel and vets. In these years of forever wars, when the moral consciences of such individuals collided with the brutally harsh realities of militarization and killing, the result has been a sharp, sometimes death-dealing dissonance. Think of moral injury as an invisible wound of war. It represents at least part of the explanation for that high suicide rate. And it’s implicated in more than just those damning suicides: an additional 500,000 troops in the post-9/11 era have been diagnosed with debilitating, not fully understood symptoms that make their lives remarkably unlivable.

I first heard the term moral injury about 10 years ago at a conference at Riverside Church in New York City, where Jonathan Shay, the renowned military psychologist, spoke about it. For decades he had provided psychological care for veterans of the Vietnam War who were struggling with unremitting resentment, guilt, and shame in their post-deployment lives. They just couldn’t get on with those very lives after their military experiences. They had, it seemed, lost trust in themselves and anyone else.

Still, Shay found that none of the typical mental-health diagnoses seemed to fit their symptoms. This wasn’t post-traumatic stress disorder — a hyper-vigilance, anxiety, and set of fears arising from traumatic experience. No, what came to be known as moral injury seemed to result from a sense that the very center of one’s being had been assaulted. If war’s intent is to inflict physical injury and destruction, and if the trauma of war afflicts people’s emotional and psychic well-being, moral injury describes an invisible wound that burns away at a person’s very soul. The Iraq War veteran and writer Kevin Powers describes it as “acid seeping down into your soul, and then your soul is gone.”

A central feature of moral injury is a sense of having betrayed one’s own deepest moral commitments, as well as of being betrayed morally by others. People who are suffering from moral injury feel there’s nothing left in their world to trust, including themselves. For them, any notion of “a shared moral covenant” has been shattered. But how does anyone live in a world without moral guideposts, even flawed ones? The world of modern war, it seems, not only destroys the foundations of life for its targets and victims, but also for its perpetrators.

It’s been years since I first heard Andy, a veteran of the Iraq War, testify in the most personal way about moral injury at a Philadelphia church. He’s part of a family with a long military history. His father and grandfather both served in this country’s wars before, at 17, he enlisted in the Air Force in 1999. He came to work in military intelligence and would eventually be deployed to Iraq.

But all was most definitely not well with Andy when, after 11 years in the Air Force, he returned to civilian life. He found himself struggling in his relationships, unable to function, a mess, and eventually suicidal. He bounced from one mental healthcare provider to the next for eight years without experiencing the slightest sense of relief. On the verge of ending his life, he was referred to a new “Moral Injury Group” led by chaplain Chris Antal and psychologist Peter Yeomans at the Crescenz VA Hospital in Philadelphia. At that moment, Andy decided this would be his last effort before calling it quits and ending his life. Frankly, given what I now know, I’m amazed that he was willing to take that one last chance after so many years of suffering, struggle, and pain to so little purpose.

The professionals who lead that particular group are remarkably blunt about what they call “the work avoidance” of most citizens — the way that the majority of us fail to take any responsibility for the consequences of the endless wars we’ve been fighting in this century. People, they’ve told me, regularly deflect responsibility by adopting any of three approaches to veterans: by valorizing them (think of the simplistic “thank you for your service/sacrifice” or the implicit message of those “hometown heroes” banners); by pathologizing them (seeing vets as mentally ill and irreparably broken); or by demonizing them (think of the Vietnam-era “baby-killers” moniker). Each of these approaches essentially represses what those veterans could actually tell us about their experiences and our wars.

So, the leaders of the Crescenz VA Moral Injury Group developed an unorthodox approach. They assured Andy that he had an important story to tell, one the nation needed to hear so that civilians could finally “bear the brunt of the burden” of sending him to war. Eight years after leaving the military and a few weeks into that program, he finally revealed for the first time to those caregivers and vets, the event at the root of his own loss of soul. While deployed in Iraq, he had participated in calling in an airstrike that ended up killing 36 Iraqi men, women, and children.

I’ll never forget watching Andy testify about that very moment in the Philadelphia church on Veterans Day before an audience that had expressly indicated its willingness to listen. With palpable anguish, he told how, after the airstrike, his orders were to enter the bombed structure. He was supposed to sift through the bodies to find the supposed target of the strike. Instead, he came upon the lifeless bodies of, as he called them, “proud Iraqis,” including a little girl with a singed Minnie Mouse doll. Those sights and the smell of death were, he told us, “etched on the back of his eyelids forever.” This was the “shame” he carried with him always, an “unholy perpetration,” as he described it.

The day of that attack, he said, he felt his soul leave his body. Over years of listening to veterans’ stories, I realize that I’ve heard similar descriptions again and again. It may seem extreme to speak about one’s very soul being eviscerated, but it shouldn’t be treated as an exaggeration. After all, how can we even imagine what the deaths of so many men, women, and children may have meant for the Iraqi families and communities whose loved ones perished that day?

Andy’s story clarifies a reality Americans badly need to grasp: the destruction of war goes far beyond its intended targets. In the end, its violence is impossible to control. It doesn’t stay in those distant lands where this country has been fighting for so many fruitless years.

The Psychic Toll of Killing With Drones
By Wayne Phelps

An intelligence analyst who worked for the CIA’s drone program—the military calls them Remotely Piloted Aircraft, or RPAs—told me about two very different experiences of killing key targets, known as High Value Individuals, or HVIs.

In the first case, he and his team had been tracking a top al Qaeda leader for five years when they finally caught a break one day. The analyst said that there were about 100 people in the room watching the mission unfold in real time. At some point during the day, the al Qaeda leader got himself in the wrong isolated place, which was exactly the opportunity needed to conduct an RPA strike. The room, normally full of quiet professionals, erupted in cheers. It was an emotional day, five years in the making.

The analyst’s second case concerned another HVI that his team watched for six months, 24 hours a day. Every day, they watched this guy walk his kids to school and then go to meetings with other nefarious characters. In the afternoon, they observed the HVI pick up his children from school and then spend hours playing with them in the backyard.

According to the analyst, who was a father himself, “There was no doubt that he was a good father.” When the time came to strike this guy, it was emotionally difficult. As one U.S. Air Force sensor operator succinctly put it in an interview, “It’s the humanity aspect that makes it hard. To overcome that feeling of killing a normal guy you need lots of information about the bad things he does to help justify this killing in your mind.”

A 2014 study by U.S. Air Force psychologist Wayne Chappelle involving 1,084 Air Force drone operators found that 4.3% of them experienced the symptoms of moderate to extreme post-traumatic stress disorder—lower than rates of PTSD (10-18%) among military personnel returning from deployment but higher than the rates (less than 1%) reported in drone operators’ electronic medical records.

No mission evokes more connection to a target for an RPA crew than hunting a high-value individual. HVIs are often tracked for days, weeks, months or even years before being struck. This provides ample opportunities to get to know a target through observation. Aaron Garman, a U.S. Army drone pilot and sensor operator, described the nature of this intimacy with the target in an interview: “It’s ridiculous the idea that we don’t see the humanity. I’m watching a target for eight hours. I’m going to watch him go to the store and go to his wife. Then eventually you kill this guy. Absolutely I know that his wife is out there and that we just made her a widow and that we just took a father away from his three kids. It sucks. I wish it was just a guy in a car that we didn’t know.”

There should be emotions associated with killing another human being, regardless of how evil that person is, how much we think they deserve to die, and how many people they have hurt. We never want our soldiers to lose touch with their humanity or the humanity of those they fight. We need disciplined warriors able to deal out controlled violence when required, not psychopaths. Some fear that RPA warfare will create emotionally detached, physically safe drone warriors who kill without attachment, compunction or remorse.

A.I. Drone May Have Acted on Its Own in Attacking Fighters, U.N. Says
By Maria Cramer

A military drone that attacked soldiers during a battle in Libya’s civil war last year may have done so without human control, according to a recent report commissioned by the United Nations.

The drone, which the report described as “a lethal autonomous weapons systems,” was powered by artificial intelligence and used by forces backed by the government based in Tripoli, the capital, against enemy militia fighters as they ran away from rocket attacks.

The fighters “were hunted down and remotely engaged by the unmanned combat aerial vehicles or the lethal autonomous weapons systems,” according to the report, which did not say whether there were any casualties or injuries.

The weapons systems, it said, “were programmed to attack targets without requiring data connectivity between the operator and the munition: in effect a true ‘fire, forget and find’ capability.”

Zachary Kallenborn, a research affiliate who studies drone warfare, terrorism and weapons of mass destruction at the University of Maryland, said the report suggested that for the first time, a weapons systems with artificial intelligence capability operated autonomously to find and attack humans.

“What’s clear is this drone was used in the conflict,” said Mr. Kallenborn, who wrote about the report in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists. “What’s not clear is whether the drone was allowed to select its target autonomously and whether the drone, while acting autonomously, harmed anyone. The U.N. report heavily implies, but does not state, that it did.”

The report indicates that the “race to regulate these weapons” is being lost, a potentially “catastrophic” development, said James Dawes, a professor at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minn., who has written about autonomous weapons.

“The heavy investment militaries around the globe are making in autonomous weapons systems made this inevitable,” he said in an email.

So far, the A.I. capabilities of drones remain far below that of humans, said Mr. Kallenborn. The machines can easily make mistakes, such as confusing a farmer holding a rake for an enemy soldier holding a gun, he said.

Professor Dawes said countries may begin to compete aggressively with each other to create more autonomous weapons.

“The concern that these weapons might misidentify targets is the least of our worries,” he said. “More significant is the threat of an A.W.S. arms race and proliferation crisis.”

Armed Low-Cost Drones, Made by Turkey, Reshape Battlefields and Geopolitics
By James Marson and Brett Forrest

Smaller militaries around the world are deploying inexpensive missile-equipped drones against armored enemies, a new battlefield tactic that proved successful last year in regional conflicts, shifting the strategic balance around Turkey and Russia. Drones built in Turkey with affordable digital technology wrecked tanks and other armored vehicles, as well as air-defense systems, of Russian protégés in battles waged in Syria, Libya and Azerbaijan.

These drones point to future warfare being shaped as much by cheap but effective fighting vehicles as expensive ones with the most advanced technology.

China, too, has become a leading war drone exporter to the Middle East and Africa. Iran-linked groups in Iraq and Yemen used drones to attack Saudi Arabia. At least 10 countries, from Nigeria to the United Arab Emirates, have used drones purchased from China to kill adversaries, defense analysts say.

Flying alone or in a group, these drones can surprise troops and disable poorly concealed or lightly defended armored vehicles, a job often assigned to expensive warplanes. The drones can stay quietly aloft for 24 hours, finding gaps in air-defense systems and helping target strikes by warplanes and artillery, as well as firing their own missiles.

The standard-bearer of the latest armed-drone revolution emerged last year on the battlefields around Turkey, the Bayraktar TB2.

Compared with the American MQ-9, the TB2 is lightly armed, with four laser-guided missiles. Its radio-controlled apparatus limits its basic range to around 200 miles, roughly a fifth of the ground the MQ-9 can cover.

Yet it is utilitarian, and reliable—qualities reminiscent of the Soviet Kalashnikov AK-47 rifle that changed warfare in the 20th century. A set of six Bayraktar TB2 drones, ground units, and other essential operations equipment costs tens of millions of dollars, rather than hundreds of millions for the MQ-9.

Ismail Demir, head of Turkey’s state body overseeing the defense industry, said the low cost of these drones allows military forces to take more risks with them. “If you lose one, two, three,” he said, it doesn’t matter as long as others find a target.

Last spring, the TB2s helped turn the tide in the Libyan civil war for the Tripoli-based government, which is backed by the United Nations.

Turkey had sent arms in 2019 to stem an assault on the capital by militia leader Khalifa Haftar, who is supported by Russia and others. In 2020, Turkey increased military support. Improved drone tactics honed in Syria provided the upper hand against Russian-made surface-to-air missile systems known as Pantsir, handing the Tripoli government aerial supremacy. By June, Mr. Haftar’s forces retreated from Tripoli.

The success of the drones has helped Turkey President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, an at-times fractious U.S. ally, to expand his regional influence without risking significant numbers of troops or costly equipment.

The TB2 was born of Turkey’s dissatisfaction with available models from the U.S. and Israel, and the country’s desire for systems under its control to fight the PKK, a Kurdish militant group.

In 2007, Turkey launched a national competition to supply mini drones, which yielded an order of 76 from Baykar. At the time, the U.S. wouldn’t sell armed drones to Turkey. Baykar developed the TB2 and gradually replaced foreign components with locally produced ones. In 2015, the company successfully test-fired a precision-guided munition.

Turkey’s military initially used the drones within its own borders and in northern Iraq and Syria. Soon, Mr. Erdogan deployed them in wars near Turkey’s borders.

Azerbaijan, geographically and culturally close to Turkey, procured a set of TB2 drones last year. The country had lost control of the Nagorno-Karabakh region to Armenia in a war that ended in a 1994 cease-fire. Rising petroleum wealth had bolstered Azerbaijan’s military in the years since.

The TB2s, as well as Israeli-made drones, helped Azerbaijan overwhelm Armenian forces. Attacks were recorded for videos and posted online by Azerbaijan’s Defense Ministry.

Oryx, a blog that verifies destroyed equipment using photos and videos, cited the destruction by the drones of 106 Armenian tanks, 146 artillery pieces, 62 multiple rocket-launch systems, 18 surface-to-air missile systems, seven radar units and 161 other vehicles. Total losses, Oryx noted, were likely higher. Azerbaijan had 30 tanks destroyed, among other vehicles and equipment, according to the blog.

After six weeks of fighting, the Kremlin, which is close to both countries but has a military alliance with Armenia and troops on its territory, brokered a cease-fire in November, and Azerbaijan regained most of its long-lost territory.

The Drone Unit that Helped the Taliban Win the War
By Fazelminallah Qazizai

In 2006 Hezbollah used armed drones against Israel, albeit with limited efficacy. Other nonstate groups tried their luck as unrest spread across the region in the wake of the Arab Spring, with Yemeni Houthi fighters using drones to attack oil refineries in Saudi Arabia in 2019. But it was the use of drones by the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria that captured the Taliban’s imagination. Footage of the attacks was featured in the Islamic State’s slick propaganda and found its way to Afghanistan, where it was eventually seen by the future emir of the Taliban’s drone unit.

When the drone team was established sometime around 2019, its remit was clear. While other sections of the Taliban were free to use basic civilian drones for surveillance, and the Haqqani network was allowed to carry out the occasional uncoordinated drone attack in the south and east of the country using equipment it acquired independently, the hit squad was the only drone unit with official operational approval from the Taliban’s leadership. Its job was to harass and assassinate Afghan government officials in the north. In doing so, it was to report solely to senior members of the Taliban’s intelligence apparatus. No one else in the insurgency was to be given detailed information about the unit’s operations, including shadow governors and high-level military commanders. The unit would be headquartered in the northern province of Kunduz.

Although other sections within the Taliban were able to rely on Pakistan or Iran to assist with weapons supplies when necessary, the drone unit members made no mention in my interviews of receiving help from either state. Instead, they claim to have turned to a private Afghan front company that imported agricultural chemicals and farming equipment from China. The unit asked the company to find a drone that was quiet and light but strong enough to withstand adverse weather conditions and fly at relatively high altitudes. When the company identified the right drone, it cost the Taliban approximately $60,000. They purchased it in China and smuggled the parts into Afghanistan via Pakistan.

Killer Flying Robots Are Here. What Do We Do Now?
By Vivek Wadhwa and Alex Salkever

Though all countries are at risk of killer-drone attacks, the most likely victims of the first wave of these weapons are poorer countries with porous borders and weak law enforcement. The same gap between rich and poor states in the effects of COVID-19 is likely apply to the vulnerability to autonomous drones. The first such battles are more likely to play out in Africa rather than America—and with heavier tolls.

The companies producing the new wave of autonomous flying weapons are heavily marketing their wares. Meanwhile, the United States and China have thus far refused to back calls for a ban on the development and production of fully autonomous weapons. Washington and Beijing are thereby providing a cover of tacit legitimacy for weapons makers and governments deploying the new killer drones in the field.

Admittedly, the drone threat cuts both ways. Autonomous or semi-autonomous drones have been used to tip the battlefield balance against rogue states; in Syria, rebel groups have used drones as an asymmetrical weapon against Russian-made armor, destroying multimillion-dollar tanks with cheap drones.

But the risk of drones ending up in the hands of malevolent actors and being deployed as weapons of highly inaccurate mass destruction far outweighs their possible military benefits in guerilla warfare. Asymmetrical warfare disproportionately benefits forces of chaos rather than forces of liberty. It is not too late to place a global moratorium on killer robots of all kinds, including unmanned aerial vehicles. This would require a change of strategy on the part of the great powers. But any such moratorium should confine itself to offensive systems only, while all manner of anti-drone defense should be allowed. As part of a ban, the wealthy governments should consider subsidizing the purchase of drone-defense systems by poorer countries and teaching them how to defeat drone swarms. Drone technology is a global problem that humanity should address together.

Germany warns: AI arms race already underway
By Deutsche Welle

This is apparent in a recent report from the United States’ National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence. It speaks of a “new warfighting paradigm” pitting “algorithms against algorithms,” and urges massive investments “to continuously out-innovate potential adversaries.”

And you can see it in China’s latest five-year plan, which places AI at the center of a relentless ramp-up in research and development, while the People’s Liberation Army girds for a future of what it calls “intelligentized warfare.”

As Russian President Vladimir Putin put it as early as 2017, “whoever becomes the leader in this sphere will become the ruler of the world.”

Advanced loitering munitions models are capable of a high degree of autonomy. Once launched, they fly to a defined target area, where they “loiter,” scanning for targets — typically air defense systems.

Once they detect a target, they fly into it, destroying it on impact with an onboard payload of explosives; hence the nickname “kamikaze drones.”

Looking ahead, AI-driven technologies such as swarming will come into military use — enabling many drones to operate together as a lethal whole.

The scale and speed of swarming open up the prospect of military clashes so rapid and complex that humans cannot follow them, further fueling an arms race dynamic.

As Ulrike Franke explained: “Some actors may be forced to adopt a certain level of autonomy, at least defensively, because human beings would not be able to deal with autonomous attacks as fast.”

This critical factor of speed could even lead to wars that erupt out of nowhere, with autonomous systems reacting to each other in a spiral of escalation. “In the literature we call these ‘flash wars’,” Franke said, “an accidental military conflict that you didn’t want.”

Nukes of Hazard
By Louis Menand

On January 25, 1995, at 9:28 A.M. Moscow time, an aide handed a briefcase to Boris Yeltsin, the President of Russia. A small light near the handle was on, and inside was a screen displaying information indicating that a missile had been launched four minutes earlier from somewhere in the vicinity of the Norwegian Sea, and that it appeared to be headed toward Moscow. Below the screen was a row of buttons. This was the Russian “nuclear football.” By pressing the buttons, Yeltsin could launch an immediate nuclear strike against targets around the world. Russian nuclear missiles, submarines, and bombers were on full alert. Yeltsin had forty-seven hundred nuclear warheads ready to go.

The Chief of the General Staff, General Mikhail Kolesnikov, had a football, too, and he was monitoring the flight of the missile. Radar showed that stages of the rocket were falling away as it ascended, which suggested that it was an intermediate-range missile similar to the Pershing II, the missile deployed by NATO across Western Europe. The launch site was also in the most likely corridor for an attack on Moscow by American submarines. Kolesnikov was put on a hot line with Yeltsin, whose prerogative it was to launch a nuclear response. Yeltsin had less than six minutes to make a decision.

After tracking the flight for several minutes, the Russians concluded that its trajectory would not take the missile into Russian territory. The briefcases were closed. It turned out that Yeltsin and his generals had been watching a weather rocket launched from Norway to study the aurora borealis. Peter Pry, who reported the story in his book “War Scare” (1999), called it “the single most dangerous moment of the nuclear missile age.” Whether it was the most dangerous moment or not, the weather-rocket scare was one of hundreds of incidents after 1945 when accident, miscommunication, human error, mechanical malfunction, or some combination of glitches nearly resulted in the detonation of nuclear weapons.

In the early years of the Cold War, many of these accidents involved airplanes. In 1958, for example, a B-47 bomber carrying a Mark 36 hydrogen bomb, one of the most powerful weapons in the American arsenal, caught fire while taxiing on a runway at an airbase in Morocco. The plane split in two, the base was evacuated, and the fire burned for two and a half hours. But the explosives in the warhead didn’t detonate; that would have set off a chain reaction. Although the King of Morocco was informed, the accident was otherwise kept a secret.

Six weeks later, a Mark 6 landed in the back yard of a house in Mars Bluff, South Carolina. It had fallen when a crewman mistakenly grabbed the manual bomb-release lever. The nuclear core had not been inserted, but the explosives detonated, killing a lot of chickens, sending members of the family to the hospital, and leaving a thirty-five-foot crater. Although it was impossible to keep that event a secret, the Strategic Air Command (SAC), which controlled the airborne nuclear arsenal, informed the public that the incident was the first of its kind. In fact, the previous year, a hydrogen bomb, also without a core, had been accidentally released near Albuquerque and exploded on impact.

Soon after the successful Soviet launch of Sputnik, in 1957, missiles became the preferred delivery vehicle for nuclear warheads, but scary things kept happening. In 1960, the computer at the North American Air Defense Command (NORAD) in Colorado Springs warned, with 99.9-per-cent certainty, that the Soviets had just launched a full-scale missile attack against North America. The warheads would land within minutes. When it was learned that Khrushchev was in New York City, at the United Nations, and when no missiles landed, officials concluded that the warning was a false alarm. They later discovered that the Ballistic Missile Early Warning System at Thule Airbase, in Greenland, had interpreted the moon rising over Norway as a missile attack from Siberia.

In 1979, NORAD’s computer again warned of an all-out Soviet attack. Bombers were manned, missiles were placed on alert, and air-traffic controllers notified commercial aircraft that they might soon be ordered to land. An investigation revealed that a technician had mistakenly put a war-games tape, intended as part of a training exercise, into the computer. A year later, it happened a third time: Zbigniew Brzezinski, the national-security adviser, was called at home at two-thirty in the morning and informed that two hundred and twenty missiles were on their way toward the United States. That false alarm was the fault of a defective computer chip that cost forty-six cents.

Until the late nineteen-sixties, nuclear rhetoric was far ahead of nuclear reality. In 1947, two years after the war in Europe ended, the United States had a hundred thousand troops stationed in Germany, and the Soviet Union had 1.2 million. Truman saw the atomic bomb as a great equalizer (the Soviets had not yet developed one), and he allowed Stalin to understand that the United States would use it to stop Soviet aggression in Western Europe. Truman was subsequently startled to find out from the head of the Atomic Energy Commission, David Lilienthal, that the United States had exactly one atomic bomb in its stockpile. The bomb was unassembled, but Lilienthal thought that it could probably be made operative.

It was during the Eisenhower Administration that nuclear weapons became the centerpiece of American military planning. Eisenhower thought that the defense budget was out of control, and building nuclear bombs is cheaper than maintaining a large conventional armed force.

The reason the United States wanted nuclear superiority was not to knock out the Soviet Union but to keep the peace: it wanted the Soviet Union to know that if it ever started a nuclear war it would lose. The Soviets, unsurprisingly, saw the matter differently, so, every time the United States did something that gave it an edge, the Soviets responded, and the edge vanished. The search for stability was inherently destabilizing.

When the United States, in the nineteen-fifties, cut back on conventional forces in order to rely on nukes, for example, the Soviets did the same. The Warsaw Pact was the Soviet version of NATO. After the United States created the Strategic Air Command and made it the spearhead of the country’s military power, the Soviets created the Strategic Rocket Forces. When the United States developed the capacity to survive a first strike, the Soviets did the same. The monkeys chased each other up the tree.

The pattern was true even of Cold War domestic policy. In 1947, Truman created, by executive order, a loyalty program for federal employees. A week later, the Central Committee of the Communist Party established the Soviet honor courts, charged with investigating Western influences on Soviet life. The House Un-American Activities Committee began investigating Communists in Hollywood at the same time that Stalin and his cultural commissar, Andrei Zhdanov, started cracking down on artists and writers.

Every move intended to prevent a deliberate nuclear war therefore ended up increasing the risk of an accidental one.

A thought-provoking reflection on how AI will change conflict
By The Economist

Battlefield decisions can have geopolitical ramifications. Consider the case of B-59, a Soviet submarine pounded by American depth-charges during the Cuban missile crisis of 1962. The frazzled captain ordered the use of a nuclear-tipped torpedo. Conscious of the stakes, Vasily Arkhipov, the second-in-command, refused to authorise the launch.

Would a computer have done so? “A warbot is likely to be more accurate, proportionate and discriminate” than humans, says Mr Payne. The risk is that “a machine is undeterred by the sobering fear of things getting out of hand.”

How we helped create the Afghan crisis
By Stephen Kinzer

The tale begins in 1979, when Americans were caught in a sense of defeat and malaise. They were still recovering from the shock of losing the Vietnam War, only to absorb another one with the stunning overthrow of the Shah of Iran and the seizure of American diplomats in Tehran.

On Christmas Eve, however, something happened that seemed to open a new horizon for the United States. Soviet troops invaded Afghanistan and installed a pro-Moscow regime. Here, suddenly, was a chance for the United States to fight a war against the Red Army.

In order to forge an Afghan force that would wage this war, the United States needed camps in Pakistan. Pakistan was ruled by General Zia al-Huq, who had proclaimed two transcendent goals: imposing a “true Islamic order” in his country and building a nuclear bomb. He had also just hanged the elected leader he deposed, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. This was the man the United States would have to embrace if it wanted Pakistan to support the anti-Soviet rebellion it hoped to foment in Afghanistan. It eagerly did so.

The United States also accepted Zia’s demand that all aid sent to Afghan warlords be channeled through his intelligence agency, the ISI, and that the ISI be given the exclusive right to decide which warlords to support. It chose seven, all of them in varying degrees fundamentalist and anti-Western.

The ISI also came up with the idea of recruiting Islamic militants from other countries to come to Pakistan and join the anti-Soviet force. Its director, Hamid Gul, later said his agency recruited 50,000 of these militants from 28 countries. One was Osama bin Laden. Most of the others – brought to the region as part of a US-sponsored project, then armed and trained with US funds – shared bin Laden’s radical anti-Americanism and fundamentalist religious beliefs.

During the 1980s, the CIA waged its most expensive and largest-scale campaign ever, pouring a staggering $6 billion into its anti-Soviet guerrilla force. Saudi Arabia, at Washington’s request, contributed another $4 billion. Finally, in 1989, the insurgency succeeded and the Red Army withdrew from Afghanistan in defeat. One million Afghans died in the decade-long war. Five million fled to refugee camps in neighboring countries. Many found food and shelter at religious schools sponsored by Saudi Arabia, where they were taught the radical Wahhabi brand of Islam. Those schools were the cradle of the Taliban.

After the last Soviet unit withdrew from Afghanistan, the overseer of the CIA project there, Milt Bearden, sent a two-word message to his superiors at Langley: “WE WON.” For a while, that seemed true. In 1998, Zbigniew Brzezinski, who had helped conceive the project, dismissed those who worried about its long-term effects.

“That secret operation was an excellent idea,” he said. “What is most important to the history of the world? The Taliban or the collapse of the Soviet empire? Some stirred-up Muslims or the liberation of Central Europe and the end of the Cold War?”

How the U.S. Got 9/11 Wrong
By Michael Hirsh

As dawn broke on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, the United States was considered virtually unchallengeable. Not only was it the lone superpower left on the world stage after the Soviet Union’s collapse a decade before, but the United States had become, if anything, even more dominant relative to the rest of the world. Post-Soviet Russia had shrunk to an economy smaller than Portugal’s. Europe was inwardly focused and squabbling over monetary union. Japan’s once-surging economy had flatlined. And China was still just a rising tiger. Even the Roman Empire at its height did not measure up to the economic, military, and technological dominance over the world then possessed by United States, wrote Yale University historian Paul Kennedy. In a famous 1987 book, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, Kennedy had argued the United States was in decline, but as the new century got underway, he changed his mind: “Nothing has ever existed like this disparity of power; nothing.”

“Part of what we got wrong was thinking we could do too much with our hard power,” said Earl Anthony Wayne, a former U.S. ambassador with extensive experience in Afghanistan. “There’s a certain place for using hard power against specific hard targets who are carrying out terrorist activities. That can be valuable. What happened is we tried to use that hard power too broadly, thinking it could help us transform entire nations, and in the process, we made serious mistakes that actually created more new terrorists.”

The ultimate irony, perhaps, was that George W. Bush and his hawkish lieutenants, principally then-U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and then-Vice President Dick Cheney, were determined to demonstrate U.S. invincibility after 9/11. No single reason has ever been given for Iraq’s invasion, but it was clear that for the Bush team, simply taking out the Taliban wasn’t enough. Based on many accounts published since then, the administration wanted to send the world a message that U.S. power was terrifying in its own right. Then-Iraqi President Saddam Hussein had nothing to do with 9/11, but the dictator served as a handy poster villain for George W. Bush’s new strategy: delivering “preemptive” strikes against alleged terrorist-harboring states.

“The ease with which they got rid of the Taliban added to their sense that our technological advantage was so huge that we could take out governments without destroying states,” said Ivo Daalder, the former U.S. ambassador to NATO.

Swelled with confidence—some would say arrogance—the Bush administration trumped up a flimsy (and ultimately false) case that Saddam was linked to al Qaeda and possessed weapons of mass destruction. Then, against the advice of most of his allies and in defiance of world opinion, George W. Bush invaded. The effect was the opposite of what he intended.

“The most important error was invading Iraq,” Kilcullen said in an interview. “You can really date the decline of American military dominance to that. That is the master error that drives the rest.”

The result was that the Bush administration left Afghanistan vulnerable to the gradually resurgent Taliban and, by invading Iraq and becoming an occupying power in the heart of the Arab world, opened a Pandora’s box of fresh Islamist terror directed at Washington. The U.S. occupation of Iraq—and the often brutal way the Americans conducted it, with mass arrests and beatings of often innocent Iraqis who ended up at Abu Ghraib prison or Camp Bucca—engendered a new Islamist threat led by Zarqawi. As a 2015 Brookings Institution report on Camp Bucca put it: If detainees “weren’t jihadists when they arrived, many of them were by the time they left.” That Islamist movement, in turn, spread to Yemen, Somalia, and North Africa and later morphed into the Islamic State led by Baghdadi. Born in the Iraq occupation, the Islamic State then metastasized back into Afghanistan, Syria, and other places, taking on new forms and employing new, smarter tactics.

As a result of U.S. overreach, “the damage done by al Qaeda pales compared to the damage we did to ourselves,” said Joseph Nye, a veteran diplomat and renowned strategist at Harvard University. “By some estimates, nearly 15,000 American military and U.S. contractors were killed, and the economic cost of the wars that followed 9/11 cost more than $6 trillion. Add to this the number of foreign civilians killed and refugees created, and the costs were enormous.”

Costs of the Afghanistan war, in lives and dollars
By Ellen Knickmeyer

Percentage of U.S. population born since the 2001 attacks plotted by al-Qaida leaders who were sheltering in Afghanistan: Roughly one out of every four.


American service members killed in Afghanistan through April: 2,448.

U.S. contractors: 3,846.

Afghan national military and police: 66,000.

Other allied service members, including from other NATO member states: 1,144.

Afghan civilians: 47,245.

Taliban and other opposition fighters: 51,191.

Aid workers: 444.

Journalists: 72.


Percentage drop in infant mortality rate since U.S., Afghan and other allied forces overthrew the Taliban government, which had sought to restrict women and girls to the home: About 50.

Percentage of Afghan teenage girls able to read today: 37.


Amount President Harry Truman temporarily raised top tax rates to pay for Korean War: 92%.

Amount President Lyndon Johnson temporarily raised top tax rates to pay for Vietnam War: 77%.

Amount President George W. Bush cut tax rates for the wealthiest, rather than raise them, at outset of Afghanistan and Iraq wars: At least 8%.

Estimated amount of direct Afghanistan and Iraq war costs that the United States has debt-financed as of 2020: $2 trillion.

Estimated interest costs by 2050: Up to $6.5 trillion.

Longest war: Were America’s decades in Afghanistan worth it?
By Ellen Knickmeyer

Richard Boucher, assistant secretary of state for Central Asia during much of the war’s first decade, says the criticism was largely not of the conflict itself but because it went on so long.

“It was the expansion of war aims, to try to create a government that was capable of stopping any future attacks,” Boucher said.

America expended the most lives, and dollars, on the most inconclusive years of the war.

The strain of fighting two post-9/11 wars at once with an all-volunteer military meant that more than half of the 2.8 million American servicemen and women who deployed to Afghanistan or Iraq served two or more times, according to the Costs of War project at Brown University.

The repeated deployments contributed to disability rates in those veterans that are more than double that of Vietnam veterans, says Linda Bilmes, a senior lecturer in public policy at Harvard University.

Bilmes calculates the U.S. will spend more than $2 trillion just caring for and supporting Afghanistan and Iraq veterans as they age, with costs peaking 30 years to 40 years from now.

That’s on top of $1 trillion in Pentagon and State Department costs in Afghanistan since 2001. Because the U.S. borrowed rather than raised taxes to pay for the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, interest payments are estimated to cost succeeding generations of Americans trillions of dollars more still.

Annual combat deaths peaked around the time of the war’s midpoint, as Obama tried a final surge of forces to defeat the Taliban. In all, 2,448 American troops, 1,144 service members from NATO and other allied countries, more than 47,000 Afghan civilians and at least 66,000 Afghan military and police died, according to the Pentagon and to the Costs of War project.

Some Afghans — asked that question before the Taliban’s stunning sweep last week — respond that it’s more than time for Americans to let Afghans handle their own affairs.

But one 21-year-old woman, Shogufa, says American troops’ two decades on the ground meant all the difference for her.

The Associated Press is using her first name only, given fears of Taliban retribution against women who violate their strict codes.

When still in her infancy, she was pledged to marry a much older cousin in the countryside to pay off a loan. She grew up in a family, and society, where few women could read or write.

But as she grew up, Shogufa came across a Western mountaineering nonprofit that had come to Kabul to promote fitness and leadership for Afghan girls. It was one of a host of such development groups that came to Afghanistan during the U.S.-led war.

Shogufa thrived. She scaled steps hacked out of the ice in an Afghan-girl attempt on Afghanistan’s highest mountain, an unthinkable endeavor under the Taliban and still controversial today. She deflected her family’s moves to marry her off to her cousin. She got a job and is pursuing a bachelor’s degree in business administration.

For Shogufa today, the gratitude for what she’s gained is shadowed by her fears of all that she stands to lose.

Her message to Americans, as they left and the Taliban closed in on Kabul? “Thank you for everything you have done in Afghanistan,” she said, in good but imperfect English. “The other thing was to request that they stay with us.”

The Names You’ll Never Know
By Nick Turse

Over the last 20 years, the United States has conducted more than 93,300 air strikes — in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Pakistan, Somalia, Syria, and Yemen — that killed between 22,679 and 48,308 civilians, according to figures recently released by Airwars, a U.K.-based airstrike monitoring group. The total number of civilians who have died from direct violence in America’s wars since 9/11 tops out at 364,000 to 387,000, according to Brown University’s Costs of War Project.

Who were those nearly 400,000 people?

There’s Malana. In 2019, at age 25, she had just given birth to a son, when her health began to deteriorate. Her relatives were driving her to a clinic in Afghanistan’s Khost Province when their vehicle was attacked by a U.S. drone, killing Malana and four others.

And Gul Mudin. He was wounded by a grenade and shot with a rifle, one of at least three civilians murdered by a U.S. Army “kill team” in Kandahar Province in 2010.

Then there was Gulalai, one of seven people, including three women — two of them pregnant — who were shot and killed in a February 12, 2010, raid by Special Operations forces in Afghanistan’s Paktia Province.

And the four members of the Razzo family — Mayada, Tuqa, Mohannad, and Najib — killed in a September 20, 2015, airstrike in Mosul, Iraq.

And there were the eight men, three women, and four children — Abdul Rashid as well as Abdul Rahman, Asadullah, Hayatullah, Mohamadullah, Osman, Tahira, Nadia, Khatima, Jundullah, Soheil, Amir, and two men, ages 25 and 36 respectively, named Abdul Waheed — who were killed in a September 7, 2013, drone strike on Rashid’s red Toyota pickup in Afghanistan.
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Then there were 22-year-old Lul Dahir Mohamed and her four-year-old daughter, Mariam Shilo Muse, who were killed in an April 1, 2018, airstrike in Somalia.

And between 2013 and 2020, in seven separate U.S. attacks in Yemen — six drone strikes and one raid — 36 members of the al Ameri and al Taisy families were slaughtered.

Those names we know. Or knew, if only barely and fleetingly. Then there are the countless anonymous victims like the three civilians in a blue Kia van killed by Marines in Iraq in 2003. “Two bodies were slumped over in the front seats; they were men in street clothes and had no weapons that I could see. In the back seat, a woman in a black chador had fallen to the floor; she was dead, too,” wrote Peter Maass in the New York Times Magazine in 2003. Years later, at the Intercept, he painted an even more vivid picture of the “blue van, with its tires shot out and its windows shattered by bullets, its interior stained with blood and smelling of death, with flies feasting on already-rotting flesh.”

Those three civilians in Iraq were all too typical of the many anonymous dead of this country’s forever wars — the man shot for carrying a flashlight in an “offensive” manner; the children killed by an “errant” rocket; the man slain by “warning shots”; the three women and one man “machine-gunned” to death; and the men, women and children reduced to “charred meat” in an American bombing.

Who were the 11 Afghans — four of them children — who died in a 2004 helicopter attack, or the “dozen or more” civilians killed in 2010 during a nighttime raid by U.S. troops in that same country? And what about those 30 pine-nut farm workers slaughtered a year later by a drone strike there? And what were the names of Mohanned Tadfi’s mother, brother, sister-in-law, and seven nieces and nephews killed in the U.S. bombing that flattened the city of Raqqa, Syria, in 2017?

Often, the U.S. military had no idea whom they were killing. This country frequently carried out “signature strikes” that executed unknown people due to suspicious behavior. So often, Americans killed such individuals for little or no reason — like holding a weapon in places where, as in this country, firearms were ubiquitous — and then counted them as enemy dead. An investigation by Connecting Vets found that during a 2019 air campaign in Afghanistan’s Helmand province, for example, the threshold for an attack “could be met by as little as a person using or even touching a radio” or if an Afghan carrying “commercially bought two-way radios stepped into a home, the entire building would sometimes be leveled by a drone strike.”

Targeted assassinations were equally imprecise. Secret documents obtained by the Intercept revealed that, during a five-month stretch of Operation Haymaker — a drone campaign in 2011 and 2013 aimed at al-Qaeda and Taliban leaders along the Afghan-Pakistan border — 200 people were killed in airstrikes conducted to assassinate 35 high-value targets. In other words, nearly nine out of 10 people slain in those “targeted” killings were not the intended targets. So, who were they?

Even if targeting was ordinarily more accurate than during Operation Haymaker, U.S. policy has consistently adhered to the dictum that “military-age males” killed in airstrikes should automatically be classified as combatants unless proven innocent. In addition to killing people for spurious reasons, the U.S. also opted for allies who would prove at least as bad as, if not worse than, those they were fighting. For two decades, such American-taxpayer-funded warlords and militiamen murdered, raped, or shook-down the very people this country was supposedly protecting. And, of course, no one knows the names of all those killed by such allies who were being advised, trained, armed, and funded by the United States.

Who, for instance, were the two men tied to the rear fender of a Toyota pickup truck in southeastern Afghanistan in 2012 by members of an Afghan militia backed by U.S. Special Operations forces? They were, wrote reporter Anand Gopal, dragged “along six miles of rock-studded road” until they were dead. Then their “bodies were left decomposing for days, a warning to anyone who thought of disobeying Azizullah,” the U.S.-allied local commander.

Or what about the 12 boys gunned down by CIA-backed militiamen at a madrassa in the Afghan village of Omar Khail? Or the six boys similarly slain at a school in nearby Dadow Khail? Or any of the dead from 10 raids in 2018 and 2019 by that same militia, which summarily executed at least 51 civilians, including boys as young as eight years old, few of whom, wrote reporter Andrew Quilty, appeared “to have had any formal relationship with the Taliban”?

How many reporters’ notebooks are filled with the unpublished names of just such victims? Or counts of those killed? Or the stories of their deaths? And how many of those who were murdered never received even a mention in an article anywhere?

Yes, the Kabul withdrawal is a disaster. But Biden made the right decision on Afghanistan.
By Jonathan Capehart

What we’re seeing is as heartbreaking as it is tragic. And the administration is right to be slammed for the missteps, bungling and bureaucracy adding to the chaos at Kabul’s airport. But the president made the right decision to withdraw.

First, Biden made a call that puts him squarely in step with the American people. In May, 62 percent of respondents to a Quinnipiac University poll said they approved of Biden’s decision to withdraw all U.S. troops from Afghanistan by Sept. 11, 2021. A new poll from the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research released Thursday showed 62 percent of the American people say “the war in Afghanistan was not worth fighting.” That view is shared by 57 percent of Republicans and 67 percent of Democrats surveyed.

What struck me about Biden’s remarks over the past week was how resolute he sounded. Not since his campaign mantra of fighting for the soul of America against the civic and moral rot of the Trump administration had I seen the president as confident in his position and his expression of it.

When Biden said last Monday, “I stand squarely behind my decision,” I not only heard a commander in chief making a tough decision; I also heard the father of a service member. Biden was vice president when his son Beau, then serving as the Delaware attorney general, was deployed to Iraq in 2008 as a member of the Delaware Army National Guard. The photo of father and son meeting in Iraq on July 4, 2009, speaks volumes. Beau Biden died of brain cancer in 2015.

This makes the Bidens part of a very small club. Beau’s service in the reserves made him among the less than 1 percent of adult Americans to serve in active duty in our nation’s all-volunteer military. And the president is the first commander in chief to have watched a child go to combat since Dwight D. Eisenhower. That means an overwhelming majority of the nation has no idea what members of the military and their families endure to serve their country. And this puts Biden’s bracing remarks on his Afghanistan decision into much-needed context.

“So I’m left again to ask of those who argue that we should stay,” Biden said in his Aug. 16 remarks. “How many more generations of America’s daughters and sons would you have me send to fight … Afghanistan’s civil war when Afghan troops will not? How many more lives — American lives — is it worth?” After 20 years, more than $2 trillion and the deaths of 2,448 U.S. service members and thousands of Afghan civilians, the president wisely decided “no more.”

Why the debate on Afghanistan is so distorted
By Paul Waldman

As we have watched the rapid dissolution of the Afghan government, the takeover of the country by the Taliban and the desperate effort of so many Afghans to flee, the U.S. media have asked themselves a question: What do the people who were wrong about Afghanistan all along have to say about all this?

That’s not literally what TV bookers and journalists have said, of course. But if you’ve been watching the debate, it almost seems that way.

The number of Afghanistan/Iraq hawks — the ones who brought us those twin disasters in the first place — who have been called on by major media organizations to offer their sage assessment of the current situation is truly remarkable.

Whether it’s retired generals who now earn money in the weapons industry, former officials from the Bush, Obama and Trump administrations who in many cases are directly responsible for the mistakes of the past two decades, or war enthusiast pundits with an unblemished record of wrongness, we’re now hearing from the same people who two decades ago told us how great these wars would be, then spent years telling us victory was right around the corner, and are now explaining how somebody else is to blame for Afghanistan.

When he was campaigning for president in 2008, Barack Obama said about Iraq, “I don’t want to just end the war. I want to end the mind-set that got us into war.” He never quite managed it, and judging by the way we’re talking about Afghanistan, that mind-set still holds us in its grip.

All the President’s Yes-Men
By Tevi Troy

The problem of groupthink was evident during the Vietnam War, when Lyndon B. Johnson was mostly intolerant of differing opinions on Vietnam. One adviser, George Ball, was designated as the in-house skeptic, but this role made Ball an outcast among his colleagues. As Johnson aide W. Marvin Watson wrote of Ball, “The arguments he expressed—always calmly but forcibly stated—were, to say the least, annoying to the President’s other advisors.”

And if you weren’t Ball, standing apart from Johnson on Vietnam was dangerous. Johnson maintained a narrow circle of advisers on Vietnam, dismissed internal dissenters, and berated those, like Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, who became more skeptical about the war over time.

The 1961 Bay of Pigs debacle occurred in part because no one among John F. Kennedy’s advisers was willing to play devil’s advocate. As the historian and Kennedy aide Arthur Schlesinger wrote of the decision to send poorly trained Cuban exiles to overthrow Fidel Castro, “our meetings were taking place in a curious atmosphere of assumed consensus, [and] not one spoke against it.”

Following the Bay of Pigs, Kennedy was determined to change. He created The Executive Committee of the National Security Council—known as ExComm—a group that could debate national-security issues openly. The ExComm deliberately included people outside the National Security Council to get external opinions. It held informal meetings without an agenda to allow for unrestricted conversations. It met both with and without the president to ensure that his opinions didn’t stifle debate. The Kennedy team successfully used the ExComm for deliberations during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, which was resolved without nuclear confrontation.

The National Security Council process, which is supposed to develop interagency consensus on foreign policy and defense issues, can raise different points of view, even uncomfortable ones, if the president allows it. But Mr. Biden has to be willing to allow robust internal debates, and he must signal that he and his team won’t ostracize those who put forth contrarian ideas.

Another problem is that Biden seems particularly sensitive to stories about internal disagreements. According to the book “Lucky: How Joe Biden Barely Won the Presidency” by Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes, Mr. Biden dislikes “process stories,” by which he means news articles about “palace intrigue.” If aides know the president doesn’t want to read about infighting, they will strive to make him happy by minimizing behaviors that signal disagreement.

To solve this problem, Mr. Biden should look closely at the quality of debate and discussion in the White House. He should seek out diversity of thought and reward those who have the courage to challenge orthodox beliefs.

Deceptions and lies: What really happened in Afghanistan
By Craig Whitlock

At first, many officials in Washington found it hard to believe the Taliban could present a strategic danger. Even some military leaders in the field underestimated the Taliban and thought that, while it might control pockets of rural territory, it posed no threat to the government in Kabul. “We thought the Taliban’s capability was greatly reduced,” then-Brig. Gen. Bernard Champoux, deputy commander of a U.S. military task force from 2004 to 2005, said in an Army oral-history interview.

Paul Toolan, a Special Forces captain who served in Helmand province in 2005, said senior U.S. officials mistakenly viewed the war as a peacekeeping and reconstruction mission. He tried to explain to anyone who would listen that the fighting had intensified and the Taliban had bolstered its firepower.

“If we don’t do this right, we’re going to allow these guys to keep us languishing here for a lot of years,” Toolan cautioned in an Army oral-history interview.

But the Bush administration suppressed the internal warnings and put a shine on the war. In a December 2005 interview with CNN, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said things were going so well that the Pentagon would soon bring home roughly 10 percent of its forces in Afghanistan.

“It’s a direct result of the progress that’s being made in the country,” Rumsfeld declared.

Two months later, however, Rumsfeld’s office and other officials in Washington received another classified warning from their ambassador in Kabul.

In a gloomy Feb. 21, 2006, cable, Neumann predicted that “violence will rise through the next several months,” with more suicide bombings in Kabul and other major cities.

He blamed the Taliban’s sanctuaries in Pakistan and warned that, if left unaddressed, they could “lead to the reemergence of the same strategic threat to the United States that prompted our . . . intervention over 4 years ago” — in other words, another 9/11.

In the dispatch, Neumann expressed fear that popular support would wane if expectations weren’t managed. “I thought it was important to try to prepare the American public for that so that they wouldn’t be surprised and see everything as a reverse,” he said in his oral-history interview.

But the public heard no such straight talk.

We All Saw the Waste of the Afghan War. What Madness Kept Us There for 20 Years?
By Erik Edstrom

The reason that America has been fighting a self-defeating, multitrillion-dollar, two decade-long conflict in Afghanistan is because America is perfectly designed to fight self-defeating, multitrillion-dollar conflicts. We are, as a country, hard-wired for it.

For the first six months after I returned from war, thudding back slaps and free beers from well-meaning civilians numbed a sense of betrayal. It seemed like a pleasant enough cultural nicety, but over time, I realized that all of this “thank you for your service” stuff was just a culturally ingrained reflex, like saying “bless you” to someone who sneezes. When it comes to our military, the mantra of the public has become: Thank, don’t think. To most Americans, insulated from its effects, war is elevator music.

It’s easy to see how we became insulated.

Fewer U.S. soldiers have died in Afghanistan than in Vietnam, resulting in fewer grieving families seeking justification for their loved one’s ultimate sacrifice. With fewer soldier deaths comes less political pressure for change. And although fewer soldier deaths are, obviously, a good thing, any time soldiers are dying in aimless wars—irrespective of the number—it should register as “unacceptable” in the national consciousness.

The lack of a draft has played a role, too. “Without a draft,” writes the Project on Government Oversight (POGO), “99 percent of the nation had no skin in the game, preferring to subcontract it out to a professionalized military cadre so civilians could ignore it.” That the burden of war is shouldered by a few, of course, does not make its total weight any lighter.

We never felt the pain in our pocketbooks, either. Government obfuscated the financial costs of war by funding it through debt, rather than tax hikes. As Robert Hormats, the former vice chairman of Goldman Sachs, has pointed out, it is unprecedented in U.S. history that we pay for a war entirely from debt. Indeed, we cut taxes repeatedly during wartime (as the George W. Bush administration did in 2001 and 2003 and the Trump Administration did in 2017). Deferring war costs into the future reduces public awareness of those costs and reduces the likelihood that citizens will sue for peace.

Frankly, the public got bullied into silence. Although there has been admirable pushback from concerned citizens, anti-war activists were mostly sidelined, tut-tutted as fringe, uninformed isolationists. Instead of listening to the dissenting voices, both parties relied on experts who proved to be anything but.

It turns out quacks, too, can possess an Ivy League education and a tidy haircut. And for years, a gaggle of sober-sounding quacks—politicians, generals, pundits and military industrial complex executives—desperately tried to invent “progress,” to retrofit the War on Terror with meaning and purpose, regressing to the depths of caricature. The biting wit of Duffel Blog, an Onion-esque website with military-insider jokes, captures the madness with remarkable clarity: “Taliban wonders who will inadvertently fund operations after US leaves” and “‘We’re Making Real Progress,’ Say Last 17 Commanders in Afghanistan.”

But the public didn’t need The Afghanistan Papers to tell them something was amiss. They had been complicit in allowing our troops to be sent into a series of wars that everyone knew to be costly and self-defeating, while simultaneously maintaining the audacious idea that, in doing so, they “support the troops.”

That is not patriotism; that is betrayal.

In the aftermath of 9/11—perhaps out of fear, perhaps out of a desire to manufacture unity—America developed some unhelpful psycho-social dynamics. Anyone old enough to remember the career-torpedoing of the Dixie Chicks and “freedom fries” probably remembers that speaking out against the war was a career-limiting move. Dan Rather, the former anchor of “CBS Evening News,” spoke of these extreme dynamics, “There was a fear in every newsroom in America … a fear of losing your job … the fear of being stuck with some label, unpatriotic or otherwise.” As such, there was less cultural pushback and friction that might have led to more open, productive debate about US foreign policy.

“Least reported war since at least WWI”: Why the media forgot about Afghanistan
By Sara Fischer

Why it matters: “This is the least reported war since at least WWI,” says Benjamin Hopkins, a historian of modern South Asia specializing in the history of Afghanistan at George Washington University.

Driving the news: While the country’s botched exit from Afghanistan has gotten significant coverage in the past few weeks, the decadeslong conflict has received relatively little media attention in the past 20 years, especially compared to coverage of other conflicts in the region.

  1. Today, much of the coverage is focused on retroactively evaluating what went wrong and who to blame, but media experts argue that a large part of what went wrong has to do with the press itself.

“I think there are two grounds where the press bears responsibility,” Hopkins tells Axios in an emailed response.

  1. “The first is that the financial model of the press requires, at least to a certain extent, the reporting of news that will sell.”
  2. “The second is that the Defense Department largely tamed the press at the beginning of the war on terror. It offered access, but on its terms,” he says. “By and large, much (though again not all) of the media accepted this access, with all the limits it necessarily put on reporting.”

There was a perception of progress fostered by American officials who obfuscated how bad the situation was on the ground.

  1. “As casualties dropped while we withdrew the vast majority of troops under President Obama, the war in Afghanistan simply fell off the media and national radar,” retired Admiral James Stavridis — who spent two decades dealing with the war in Afghanistan — wrote in TIME.
  2. Still, the press largely ignored that revelation when the Washington Post reported the “Afghanistan Papers” in 2019.

The Media Is Helping Hawks Win the War Over Biden’s Afghanistan Withdrawal
By Eric Levitz

In recent days, much of the mainstream media has comported itself as the Pentagon’s Pravda. Reporters have indignantly asked the White House how it could say that America doesn’t have a vital national security interest in maintaining a military presence near Tajikistan. NBC’s Richard Engel has devoted his Twitter feed to scolding Biden for suggesting that America’s nation-building project in Afghanistan was always hopeless, and that the Kabul government was “basically a failed state.” CNN’s Jim Sciutto lamented on Twitter Wednesday, “Too many times, I’ve witnessed the US military attempt to dutifully carry out difficult & dangerous missions left to them by the miscalculations of civilian leaders.” This sentiment is disconcerting in the abstract, since it seems to suggest that civilian control of the military may be unwise. But it’s even stranger in context. As we learned just two years ago, American military leaders in Kabul systematically lied to the public about how well the war against the Taliban was going, so as to insulate their preferred foreign policy from democratic contestation.

If Biden did not withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan this year, he would have violated the agreement that Donald Trump had struck with the Taliban in February 2020. There is every reason to believe that Trump’s deal deterred the Taliban from targeting U.S. troops; 2020 witnessed fewer U.S. casualties in Afghanistan than any previous year of the conflict. And there is little doubt that an abrogation of that agreement would have led the Taliban to ramp up attacks on U.S. forces, which would in turn have led the U.S. to deploy more troops, triggering a broader escalation in the war.

Such an escalation would have likely been inevitable, even in the absence of Trump’s agreement. In the years before that deal, the Taliban was steadily gaining territory and killing Afghan security forces in such large numbers the U.S. government started concealing battlefield death tolls. Keeping Ghani’s kleptocracy indefinitely aloft with a few thousand American soldiers and scant U.S. casualties was simply not an option.

More critically, U.S. casualties are not the only measure of the harms of prolonging a civil war that America lacked the will and wherewithal to win. Afghan soldiers’ lives matter. So do the lives of Afghan civilians, many of whom would prefer stability under the Taliban to perpetual insurgency under Ghani. For ordinary Afghans, the conflict has meant “elevated rates of disease due to lack of clean drinking water, malnutrition, and reduced access to health care,” according to the Watson Institute’s “Costs of War” project. The institute’s research concludes, “Nearly every factor associated with premature death — poverty, malnutrition, poor sanitation, lack of access to health care, environmental degradation — is exacerbated by the current war.” Between 2007 and 2017, the share of Afghan civilians living below the poverty line rose from 34 percent to 55 percent, even as the nation’s average income grew by 40 percent — a reality that testifies to the humanitarian costs of the war we waged, the profound corruption of the government whose name we waged it in, and the graft of the U.S. military contractors whose interests the war best served.

Why America keeps building corrupt client states
By The Economist

Corruption is usually defined as the abuse of public office for private gain. Its simplest form is bribery, which is ubiquitous in Afghanistan. “From your birth certificate to your death certificate and whatever comes in between, somehow you have to bribe,” says Ahmad Shah Katawazai, a former Afghan diplomat. (He was pushed out of the service after writing an opinion piece denouncing government corruption.) Customs officials, police and clerks routinely demand baksheesh (a “tip”). As the Taliban advanced in recent weeks, the pay-off needed to get a passport rose to thousands of dollars.

But petty bribery is the least threatening type of corruption. More troublingly, getting government approval for big investments requires giving ministers or warlords a piece of the action. Worse yet, a government job with access to bribes is itself a valuable commodity. As Sarah Chayes, an expert on corruption, discovered while running an NGO in Afghanistan from 2002 to 2009, local officials often buy their posts. They must then extort kickbacks to pay off their investment, while sending their superiors some of the take. Mr Katawazai says it can cost $100,000 to become a district police chief.

Such corruption creates patronage networks that threaten the state’s integrity. Officials’ main goal is not carrying out their agency’s mission, but extorting revenue to distribute to their families and cronies. Even before America invaded, Afghanistan was partly run by patronage networks headed by regional warlords.

By the time of the Taliban’s final offensive the state had grown so corrupt that most of its governors cut deals with the jihadists to switch sides. The Afghan army was in poor shape to fight: its numbers were inflated by “ghost soldiers”—absentees listed on the payroll so that commanders could steal their salaries.

Americans of a certain age may remember the term “ghost soldiers” from Vietnam, where corrupt commanders used exactly the same system. Perhaps a quarter of the names on South Vietnamese army (ARVN) rosters in the Mekong Delta in 1975 were fictitious. Some ARVN officers were brilliant businessmen: one South Vietnamese colonel used to order aimless artillery barrages in order to hawk the spent shell casings as scrap metal. As in Afghanistan, police and military forces also profited from the heroin trade.

Indeed, the conclusions of a report in 1978 on the fall of South Vietnam by RAND, a security think-tank, foreshadow those in the last SIGAR report on Afghanistan, released on July 31st. South Vietnamese believed corruption was “a fundamental ill that was largely responsible for the ultimate collapse”, the RAND report found. The problem had already been diagnosed in Vietnam by forward-thinking officers in the early 1960s. So why did America refuse to treat it as a grave issue when it invaded Afghanistan decades later?

Military officers “are hugely focused on actively doing things within the duration of their nine-month rotation, which is not well suited to solving corruption”, says Mark Pyman of CurbingCorruption, a watchdog. Mr Pyman, who led the Transparency International study, says officers early in the occupation boasted of having pacified their districts by paying off warlords. Aid agencies, meanwhile, have a dubious habit of judging success based on how much money they raise and whether they have spent it all.

This leads to a related problem: spending too much money in poor countries causes corruption. In both South Vietnam and Afghanistan, a vast influx of American dollars caused a surge in inflation, wiping out public-sector salaries. (Afghanistan, with a GDP of about $20bn in 2020, received $145bn in American aid between 2001 and 2021. Inflation averaged 17.5% in 2003-08.) Neither government had the capacity to collect enough taxes for the wages of soldiers and civil servants to keep pace. Even otherwise honest public servants were forced to demand kickbacks to support themselves.

Afghanistan’s Corruption Was Made in America
By Sarah Chayes

Corruption in U.S.-occupied Afghanistan wasn’t just a matter of constant street-level shakedowns. It was a system. No cops or customs agents got to put all their illicit gains in their own pockets. Some of that money flowed upward, in trickles that joined to form a mighty river of cash. Two surveys conducted in 2010 estimated the total amount paid in bribes each year in Afghanistan at between $2 billion and $5 billion—an amount equal to at least 13 percent of the country’s GDP. In return for the kickbacks, officials at the top sent protection back down the line.

The networks that ran Afghanistan were flexible and dynamic, beset by internal rivalries as well as alliances. They spanned what Westerners often misperceive as an impermeable wall between the public sector and the supposedly private businesspeople and heads of local “nonprofits” who corralled most of the international assistance that found its way to Afghanistan. These networks often operated like diversified family businesses: the nephew of a provincial governor would get a major reconstruction contract, the son of the governor’s brother-in-law would get a plum job as an interpreter for U.S. officials, and the governor’s cousin would drive opium shipments to the Iranian border. All three were ultimately part of the same enterprise.

Westerners often scratched their heads at the persistent lack of capacity in Afghan governing institutions. But the sophisticated networks controlling those institutions never intended to govern. Their objective was self-enrichment. And at that task, they proved spectacularly successful.

By 2007, many people, myself included, were urgently warning senior U.S. and European officials that this approach was undermining the effort to rebuild Afghanistan. In 2009, in my capacity as special adviser to the commander of international troops in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal, I helped establish an anticorruption task force at the headquarters of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). (McChrystal’s successor, David Petraeus, expanded the group and rebranded it as Task Force Shafafiyat.) The original team put together detailed plans for addressing corruption at a regional level throughout the country.

Later, I helped develop a more systematic approach, which would have made the fight against corruption a central element of the overall NATO campaign. Intelligence units would have mapped the social networks of ministers and governors and their connections. International military and civilian officials in Kabul would have applied a graduated range of sanctions to Afghan officials whose corruption was most seriously undermining NATO operations and Afghans’ faith in their government. And Afghan military commanders caught stealing materiel or their troops’ monthly pay would have been deprived of U.S. support. Later, while serving as special assistant to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, I proposed a series of steps that would have taken particular aim at Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who had intervened to protect corrupt officials who had come under scrutiny, and whose brothers were salting away millions of stolen dollars in Dubai—some of it, we suspected, in trust for Karzai himself.

None of those plans was ever implemented. I responded to request after request from Petraeus until I realized that he had no intention of acting on my recommendations; it was just make-work. The principals’ committee of the National Security Council—a group that includes every cabinet-level foreign policy and security official—agreed to consider an alternative approach, but the plan we sent over died in the offices of President Barack Obama’s national security advisers James Jones and Tom Donilon. Task Force Shafafiyat continued operating, but it served essentially as window-dressing to be displayed when members of Congress visited as proof that the United States was really trying to do something about Afghan corruption.

ISAF and the U.S. embassy in Kabul had also formed a more specialized task force, the Afghan Threat Finance Cell, to carry out financial investigations. In 2010, it launched its first significant anticorruption probe. The trail led to Karzai’s inner circle, and police detained Muhammad Zia Salehi, a senior aide. With a single phone call to corrections officials, however, Karzai got the suspect released. Karzai then demoted all of the Afghan government’s anticorruption prosecutors, some of whom had assisted in the ATFC’s investigation, cutting their salaries by about 80 percent and barring U.S. Department of Justice officials from mentoring them. No protest came from Washington. “The cockroaches went scuttling for the corners,” as a member of the ATFC’s leadership described it.

For all the mismanagement and corruption that hollowed out the Afghan state, consider this: How well have American leaders been governing in recent decades? They have started and lost two wars, turned free markets over to an unfettered financial services industry that proceeded to nearly bring down the global economy, colluded in a burgeoning opioid crisis, and bungled their response to a global pandemic. And they have promulgated policies that have hastened environmental catastrophes, raising the question of how much longer the earth will sustain human habitation.

And how have the architects of these disasters and their cronies been doing? Never better. Consider the skyrocketing incomes and assets of executives in the fossil fuel and pharmaceutical industries, investment bankers, and defense contractors, as well as the lawyers and other professionals who provide them with high-end services. Their staggering wealth and comfortable protection from the calamities they have unleashed attest to their success. Not success at leadership, of course. But maybe leadership isn’t their objective. Maybe, like their Afghan counterparts, their primary objective is just making money.

U.S. Spent Billions on Afghanistan and Failed to Build a Sustainable Economy
By Sune Engel Rasmussen and Josh Mitchell

The failure to strengthen the Afghan state was most stark in agriculture. Despite $2 billion in U.S. spending, farming output has barely increased over the past two decades. Its share of gross domestic product has fallen to 20% from 70% in 1994, even though two in three Afghans still live in rural areas.

In 2010, the U.S. Department for Agriculture paid the American Soybean Association to introduce soybeans to Afghan farmers. Yet a U.K. government study two years earlier concluded the growth and harvest cycle of the crop and its water needs didn’t suit the Afghan farming system. The ASA didn’t study the feasibility of the project before it was implemented, according to a 2014 letter by Sigar.

An Afghan farmer who took part in the soybean project in Balkh province said there wasn’t enough water to grow the crop, the proper seeds weren’t available locally, and there was no market for any harvested crops. “It was a big failure,” the farmer said. Sigar agreed.

The War on Terror Was Corrupt From the Start
By Farah Stockman

Instead of a nation, what we really built were more than 500 military bases — and the personal fortunes of the people who supplied them. That had always been the deal. In April 2002, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld dictated a top-secret memo ordering aides to come up with “a plan for how we are going to deal with each of these warlords — who is going to get money from whom, on what basis, in exchange for what, what is the quid pro quo, etc.,” according to The Washington Post.

The war proved enormously lucrative for many Americans and Europeans, too. One 2008 study estimated that some 40 percent of the money allocated to Afghanistan actually went back to donor countries in corporate profits and consultant salaries. Only about 12 percent of U.S. reconstruction assistance given to Afghanistan between 2002 and 2021 actually went to the Afghan government. Much of the rest went to companies like the Louis Berger Group, a New Jersey-based construction firm that got a $1.4 billion contract to build schools, clinics and roads. Even after it got caught bribing officials and systematically overbilling taxpayers, the contracts kept coming.

“It’s a bugbear of mine that Afghan corruption is so frequently cited as an explanation (as well as an excuse) for Western failure in Afghanistan,” Jonathan Goodhand, a professor in Conflict and Development Studies at SOAS University of London, wrote me in an email. Americans “point the finger at Afghans, whilst ignoring their role in both fueling and benefiting from the patronage pump.”

Who won the war on terror? American defense contractors, many of which were politically connected companies that had donated to George W. Bush’s presidential campaign, according to the Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit that has been tracking spending in a series of reports called the Windfalls of War. One firm hired to help advise Iraqi ministries had a single employee — the husband of a deputy assistant secretary of defense.

A forensic accountant who served on a military task force that analyzed $106 billion worth of Pentagon contracts estimated that 40 percent of the money ended up in the pockets of “insurgents, criminal syndicates or corrupt Afghan officials,” according to The Washington Post.

Social scientists have a name for countries that are so reliant on unearned income from outsiders: “rentier states.” It is usually used for oil-producing countries, but Afghanistan now stands out as an extreme example.

A report by Kate Clark of the Afghanistan Analysts Network outlined how Afghanistan’s rentier economy undermined efforts to build a democracy. Since money flowed from foreigners instead of taxes, leaders were responsive to donors rather than their own citizens.

America’s Money Lost the Afghan War
By Casey Michel and Paul Massaro

With the rise of modern kleptocracy, corruption and illicit funds rarely remain in a single jurisdiction. Instead, these dirty funds hop borders, hop countries, and hop multiple financial secrecy vehicles that make tracking and returning the looted assets infinitely more difficult.

One case in point was the saga of Kabul Bank, which revealed itself in the early 2010s as an unprecedented Ponzi scheme that saw politically connected Afghan figures whisk nearly $1 billion out of the country into places like Dubai, leaving Afghan depositors holding the bag. Nor did the looted assets stop there. Instead, dirty money fleeing Afghanistan followed well-worn paths—including directly into the United States, itself one of the world’s largest destinations for illicit finance. As Jodi Vittori, who worked on the main anti-corruption task force in Afghanistan, told us last month, “A lot of those Afghan kleptocrats already have houses in the U.S. A lot of that money came here. … I don’t know if they’ll be paying for think tanks, but they certainly have already moved their money here.”

Intelligence Contract Funneled to Pro-War Think Tank Establishment
By Lee Fang

In 2018, when the government awarded a massive $769 million contract to Alion Science and Technology, a defense contractor, the company promised that the money would go to “cutting edge” intelligence and technological solutions “that directly support the warfighter.”

But part of the money embedded in that contract also flowed to the nation’s foremost hawkish think tanks, which routinely advocate for higher Pentagon budgets and a greater projection of America’s military force.

Jack Poulson, the founder of Tech Inquiry, a watchdog group that spotted the contract, noted that the commingling of projects appeared to be “blurring the lines between think tanks and intelligence contractors.”

The arrangement of a defense contractor sharing a military-focused contract with think tanks provides a small window into the larger world of Defense Department funding of the most prominent voices in the military policy establishment. The public-facing descriptions of military contracts to think tanks are almost always vague; sometimes they are totally opaque.

The role of think tanks in the policy debate cannot be underestimated. Since the mid-20th century, independent-appearing academic centers, often with opaque sources of funding and an ideological bent, have played an outsized role in advising Congress and federal agencies on major policy priorities. Media outlets often lean on think tank opinion when seeking expert opinion. And given that think tank officials rarely register as lobbyists, they are seen as politically neutral experts who are hired to work within various presidential administrations.

The flow of military money has warped the public debate over Pentagon funding levels and U.S. policy, critics warn.

I spent 5 years inside DC’s foreign policy ‘blob.’ Here’s why the experts keep getting us into unwinnable wars like Afghanistan.
By Mattathias Schwartz

In the Blob’s view, it’s the role of the Blob, not the voters or even the White House, to decide when America goes to war. The internal mechanics of those decisions are a black box, but we do know something about the inputs and outputs. Into one end of the Blob goes the money — gifts from corporations, wealthy individuals, and, in some cases, foreign governments. Out the other end comes white papers, books, op-ed articles, salaries, fellowships, and panel discussions. The content of the output varies widely, and contains occasional notes of disagreement, which is what makes it so much more slippery and effective than the classical authoritarian propaganda of the 20th century, which was intended to awe and manipulate crowds by playing to their basest emotions. Call it blobaganda, a process through which intelligent people are gently led to a preordained conclusion, brought to you by Raytheon and General Dynamics.

You can’t work in Washington and not cross paths with smart, influential people who have been paid substantial amounts of money from a foreign-policy think tank, or the powerful dons who sit on one of their boards. If you have control over who’s in the room, and who gets to sit onstage, there’s no need to script the action. The ideologically correct opinion will organically percolate through the network. This is known as social contagion, and it goes a long way to explaining why America’s leading foreign-policy experts keep producing disasters like Afghanistan.

In 2017, for example, the Aspen Institute invited a small group of ambassadors and cabinet-level officials to “a private breakfast conversation” with “representatives from Lockheed Martin Space Systems Company.” According to an internal list of invitees, John Brennan, Michael Chertoff, Avril Haines, and Antony Blinken all RSVP’d that they would be there. I was not in the room, but I do have a copy of the outline for the discussion. It expresses worry about things like “the capacity surge of rising powers” and the maintenance of “critical security pacts.” These are reasonable concerns. But it’s worth asking why Lockheed Martin spent money for access to that particular group of people, and what it got in return. At that same conference, Gen. Joseph Dunford, then the chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, gave a public talk to a large gathering. In 2019, when he retired, he joined Lockheed Martin’s board.

To understand how blobaganda works, you have to look for what isn’t there. Not much airtime is given to dissent from what’s often called “the rules-based order” or “the liberal international order.” These terms sound technical and boring and unobjectionable; perhaps that is by design. In plain English, “rules-based order” has effectively come to mean “war is good.” The foreign-policy establishment is ideologically committed to the faith-based proposition that America can use force against a country thousands of miles away and, if not remake it in our own image, then at least leave it better than we found it. “Liberal” and “rules” are strange words to apply to campaigns that rely so heavily on drone strikes and covert CIA operations. At one event hosted by the Blobosphere, I remember one of my peers raising his hand to ask how we could convince the American public that it was worth going to war to defend Montenegro, as we are obliged to under Article 5 of the NATO treaty. The room turned and looked at him as if he’d gone insane.

Towards the end of Trump’s presidency, Congress had established the Afghanistan Study Group, a private body of retired generals, senators, and business executives. The quasi-official nature and neutrality of such groups make them indispensable in public-relations campaigns. And yet the Study Group was anything but independent. Its 15 members held seats on the boards of major contractors and think tanks, including Caterpillar, Raytheon, BAE Systems, Lockheed Martin, the Atlantic Council, and the Council on Foreign Relations. In an 88-page report published two months into Biden’s presidency, they recommended that the US postpone its departure without giving a concrete timeline for withdrawal. The report was rolled out in a congressional hearing and in a Washington Post op-ed article coauthored by a Study Group member, Meghan O’Sullivan, who also sits on the board of the Council on Foreign Relations. “It’s wrong to pull US troops out of Afghanistan,” the headline declared. The Post neglected to mention that O’Sullivan held a seat on the board of Raytheon. It also neglected to mention that it had accepted money from Raytheon for a customized ad campaign, as well as a series of “Post Live” discussions with national security luminaries.

Where did the $5tn spent on Afghanistan and Iraq go? Here’s where
By Linda J Bilmes

In Iraq and Afghanistan, the American military relied to an unprecedented degree on private contractors for support in virtually all areas of war operations. Contractors supplied trucks, planes, fuel, helicopters, ships, drones, weapons and munitions as well as support services from catering and construction to IT and logistics. The number of contractors on the ground outnumbered US troops most years of the conflicts. By the summer of 2020, the US had 22,562 contractor personnel in Afghanistan – roughly twice the number of American troops.

The gravy train for the defense industry was also fueled by the way the wars were budgeted and paid for. Congress used “emergency” and “contingency” funding that circumvented the normal budget process. For the first decade of the conflict, the US used emergency appropriations, which are typically reserved for one-off crises such as floods and hurricanes. Detailed spending oversight was minimal. And because this type of spending is excluded from budget projections and deficit estimates, it enabled everyone to sustain the pretense that the wars would be over shortly.

The result was what former defense secretary Robert Gates termed a “culture of endless money” inside the Pentagon. The defense department made the operational decisions; managed the bidding process for contractors; awarded the contracts (largely using non-competitive bids); and kept at least 10% of the wartime funding in classified accounts.

Not even the financial crisis of 2008 could interrupt the spending spree. While Congress imposed across-the-board spending caps on government programs, war spending was specifically excluded. The Pentagon was able to use the special “contingency” war budget to buy upgrades, services and new equipment that were barely related to Iraq or Afghanistan. Consequently, the Pentagon budget kept growing – and was able to double its size between 2001 and 2020.

Defense stocks outperformed the stock market overall by nearly 60% during the Afghanistan war, as the war spending surge enabled a wave of consolidation in the industry. The big five – Lockheed Martin, Boeing, General Dynamics, Raytheon and Northrop Grumman – and a handful of others acquired the next tier of manufacturers such as Hughes Aircraft and McDonnell Douglas.

In the year to June 2020 the big five accounted for nearly a third of the $480bn obligated by the Pentagon to defense contractors. While only a fraction of these sales went specifically for Iraq and Afghanistan, the conflict was highly lucrative for all the major defense contractors. For example, Lockheed Martin manufactured the Black Hawk helicopters used extensively in Afghanistan; Boeing sold the aircraft and land combat vehicles; Raytheon won the major contract training the Afghan air force; and Northrup Grumman and General Dynamics supplied electronic and communications equipment. Thousands of subcontractors around the world earned money from selling night-vision goggles, engines, sandbags, communications equipment and all manner of stuff to the war effort. And global oil companies were key war beneficiaries, since the Pentagon is the world’s single largest purchaser of fuel.

Meanwhile, the defense sector spent over $2.4bn lobbying Congress since 2001, and made direct campaign contributions to most members.

Not surprisingly, much of the wartime expenditures were highly wasteful. The Inspectors Generals for Afghanistan and Iraq, the Wartime Contracting Commission, and the Pentagon’s own inspector general all documented waste, profiteering, corruption and “ghost spending” (money spent on activities that turned out not to exist at all).

Study: Pentagon reliance on contractors hurt US in 9/11 wars
By Ellen Knickmeyer

Up to half of the $14 trillion spent by the Pentagon since 9/11 went to for-profit defense contractors, a study released Monday found. While much of this money went to weapons suppliers, the research is the latest to point to the dependence on contractors for war-zone duties as contributing to mission failures in Afghanistan in particular.

… William Hartung, the author of Monday’s study by Brown University’s Costs of War project and the Center for International Policy, and others say it’s essential that Americans examine what role the reliance on private contractors played in the post-9/11 wars. In Afghanistan, that included contractors allegedly paying protection money to warlords and the Taliban themselves, and the Defense Department insisting on equipping the Afghan air force with complex Blackhawk helicopters and other aircraft that few but U.S. contractors knew how to maintain.

“If it were only the money, that would be outrageous enough,” Hartung, the director of the arms and security program at the Center for International Policy, said of instances where the Pentagon’s reliance on contractors backfired. “But the fact it undermined the mission and put troops at risk is even more outrageous.”

At the start of this year, before Biden began the final American withdrawal from Afghanistan, there were far more contractors in Afghanistan and also in Iraq than U.S. troops.

The U.S. saw about 7,000 military members die in all post-9/11 conflicts, and nearly 8,000 contractors, another Costs of War study estimates.

The Professional Services Council, an organization representing businesses contracting with the government, cited a lower figure from the U.S. Department of Labor saying nearly 4,000 federal contractors have been killed since 2001.

U.S. officials after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks embraced private contractors as an essential part of the U.S. military response.

It started with then-Vice President Dick Cheney, the former CEO of Halliburton. Halliburton received more than $30 billion to help set up and run bases, feed troops and carry out other work in Iraq and Afghanistan by 2008, the study says. Cheney and defense contractors argued that relying on private contractors for work that service members did in previous wars would allow for a trimmer U.S. military, and be more efficient and cost effective.

By 2010, Pentagon spending had surged by more than one-third, as the U.S. fought dual wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In a post-9/11 American, politicians vied to show support for the military in a country grown far more security conscious.

“Any member of Congress who doesn’t vote for the funds we need to defend this country will be looking for a new job after next November,” the study notes Harry Stonecipher, then the vice president of Boeing, telling The Wall Street Journal the month after the attacks.

And up to a third of the Pentagon contracts went to just five weapons suppliers. Last fiscal year, for example, the money Lockheed Martin alone got from Pentagon contracts was one and a half times the entire budgets of the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development, according to the study.

The Pentagon pumped out more contracts than it could oversee, lawmakers and government special investigators said.

The Profits of War
By William Hartung

A second stream of revenue for corporations tied to those wars went to private security contractors, some of which guarded U.S. facilities or critical infrastructure like Iraqi oil pipelines.

The most notorious of them was, of course, Blackwater, a number of whose employees were involved in a 2007 massacre of 17 Iraqis in Baghdad’s Nisour Square. They opened fire on civilians at a crowded intersection while guarding a U.S. Embassy convoy. The attack prompted ongoing legal and civil cases that continued into the Trump era, when several perpetrators of the massacre were pardoned by the president.

In the wake of those killings, Blackwater was rebranded several times, first as XE Services and then as Academii, before eventually merging with Triple Canopy, another private contracting firm. Blackwater founder Erik Prince then separated from the company, but he has since recruited private mercenaries on behalf of the United Arab Emirates for deployment to the civil war in Libya in violation of a United Nations arms embargo. Prince also unsuccessfully proposed to the Trump administration that he recruit a force of private contractors meant to be the backbone of the U.S. war effort in Afghanistan.

Another task taken up by private firms Titan and CACI International was the interrogation of Iraqi prisoners. Both companies had interrogators and translators on the ground at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, a site where such prisoners were brutally tortured.

The number of personnel deployed and the revenues received by security and reconstruction contractors grew dramatically as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan wore on. The Congressional Research Service estimated that by March 2011 there were more contractor employees in Iraq and Afghanistan (155,000) than American uniformed military personnel (145,000). In its August 2011 final report, the Commission on Wartime Contracting in Iraq and Afghanistan put the figure even higher, stating that “contractors represent more than half of the U.S. presence in the contingency operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, at times employing more than a quarter-million people.”

While an armed contractor who had served in the Marines could earn as much as $200,000 annually in Iraq, about three-quarters of the contractor work force there was made up of people from countries like Nepal or the Philippines, or Iraqi citizens. Poorly paid, at times they received as little as $3,000 per year. A 2017 analysis by the Costs of War project documented “abysmal labor conditions” and major human rights abuses inflicted on foreign nationals working on U.S.-funded projects in Afghanistan, including false imprisonment, theft of wages, and deaths and injuries in areas of conflict.

With the U.S. military in Iraq reduced to a relatively modest number of armed “advisors” and no American forces left in Afghanistan, such contractors are now seeking foreign clients. For example, a U.S. firm — Tier 1 Group, which was founded by a former employee of Blackwater — trained four of the Saudi operatives involved in the murder of Saudi journalist and U.S. resident Jamal Khashoggi, an effort funded by the Saudi government. As the New York Times noted when it broke that story, “Such issues are likely to continue as American private military contractors increasingly look to foreign clients to shore up their business as the United States scales back overseas deployments after two decades of war.”

Afghanistan Was a Ponzi Scheme Sold to the American Public
By Alan Richards and Steven Simon

Once it became clear that the United States was indeed serious about leaving, it all fell apart rapidly, just as in a bank run. As with a bank run, only if a big investor can surreptitiously pull out their money will others not notice their departure, wake up, and rush for the door.

In Afghanistan, the big investor was the United States. It would have been well-nigh impossible to keep thorough preparations a secret from Afghans. Preparing on a large scale would require months of planning. Therefore, to start such preparations would send that telltale signal to all concerned that the United States was leaving. While many people could and did see the writing on the wall after Trump started talks with the Taliban, nevertheless it was only when it was clear that the United States was actually going to follow through that people could be certain it was truly leaving. As in any Ponzi scheme, the credibility of the exit of the big investor is crucial in provoking the rush for the door. Credibility is binary, like a light switch—only when the wolf can actually be seen by all parties do people flee—by which time, of course, it is too late to stroll calmly to the exits.

Once Afghans realized that the United States was leaving, they would know it was all over, and if they had been collaborating with us, they would panic.

I Commanded Afghan Troops This Year. We Were Betrayed.
By Sami Sadat

We lost 66,000 troops over the past 20 years; that’s one-fifth of our estimated fighting force.

So why did the Afghan military collapse? The answer is threefold.

First, former President Donald Trump’s February 2020 peace deal with the Taliban in Doha doomed us. It put an expiration date on American interest in the region. Second, we lost contractor logistics and maintenance support critical to our combat operations. Third, the corruption endemic in Mr. Ghani’s government that flowed to senior military leadership and long crippled our forces on the ground irreparably hobbled us.

Contractors maintained our bombers and our attack and transport aircraft throughout the war. By July, most of the 17,000 support contractors had left. A technical issue now meant an aircraft — a Black Hawk helicopter, a C-130 transport, a surveillance drone — would be grounded.

The contractors also took proprietary software and weapons systems with them. They physically removed our helicopter missile-defense system. Access to the software that we relied on to track our vehicles, weapons and personnel also disappeared. Real-time intelligence on targets went out the window, too.

… there was only so much the Americans could do when it came to the well-documented corruption that rotted our government and military. That really is our national tragedy. So many of our leaders — including in the military — were installed for their personal ties, not for their credentials. These appointments had a devastating impact on the national army because leaders lacked the military experience to be effective or inspire the confidence and trust of the men being asked to risk their lives. Disruptions to food rations and fuel supplies — a result of skimming and corrupt contract allocations — destroyed the morale of my troops.

The final days of fighting were surreal. We engaged in intense firefights on the ground against the Taliban as U.S. fighter jets circled overhead, effectively spectators. Our sense of abandonment and betrayal was equaled only by the frustration U.S. pilots felt and relayed to us — being forced to witness the ground war, apparently unable to help us. Overwhelmed by Taliban fire, my soldiers would hear the planes and ask why they were not providing air support. Morale was devastated. Across Afghanistan, soldiers stopped fighting.

The Other Afghan Women
By Anand Gopal

Travelling through Helmand, I could hardly see any signs of the Taliban as a state. Unlike other rebel movements, the Taliban had provided practically no reconstruction, no social services beyond its harsh tribunals. It brooks no opposition: in Pan Killay, the Taliban executed a villager named Shaista Gul after learning that he’d offered bread to members of the Afghan Army. Nevertheless, many Helmandis seemed to prefer Taliban rule—including the women I interviewed. It was as if the movement had won only by default, through the abject failures of its opponents. To locals, life under the coalition forces and their Afghan allies was pure hazard; even drinking tea in a sunlit field, or driving to your sister’s wedding, was a potentially deadly gamble. What the Taliban offered over their rivals was a simple bargain: Obey us, and we will not kill you.

This grim calculus hovered over every conversation I had with villagers. In the hamlet of Yakh Chal, I came upon the ruins of an Afghan Army outpost that had recently been overrun by the Taliban. All that remained were mounds of scrap metal, cords, hot plates, gravel. The next morning, villagers descended on the outpost, scavenging for something to sell. Abdul Rahman, a farmer, was rooting through the refuse with his young son when an Afghan Army gunship appeared on the horizon. It was flying so low, he recalled, that “even Kalashnikovs could fire on it.” But there were no Taliban around, only civilians. The gunship fired, and villagers began falling right and left. It then looped back, continuing to attack. “There were many bodies on the ground, bleeding and moaning,” another witness said. “Many small children.” According to villagers, at least fifty civilians were killed.

Later, I spoke on the phone with an Afghan Army helicopter pilot who had just relieved the one who attacked the outpost. He told me, “I asked the crew why they did this, and they said, ‘We knew they were civilians, but Camp Bastion’ ”—a former British base that had been handed over to the Afghans—“ ‘gave orders to kill them all.’ ” As we spoke, Afghan Army helicopters were firing upon the crowded central market in Gereshk, killing scores of civilians. An official with an international organization based in Helmand said, “When the government forces lose an area, they are taking revenge on the civilians.” The helicopter pilot acknowledged this, adding, “We are doing it on the order of Sami Sadat.”

General Sami Sadat headed one of the seven corps of the Afghan Army. Unlike the Amir Dado generation of strongmen, who were provincial and illiterate, Sadat obtained a master’s degree in strategic management and leadership from a school in the U.K. and studied at the NATO Military Academy, in Munich. He held his military position while also being the C.E.O. of Blue Sea Logistics, a Kabul-based corporation that supplied anti-Taliban forces with everything from helicopter parts to armored tactical vehicles. During my visit to Helmand, Blackhawks under his command were committing massacres almost daily: twelve Afghans were killed while scavenging scrap metal at a former base outside Sangin; forty were killed in an almost identical incident at the Army’s abandoned Camp Walid; twenty people, most of them women and children, were killed by air strikes on the Gereshk bazaar; Afghan soldiers who were being held prisoner by the Taliban at a power station were targeted and killed by their own comrades in an air strike. (Sadat declined repeated requests for comment.)

The day before the massacre at the Yakh Chal outpost, CNN aired an interview with General Sadat. “Helmand is beautiful—if it’s peaceful, tourism can come,” he said. His soldiers had high morale, he explained, and were confident of defeating the Taliban. The anchor appeared relieved. “You seem very optimistic,” she said. “That’s reassuring to hear.”

I showed the interview to Mohammed Wali, a pushcart vender in a village near Lashkar Gah. A few days after the Yakh Chal massacre, government militias in his area surrendered to the Taliban. General Sadat’s Blackhawks began attacking houses, seemingly at random. They fired on Wali’s house, and his daughter was struck in the head by shrapnel and died. His brother rushed into the yard, holding the girl’s limp body up at the helicopters, shouting, “We’re civilians!” The choppers killed him and Wali’s son. His wife lost her leg, and another daughter is in a coma. As Wali watched the CNN clip, he sobbed. “Why are they doing this?” he asked. “Are they mocking us?”

Thousands of Afghans have spent the past few weeks desperately trying to reach the Kabul airport, sensing that the Americans’ frenzied evacuation may be their last chance at a better life. “Bro, you’ve got to help me,” the helicopter pilot I’d spoken with earlier pleaded over the phone. At the time, he was fighting crowds to get within sight of the airport gate; when the wheels of the last U.S. aircraft pulled off the runway, he was left behind. His boss, Sami Sadat, reportedly escaped to the U.K.

The CIA’s Afghan Proxies, Accused of War Crimes, Will Get a Fresh Start in the U.S.
By Andrew Quilty and Matthew Cole

The CIA’s ability to evacuate its allies appears to have far outstripped that of other U.S. government entities and signals its pivotal role in the war. The agency evacuated as many as 20,000 Afghan “partners” and their relatives, the Washington Post reported, nearly one-third of the 60,000 Afghans the U.S. has taken in overall. The CIA did not respond to a request for comment.

Most coverage of the CIA’s efforts has been laudatory. But the Zero units were known for deadly night raids that killed an untold number of civilians across Afghanistan. The Intercept documented 10 raids conducted by 01 in Wardak Province, southwest of Kabul, in which at least 51 civilians, including children, were killed — many at close range, in execution-style assaults. Most 01 missions were led by a small number of CIA “advisers,” as their Afghan fighters knew them, or U.S. special forces borrowed from the Pentagon’s Joint Special Operations Command.

Once known within the U.S. government as the Mohawks, Zero units started as an irregular commando force controlled by the CIA. The intelligence agency trained the teams to serve as guerrilla fighters out of small U.S. outposts, mainly in the north and east of the country, near the Pakistan border. Much of the original purpose of the program was to enable the CIA to conduct cross-border raids into Pakistan, a politically fraught and rarely approved activity for U.S. personnel.

The Zero units allowed the U.S. to conduct deniable operations and avoid accountability and were similar in some respects to the CIA’s Phoenix program during the Vietnam War. For that program, the agency created Provincial Reconnaissance Units comprised mostly of South Vietnamese guerrillas led by American commanders. Like the Afghan Zero units, the PRUs gathered intelligence and assassinated suspected Viet Cong.

In 2010, the Afghan government signed an agreement with the CIA to turn the NSUs into a joint program with Afghanistan’s former intelligence service, the National Directorate of Security, or NDS, according to the two former senior Afghan officials, who were involved in the arrangement. While the missions would be jointly run, the units continued to be funded exclusively by the U.S. government, the two former Afghan officials told The Intercept. The change allowed the CIA to claim plausible deniability against accusations of human rights abuses or war crimes.

‘The Taliban Are Here’: The Final Days Before Kabul’s Collapse
By Yaroslav Trofimov, Vivian Salama and Dion Nissenbaum

On Tuesday, Aug. 10, Finance Minister Khalid Payenda quit his job and flew out of the country, tweeting that “it was time to step down to attend to personal priorities.” Alarmed by a snowballing exodus, Mr. Ghani instructed the airport not to allow senior officials to leave Afghanistan. He told the passport office to stop renewing or issuing passports for 20 days, senior officials said.

Since striking the February 2020 deal for the withdrawal of American troops, Taliban leaders assured U.S. negotiator Zalmay Khalilzad that they wouldn’t try to seize Kabul by force. They told Mr. Khalilzad, one of the few Trump administration officials who remained under Mr. Biden, they would seek a power-sharing deal with political forces in Kabul.

Their main condition was for Mr. Ghani to resign before the forming of a transitional government. Mr. Ghani demanded a cease-fire first.

In Kabul, Mr. Ghani convened a meeting with political leaders, including chief negotiator Abdullah Abdullah, who had just returned from talks with the Taliban in Doha, Qatar. Mr. Ghani asked the foreign ministry for his passport, and speculation swirled that the Afghan president would resign.

In his first public remarks since the start of what would be the Afghan republic’s final week, Mr. Ghani released a two-minute video. He hinted at decisions that would follow talks with the Taliban and other politicians. He also said the government’s priority was to rebuild national security forces to preserve the past 20 years of achievements.

Mr. Ghani continued to project confidence in public. He posted pictures of himself touring military positions in the city with the defense minister. He discussed defense plans at the presidential palace with the new U.S. forces commander, Rear Adm. Peter Vasely.

Behind closed doors, Mr. Ghani said in a meeting with tribal leaders and elders from the provinces that he was prepared to resign and cede power to a transitional government. Given the Taliban’s battlefield victories, it was clear to everyone that such a government would be controlled by the Islamist movement.

Later that day, Mr. Ghani delivered the same message in a phone call with Mr. Blinken, according to senior Afghan officials. Mr. Blinken was relieved by the news and promised to work with Mr. Ghani to cement a deal with Taliban negotiators in Doha, these officials said. Mr. Ghani told Mr. Blinken he had no plans to leave Afghanistan, according to U.S. and Afghan officials.

Mr. Ghani posted a short, rambling video message, saying security forces were coordinating. “I assure all residents of Kabul that you,” he said, with the message ending midsentence.

Mr. Ghani’s chief of staff and another senior official met the president around midday in the palace, buoyed by what seemed an imminent agreement with the Taliban that would avert a battle for Kabul. Mr. Ghani complained he was tired and said he would go to his residence adjoining the palace for lunch and rest.

Mr. Mohib soon appeared at the residence as Mr. Ghani assessed warnings from his security team that a Taliban assassination squad was on palace grounds, behind the building, ready to shoot, said a person who was at the palace. No evidence of such a squad has been reported.

Around the same time, Mr. Mohib received a call from Khalil Haqqani, a Taliban leader. Everyone but you, the president, and Vice President Amrullah Saleh have made deals with us, Mr. Haqqani said. according to a senior Afghan official. The Taliban, Mr. Haqqani told Mr. Mohib, would accept only a full surrender

A presidential convoy then ferried Mr. Ghani, Mr. Mohib and a handful of close aides toward the nearby Defense Ministry. The convoy split into two groups.

Mr. Atmar, the foreign minister, had arrived earlier at the palace with Mr. Ghani’s passport. He followed one group to the Defense Ministry. Once there, he saw the president wasn’t in the vehicles and headed back to the palace, according to a senior official who spoke with him.

When Mr. Atmar arrived, he found it was abandoned. Mr. Ghani and his close aides had already boarded three armored helicopters and headed out of Afghanistan. Amid the coming-and-going of U.S. helicopters ferrying people from the American Embassy, the men had slipped away.

A person close to Mr. Ghani said that the decision to evacuate the president was taken by the head of the Presidential Guard, and that Mr. Ghani went along because he didn’t want an expected firefight in the palace to turn into a wider conflagration in Kabul.

The Afghan state, and any opportunity for a negotiated end to the war, had crumbled. Mr. Blinken, in a TV appearance, said the collapse of Afghan security forces “has happened more quickly than we anticipated.”

Days later, Mr. Ghani surfaced in the United Arab Emirates.

America and the Dictators
By Alfred W. McCoy

With his volatile mix of dependence and independence, Hamid Karzai seems the archetype of all the autocrats Washington has backed in Asia, Africa, and Latin America since European empires began disintegrating after World War II. When the CIA mobilized Afghan warlords to topple the Taliban in October 2001, the country’s capital, Kabul, was ours for the taking — and the giving. In the midst of this chaos, Hamid Karzai, an obscure exile living in Pakistan, gathered a handful of followers and plunged into Afghanistan on a doomed CIA-supported mission to rally the tribes for revolt. It proved a quixotic effort that required rescue by Navy SEALs who snatched him back to safety in Pakistan.

Desperate for a reliable post-invasion ally, the Bush administration engaged in what one expert has called “bribes, secret deals, and arm twisting” to install Karzai in power. This process took place not through a democratic election in Kabul, but by lobbying foreign diplomats at a donors’ conference in Bonn, Germany, to appoint him interim president. When King Zahir Shah, a respected figure whose family had ruled Afghanistan for more than 200 years, returned to offer his services as acting head of state, the U.S. ambassador had a “showdown” with the monarch, forcing him back into exile. In this way, Karzai’s “authority,” which came directly and almost solely from the Bush administration, remained unchecked. For his first months in office, the president had so little trust in his nominal Afghan allies that he was guarded by American security.

In the years that followed, the Karzai regime slid into an ever deepening state of corruption and incompetence, while NATO allies rushed to fill the void with their manpower and material, a de facto endorsement of the president’s low road to power. As billions in international development aid poured into Kabul, a mere trickle escaped the capital’s bottomless bureaucracy to reach impoverished villages in the countryside. In 2009, Transparency International ranked Afghanistan as the world’s second most corrupt nation, just a notch below Somalia.

As opium production soared from 185 tons in 2001 to 8,200 tons just six years later — a remarkable 53% of the country’s entire economy — drug corruption metastasized, reaching provincial governors, the police, cabinet ministers, and the president’s own brother, also his close adviser. Indeed, as a senior U.S. antinarcotics official assigned to Afghanistan described the situation in 2006, “Narco corruption went to the very top of the Afghan government.” Earlier this year, the U.N. estimated that ordinary Afghans spend $2.5 billion annually, a quarter of the country’s gross domestic product, simply to bribe the police and government officials.

Last August’s presidential elections were an apt index of the country’s progress. Karzai’s campaign team, the so-called warlord ticket, included Abdul Dostum, an Uzbek warlord who slaughtered countless prisoners in 2001; vice presidential candidate Muhammed Fahim, a former defense minister linked to drugs and human rights abuses; Sher Muhammed Akhundzada, the former governor of Helmand Province, who was caught with nine tons of drugs in his compound back in 2005; and the president’s brother Ahmed Wali Karzai, reputedly the reigning drug lord and family fixer in Kandahar. “The Karzai family has opium and blood on their hands,” one Western intelligence official told the New York Times during the campaign.

Desperate to capture an outright 50% majority in the first round of balloting, Karzai’s warlord coalition made use of an extraordinary array of electoral chicanery. After two months of counting and checking, the U.N.’s Electoral Complaints Commission announced in October 2009 that more than a million of his votes, 28% of his total, were fraudulent, pushing the president’s tally well below the winning margin. Calling the election a “foreseeable train wreck,” the deputy U.N. envoy Peter Galbraith said, “The fraud has handed the Taliban its greatest strategic victory in eight years of fighting the United States and its Afghan partners.”

Galbraith, however, was sacked and silenced as U.S. pressure extinguished the simmering flames of electoral protest. The runner-up soon withdrew from the run-off election that Washington had favored as a face-saving, post-fraud compromise, and Karzai was declared the outright winner by default. In the wake of the farcical election, Karzai not surprisingly tried to stack the five-man Electoral Complaints Commission, an independent body meant to vet electoral complaints, replacing the three foreign experts with his own Afghan appointees. When the parliament rejected his proposal, Karzai lashed out with bizarre charges, accusing the U.N. of wanting a “puppet government” and blaming all the electoral fraud on “massive interference from foreigners.” In a meeting with members of parliament, he reportedly told them: “If you and the international community pressure me more, I swear that I am going to join the Taliban.”

The sorry history of the autocratic regime of Ngo Dinh Diem in Saigon (1954-1963) offers an earlier cautionary roadmap that helps explain why Washington has so often found itself in such an impossibly contradictory position with its authoritarian allies.

Landing in Saigon in mid-1954 after years of exile in the United States and Europe, Diem had no real political base. He could, however, count on powerful patrons in Washington, notably Democratic senators Mike Mansfield and John F. Kennedy. One of the few people to greet Diem at the airport that day was the legendary CIA operative Edward Lansdale, Washington’s master of political manipulation in Southeast Asia. Amid the chaos accompanying France’s defeat in its long, bloody Indochina War, Lansdale maneuvered brilliantly to secure Diem’s tenuous hold on power in the southern part of Vietnam. In the meantime, U.S. diplomats sent his rival, the Emperor Bao Dai, packing for Paris. Within months, thanks to Washington’s backing, Diem won an absurd 98.2% of a rigged vote for the presidency and promptly promulgated a new constitution that ended the Vietnamese monarchy after a millennium.

Channeling all aid payments through Diem, Washington managed to destroy the last vestiges of French colonial support for any of his potential rivals in the south, while winning the president a narrow political base within the army, among civil servants, and in the minority Catholic community. Backed by a seeming cornucopia of American support, Diem proceeded to deal harshly with South Vietnam’s Buddhist sects, harassed the Viet Minh veterans of the war against the French, and resisted the implementation of rural reforms that might have won him broader support among the country’s peasant population.

When the U.S. Embassy pressed for reforms, he simply stalled, convinced that Washington, having already invested so much of its prestige in his regime, would be unable to withhold support. Like Karzai in Kabul, Diem’s ultimate weapon was his weakness — the threat that his government, shaky as it was, might simply collapse if pushed too hard.

In the end, the Americans invariably backed down, sacrificing any hope of real change in order to maintain the ongoing war effort against the local Viet Cong rebels and their North Vietnamese backers. As rebellion and dissent rose in the south, Washington ratcheted up its military aid to battle the communists, inadvertently giving Diem more weapons to wield against his own people, communist and non-communist alike.

Working through his brother Ngo Dinh Nhu — and this should have an eerie resonance today — the Diems took control of Saigon’s drug racket, pocketing significant profits as they built up a nexus of secret police, prisons, and concentration camps to deal with suspected dissidents. At the time of Diem’s downfall in 1963, there were some 50,000 prisoners in his gulag.

When protesting Buddhist monk Quang Duc assumed the lotus position on a Saigon street in June 1963 and held the posture while followers lit his gasoline-soaked robes which erupted in fatal flames, the Kennedy administration could no longer ignore the crisis. As Diem’s batons cracked the heads of Buddhist demonstrators and Nhu’s wife applauded what she called “monk barbecues,” Washington began to officially protest the ruthless repression. Instead of responding, Diem (shades of Karzai) began working through his brother Nhu to open negotiations with the communists in Hanoi, signaling Washington that he was perfectly willing to betray the U.S. war effort and possibly form a coalition with North Vietnam.

In the midst of this crisis, a newly appointed American ambassador, Henry Cabot Lodge, arrived in Saigon and within days approved a plan for a CIA-backed coup to overthrow Diem. For the next few months, Lansdale’s CIA understudy Lucien Conein met regularly with Saigon’s generals to hatch an elaborate plot that was unleashed with devastating effect on November 1, 1963.

As rebel troops stormed the palace, Diem and his brother Nhu fled to a safe house in Saigon’s Chinatown. Flushed from hiding by promises of safe conduct into exile, Diem climbed aboard a military convoy for what he thought was a ride to the airport. But CIA operative Conein had vetoed the flight plans. A military assassin intercepted the convoy, spraying Diem’s body with bullets and stabbing his bleeding corpse in a coup de grâce.

Although Ambassador Lodge hosted an embassy celebration for the rebel officers and cabled President Kennedy that Diem’s death would mean a “shorter war,” the country soon collapsed into a series of military coups and counter-coups that crippled army operations. Over the next 32 months, Saigon had nine new governments and a change of cabinet every 15 weeks — all incompetent, corrupt, and ineffective.

After spending a decade building up Diem’s regime and a day destroying it, the U.S. had seemingly irrevocably linked its own power and prestige to the Saigon government — any government. The “best and brightest” in Washington were convinced that they could not just withdraw from South Vietnam without striking a devastating blow against American “credibility.” As South Vietnam slid toward defeat in the two years following Diem’s death, the first of 540,000 U.S. combat troops began arriving, ensuring that Vietnam would be transformed from an American-backed war into an American war.

Under the circumstances, Washington searched desperately for anyone who could provide sufficient stability to prosecute the war against the communists and eventually, with palpable relief, embraced a military junta headed by General Nguyen Van Thieu. Installed and sustained in power by American aid, Thieu had no popular following and ruled through military repression, repeating the same mistakes that led to Diem’s downfall. But chastened by its experience after the assassination of Diem, the U.S. Embassy decided to ignore Thieu’s unpopularity and continue to build his army. Once Washington began to reduce its aid after 1973, Thieu found that his troops simply would not fight to defend his unpopular government. In April 1975, he carried a hoard of stolen gold into exile while his army collapsed with stunning speed, suffering one of the most devastating collapses in military history.

In pursuit of its Vietnam War effort, Washington required a Saigon government responsive to its demands, yet popular with its own peasantry, strong enough to wage a war in the villages, yet sensitive to the needs of the country’s poor villagers. These were hopelessly contradictory political requisites. Finding that civilian regimes engaged in impossible-to-control intrigues, the U.S. ultimately settled for authoritarian military rule which, acceptable as it proved in Washington, was disdained by the Vietnamese peasantry.

There was — and is — a fundamental structural flaw in any American alliance with these autocrats. Inherent in these unequal alliances is a peculiar dynamic that makes the eventual collapse of such American-anointed leaders almost inevitable. At the outset, Washington selects a client who seems pliant enough to do its bidding. Such a client, in turn, opts for Washington’s support not because he is strong, but precisely because he needs foreign patronage to gain and hold office.

Once installed, the client, no matter how reluctant, has little choice but to make Washington’s demands his top priority, investing his slender political resources in placating foreign envoys. Responding to an American political agenda on civil and military matters, these autocrats often fail to devote sufficient energy, attention, and resources to cultivating a following; Diem found himself isolated in his Saigon palace, while Karzai has become a “president” justly, if derisively, nicknamed “the mayor of Kabul.” Caught between the demands of a powerful foreign patron and countervailing local needs and desires, both leaders let guerrillas capture the countryside, while struggling uncomfortably, and in the end angrily, as well as resentfully, in the foreign embrace.

Op-Ed: Mistakes the U.S. made in Vietnam were repeated in Afghanistan. We must break the cycle
By David A. Super

Although we paid lip service to freeing the people of Vietnam and Afghanistan, our primary goals were strategic and self-interested. In Vietnam, we wanted to check the spread of communism, to stop one more domino from falling. In Afghanistan, we wanted to avenge the 9/11 attacks and debilitate Al Qaeda.

We could have accommodated both humanitarian and strategic aims: Neutral, honest governments responsive to their respective people’s wills could have checked the spread of communism in Vietnam and expelled Al Qaeda from Afghanistan. Unfortunately, in both countries we wanted governments responsive to our wishes rather than those of the people.

We selected an authoritarian president for Vietnam, who had his rule confirmed in a fraudulent referendum. We then green-lighted a military coup against him. Corruption was rampant, and the regime imprisoned and tortured thousands of its non-communist opponents. By the time the U.S. forces withdrew, few Vietnamese had much regard for the regime, and it quickly fell.

So, too, in Afghanistan, we imposed our choice for a president, micromanaged allocation of power in the post-Taliban government, and orchestrated deals with the same despicable warlords whose abuses had originally given rise to the Taliban. We looked the other way when the regime perpetuated itself with a series of tainted elections. And the aggressive but unfocused “anti-terrorism” campaigns we demanded alienated the Afghan people by attacking villagers not engaged in violence. As we have seen this summer, once our troops were gone, virtually nobody had any stake in the regime’s survival.

In both countries, we also were myopic. We placed all our faith in the regimes we had installed without strong efforts to develop offsetting power centers and the robust civil society necessary for liberal democracy to survive. We acted in Vietnam as if only communists could oppress their people. Similarly in Afghanistan, we obsessed about radical Islam as the only enemy worthy of consideration, ignoring the corruption and strife that gave rise to the Taliban’s sway in the first place.

Indeed, once we deposed the Taliban we quickly lost interest in favor of the invasion of Iraq. By the time we refocused, the regime that the U.S. installed had irretrievably destroyed its credibility.

Sadly, we are repeating these mistakes on a much grander scale in the Middle East. Obsessed alternatively with fighting Sunni Muslim extremists and countering Shiite Muslim Iran, we act as if corrupt authoritarian regimes like that of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Sisi are the only alternative.

America’s Perennial Pakistan Problem
By Daniel Markey

The U.S. failure in Afghanistan also reflects the failure of Washington’s approach to Pakistan. Islamabad has been the Taliban’s most important foreign sponsor: it helped birth the group in the 1990s, then worked against the United States to enable its survival and resurgence. Today, prominent members of Pakistan’s security establishment are cheering the Taliban’s return to power in Kabul. Despite billions of dollars in aid and high-tech military equipment from Washington, they remain convinced that their unwavering commitment to the extremist Islamist group was a brilliant strategic gambit.

The Taliban would not exist today without Pakistan’s support. In the chaotic aftermath that followed the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan in the late 1980s, Islamabad saw the group as a means to expand its influence westward and, crucially, to deny the territory to regional rivals such as Iran and India. When the Taliban seized Kabul in 1996, they turned Afghanistan into a playground for Islamist terrorists and militants, including groups supported by Pakistan to attack India. Some Pakistani security officials supported the Taliban out of ideological sympathy, while others shortsightedly believed—and continue to believe—that the group could be manipulated to support their own interests at a reasonable cost.

Of course, the Afghan republic might have fallen even without Pakistan’s support of the Taliban. The political order that the United States created in Afghanistan offered fertile ground for insurgency, as the government in Kabul was rife with corruption and made enemies of many of its own citizens. But without Islamabad’s aid, the Taliban leaders who fled in 2001 would have been imprisoned or killed, or at least driven underground so completely that their movement would have been crippled. New Afghan opposition forces may have arisen in the two decades after the 9/11 attacks—groups that would not have carried the Taliban’s baggage of such close association with al Qaeda.

The core of the challenge was the U.S. relationship with the Pakistani security forces: every American administration since 2001 simultaneously found itself working with Pakistan’s military and perceiving it as a central obstacle to Washington’s goals in the region. The United States collaborated closely with the Pakistani army and its intelligence service to capture and kill al Qaeda operatives and to improve the security of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal, even as it was clear that the same military was responsible for fomenting terrorism and increasing the likelihood of nuclear war in South Asia.

The majority of the Pakistani state, as well as a significant portion of the general public, simply never bought into the U.S. vision for a post-Taliban Afghanistan. An important contingent within the Pakistani security forces flat-out opposed any cooperation with the United States and attacked Pakistanis who collaborated with Washington, including fellow officers in the army and the intelligence services. In December 2003, Musharraf escaped two assassination attempts traced to military officers with connections to al Qaeda, and several other plots were also reportedly foiled. Over the next four years, opposition to cooperation with the United States metastasized into a domestic insurgency under the banner of the Pakistani Taliban, known as the TTP. The group initially enjoyed sympathy from many quarters in Pakistani society, including serving and retired military officers. As violence spiked against the Pakistani state, including the army and the Inter-Services Intelligence, some U.S. observers grew concerned that the army-led state might splinter.

The United States also rarely threatened to make Pakistan pay a high price for its intransigence. Only once during the entire 20-year war did Washington raise the stakes in a sufficiently targeted and forceful manner that Islamabad was forced to change its approach in Afghanistan. This lone success came in the immediate shock of the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, when Pakistan’s generals felt compelled to stand aside as their Taliban allies were routed. Musharraf and his compatriots clearly feared what the United States might do otherwise, and they were unwilling to go down with the Taliban.

The second opportunity came in May 2011, immediately after U.S. forces killed Osama bin Laden in an audacious raid inside Pakistani territory. The al Qaeda leader’s presence on Pakistani soil exposed to the world that Islamabad was either incompetent or deceitful—or some messy combination of the two. Pakistan’s military stood humiliated and vulnerable to pressure at home and internationally. However, rather than following up with new threats of what would come if Pakistan did not change course, U.S. officials largely backed off.

How Pakistan Sees Afghanistan
By Moeed Yusuf

Apart from the Afghan people, Pakistan has been the greatest victim of the wars in Afghanistan. The Soviet invasion in 1979 and the subsequent U.S.-led military campaign after 9/11 were not of Pakistan’s making. Yet our society, polity, and economy have borne the brunt of the conflict over the last four decades.

In 2001, Pakistan joined the U.S. war on terrorism against the very same actors who were hailed as freedom fighters when Washington and Islamabad together trained and backed them to defeat the Soviets in the 1980s. After the 9/11 attacks, American leaders issued an ultimatum to Pakistan’s military dictator, General Pervez Musharraf, that he was either “with us or against us.” Under pressure, Musharraf provided the United States and its partners with virtually unconditional support, including access to Pakistan’s air bases and ground and air supply routes, and helped arrest hundreds of members of al Qaeda.

Musharraf’s post-9/11 decision to launch an internal military campaign against Afghanistan’s erstwhile freedom fighters, many of whom had deep cultural and ethnic affiliations with tribesmen in the Pakistani-Afghan border regions, resulted in a massive insurgency against the Pakistani state. Over 50 militant groups sprang up, seeking to punish Pakistan for collaborating with the United States. They targeted our cities and massacred our children; 3.5 million civilians were displaced from their homes at the height of this onslaught. In the last 20 years, Pakistan has suffered over 80,000 casualties as a result of terrorist attacks and over $150 billion in economic losses.

The cost of providing for Afghan civilians fleeing war in their home country has also largely fallen on Pakistan. We host approximately four million Afghan refugees even today; this is down from a peak of well over five million in the 1980s. Furthermore, Afghanistan’s chaos brought a “Kalashnikov culture” and narcotrafficking to Pakistan: our country’s addiction rates rose nearly 50 times during the 1980s.

Imran Khan paints Pakistan as victim of US ungratefulness
By Mallika Sen

Prime Minister Imran Khan sought to cast Pakistan as the victim of American ungratefulness and an international double standard in his address to the United Nations General Assembly on Friday.

He launched into a narrative that began with the United States and Pakistan training mujahedeen — regarded as heroes by the likes of then-President Ronald Reagan, he said — during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. But Pakistan was left to pick up the pieces — millions of refugees and new sectarian militant groups — when the Soviets and the Americans left in 1989.

Khan said the U.S. sanctioned its former partner a year later, but then came calling again after the 9/11 attacks. Khan said Pakistan’s aid to the U.S. cost 80,000 Pakistani lives and caused internal strife and dissent directed at the state, all while the U.S. conducted drone attacks.

“So, when we hear this at the end. There is a lot of worry in the U.S. about taking care of the interpreters and everyone who helped the U.S.,” he said, referring to Afghanistan. “What about us?”

Instead of a mere “word of appreciation,” Pakistan has received blame, Khan said.

Despite Khan’s rhetoric espousing a desire for peace, many Afghans have blamed Pakistan for the Taliban’s resurgence in Afghanistan because of close links. The United Nations in August also rejected Pakistan’s request to give its side at a special meeting on Afghanistan, indicating the international community’s shared skepticism.

Pakistan’s Pyrrhic Victory in Afghanistan
By Husain Haqqani

General Hamid Gul, a former head of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence, spelled out publicly in 2014 how the ISI used aid provided by the United States after 9/11 to continue funding the Taliban and how it benefited from the U.S. decision to initially ignore the Afghan Islamist group in favor of its pursuit of al Qaeda. He told a television audience in 2014: “When history is written, it will be stated that the ISI defeated the Soviet Union in Afghanistan with the help of America. Then there will be another sentence. The ISI, with the help of America, defeated America.”

This triumphalism is likely to backfire.

Thirty years of support for jihad has also stoked the country’s internal dysfunction. Its economy has struggled, except in years of generous American aid. Homegrown Islamist radicals have incited sporadic violence, such as terrorist attacks on religious minorities and riots demanding the expulsion of the French ambassador over alleged blasphemy in France against the Prophet Muhammad. Women’s rights have been publicly questioned and threatened, and mainstream and social media are regularly censored to accommodate radical Islamist sensibilities. The government was forced to “Islamize” the curriculum at the expense of courses in science and critical thinking.

These developments will take Pakistan further away from becoming “a normal country,” perpetuating dysfunction at home and locking it into a foreign policy defined by hostility toward India and dependence on China. Washington and Islamabad’s long, mutual entanglement in Afghanistan threatens to further weaken the U.S.-Pakistani relationship. The United States is unlikely to soon forgive Pakistan for its decades-long enabling of the Taliban. For years to come, Pakistanis will argue whether it was worth the effort to influence Afghanistan through Taliban proxies when, after 9/11, Pakistan could have secured its interests by fully siding with the Americans.

Why Biden’s Lack of Strategic Patience Led to Disaster
By Ryan C. Crocker

I was ambassador to Pakistan from 2004 to 2007. I pushed Pakistani officials repeatedly on the need to deny the Taliban safe havens. The answer I got back over time went like this: “We know you. We know you don’t have patience for the long fight. We know the day will come when you just get tired and go home — it’s what you do. But we aren’t going anywhere — this is where we live. So if you think we are going to turn the Taliban into a mortal enemy, you are completely crazy.”

What Went Wrong in Afghanistan?
By Elliot Ackerman

Twenty years is a long time to fight a war, but for most of that time we were telling our Afghan allies that we were 12 to 28 months away from a major drawdown, regardless of our progress. It’s difficult to overstate how much this fundamentally undermined confidence in our mission. The most egregious example of this was President Obama’s 2009 speech at West Point, shortly after taking office, in which he announced a troop surge into Afghanistan. In the very same speech, he also announced, “After 18 months our troops will begin to come home.”

I was fighting in Afghanistan when he gave that speech. It came up frequently in conversations with tribal leaders whose public support we needed to quell the insurgency. Too often they would ask how they could support a new road project or girls’ school when in 18 months our president had said we would be gone, while the Taliban shadow governor who lived in their district would remain. It’s a fair question, and over the course of my four deployments to Afghanistan, I never had a good enough answer. If I’d had been able to say, “We are not leaving until that Taliban shadow governor is no longer a threat to you,” the war would have ended differently and, ironically, far sooner.

Much has also been said about the endemic corruption inside Afghanistan, particularly inside the government. No one condones corruption. But far less has been said about the way our insistence on a time-based withdrawal contributed to a psychology of corruption. The siphoning off of resources became an insurance plan for Afghans when we were asking them to risk their lives for our objectives while also telling them we would be leaving shortly. Every year we promised that the next year would bring our drawdown and their eventual abandonment to the Taliban. Think of your own family. What choices would you have made?

America’s Afghan War: A Defeat Foretold?
By Adam Nossiter

“In the long run all colonial wars are lost,” the historian of Portugal’s misadventures in Africa, Patrick Chabal, wrote 20 years ago, just as the Americans were becoming fatally embroiled in Afghanistan.

The superpower’s two-decade entanglement and ultimate defeat was all the more surprising in that the America of the decades preceding the millennium had been suffused with talk of the supposed “lessons” of Vietnam.

The dominant one was enunciated by the former majority leader of the Senate, Mike Mansfield, in the late 1970s: “The cost was 55,000 dead, 303,000 wounded, $150 billion,” Mansfield told a radio interviewer. “It was unnecessary, uncalled-for, it wasn’t tied to our security or a vital interest. It was just a misadventure in a part of the world which we should have kept our nose out of.”

Long before, at the very beginning of the “misadventure,” in 1961, President John F. Kennedy had been warned off Vietnam by no less an authority than Charles de Gaulle. “I predict that you will sink step by step into a bottomless military and political quagmire, however much you spend in men and money,” de Gaulle, the French president, later recalled telling Kennedy.

The American ignored him. In words that foreshadowed both the Vietnam and Afghan debacles, de Gaulle warned Kennedy: “Even if you find local leaders who in their own interests are prepared to obey you, the people will not agree to it, and indeed do not want you.”

By 1968, American generals were arguing that the North Vietnamese had been “whipped,” as one put it. The problem was, the enemy refused to recognize that it had been defeated, and went right on fighting, as the foreign policy analysts James Chace and David Fromkin observed in the mid-1980s. The Americans’ South Vietnamese ally, meanwhile, was corrupt and had little popular support.

The same unholy trinity of realities — boastful generals, an unbowed enemy, a feeble ally — could have been observed at all points during the U.S. engagement in Afghanistan.

Kennedy should have listened to de Gaulle. The French president, unlike his American counterparts then and later, distrusted the generals and would not listen to their blandishments, despite being France’s premier military hero.

He was at that moment extricating France from a brutal eight-year colonial war in Algeria, against the fervent wishes of his top officers and the European settlers there who wanted to maintain the more than century-old colonial rule. His generals argued, rightly, that the interior Algerian guerrilla resistance had been largely smashed.

But de Gaulle had the wisdom to see that the fight was not over.

Massed at Algeria’s borders was what the insurgents called the “army of the frontiers,” later the Army of National Liberation, or A.L.N., which became today’s A.N.P., or National People’s Army, still the dominant element in Algerian political life.

“What motivated de Gaulle was they still had an army on the frontiers,” said Benjamin Stora, the leading historian of the Franco-Algerian relationship. “So the situation was frozen, militarily. De Gaulle’s reasoning was, if we maintain the status quo, we lose a lot.” He pulled the French out in a decision that still torments them.

The United States thought it was helping Afghans fight an avatar of evil, the Taliban, the running mate of international terrorism. That was the American optic and the American war.

But the Afghans, many of them, were not fighting that war. The Taliban are from their towns and villages. Afghanistan, particularly in its urban centers, may have changed over 20 years of American occupation. But the laws the Taliban promoted — repressive policies toward women — were not so different, if they differed at all, from immemorial customs in many of these rural villages, particularly in the Pashtun south.

“There is resistance to girls’ education in many rural communities in Afghanistan,” a Human Rights Watch report noted soberly last year. And outside provincial capitals, even in the north, it is rare to see women not wearing the burqa.

This is why for years the Taliban have been dispensing justice, often brutally, in the areas they have controlled, with the acquiescence — even the acceptance — of the local populations. Disputes over property and cases of petty crime are adjudicated expeditiously, sometimes by religious scholars — and these courts have a reputation for “incorruptibility” compared with the former government’s rotten system, Human Rights Watch wrote.

It is a system focused on punishment, often harsh. And despite the Taliban’s protestations this week of forgiveness for those who served the now defunct Afghan administration, they have not shown anything like tolerance in the past. The group’s system of clandestine prisons, housing large numbers of soldiers and government workers, inspired fear in local populations all over Afghanistan.

Afghanistan shows us that we can’t invent other nations in our image
By Kathleen Parker

There was an argument for helping to create a government and a military capable of stabilizing that nation, and in working to make education available to girls and women, the success of whom theoretically would lead to a more stable country.

We might have guessed we’d fail in the end because Afghanistan historically is where other nations go to fail. We might have figured that bombing and killing members of the Taliban would fail to endear them to us or to our democratic principles. We might have predicted that a government and military stood up by outsiders would collapse in the face of fiercer, internal foes.

Similarly, we tried to save South Vietnam from communist takeover by the North, fearing that neighboring countries also would soon fall to communism in a sweep known at the time as “the domino effect.” Which some did, despite the ultimate sacrifices of more than 58,000 Americans. Too many mistakes were made to itemize here, but the greatest by far was our government’s decision to escalate when it knew the war was essentially lost. This wasn’t just poor judgment or incompetence, as seems to be the case in Afghanistan; it was a willful, calculated decision to lie to the American people and let their sons and fathers die for nothing.

It isn’t easy to move on from that kind of betrayal.

The True Meaning of the Afghan “Withdrawal”
By Alfred McCoy

The many Afghans who believed in America’s democratic promises will join a growing line of abandoned allies, stretching back to the Vietnam era and including, more recently, Kurds, Iraqis, and Somalis, among others. Once the full costs of Washington’s withdrawal from Afghanistan become apparent, the debacle may, not surprisingly, discourage potential future allies from trusting Washington’s word or judgment.

Much as the fall of Saigon made the American people wary of such interventions for more than a decade, so a possible catastrophe in Kabul will likely (one might even say, hopefully) produce a long-term aversion in this country to such future interventions.

Afghanistan is a disaster we will probably cause again
By Paul Waldman

September 11 took our baseline belief in our own moral innocence and righteousness, and cranked it up to the red line. On top of everything else we were now victims, a nation that believed that in the name of vengeance it could do nearly anything.

In a jingoistic frenzy — one New York Times headline at the time read “Marchers Oppose Waging War Against Terrorists” — we invaded Afghanistan almost gleefully, ostensibly to find Osama bin Laden and destroy Al Qaeda. But bin Laden disappeared and we quickly settled in, thinking that in short order we’d create a thriving liberal democracy.

Then just a year and a half later, Bush mounted the most extraordinary propaganda campaign in U.S. history to convince the public that Saddam Hussein was not only implicated in September 11 but would soon attack us with his fearsome weapons of mass destruction if we did not invade Iraq as well.

So we did, repeating again and again that these were not wars of conquest or imperialism but mere self-defense, combined with a boundless concern for the people on whom we were dropping ordnance.

These wars, their promoters assured us, would not only bring the blessings of liberty to the lands we invaded, they would set off a cascade of freedom spreading from one country to another until much of the world rested comfortably in our beneficent shadow.

We’re so convinced of our own benevolent intentions that we can’t wrap our heads around the idea that people in the rest of the world see us not as a force of altruism and liberation but as a global hegemon imposing its will and maintaining its control, so often indifferent to the death and dislocation it causes. They do not trust our motives, they do not share our confidence, and they often view our own history with a clearer eye than we do.

Today we’re all united in sadness and disgust over the disaster of Afghanistan, even if we differ on who is most to blame. But rest assured, there are those among us who are only too eager to put this failure behind us so we can do it all over again.

How The Century-Old Debate Over ‘American Empire’ Still Resonates
By Stephen Kinzer

As the twentieth century dawned, the United States faced a fateful choice. It had to decide whether to join the race for colonies, territories, and dependencies that gripped European powers. Americans understood what was at stake. The United States had been a colony. It was founded on the principle that every nation must be ruled by “the consent of the governed.” Yet suddenly it found itself with the chance to rule faraway lands.

This prospect thrilled some Americans. It horrified others. Their debate gripped the United States. The country’s best-known political and intellectual leaders took sides. Only once before — in the period when the United States was founded — have so many brilliant Americans so eloquently debated a question so fraught with meaning for all humanity.

The two sides in this debate represent matched halves of the divided American soul. Should the United States project power into faraway lands? Yes, to guarantee our prosperity, save innocent lives, liberate the oppressed, and confront danger before it reaches our shores! No, intervention brings suffering and creates enemies!

Americans still cannot decide what the Puritan leader John Winthrop meant when he told his followers in 1630, “We shall be as a city upon a hill, the eyes of all people are upon us.” He wanted us to build a virtuous society that would be a model for others! Wrong, he wanted us to set out into a sinful world and redeem it! Forced to choose between these two irreconcilable alternatives, Americans choose both.

An American Century of Carnage
By John Dower

On February 17, 1941, almost 10 months before Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, Life magazine carried a lengthy essay by its publisher, Henry Luce, entitled “The American Century.” The son of Presbyterian missionaries, born in China in 1898 and raised there until the age of 15, Luce essentially transposed the certainty of religious dogma into the certainty of a nationalistic mission couched in the name of internationalism.

Luce acknowledged that the United States could not police the whole world or attempt to impose democratic institutions on all of mankind. Nonetheless, “the world of the 20th Century,” he wrote, “if it is to come to life in any nobility of health and vigor, must be to a significant degree an American Century.” The essay called on all Americans “to accept wholeheartedly our duty and our opportunity as the most powerful and vital nation in the world and in consequence to exert upon the world the full impact of our influence, for such purposes as we see fit and by such measures as we see fit.”

Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor propelled the United States wholeheartedly onto the international stage Luce believed it was destined to dominate, and the ringing title of his cri de coeur became a staple of patriotic Cold War and post-Cold War rhetoric. Central to this appeal was the affirmation of a virtuous calling. Luce’s essay singled out almost every professed ideal that would become a staple of wartime and Cold War propaganda: freedom, democracy, equality of opportunity, self-reliance and independence, cooperation, justice, charity — all coupled with a vision of economic abundance inspired by “our magnificent industrial products, our technical skills.” In present-day patriotic incantations, this is referred to as “American exceptionalism.”

The other, harder side of America’s manifest destiny was, of course, muscularity. Power. Possessing absolute and never-ending superiority in developing and deploying the world’s most advanced and destructive arsenal of war. Luce did not dwell on this dimension of “internationalism” in his famous essay, but once the world war had been entered and won, he became its fervent apostle — an outspoken advocate of “liberating” China from its new communist rulers, taking over from the beleaguered French colonial military in Vietnam, turning both the Korean and Vietnam conflicts from “limited wars” into opportunities for a wider virtuous war against and in China, and pursuing the rollback of the Iron Curtain with “tactical atomic weapons.” As Luce’s incisive biographer Alan Brinkley documents, at one point Luce even mulled the possibility of “plastering Russia with 500 (or 1,000) A bombs” — a terrifying scenario, but one that the keepers of the U.S. nuclear arsenal actually mapped out in expansive and appalling detail in the 1950s and 1960s, before Luce’s death in 1967.

The “American Century” catchphrase is hyperbole, the slogan never more than a myth, a fantasy, a delusion. Military victory in any traditional sense was largely a chimera after World War II. The so-called Pax Americana itself was riddled with conflict and oppression and egregious betrayals of the professed catechism of American values. At the same time, postwar U.S. hegemony obviously never extended to more than a portion of the globe. Much that took place in the world, including disorder and mayhem, was beyond America’s control.

Yet, not unreasonably, Luce’s catchphrase persists. The twenty-first-century world may be chaotic, with violence erupting from innumerable sources and causes, but the United States does remain the planet’s “sole superpower.” The myth of exceptionalism still holds most Americans in its thrall.

Welcome to the rules-based disorder
By Bruno Maçães

The US deputy secretary of state Wendy Sherman met her Chinese counterparts in the Chinese city of Tianjin on 26 July. Her message was that the United States and China can avoid falling into a spiral of great power competition and conflict if they accept the common rules governing their relationship. “The US wants to ensure that there are guardrails and parameters in place to responsibly manage the relationship,” a senior American diplomat told Reuters. “Everyone needs to play by the same rules and on a level playing field.”

Does everyone play by the same rules? Or do some set the rules? And if some set the rules, why should the others follow them? In June 2018, when a photographer famously captured Angela Merkel leaning over Donald Trump in rightful indignation, sources in the room say that both she and Emmanuel Macron were trying to convince a sceptical US president to accept a reference to the “rules-based international order” in the final statement of the G7.

Trump resisted because he believed, not without reason, that the great advantage of being strong is the ability to break the rules.

We would do well, then, to drop the pablum of “playing by the same rules”. That is not what world politics is about. The rules are not given and they are anything but neutral. The game is considerably more complex, as the main players compete not under a common set of rules but in order to define what the rules are. The system is open to change, its rules may be influenced or determined by the choices and actions of the different participants and, as a result, tilted more in favour of some of them rather than others. And as the US has shown, they can even change their mind about which rules are best.

If one side succeeds in imposing the rules, are these rules or dictates?

The Russian strategist Sergey Karaganov told me that he once asked the late Zbigniew Brzezinski, who was national security advisor to President Carter, why he was so fond of describing world politics as a game of chess: “In a game of chess there are two players, and yet in your mind there is only one.” The final goal of power is to disguise its nature as power – as the senior official in Washington put it, America is just playing by the rules like everyone else. Normally, only the powerful, and only for brief periods, believe this is how politics works.

Author Kinzer Charts ‘Century of Regime Change’
By Stephen Kinzer

The history of American overthrows of foreign governments can be divided into three parts. First came the imperial phase, when Americans deposed regimes more or less openly. None of the men who overthrew the Hawaiian monarchy tried to hide their involvement. The Spanish-American War was fought in full view of the world, and President Taft announced exactly what he was doing when he moved to overthrow the governments of Nicaragua and Honduras. The men who directed these “regime change” operations may not have forthrightly explained why they were acting, but they took responsibility for their acts.

After World War II, with the world political situation infinitely more complex than it had been at the dawn of the century, American presidents found a new way to overthrow foreign governments. They could no longer simply demand that unfriendly foreign leaders accept the reality of American power and step down, nor could they send troops to land on foreign shores without worrying about the consequences. This was because for the first time, there was a force in the world that limited their freedom of action: the Soviet Union. During the Cold War, any direct American intervention risked provoking a reaction from the Soviets, possibly a cataclysmic one. To adjust to this new reality, the United States began using a more subtle technique, the clandestine coup d’état, to depose foreign governments. In Iran, Guatemala, South Vietnam, and Chile, diplomats and intelligence agents replaced generals as the instruments of American intervention.

By the end of the twentieth century, it had become more difficult for Americans to stage coups because foreign leaders had learned how to resist them. Coups had also become unnecessary. The decline and collapse of the Soviet Union and the disappearance of the Red Army meant that there was no longer any military constraint on the United States. That left it free to return to its habit of landing troops on foreign shores.

Both of the small countries Americans invaded in the 1980s, Grenada and Panama, are in what the United States has traditionally considered its sphere of influence, and both were already in turmoil when American troops landed. The two invasions that came later, in Afghanistan and Iraq, were far larger in scale and historical importance. Many Americans supported the operation in Afghanistan because they saw it as an appropriate reaction to the presence of terrorists there. A smaller but still substantial number supported the operation in Iraq after being told that Iraq also posed an imminent threat to world peace. American invasions left both of these countries in violent turmoil.

Most “regime change” operations have achieved their short-term goals. Before the CIA deposed the government of Guatemala in 1954, for example, United Fruit was not free to operate as it wished in that country; afterward it was. From the vantage point of history, however, it is clear that most of these operations actually weakened American security. They cast whole regions of the world into upheaval, creating whirlpools of instability from which undreamed-of threats arose years later.

America the Humble
By John Mueller and Mark G. Stewart

In the wake of its withdrawal from the Vietnam War in 1973, the United States fell into something that has been dubbed the “Vietnam syndrome.” Although it still pursued the Cold War with the Soviet Union, it substantially avoided the active use of U.S. military force to do so. In the late 1970s, in fact, the United States essentially let its policy of containing the Soviet Union lapse and watched as the Soviets welcomed 10 new countries into their camp: Afghanistan, Angola, Cambodia, Ethiopia, Grenada, Laos, Mozambique, Nicaragua, South Yemen, and Vietnam. All of those countries soon became dependent on Moscow economically, politically, and sometimes militarily—particularly Afghanistan, where the Soviets found it necessary to intervene with force in order to keep their allies in power. As it turned out, the Soviets eventually came to realize that they might have been better off being contained.

American military force was applied rather sparingly during the entire last quarter of the twentieth century. The most assertive Cold War actions by the United States during that period were the military invasion of the small Caribbean island of Grenada in 1983 and the operation to support anti-Soviet rebels in Afghanistan. The United States also bombed Libya for a day in 1986 in retaliation for the Libyan government’s sponsorship of terrorist activities; invaded Panama in 1989 to depose an offending regime; and led an international coalition in 1991 to reverse Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. In all cases, the opponents were scarcely formidable. Although the Iraqi army may have looked impressive on paper, it lacked strategy, tactics, defenses, leadership, and morale, and it responded to confrontation with the U.S. military mostly by fleeing or by surrendering.

Other military ventures Washington pursued between the Vietnam War and 9/11 were even more limited and were carried out mostly for humanitarian purposes. American troops were sent to Lebanon in 1983 to help police a cease-fire there, but they were abruptly pulled out when 241 of them were killed in their barracks by a terrorist bomb. In 1992, American soldiers helped stabilize Somalia, which was in the midst of a civil war and an attendant famine. But Washington withdrew its forces after 18 soldiers were killed in a chaotic firefight. Stung by this experience, the Clinton administration did not act to stop the genocide in nearby Rwanda in 1994.

The Moral Logic of Humanitarian Intervention
By Dexter Filkins

In “ ‘A Problem from Hell,’ ” published in early 2002, Power detailed a century’s worth of American inaction in the face of grotesque massacres: of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire during the First World War, in Europe during the Holocaust, in Rwanda in 1994, and in the Balkans for much of the nineties. Power had gone to the Balkans as a freelance reporter fresh out of Yale, and witnessed the violence that raged as the former Yugoslavia came apart. Like most people who saw the war up close, she understood that the violence was not primarily a spontaneous outburst of old hatreds but the result of ethnopolitical machinations. Ethnic and sectarian enmity, fomented and backed by the Serbian leader, Slobodan Milošević, was unleashed in terrible waves of killing, rape, and starvation. In “ ‘A Problem from Hell,’ ” Power wrote of Sidbela Zimic, a nine-year-old Bosnian girl who had been jumping rope in front of her apartment building in Sarajevo with her friends when she was killed by a Serbian shell. When Power arrived, a few hours later, she found only a pool of blood, a jump rope, and girls’ slippers.

Power was enraged by claims in the West that nothing could be done. President Clinton was famously persuaded by “Balkan Ghosts,” a travelogue written by Robert D. Kaplan, who argued that Balkan antagonisms were too deep-rooted and mysterious for outsiders to fathom. “Their enmities go back five hundred years, some would say almost a thousand years,” Clinton told Larry King. As Clinton dithered, a hundred thousand people died.

What finally moved Clinton to act was not ethics but politics: in 1995, as he prepared to run for reëlection, images of Serbian barbarities began to affect his prospects. That summer, he ordered devastating air strikes on Serbian military positions and dispatched an envoy, Richard Holbrooke, to pressure the parties to make peace. In Dayton, Holbrooke forged a deal that stopped the killing. A few years later, when Milošević launched a violent campaign against separatists in Serbia’s ethnic-Albanian province of Kosovo, NATO intervened fast and hard with an air campaign, pushing out the Serbian Army and clearing the way for the Kosovars to secede.

“ ‘A Problem from Hell’ ” built upon the lessons of the Balkans: not just that the American intervention had stopped the bloodshed but that, in Bosnia, it had begun three years too late. Power advocated greater interference in countries’ internal affairs in defense of an unwavering principle of humanitarianism. “Given the affront genocide represents to America’s most cherished values and to its interests, the United States must also be prepared to risk the lives of its soldiers in the service of stopping this monstrous crime,” she wrote.

But, in Libya, Obama acted decisively, and while his Administration may have prevented a massacre, it also became responsible for a more durable disaster. For all the hand-wringing that preceded the Libyan intervention, no one in the Obama White House seems to have given serious consideration to what would happen if a civil war broke out. Obama, knowing that Americans had little interest in another foreign entanglement, assured citizens that the U.S. would put no troops on the ground, and would play no major role in reconstruction. This was a gamble with very long odds.

The collapse of Qaddafi’s regime loosed a wave of anarchy. The coalition government that took power after Qaddafi’s fall failed to disarm the many militias that had fought in the rebellion, and a military conflict among armed factions swept the country. The conflict drew in neighboring countries, with the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia backing more secular groups and Turkey and Qatar supporting the Islamists. The most recent fighting features a weak government in Tripoli, nominally backed by the U.S. and other Western countries, against forces led by Khalifa Haftar, a former Libyan general and C.I.A. proxy, who has been supported by Egypt, the U.A.E., and Saudi Arabia. It’s difficult to determine the exact number of people killed since the uprising began, but credible estimates suggest that it is at least twenty-five thousand.

The absence of a central authority turned Libya into even more of a magnet for the wretched of sub-Saharan Africa and elsewhere. Today, there are as many as a million migrants in Libya, typically on their way to Europe, across the Mediterranean. Only a deeply problematic initiative, in which the European Union pays the Libyan coast guard to block migrants, has stemmed the exodus. The apprehended are often sent to detention camps—centers of rape, robbery, and human trafficking. This is the “severe downturn in security” that Power refers to.

Power essentially absolves herself and the Administration of what happened after the bombs: “We could hardly expect to have a crystal ball when it came to accurately predicting outcomes in places where the culture was not our own.” In a certain light, this sounds like an argument for not intervening at all. Obama has referred to America’s involvement in Libya as the worst decision of his Presidency.

Chastened by Libya, Obama took only the smallest steps in Syria. Early in his second term, his advisers, including Power and Clinton, supported imposing a no-fly zone. No-fly zones can be effective. The no-fly zone over northern Iraq, put in place in 1991 to protect the Kurds from Saddam Hussein’s armies, helped provide the Kurds with space to build a semi-autonomous state and army. A no-fly zone established over Bosnia in 1993, though not rigorously enforced, effectively grounded the Serbian air force. In Syria, Assad’s strategy relied heavily on aerial attacks—using poison gas, indiscriminate shelling, and barrel bombs to terrorize the population, until everyone except the rebels fled. The Global Public Policy Institute (GPPi) estimates that the majority of chemical-weapons attacks have been delivered by helicopter. With a no-fly zone, such a campaign would have been impossible.

But Obama declined. A no-fly zone would have required destroying the country’s formidable Russian-provided air-defense network, and killing many Syrian soldiers. And Syria was far from a defeated state, as Iraq had been in 1991. Nor would a no-fly zone have stopped all chemical-weapons attacks. The attack that prompted the crisis meeting Power describes in the opening of her book involved sarin-gas shells delivered to a Damascus suburb by artillery. As the reports were confirmed, Obama initially indicated that he intended to punish Assad. He deployed warships to the Mediterranean and reviewed options for a strike—only to call the strike off at the last minute to ask Congress for permission. Congress was having none of it.

Abroad, though, the idea of “leading from behind” may have resulted in a qualified success. In September, 2013, Secretary of State John Kerry publicly mused that the crisis could be solved if Assad surrendered his chemical weapons. The Russians volunteered to help, and they eventually managed to remove most of Assad’s arsenal—thirteen hundred tons of chemical weapons at twenty-three locations across the country. For Obama, this was a humanitarian victory, even if it required a humiliating sacrifice of international prestige. It may also have forestalled a more pressing need to invade. The operation to remove chemical arms from Syria concluded in the summer of 2014, just as ISIS swept in from the desert. Had those weapons remained, the U.S. might well have felt compelled to send a huge force to seize them. “Obama would have invaded Syria,” Chollet said. “We could not have allowed even the smallest chance that ISIS could have gotten hold of them.” Instead, Obama dispatched some seven thousand American troops to northeast Syria and to Iraq in order to fight isis. After they arrived, a de-facto no-fly zone was established in Kurdish-controlled northeast Syria. The policy, which remains in effect, has kept Assad and his allies from bombing civilians in the area.

But elsewhere in Syria the story was very different. Assad started making and deploying more chemical weapons—usually chlorine gas, which is barbaric but not illegal, and often in less than lethal concentrations, to avoid attracting attention. According to the GPPi, the regime has used chemical weapons two hundred and sixty-six times since the U.N. declared that they had been removed. After two such attacks, in 2017 and 2018, Donald Trump ordered missile strikes. They didn’t work: Assad has used chemical weapons sixty-one times during Trump’s tenure.

Obama’s hesitation led to one other unintended consequence: it brought in an indiscriminate Russian campaign of bombing and artillery barrages that drove millions of Syrians out of the country. Hundreds of thousands fled to Europe, helping to trigger a continent-wide wave of reaction. In this way, a humanitarian crisis morphed into a geopolitical one.

Could Obama have done more? In retrospect, the answer is always yes. Would the results look better? Knowing the answer would require, as Power said of the decision to intervene in Libya, a crystal ball.

The Last Days of Intervention
By Rory Stewart

Had the same U.S. and European officials been seeking to improve the lives of people in a poor ex-coal town in eastern Kentucky or to work with Native American tribes in South Dakota, they might have been more skeptical of universal blueprints for societal transformation, paid more attention to the history and trauma of local communities, and been more modest about their own status as outsiders. They might have understood that messiness was inevitable, failure possible, and patience essential. They might even have grasped why humility was better than a heavy footprint and why listening was better than lecturing.

Scarred by memories of Vietnam and the more recent failed intervention in Somalia, senior U.S. and European officials did not wish to be drawn into the long history of ethnic strife in the Balkans and so approached the conflict with immense caution. When the United States belatedly mounted a military intervention, it was focused on air operations to bomb the Bosnian Serb artillery around Sarajevo. The ground fighting was conducted by the Sarajevo-based Bosnia authority and by Croatian soldiers, who received their training from U.S. contractors. When international troops were deployed after the Dayton peace accords, they spent most of their time on their bases. More U.S. soldiers were injured playing sports than in action.

The Office of the High Representative for Bosnia and Herzegovina had much less power than its equivalent would be given in Kosovo and could not order military or police officers to enforce its decrees. The Dayton agreement handed 49 percent of the country’s territory to the Bosnian Serb aggressors and enshrined their power in areas that they had ethnically cleansed. The cautious international presence also initially left the Croatian and Serbian paramilitaries, special police forces, and intelligence services in place and did not disarm them. Instead of doing the equivalent of “de-Baathifying,” as Bremer did in Iraq, or toppling the warlords, as U.S. and coalition forces did later in southern Afghanistan, the high representative for Bosnia and Herzegovina was required to work with the war criminals. The party of the Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic, who was responsible for the massacre in Srebrenica, was allowed to participate in elections (and won the first postwar one, in 1996).

Bosnia was ultimately transformed not by foreign hands but by messy and often unexpected local solutions that were supported by international diplomacy. The first breakthrough came when Bosnian Serb President Biljana Plavsic split from her mentor, the war criminal Karadzic, and then requested international support. Plavsic was herself a war criminal who had described Bosnian Muslims as “genetically deformed material.” But the international forces worked with her to disarm the special police forces, Bosnian Serb units that acted as de facto militias. Later, the death of Croatian President Franjo Tudjman and the toppling of Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic fatally weakened their proxies in Bosnia. Neither of these events was part of a planned strategy by the international community, but both helped what had initially been a tiny and apparently toothless war crimes tribunal in The Hague expand its operations, leading eventually to the capture and prosecution not only of Karadzic but also of Plavsic herself. Cautious compromises ultimately led not to appeasement but to justice.

The reversal of the ethnic cleansing in Bosnia also owed very little to international plans. Despite the Dayton agreement’s commitment to refugee return, many international experts considered it reckless to allow refugees to go back to villages that had been burned to the ground and occupied by hostile militias. Nonetheless, small groups of Bosnians tried to move back to their homes. Some were ejected immediately by armed groups, but others held on and persuaded international troops to follow and protect them. These small Bosnian-led initiatives—improvised, incremental, and following no international plan—opened the door for the return of over a million refugees.

Within a decade of the intervention, more than 200,000 homes had been given back to their owners, over 400,000 soldiers from three armies had been disarmed, and Bosnia had built a unified army of 15,000 soldiers. All the major war criminals were caught and tried, and Bosnia’s homicide rate fell below that of Sweden. All of this was achieved at a cost of almost zero American and NATO lives. And as Gerald Knaus, the chair of the European Stability Initiative, a European think tank specializing in the Balkans, has argued, such successes were due not to the strength of the international presence but to its comparative weakness: a relatively restrained intervention forced local politicians to take the lead, necessitated often uncomfortable compromises, and made foreign civilians and troops act cautiously to reinforce unexpected and improvised local initiatives.

Three decades later, Europe still awaits the unity heralded by German reunification
By Stephen Kinzer

Thirty years ago, at a wildly festive midnight carnival on Oct. 3, 1990, East and West Germany were proclaimed reunited. Standing amid the throng gathered at Berlin’s historic Brandenburg Gate, I shared the excitement of everyone around me. We thought we were witnessing the dawn of a new era. Germans long separated would embrace each other. The formerly Communist east would become what Chancellor Helmut Kohl called “a blooming landscape.” German unity would lead inexorably to European unity. Nationalism would fade as Europeans came to recognize that they shared a common identity. Russia would become a partner of the West rather than a threatening adversary.

During the painstaking talks that led to unification, Gorbachev insisted that NATO, the military alliance that had been the Soviets’ main enemy for 40 years, must never expand eastward toward his country’s territory. He was following the age-old principle of “strategic depth,” which dictates that countries should not accept hostile forces close to their own borders. Western negotiators understood and accepted his concern. At a key meeting eight months before the Brandenburg Gate celebration, US Secretary of State James Baker promised Gorbachev that NATO would move “not one inch eastward.” Other Western leaders made the same commitment. “We believe that NATO should not expand the sphere of its activity,” Chancellor Kohl told Gorbachev.

That was enough to satisfy the Soviet leader. It shouldn’t have been. He accepted a “pinky promise” rather than insisting on a written commitment. Only a few years later, President Bill Clinton, eager to win votes from ethnic Eastern Europeans in his 1996 re-election campaign and urged on by weapons makers who saw an enormous new market in Eastern Europe, proclaimed his support for precisely the NATO expansion that Gorbachev had been promised would never happen. Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic joined the US-led alliance in 1999. Ten more countries in Eastern Europe have joined since then. NATO expansion has contributed decisively to Russia’s perception of the West as both untrustworthy and aggressive.

We’ve been hacking elections for more than a century
By Stephen Kinzer

Over a period of more than a century, American leaders have used a variety of tools to influence voters in other countries. We have chosen candidates, advised them, financed their parties, designed their campaigns, bribed media outlets to support them, and intimidated or smeared their rivals.

One of our first operations to shape the outcome of a foreign election came in Cuba. After the United States helped Cuban rebels overthrow Spanish rule in 1898, we organized a presidential election, recruited a pro-American candidate, and forbade others to run against him. Two years later, after the United States annexed Hawaii, we established an electoral system that denied suffrage to most native Hawaiians, assuring that only pro-American candidates would be elected to public office.

During the Cold War, influencing foreign elections was a top priority for the CIA. One of its first major operations was aimed at assuring that a party we favored won the 1948 election in Italy. This was a multipronged effort that included projects like encouraging Italian-Americans to write letters to their relatives warning that American aid to Italy would end if the wrong party won. Encouraged by its success in Italy, the CIA quickly moved to other countries.

In 1953, the United States found a former Vietnamese official who had lived at Catholic seminaries in the United States, and maneuvered him into the presidency of newly formed South Vietnam. He was supposed to stay on the job for two years until national elections could be held, but when it became clear that he would lose, he canceled the election. “I think we should support him on this,” the US secretary of state said. The CIA then stage-managed a plebiscite on our man’s rule. Campaigning against him was forbidden. A reported 98.2 percent of voters endorsed his rule. The American ambassador called this plebiscite a “resounding success.”

In 1955 the CIA gave $1 million to a pro-American party in Indonesia. Two years later the United States maneuvered a friendly politician into the presidency of Lebanon by financing his supporters’ campaigns for Parliament. “Throughout the elections, I traveled regularly to the presidential palace with a briefcase full of Lebanese pounds,” a CIA officer later wrote. “The president insisted that he handle each transaction by himself.”

Our intervention in Lebanon’s election provoked protests by those who believed that Lebanese voters alone should shape their country’s future. The United States sent troops to Lebanon to suppress that outburst of nationalism. Much the same happened in the Dominican Republic, which we invaded in 1965 after voters chose a president we deemed unacceptable. Our intervention in Chile’s 1964 election was more discreet, carried out by covertly financing favored candidates and paying newspapers and radio stations to skew reporting in ways that would favor them.

The next Chilean election, in 1970, drew the United States into one of its furthest-reaching interventions. The CIA and other government agencies used a variety of pressures to prevent the Chilean Congress from confirming the victory of a Socialist presidential candidate. This operation included shipping weapons to conspirators who, several hours after receiving them, assassinated the commander of the Chilean military, who had refused to lead a revolt against democracy. His murder did not prevent the accession of the candidate we detested, but the United States relentlessly punished Chile for the next three years until the military staged a coup and ended democratic rule. An American official asserted that intervention in Chile was made necessary by “the stupidity of its own people,” which they expressed by voting for a candidate we opposed.

Among many CIA operations to influence elections in the Middle East, one in 1975 helped elect a prime minister of Israel whose policies the United States favored. In Central America, intervening in elections is an even older habit. The CIA recruited a pro-American economist to run for president of Nicaragua in 1984, and when it became clear that he would lose, pulled him out of the race amid laments about the lack of electoral freedom in Nicaragua. In 2009, the United States encouraged a military coup in which the elected president of Honduras was deposed, and then endorsed a new election in which he was not allowed to run.

Perhaps the most recent US intervention in foreign politics came in Ukraine. In 2014, as protesters gathered there in an effort to overthrow their elected government, a senior State Department official appeared in the crowd to encourage their revolt. She was caught telling an aide which Ukrainian politician was “the guy” Americans had chosen to be Ukraine’s next leader, and asserting that the United States would “midwife this thing.” A few weeks later our “guy” became prime minister — setting off a crisis that ended with Russian military intervention.

How to interfere in a foreign election
By Stephen Kinzer

The year was 1996. Russia was electing a president to succeed Boris Yeltsin, whose disastrous presidency, marked by the post-Soviet social collapse and a savage war in Chechnya, had brought his approval rating down to the single digits. President Bill Clinton decided that American interests would be best served by finding a way to re-elect Yeltsin despite his deep unpopularity. Yeltsin was ill, chronically alcoholic, and seen in Washington as easy to control. Clinton bonded with him. He was our “Manchurian Candidate.”

Part of the American plan was public. Clinton began praising Yeltsin as a world-class statesman. He defended Yeltsin’s scorched-earth tactics in Chechnya, comparing him to Abraham Lincoln for his dedication to keeping a nation together. As for Yeltsin’s bombardment of the Russian Parliament in 1993, which cost 187 lives, Clinton insisted that his friend had “bent over backwards” to avoid it. He stopped mentioning his plan to extend NATO toward Russia’s borders, and never uttered a word about the ravaging of Russia’s formerly state-owned economy by kleptocrats connected to Yeltsin. Instead he gave them a spectacular gift.

Four months before the election, Clinton arranged for the International Monetary Fund to give Russia a $10.2 billion injection of cash. Yeltsin used some of it to pay for election-year raises and bonuses, but much quickly disappeared into the foreign bank accounts of Russian oligarchs. The message was clear: Yeltsin knows how to shake the Western money tree. In case anyone missed it, Clinton came to Moscow a few weeks later to celebrate with his Russian partner. Oligarchs flocked to Yeltsin’s side. American diplomats persuaded one of his rivals to drop out of the presidential race in order to improve his chances.

Four American political consultants moved to Moscow to help direct Yeltsin’s campaign. The campaign paid them $250,000 per month for advice on “sophisticated methods of polling, voter contact and campaign organization.” They organized focus groups and designed advertising messages aimed at stoking voters’ fears of civil unrest. When they saw a CNN report from Moscow saying that voters were gravitating toward Yeltsin because they feared unrest, one of the consultants shouted in triumph: “It worked! The whole strategy worked. They’re scared to death!”

Yeltsin won the election with a reported 54 percent of the vote. The count was suspicious and Yeltsin had wildly violated campaign spending limits, but American groups, some funded in part by Washington, rushed to pronounce the election fair. The New York Times called it “a victory for Russia.” In fact, it was the opposite: a victory by a foreign power that wanted to place its candidate in the Russian presidency.

American interference in the 1996 Russian election was hardly secret. On the contrary, the press reveled in our ability to shape the politics of a country we once feared. When Clinton maneuvered the IMF into giving Yeltsin and his cronies $10.2 billion, the Washington Post approved: “Now this is the right way to serve Western interests. . . It’s to use the politically bland but powerful instrument of the International Monetary Fund.” After Yeltsin won, Time put him on the cover—holding an American flag. Its story was headlined, “Yanks to the Rescue: The Secret Story of How American Advisors Helped Yeltsin Win.” The story was later made into a movie called “Spinning Boris.”

This was the first direct interference in a presidential election in the history of US-Russia relations. It produced bad results. Yeltsin opened his country’s assets to looting on a mass scale. He turned the Chechen capital, Grozny, into a wasteland. Standards of living in Russia fell dramatically. Then, at the end of 1999, plagued by health problems, he shocked his country and the world by resigning. As his final act, he named his successor: a little-known intelligence officer named Vladimir Putin. It is a delightful irony that shows how unwise it can be to interfere in another country’s politics. If the United States had not crashed into a presidential election in Russia 22 years ago, we almost certainly would not be dealing with Putin today.

Containment Beyond the Cold War
By M. E. Sarotte

Vladimir Putin, Yeltsin’s handpicked successor, divulged little in grudging 1999 conversations with Clinton and Talbott. Instead of sharing Russia’s launch protocols, Putin skillfully played up his perceived need for a harder Kremlin line by describing the grim consequences of reduced Russian power: in former Soviet regions, he said, terrorists now played soccer with decapitated heads of hostages.

As Putin later remarked, “By launching the sovereignty parade”—his term for the independence movements of Soviet republics in 1990–91—“Russia itself aided in the collapse of the Soviet Union,” the outcome that had opened the door to such gruesome lawlessness. In his view, Moscow should have dug in, both within the union and abroad, instead of standing aside while former Soviet bloc states jumped ship to join the West. “We would have avoided a lot of problems if the Soviets had not made such a hasty exit from Eastern Europe,” he said.

Once firmly in power, Putin began backtracking on the democratization of the Yeltsin era and on cooperative ventures with Washington. Although there were notable episodes reprising the spirit of the early 1990s—expressions of sympathy after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and a nuclear accord in 2010—the basic trend line was negative. The relationship reached frightening new lows during Russia’s 2008 conflict with Georgia and its 2014 invasion of Ukraine, and it has sunk even further since 2016, owing to the revelation of Russia’s cyberattacks on U.S. businesses, institutions, and elections.

Them and Us
By Ben Rhodes

When a superpower embraces a belligerent strain of nationalism, it also ripples out around the world. The excesses of post-9/11 U.S. policies were repurposed by authoritarians elsewhere to target political opponents, shut down civil society, control the media, and expand the power of the state under the guise of counterterrorism. Of course, this is not Washington’s doing. Yet just as Americans should recoil when Russian President Vladimir Putin indulges in whataboutism to excuse his abuses, they should not blithely ignore their own country’s overreach and belligerent nationalism, which undermines Washington’s effort to push back against Putin, defend democratic values, and reinforce a rules-based order.

Like Putin, Chinese President Xi Jinping has embraced the American war on terror as a template for repression and a justification for abuses. In 2014, Uyghur terrorists took dozens of lives in the autonomous territory of Xinjiang, in western China. State media referred to the attacks as “China’s 9/11.” Xi urged CCP officials to follow the American post-9/11 script, setting in motion a crackdown that would eventually lead to a million Uyghurs being thrown into concentration camps. At a meeting in 2019, Trump reportedly told Xi that detaining the Uyghurs in camps was “exactly the right thing to do.”

Although nothing in the United States’ response to 9/11 approaches the scale of the CCP’s repression, Trump’s comment was far from the only validation that the CCP would find in the post-9/11 era. In the years following 9/11, several Uyghurs were held in the U.S. prison at Guantánamo Bay. None were found guilty of terrorism or deemed to pose a serious danger to the United States. When Obama tried to close the prison at the outset of his presidency, there was a plan to release a few Uyghur detainees in the United States to show that the American government was willing to do its part, since it was asking other countries to repatriate some of their citizens who had been detained at Guantánamo but cleared for release, and the Uyghurs could not be safely repatriated to China. Obama’s proposal was met with hyperbolic opposition that resulted in restrictions that prevented the prison’s closure. Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Senator Joe Lieberman, an independent from Connecticut, led the charge, releasing a joint declaration that claimed that the Uyghurs “have radical religious views which make it difficult for them to assimilate into our population”—a statement that sounded precisely like CCP propaganda regarding its actions in Xinjiang.

The Inevitable Rivalry
By John J. Mearsheimer

Three decades ago, the Cold War ended, and the United States had won. It was now the sole great power on the planet. Scanning the horizon for threats, U.S. policymakers seemed to have little cause for concern—and especially not about China, a weak and impoverished country that had been aligned with the United States against the Soviet Union for over a decade. But there were some ominous signs: China had nearly five times as many people as the United States, and its leaders had embraced economic reform. Population size and wealth are the main building blocks of military power, so there was a serious possibility that China might become dramatically stronger in the decades to come. Since a mightier China would surely challenge the U.S. position in Asia and possibly beyond, the logical choice for the United States was clear: slow China’s rise.

Instead, it encouraged it. Beguiled by misguided theories about liberalism’s inevitable triumph and the obsolescence of great-power conflict, both Democratic and Republican administrations pursued a policy of engagement, which sought to help China grow richer. Washington promoted investment in China and welcomed the country into the global trading system, thinking it would become a peace-loving democracy and a responsible stakeholder in a U.S.-led international order.

Of course, this fantasy never materialized. Far from embracing liberal values at home and the status quo abroad, China grew more repressive and ambitious as it rose. Instead of fostering harmony between Beijing and Washington, engagement failed to forestall a rivalry and hastened the end of the so-called unipolar moment. Today, China and the United States are locked in what can only be called a new cold war—an intense security competition that touches on every dimension of their relationship. This rivalry will test U.S. policymakers more than the original Cold War did, as China is likely to be a more powerful competitor than the Soviet Union was in its prime. And this cold war is more likely to turn hot.

None of this should be surprising. China is acting exactly as realism would predict. Who can blame Chinese leaders for seeking to dominate Asia and become the most powerful state on the planet? Certainly not the United States, which pursued a similar agenda, rising to become a hegemon in its own region and eventually the most secure and influential country in the world. And today, the United States is also acting just as realist logic would predict. Long opposed to the emergence of other regional hegemons, it sees China’s ambitions as a direct threat and is determined to check the country’s continued rise. The inescapable outcome is competition and conflict.

Welcome to China’s new interventionist foreign policy
By Charles Dunst

Since 1955, China had predicated its foreign policy on the principles of noninterference, which Premier Zhou Enlai detailed at the Bandung Conference. Beijing never completely abided by these principles, but successive leaders largely adhered to them. China, for instance, largely stayed out of the conflict in Syria that consumed many world powers. And for years, it played “the role of spoiler” at the U.N. Security Council by opposing or abstaining from the body’s efforts to sanction autocratic governments in countries such as Zimbabwe, Yemen and Syria. This noninterference won over strongman leaders who tired of the human rights-related “strings” that the West regularly attaches to aid.

But Chinese President Xi Jinping has jettisoned his predecessor Hu Jintao’s prescription that China hide its strength, bide its time and never take the lead. Instead, through the Belt and Road Initiative, Xi’s China has invested heavily and become enmeshed within the politics of countries across the globe. More than 60 countries — from Cambodia to Angola to Pakistan to Hungary — have signed onto Belt and Road projects or expressed interest in doing so. This allows China to wield substantial influence in these states’ politics.

With this expansion has come the death of Chinese nonintervention.

China, for example, adopted a surprisingly “hands-on approach” to the 2014 conflict in South Sudan to secure its access to that country’s oil, in sharp contrast with China’s relative hesitance to involve itself in the Libyan civil war in 2011, the year before Xi took the office of CCP general secretary. When Libya devolved into civil war, China struggled to evacuate the more than 35,000 Chinese working in the country and secure its economic interests. In the years since, China rectified this by expanding its military capacity in its African partner states to preemptively protect its interests amid any future turmoil.

In Myanmar, a state-owned Chinese manufacturer is arming the Arakan Army, a major insurgent group in the Rakhine state, even as Beijing deepens ties with the government against which they are fighting, presumably because the group has promised to not disturb the Chinese deep-sea port at Kyaukphyu that likely serves Beijing’s military interests.

It pays for China to be on the rebels’ good side.

This shift in Beijing’s approach to foreign policy is clear even in Chinese messaging and culture, such as in the popular Chinese film “Wolf Warrior,” which portrays Chinese soldiers taking out an evil militia in Africa. After the “Wolf Warrior” kills an American mercenary leader, the screen fades to black before an image of a Chinese passport appears alongside a promise: “To citizens of the People’s Republic of China, when you find yourself in danger in a foreign country, do not give up hope. Please remember, behind your back, will be a strong and powerful motherland.”

The motherland is no longer afraid of interfering in others’ affairs when its interests are at stake. Indeed, engagement with China now requires that partner states accept the CCP’s export of its illiberal preferences onto their own soil.

Why China Is Alienating the World
By Peter Martin

As early as 2018, Deng Pufang, the son of former paramount leader Deng Xiaoping, warned that China should “know its place” and “keep a sober mind” in its foreign policy. In May 2020, Reuters reported that the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations—a think tank affiliated with China’s primary intelligence agency—had warned the country’s leadership that anti-China sentiment was at its highest since the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown. And in September 2020, Yuan Nansheng, China’s former consul general in San Francisco, warned against “extreme nationalism” in Chinese foreign policy. Xi himself has at least tacitly acknowledged the problem, warning in a Politburo study session in June that China needed to present a “lovable” image to the world.

With Swarms of Ships, Beijing Tightens Its Grip on South China Sea
By Steven Lee Myers and Jason Gutierrez

Not long ago, China asserted its claims on the South China Sea by building and fortifying artificial islands in waters also claimed by Vietnam, the Philippines and Malaysia. Its strategy now is to reinforce those outposts by swarming the disputed waters with vessels, effectively defying the other countries to expel them.

The goal is to accomplish by overwhelming presence what it has been unable to do through diplomacy or international law. And to an extent, it appears to be working.

“Beijing pretty clearly thinks that if it uses enough coercion and pressure over a long enough period of time, it will squeeze the Southeast Asians out,” said Greg Poling, the director of the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, which tracks developments in the South China Sea. “It’s insidious.”

An international tribunal convened under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea ruled in 2016 that China’s expansive claim to almost all of the South China Sea had no legal basis, though it stopped short of dividing the territory among its various claimants. China has based its claims on a “nine-dash line” drawn on maps before the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949.

The presence of so many Chinese ships is meant to intimidate. “By having them there, and spreading them out across these expanses of water around the reefs the others occupy, or around oil and gas fields or fishing grounds, you are steadily pushing the Filipinos and the Vietnamese out,” Mr. Poling said.

“If you’re a Filipino fisherman, you’re always getting harassed by these guys,” he said. “They’re always maneuvering a little too close, blowing horns at you. At some point you just give up and stop fishing there.”

Sunken boats. Stolen gear. Fishermen are prey as China conquers a strategic sea
By Shashank Bengali and Vo Kieu Bao Uyen

Unfazed by rising global criticism, China’s navy, coast guard and paramilitary fleet have rammed fishing boats, harassed oil exploration vessels, held combat drills and shadowed U.S. naval patrols. The escalating show of force has overwhelmed smaller Southeast Asian states that also claim parts of the sea, one of the world’s busiest fishing and trade corridors and a repository of untapped oil and natural gas.

Beijing’s maritime expansionism illustrates not only the Chinese Communist Party’s growing military might but also its willingness to defy neighbors and international laws to fulfill President Xi Jinping’s sweeping visions of power.

The South China Sea has connected civilizations for thousands of years — from the Malay merchant ships that sailed Chinese silk, Indian spices and Arabian frankincense along the ancient trade corridor between Europe and Asia, to the hulking freighters and container vessels that crisscross the oceans and power today’s globalized commerce. An estimated $3.4 trillion in goods passes through the sea annually, including 14% of all U.S. trade, 40% of China’s and 86% of Vietnam’s.

One-third of Vietnam’s 96 million people live along the serpentine coastline, where humble flotillas of identical blue-and-red boats bob in ramshackle harbors. The sea, which accounted for an estimated 12% of the global fish catch in 2015, has made Vietnam a leading seafood exporter and supports the families of at least 1.8 million people employed as marine fishermen.

With estimates suggesting the sea’s fish stocks have plunged by 70% to 95% since the 1950s, a Peking University think tank recently described illegal fishing by Vietnam as “the most serious challenge to maritime security in the South China Sea.”

Yet many experts argue that China is the main culprit in overfishing, offering massive incentives to its armed fleet and regular fishermen to venture far into other nations’ exclusive economic zones, from Latin America to the Antarctic.

The addition of armed vessels could heighten tensions, especially as governments have failed to make progress on a legally binding code of conduct for the disputed waters, and no country is pursuing an agreement on how to manage fisheries in a rapidly depleting sea.

“Clashes will increase as China strengthens de facto control and [fish] stocks collapse,” Poling said. “Eventually we will see loss of life if this keeps up.”

China Is Repeating U.S. Mistakes With Its Own Global Arrogance
By Charles Dunst

China’s international image poll numbers may be crashing the world over—reaching historic lows in upper-income countries and maintaining poor public opinion in some parts of the developing world (namely, the Philippines, Turkey, and India)—but Beijing is nonetheless diplomatically triumphant over the West with most developing countries in contexts such as the United Nations, because Chinese leaders work their counterparts abroad very successfully.

The Cambodian public, for its part, might have increasingly unfavorable views of China, but Xi has repeatedly cozied up to Prime Minister Hun Sen, treating him “as an equal,” in the Cambodian’s own words.

Cambodia, accordingly, has over the last few years repeatedly prevented the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) from issuing statements critical of China or contesting Beijing’s aggression in the South China Sea. And in late 2019, Cambodia joined 49 other countries to commend China’s achievements in “protecting and promoting human rights through development” after 22 largely European democracies criticized Beijing’s large-scale detention of Uyghurs in Xinjiang. Among the 50 signatories of the commending letter were countries—such as the Philippines—whose citizens might not like China, but whose current leaders certainly do.

As I’ve written elsewhere, this divergence between public and government sentiment on China is increasingly evident, and dangerous, across the developing world. Recent months have seen anti-China protests in the Philippines and even violent anti-Chinese attacks in Pakistan. But developing world leaders, particularly those of non-democracies, will continue courting China, appreciating both Beijing’s personal flattery and, more prosaically, its financial support.

Still, China’s fiercely hierarchical worldview—its leaders believe that the world should accept a Sino-centric order organized around brute power, of which China will be the greatest holder—will likely continue backfiring in parts of the developing world, as it already has in the developed world. Indeed, this attitude is China’s “most fundamental problem,” according to one former Japanese diplomat; it has already lost Beijing friends.

A Dangerous Decade of Chinese Power Is Here
By Andrew S. Erickson and Gabriel B. Collins

If Xi miscalculates, a significant risk given his suppression of dissenting voices while China raises the stakes in its confrontation with the United States, the proverbial “leverage” that would have left him with outsized returns on a successful bet would instead amplify the downside, all of which he personally and exclusively signed for. Resulting tensions could very realistically undermine his status and authority, embolden internal challengers, and weaken the party. They could also foreseeably drive him to double down on mistakes, especially if those led to—or were made in the course of—a kinetic conflict. Personal survival measures could thus rapidly transmute into regional or even global threats.

America Is Turning Asia Into a Powder Keg
By Van Jackson

In a bid to counter China’s rapid naval modernization, the Biden administration has embarked on an ambitious set of defense initiatives in what it now calls the “Indo-Pacific.” It has encouraged Japan to develop hypersonic weapons and extend the range of its antiship cruise missiles and other autonomous long-range missiles. It has pushed for $2.6 billion in new arms sales to the Philippines (on top of $2.4 billion in sales since 2016), despite congressional concerns about human rights abuses there. It has agreed to transfer cruise missiles to Australia and to support Australia’s acquisition of nuclear-powered submarines as part of a three-way defense-technology pact with Australia and the United Kingdom known as AUKUS. And it has announced plans to expand the U.S. military presence across Oceania, including with a new base in the Federated States of Micronesia, an expanded presence in Guam, a new base in Papua New Guinea to be shared with Australia, and new radar systems in Palau.

Washington’s overmilitarized approach not only increases the risks of war and arms racing but also reduces the prospects for stability and prosperity in Asia. The game that matters most in the region does not involve armies and navies but rather development, trade, and investment. Yet the United States has largely neglected Asia’s economic needs, allowing China to make enormous gains at its expense.

While Washington has busied itself with new arms sales and expanding its force posture, China has become the region’s economic hegemon. Chinese trade with the rest of Asia dwarfs U.S. trade with the region, and China’s infrastructure loans and investments have outpaced those of the United States for years. Beijing has also helped forge a complex web of multilateral institutions and agreements that privilege China and marginalize the United States. These advantages validate a narrative, already accepted by many Asian political elites, of China’s ascendance and the United States’ relative decline.

There are better, more stabilizing alternatives to the crude militaristic approach that the Biden administration is currently pursuing. Instead of fueling an arms race to nowhere, the Biden administration could limit its military investments to capabilities that erode its adversaries’ ability to project power while refraining from threatening their territory or nuclear forces. But even an optimal defense policy can only establish the geopolitical conditions in which it is possible to build a more secure region by nonmilitary means. By reducing foreign policy to defense initiatives, the United States is forsaking any meaningful attempt to arrest the underlying causes of future regional insecurity, including extreme inequality, environmental degradation, and kleptocracy. The United States should be working tirelessly to shrink the widening gap between Asia’s haves and have-nots, to subsidize climate adaption policies in countries with at-risk populations, and to penalize corruption and strongman politics.

By treating security as something that only missiles and submarines can ensure, allowing its economic position to weaken, and forfeiting opportunities to address underlying sources of violence, the United States is helping create a perilous situation in the Indo-Pacific. If the Biden administration doesn’t shift gears, it will be culpable in Asia’s next tragedy.

Biden Revives the Truman Doctrine
By David Adesnik

As a candidate, President Joe Biden gave the impression that he would be a kinder and gentler commander-in-chief. He would stop insulting allies and rejoin multilateral accords like the Paris Agreement and the Iran nuclear deal. As he liked to say on the campaign trail: “We lead not by the example of our power, but by the power of our example.” He would be a healer and uniter at home and abroad.

Six weeks into his presidency, on March 3, Biden affirmed his harder edge by releasing a draft national security strategy. The 23-page document titled “Interim National Security Strategic Guidance” can be read as the foundation for his actions since—corralling allies around the threat from Beijing, clear statements on Russia, his focus on shoring up NATO and upgrading the Indo-Pacific Quad. In the document’s preface, Biden writes: “I believe we are in the midst of an historic and fundamental debate about the future direction of our world. There are those who argue that, given all the challenges we face, autocracy is the best way forward. And there are those who understand that democracy is essential to meeting all the challenges of our changing world.”

What risks is Biden prepared to take in pursuit of his vision? If he imposes tougher sanctions on North Korea and stations more U.S. troops in the south, leader Kim Jong-un may resume nuclear tests and intercontinental ballistic missile launches. If Biden redoubles support to Ukraine, Russia may heat up the war in the Donbas and escalate cyberattacks against the West. If Biden confronts Beijing in the South China Sea and continues to sanction it for atrocities in Xinjiang, the intimidation of Taiwan is likely to intensify while the odds of an agreement to limit Chinese carbon emissions will sharply diminish. With regard to Iran, Biden has already made clear that he wants to reverse Trump’s “maximum pressure campaign” and return to the 2015 nuclear deal.

Yet on multiple fronts, Biden has shown a readiness to clash with authoritarian rivals. Anger pervaded the administration’s first high-level meetings with Chinese officials in Anchorage, Alaska. Days later, the United States, Britain, Canada, and the European Union imposed coordinated sanctions on Chinese officials over atrocities in Xinjiang. After Biden called Putin a “killer,” Blinken said the administration would not waver in its push for new sanctions on firms involved in the construction of Russia’s Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline.

Has America had enough of war?
By Katrina Manson

Biden’s administration has been at pains to show it wants a less hawkish US foreign policy — explicitly rejecting regime-change policies and raising expectations it will downsize the country’s colossal defence spending and overseas military presence. But it still channels the language and ambition of American exceptionalism. In his address to Congress last week, Biden described America as “the most unique idea in history” and said: “We have, without hyperbole, the greatest fighting force in the history of the world.”

Jake Sullivan, the president’s national security adviser, says his own thinking “rhymes with” the way Biden has thought and talked about foreign policy for a long time. “When it comes to the question of the ‘superpower’ . . . I think the United States does have a distinct role to play catalysing and mobilising collective action to solve big problems,” he says. If the US is absent and no one else has “the will or the purpose”, you get “drift and inaction”.

But the term “American exceptionalism”, says Sullivan, “is not itself animating the administration, because we take our lead from the president, who has provided a view of the role of the United States in the world that is distinctly his”.

Sullivan describes the president as optimistic, confident and determined that an “enlightened self-interest” which serves the US and delivers positive outcomes for the larger common interest should be at the core of US foreign policy. Biden’s optimism, says Sullivan, “is rooted in part in a humility that says America will stumble and fall and get knocked down on the mat, but what makes our country capable of great things is that we get back up again, and we learn from our mistakes and we self-correct and we move forward.” Biden, however, also wants to “win the 21st century”.

The context of this assertive — yet more fragile — tone is the rise of China and the prospect of America’s relative decline. The shadow that China could one day dislodge the US threatens many ideas 21st-century Americans take for granted about themselves. Biden has publicly pitched a “battle” between democracies and autocracies.

The president has made clear his focus is delivering for the American people at home. But in late March, at his first press conference in office, he said China’s “overall goal” was to become the wealthiest and most powerful country in the world. “That’s not going to happen on my watch,” he said, invoking the language of superpower rivalries. “Because the United States are going to continue to grow and expand.”

Though Lumpe and the Quincy Institute are now satisfied when it comes to Afghanistan policy, this is the kind of language that alarms her. “Despite [Biden’s] good decision on Afghanistan, American exceptionalism is alive and well,” she says following the drawdown announcement, arguing that the default position of both parties in Congress is to believe that American power is limitless. “If China sent special operations forces or used lethal drone strikes in a half-dozen African or Asian countries to combat potential anti-Chinese terrorism, Washington would lose its mind. That’s American exceptionalism.”

An Interview With Stephen Kinzer
By Patrick Lawrence

PL: Let me remind you of something Stanley Hoffmann [the late international relations scholar at Harvard] said late in his career. He said, Look, it’s tiring writing the same old criticism over and over and over again, and nothing changes. Nobody in Washington ever learns from any mistakes. What’s the point? Hoffmann, to finish the thought, eventually returned to European studies. Do you tip into that kind of pessimism?

SK: No, because I am not writing laments about what’s happening in Washington today. I’m trying to inform that debate by looking back into history. I’m writing something that’s new. I’m not repeating what everybody else is saying and wringing their hands about.

PL: Can we learn? This becomes the vital question.

SK: Evidence suggests that the answer is no. I like to believe that that’s just a temporary phenomenon that lasted 120 years. If I didn’t believe that there’d be no point in writing these books.

PL: Optimism of the will, pessimism of the mind—Gramsci’s thought.

You’ve written in detail about Mossadegh in All the Shah’s Men, and Árbenz in Bitter Fruit. Here and there you take on various figures of their time: Nasser, Nehru, Sukarno, others. The so-called “independence generation.” I’ve long viewed these figures as somewhat larger than life, every one of them flawed, certainly, but to me they gave an almost magnificent expression to human aspiration at a moment unusually thick with possibility. World War II had ended, decolonization had begun. It’s hard to imagine such a moment now.

The Cold War destroyed this environment of possibility, or it did for four decades. Then the wall came down and the Soviet Union came to an end. And we found that, far from history having “ended,” as the foolish [Francis] Fukuyama asserted, it had restarted. We also found that, in many odd ways, it had restarted precisely where it had left off at the Cold War’s opening. The aspirations were and remain remarkably similar.

Your work spreads across key decades in this thumbnail summary I just gave. In many ways, it describes the arc of it. Do you think I’ve got it right about that?

SK: The only one you missed in there was [Patrice] Lumumba [Congo’s first elected prime minister, who was assassinated in 1961].

One of the tragic misjudgments the United States made in the early Cold War was considering the emerging leaders in the anti-colonial world to be enemies. We saw the world, as the Soviets and many Europeans did, as being shaped by a battle between forces led by Washington and forces led by Moscow. But most people in the world saw the conflict differently. They saw it as a conflict between, on the one side, Russia, America, and Europe—the traditional dominant powers—and all the countries of Africa, Asia, and Latin America that were finally trying to find their place in the world. We took them as enemies because we were in this Manichean view that anyone who wasn’t on our side was our enemy.

After the Cold War we have come back to this point. We believe that our sphere of influence should extend right up to the borders of Russia and China. The whole world is our sphere of influence. We still have this sense of primacy, this sense that the world would be in chaos if the United States doesn’t impose its own rule, and we can’t understand why so many people in the world are not happy with that.

PL: There’s the myth of Narcissus. Aside from the self-absorption—the stare into the water—there’s Echo, the nymph. Echo echoes, and Narcissus cannot bear to hear back the words that he has spoken. We need to think about this. You could argue that America—with its “freedom,” “democracy,” “liberty”—cannot bear to hear these words spoken back in the context of a developing country.

I wonder if this is not a defining feature of postwar American policy, or maybe going back to [Emilio] Aguinaldo [the Filipino resistance leader the US betrayed as the Spanish–American War opened]. Are we effectively intolerant of democratic rule taking hold in the developing world?

SK: We’re a teaching nation. We’re not good at learning. We have so much to teach the world, and we’re sometimes shocked that the world doesn’t want to pay attention. Countries are like individuals. We all imagine that we’re wonderful, and the aspects of our life and personality that are negative, we try to forget. We always exaggerate the good parts of ourselves. Countries are the same way, and America is a great example of this. The eternal fascination with World War II is a great example of this. Of course, it was a hugely important episode that shaped the modern world. But that’s not enough to understand the endless flood of books and movies and video games.

PL: I think it’s because it’s the last time we could claim justice.

SK: In World War II we were the country that we like to think that we are. We went into countries that were evil dictatorships, liberated them, and turned them into democracies. But the other 50 stories that were the opposite never appear in our history books, so we shape our entire self-image on those episodes that make us look good. All the other ones disappear from our history. Part of my goal is to recover those stories so we can have a fuller view of who we are and what we’ve done in the world.

Now, when the Dulles brothers were alive, they carried out covert interventions that had terrible long-term effects. If they were here today and we put them in the defendant’s chair, they might have one good argument to defend themselves. That would be to say, “We can now see that 50 years after these covert interventions they have terrible results. But we didn’t know that then, because there had never been any covert interventions; we had never used a covert agency to overthrow a government. Now we see it, but we didn’t know.” However, people today do not have that excuse. We know what they didn’t know. We’ve seen the results, yet we continue on this path.

PL: Was Mossadegh in ’53 the first?

SK: The first CIA overthrow, yes.

PL: Nothing before the war?

SK: We never overthrew a government covertly. We didn’t have to; we had the Marines. But after World War II, we had another factor in the world, which was the Red Army. You never knew if we invaded a country if they would send troops, and the next thing you know we’re in a nuclear exchange. So we had this fantastic new tool.

Eisenhower’s final speech about the military-industrial complex is often held up as a great example for something we should be looking back at now. However, there’s an underside to Eisenhower’s view that militaries were getting too big and too powerful, which is: Eisenhower believed we should do it all covertly. He’s the only president, so far as we know, to order assassinations of foreign leaders. He was a great believer in covert action. No one knew that at the time, but it’s the job of those of us writing today to bring that to light.

An Interview With Stephen Kinzer, Part 2
By Patrick Lawrence

PL: I’m not the first one to say it—you touched on it as well—but there is an extraordinary reservoir of goodwill among Iranians for Americans. I’d be walking down the street and someone would pop out of a shop and say, “Are you American?” I’d spend the next couple of hours drinking tea and shooting the breeze in the shop. One of these places became a friendly hangout. It was a marvel. How do you account for this and relate it to the animosity stemming from ’53, which is also perfectly plain? I have trouble combining these things.

SK: Iranians are highly educated and very sophisticated people. They’re acutely aware that it was intervention by the United States that cast them into two forms of dictatorship that have lasted 70 years. Nonetheless, they seem more willing than we are to let go of that. They’re looking toward the future. I believe Iranians admire not only the American character but the openness of American society.

It is remarkable to me when I travel in the world the extent to which, despite all our sins, huge numbers of people admire the United States. They admire the freedoms that we have. They want the wonderful aspects of American life. Why don’t we promote that rather than only show the ugly face of militarism? We have such a great story to tell in the world, but we’re not telling it.

PL: I think the Iranians, along with many others—the Vietnamese, the South Koreans—privilege us in a way we should be grateful for, because they distinguish between American people and American government and policy. I always feel very fortunate when someone will sometimes even explicitly say this. The French, even, can manage this at some times. Are you with this?

SK: Yeah, I agree.

Beyond Golden Shower Diplomacy
By Alfred McCoy

In the closing months of World War II, when the United States stood astride a partially wrecked planet like a titan, Washington used its extraordinary clout to build a new world order grounded in a “delicate duality” that juxtaposed two contradictory attributes. It fostered an international community of sovereign nations governed by the rule of law, while also building its own superpower dominion through the raw Realpolitik of economic pressure, crushing military force, unrestrained covert action, and diplomatic leverage.

Keep in mind that America had emerged from the ashes of that world war as a behemoth of unprecedented power. With Europe, Japan, and Russia in ruins, the U.S. had the only intact industrial complex left and then accounted for about half of the world’s entire economic output. At war’s end, its military had swelled to more than 12 million troops, its Navy ruled the seas with more than 1,000 warships, and its air force commanded the skies with 41,000 combat aircraft. In the decade that followed, Washington would encircle Eurasia with hundreds of military bases, as well as bevies of strategic bombers and warships. In the process, it would also confine its Cold War enemies, China and Russia, behind that infamous Iron Curtain.

Throughout those early Cold War years, Washington’s diplomats walked tall in the corridors of power, deftly negotiating defense pacts and trade deals that gave the country a distinct advantage on the world stage. Meanwhile, its clandestine operatives maneuvered relentlessly in the shadow lands of global power to topple neutral or hostile governments via coups and covert operations. Washington, of course, eventually won the Cold War, but its tactics produced almost unimaginably dreadful costs — brutal military dictatorships across Asia and Latin America, millions of dead in Indochina, and devastated societies in Central Asia, Central America, and southern Africa.

Simultaneously, however, the U.S. victory in World War II also brought a surge of citizen idealism as millions of American veterans returned home, hopeful that their sacrifice had not only defeated fascism but also won a more peaceful world. To ensure that the ravaged planet would never again experience such global death and destruction, American diplomats also began working with their allies to build, step by step, nothing less than a novel architecture for global governance, grounded in the rule of international law.

At the Bretton Woods resort in New Hampshire in 1944, Washington convened 44 nations, large and small, to design a comprehensive economic regime for a prosperous post-war world. In the process, they formed the International Monetary Fund, or IMF (for financial stability); the World Bank (for postwar reconstruction); and, somewhat later, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (for free trade), the predecessor of the World Trade Organization.

A year after that, in San Francisco, Washington led 850 delegates from 50 allied nations in drafting the charter for a new organization, the United Nations, that aspired to a world order marked by inviolable sovereignty, avoidance of armed conflict, human rights, and shared prosperity. In addition to providing crisis management through peacekeeping and refugee relief, the U.N. also helped order a globalizing world by creating, over the next quarter century, 17 specialized organizations responsible for everything from food security (the Food and Agriculture Organization, or FAO) to public health (the World Health Organization, or WHO).

Starting with the $13 billion Marshall Plan for the reconstruction of war-torn Europe, Washington also supplemented the U.N.’s work by providing billions of dollars in bilateral aid to fund reconstruction and economic development in nations old and new. President John F. Kennedy globalized that effort by establishing the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) that today has a budget of $27 billion and 4,000 employees who deliver humanitarian assistance worldwide by providing, for instance, $44 million in emergency relief for 700,000 Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh.

Washington was careful to weave this new world order into the web of international law it had been building assiduously since its debut on the world stage at the Second Hague Conference on peace in 1907. Under the U.N. charter of 1945, the General Assembly convened the International Court of Justice, which took its seat at the grandiose Peace Palace in The Hague built by steel baron Andrew Carnegie years before to promote the international rule of law.

Just months after its founding, the U.N. also formed its Human Rights Commission, chaired by former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, to draft the landmark Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted in Paris on December 10, 1948. In addition, instead of firing squads for the defeated Axis leaders, the U.S. led the Allies in convening tribunals at Nuremburg and Tokyo in 1945-1946 that tried their war crimes under international law. Three years later, Washington joined the international community in adopting the four modern Geneva conventions that laid down the laws of war for future conflicts to protect both captives and civilians.

During the 70 years that Washington led many of these international institutions, half the world won national independence, economic prosperity spread, poverty declined, hunger receded, diseases were defeated, world war was indeed avoided, and human rights advanced. No other empire in world history had presided over so much progress and prosperity for such a significant share of humanity.

Despite a foreign policy that frequently retreated into isolationism or hyper-nationalism or brutal wars, since the end of World War II a surprising number of Americans have immersed themselves in the wider world, arguably far more deeply than any other people on the planet. The old European colonial empires were state enterprises, but the U.S. imperium has been, in significant ways, a people’s project (as well, of course, in Washington’s coups and wars, as an anti-people’s project).

If Europe’s missionary efforts were generally state-sponsored, the spirit has moved millions of individual American evangelicals to “go on mission,” often to the most remote, rugged parts of the planet. From the Civil War to World War II, mainline Protestant denominations sponsored small numbers of career missionaries who made the conversion of China the aspiration of the post-Civil War generation. But since the Boeing Corporation introduced cheap jet travel in the 1960s, countless millions of evangelicals have launched themselves on short-term missions. While religious conversion has certainly been their prime goal, providing medicine, food, and education to remote areas of Asia, Africa, and Latin America has also been a key part of that endeavor.

Whenever global disasters strike, the Mormons, along with the 5,000 employees of Catholic Relief and 46,000 workers of the Protestant World Vision, mobilize what has become billions of dollars annually to send massive shipments of relief goods to the farthest corners of the Earth.

America’s concern for the world beyond its borders also has a no-less-vital secular side. Paralleling the rise of Washington as a world power, the Chicago-based Rotary International, for instance, has grown into a global network of 33,000 clubs in 200 countries. Since 1985, its 1.2 million members have donated nearly two billion dollars to inoculate two billion children worldwide against polio. As someone who still limps from this childhood disease, I was delighted to learn a few years ago, when I spoke before my local Rotary Club in Madison, Wisconsin, that my speaker’s fee had been automatically donated to the worldwide fight against polio.

When I spoke to the local Kiwanis chapter, I found that they were crisscrossing the state collecting antique foot-pedal Singer sewing machines for shipment to rural co-ops in Central America without electricity — catalyzing this small city’s Sewing Machine Project that has sent 2,500 machines worldwide since 2005. In a similar fashion, recent immigrants to the U.S. have often sponsored schools and medical care in their former homelands; military veterans have promoted humanitarian efforts in old battlegrounds like Vietnam; the 230,000 returned Peace Corps volunteers have been voices for a people-oriented foreign policy; and the list only goes on.

Whether passing the plate down the pews or logging onto the Internet, millions of Americans send billions of dollars overseas every year through their churches or activist groups like Doctors Without Borders, CARE USA, and Save the Children USA, whether for the Ethiopian famine, Indonesia’s tsunami, or the Rohingya crisis.

This tradition of what might be thought of as citizen diplomacy and the ingrained internationalism that goes with it were manifest in the extraordinary eruption of mass protest that occurred when, in his first week in office, President Trump tried to ban travellers from seven Muslim-majority nations. Within a day, a small crowd of 30 people with placards at JFK international airport in New York swelled into impassioned protests by thousands attending demonstrations across the city. Over the next week, there would be parallel protests by tens of thousands in some 30 cities nationwide, including Los Angeles, San Francisco, Houston, Detroit, Philadelphia, and Portland, Maine. It is these ardent demonstrators and the millions more with their own international causes who seem mindful of what might be lost as America heads for the exits from the world stage.

How much good has the United States really done in the world?
By Stephen Kinzer

Few impartial observers would agree with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s assertion that “every place we go, America is a force for good.” You might think precisely the opposite if you’re an Iranian unable to buy food or medicine because of American sanctions; if you’re a Syrian trying to survive a civil war that was fueled in part by United States; if you live under a repressive regime that enjoys American support, like those in Saudi Arabia and Honduras; or if you’re a Yemeni hoping that a US-made missile won’t blow up your home tonight. Yet even leaving hyperbole behind, the United States can point with justified pride to some of what it has done in the world over the last few generations.

Let’s start with President John F. Kennedy’s establishment of the Peace Corps in 1961. Sure, it was a white-man’s-burden Cold War project designed in part to counter Soviet influence in developing countries. But it also channeled the idealism of young Americans into a genuine and substantial effort to help poor people far away.

In 1977 President Jimmy Carter named America’s first assistant secretary of state for human rights and began taking human rights into consideration when shaping foreign policy. At some points since then, human rights concerns have been hypocritically used to justify all manner of aggression. Bringing those concerns into “the room where it happens,” however, was an important step that saved lives in places as far-flung as Argentina and the Philippines.

A generation later, President Bill Clinton sent a talented emissary, former Senator George Mitchell, to help negotiate an end to decades of sectarian violence in Northern Ireland. In 1998, after three years of painstaking work, Mitchell led Protestants and Catholics to an accord that turned a bloody conflict into a peaceful political competition.

In 2003 Clinton’s successor, George W. Bush, launched the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief. Since then, PEPFAR has expanded from 15 countries to more than 50 and from an initial commitment of $15 billion to a total of $80 billion. It has saved millions of lives and remains one of the most successful humanitarian projects in modern history.

President Barack Obama eased sanctions on Cuba, leading to a remarkable revival of small-scale capitalism there, and capped off his triumph with a historic visit to Havana. Then he reached an accord with Iran that promised sanctions relief in exchange for verified commitments that Iran would never build nuclear weapons. Both of those initiatives were trashed after Obama left office, but they stand as examples of America’s ability to pursue reconciliation with countries we long considered enemies.

Sometimes the United States wages peace not by acting but by declining to act. After the US Marine barracks in Lebanon was bombed in 1983, leaving more than 200 dead, President Ronald Reagan responded with ritual vows of revenge. Soon afterward, though, he realized that chasing down the attackers would involve American troops in a possibly endless civil war, so he changed course and withdrew them instead. President George H.W. Bush also allowed reason to outweigh emotion when he expressed outrage at China’s suppression of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protest but nonetheless continued to nourish the budding relationship between Washington and Beijing.

These praiseworthy steps showed the United States as we want to believe it is: a force for global stability and peace.

Mohsin Hamid on Afghanistan — and the case against wars
By Mohsin Hamid

I am not a military expert. But I am familiar with what it is like to live in a country run by military experts. In Pakistan the population has long been told that India is the greatest challenge Pakistan faces. Not illiteracy, not militancy, not climate change, not poverty, not healthcare, but India. India is no doubt a dangerous neighbour to Pakistan. (And Pakistan is to India, as well.) But I nonetheless wish Pakistan had chosen its priorities differently.

Meanwhile in India, now enlisted by the US as an ally against China, there are signs of a transformation similar in many ways to that of America-allied Pakistan in the 1980s. In place of the Soviet threat there is the Chinese threat, in place of Zia’s Islamisation there is Modi’s Hindutva, and once again minorities are victimised, journalists are intimidated, and the structures of democracy are yielding to an increasingly intolerant autocracy. Pakistan’s history of superpower-backed religious chauvinism should have served India as a cautionary tale. Instead, it seems to be serving as something of an inspiration.

And so, as we the people of the world are encouraged to pivot from a cold war to a war on terror to a war against Chinese hegemony, I would suggest that we watch closely the calamitous debacle unfolding in Afghanistan and remain suitably sceptical.

Other than China, what might qualify as a worthy challenge for the world to do its utmost to meet? The Covid-19 pandemic we are currently battling is an obvious candidate. Vaccines are an important part of the solution. We are struggling to vaccinate enough people outside of Europe, North America and China. But what if these three centres of power had worked together? What if they had pooled resources in a plan to make more of the best vaccines more quickly, with a goal of dramatically expanding production facilities on every continent and vaccinating all the world’s adults by early next year?

Certainly the result would have been better than the alternative that actually occurred: national dose hoarding and bilateral vaccine diplomacy and endless sniping about relative vaccine quality and the introduction of geopolitical rivalry into what ought to have been a shared, humanity-wide goal. Confronted by the most sudden and urgent global pandemic in living memory, an emerging new cold war has not helped us at all.

Terrible though it has been, the Covid-19 crisis barely registers in scale and complexity when compared with the impending disaster of climate change. It is too late to avoid some of the damage: we can already see it all around us, in fires and floods and droughts and heatwaves. In Pakistan, the city of Jacobabad has already experienced wet-bulb temperatures over 35C — the point at which, even in the shade and with plenty of drinking water, the human body cannot cool itself and will soon die. A year ago a friend who lives in the Italian Alps sent me two pictures: one from a Nasa satellite, the second from his home showing a nearby mountain that was less visible than normal, though it was a cloudless day. It seemed the jet stream had carried smoke there from colossal fires raging on the west coast of the US.

But we can still limit the damage from climate change to levels that need not cause the displacement of billions of human beings. It is still possible to prevent the collapse of our planet’s main agricultural regions. But we do not have time or resources to waste. And the notion that we will do what needs to be done, act on the scale required of us, while the US and China settle into an ever-deteriorating stand-off in the western Pacific seems implausible at best. More aircraft carriers, hypersonic missiles, nuclear weapon silos — these are on their way, and they are decidedly not what humanity most requires.

What Does It Take to Destroy a World Order?
By Alfred McCoy

The global order didn’t blink when the sprawling Soviet empire imploded in 1991, freeing its 15 “republics” and seven “satellites” to become 22 newly capitalist nations. Washington took that epochal event largely in stride. There were no triumphal demonstrations, in the tradition of ancient Rome, with manacled Russian captives and their plundered treasures paraded down Pennsylvania Avenue. Instead, a Manhattan real-estate developer bought a 20-foot chunk of the Berlin Wall for display near Madison Avenue, a sight barely noticed by busy shoppers.

For those trying to track global trends for the next decade or two, the real question is not the fate of American global hegemony, but the future of the world order it began building at the peak of its power, not in 1991, but right after World War II. For the past 75 years, Washington’s global dominion has rested on a “delicate duality.” The raw realpolitik of U.S. military bases, multinational corporations, CIA coups, and foreign military interventions has been balanced, even softened, by a surprisingly liberal world order — with sovereign states meeting as equals at the United Nations, an international rule of law that muted armed conflict, a World Health Organization that actually eradicated epidemic diseases which had plagued humanity for generations, and a developmental effort led by the World Bank that lifted 40% of humanity out of poverty.

In their spread across disparate lands, world orders become coalitions of contending, even contradictory, social forces — diverse peoples, rival nations, competing classes. When deftly balanced, such a system can survive for decades, even centuries, by subsuming those contending forces within broadly shared interests. As tensions swell into contradictions, however, a cataclysm in the form of war or natural disaster can catalyze otherwise simmering conflicts — allowing challenges from rival powers, revolts by subordinate social orders, or both.

… there is mounting evidence that climate change, as it accelerates, is creating the basis for the sort of cataclysm that will be capable of shaking even such a deeply rooted world order. The cascading effects of global warming will be ever more evident, not in the distant future of 2100 (as once thought), but within just 20 years, impacting the lives of most adults alive today.

In a telling example of how climate catastrophe can erase an entire world order, around 1200 BC the eastern Mediterranean suffered a protracted drought that “caused crop failures, dearth, and famine,” sweeping away Late Bronze Age civilizations like the Greek Mycenaean cities, the Hittite empire, and the New Kingdom in Egypt.

From 2007 to 2010, ongoing global warming caused the “worst three-year drought” in Syria’s recorded history — precipitating unrest marked by “massive agricultural failures” that drove 1.5 million people into city slums and, next, by a devastating civil war that, starting in 2011, forced five million refugees to flee that country. As more than a million migrants, led by 350,000 Syrians, poured into Europe in 2015, the European Union (EU) plunged into political crisis. Anti-immigrant parties soon gained in popularity and power across the continent while Britain voted for its own chaotic Brexit.

Projecting the Middle East’s history, ancient and modern, into the near future, the ingredients for a regional crisis with serious global ramifications are clearly present. Just last month, the U.S. National Intelligence Council warned that “climate hazards,” such as “heat waves [and] droughts,” were increasing “social unrest, migration, and interstate tension in countries such as Egypt, Ethiopia, Iraq, and Jordan.”

If we translate those sparse words into a future scenario, sometime before 2040 when average global warming is likely to reach that dangerous 1.5 degrees Celsius mark, the Middle East will likely experience a disastrous temperature rise of 2.3 degrees. Such intense heat will produce protracted droughts far worse than the one that destroyed those Bronze Age civilizations, potentially devastating agriculture and sparking water wars among the nations that share the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, while sending yet more millions of refugees fleeing toward Europe. Under such unprecedented pressure, far-right parties might take power across the continent and the EU could rupture as every nation seals its borders. NATO, suffering a “severe crisis” since the Trump years, might simply implode, creating a strategic vacuum that finally allows Russia to seize Ukraine and the Baltic states.

As tensions rise on both sides of the Atlantic, the U.N. could be paralyzed by a great-power deadlock in the Security Council as well as growing recriminations over the role of its High Commissioner for Refugees. Pummeled by these and similar crises from other climate-change hot spots, the international cooperation that lay at the heart of Washington’s world order for the past 90 years would simply wither, leaving a legacy even less visible than that block of the Berlin Wall in midtown Manhattan.

How 9/11 Will Be Remembered a Century Later
By Stephen M. Walt

If the worst-case forecasts on climate change turn out to be correct—and it is getting harder to discount them these days—then the next 80 years will see a series of transformations in human life that will make both 9/11 and the global war on terrorism that it unleashed seem like a minor distraction. If coastal cities are inundated, island nations disappear, the Gulf Stream weakens, large areas of the world become uninhabitable due to deadly combinations of heat and humidity, and hundreds of millions of people begin to migrate in a desperate search for survival, then our descendants will have neither the time nor the inclination to reflect on a terrorist attack that occurred in the pre-dystopian era. At most, 9/11 will be seen as one of the many factors that kept the United States and many other countries from taking action when they should have.

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