When We Leave: Afghanistan Tomorrow and Forever

Green pushpin pressed into a map, with the pin sticking into Afghanistan. Image Description: Green pushpin pressed into a map, with the pin sticking into Afghanistan.

Summary: Operation “Blame the Afghan People” is in full swing. The countdown to us forgetting completely about Afghanistan has also just begun, and the media is doing its best to shove a comparative narrative to Vietnam down our throats. Today’s episode explores our national amnesia, examines the Vietnam comparison, talks about what happens when our occupations end and questions the continuation of a wartime military budget. 

On June 17th in 2015, Dylann Roof walked into a black church in Charleston, South Carolina. He attended a bible study with the assembled members. After an hour of study and conversation and as the group began to pray, Roof stood up and emptied a firearm and murdered nine people.

On January 16th, 2016, then President Barack Obama officially declared a public health crisis in Flint, Michigan. Corroded pipes from the Flint River exposed the poor and mostly black residents of Flint to lead poisoning.

On October 1st of 2017, 64-year-old Stephen Paddock opened the window from his 32nd floor room at Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas and rained gunfire on concert-goers below, killing 59 people and wounding more than 500.

On October 2nd of 2018, veteran U.S.-based journalist Jamal Khashoggi entered the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. Despite months of denials from the Saudi government, investigations revealed that Mr. Khashoggi was restrained and drugged, causing him to overdose. His body was dismembered and disposed of.

In August of 2019, the world briefly paid attention to a scientific report that revealed more than 74,000 fires had already blazed in the Amazon, doubling the total from the prior year. Increasingly hot and dry weather in the Amazon fueled the fires set by loggers to clear the most important ecosystem on the planet for further industrial use, contributing to the vicious cycle of climate change.

In January of 2020, then President Donald Trump authorized the assassination of Iranian General Qasem Soleimani by drone strike. The strike occurred on January 3rd, murdering arguably the most powerful and popular figure in Iran, but on Iraqi soil, along with five Iraqis and four Iranian nationals.

On August 15th, 2021 the American flag was removed from the U.S. embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan, as the last remaining American troops and diplomats from around the world scrambled to flee the country as the Taliban concluded its final and stunning siege of the nation.

The takeaway from this episode will come later, but was actually teased in our Quickie last week. But the point of this exercise is to demonstrate that we will forget. We will move on. The premeditated and cold blooded murder of black worshippers by an avowed white supremacist should have altered the conversation on gun control like Sandy Hook should have and the Las Vegas massacre should have. But we move on. The killing and dismembering of a U.S.-based journalist by the murderously corrupt and brutal Saudi regime should have been the end of our relationship with them or, at a minimum, sparked rebuke and had consequences. But that was inconvenient, and so we moved on. We cared for a moment about the children of Flint, Michigan whose development and cognitive functions will forever be impacted, and whose health will always be compromised by lead poisoning. But they were poor and mostly black. So it was important to us, but only for a moment.

Had any other nation in the world assassinated the most prominent and popular figure of another country, it might have been grounds for war, if not some level of retaliation. But it was us, so it didn’t matter. Didn’t matter that it was illegal and in violation of international treaties and norms. The most significant ecosystem on Earth, the lungs of the planet, are being shredded and burned, intensifying the trajectory and effects of climate change. Have you read about it recently?

And now we’ve pulled the plug on Afghanistan, and it’s all we can think about or talk about. But there’s a high likelihood that it will have moved off the front pages by the time this podcast hit your feed. But we need to talk about it. We need to talk about not only what happened and why, but take a step further and talk about what happens next.

What happens… when we leave.

Let the Blame Game Begin

20 years ago, the U.S. and its allies invaded a country that had no part in 9/11—the pretext for the war—other than harboring the Saudi terrorists on the fringe of its vast, ungovernable wasteland. But we didn’t hold the Saudis accountable. Instead, we invaded, terrorized and occupied the whole of Afghanistan for two straight decades in our most protracted war.

And now we’re leaving. Just. Like. That.

In our current media landscape, there are a handful of competing narratives at play:

  • We never should have been there. We should have stayed longer.

  • The Taliban is a loose patchwork of disorganized factions incapable of governing. The Taliban is highly organized and ready to build an Islamic republic that will brutally institute Sharia Law and subjugate women and girls in Afghanistan.

  • It fell so quickly because the Afghan culture is inherently corrupt.

  • They are a weak people and incapable of absorbing the best military training by the finest war machine in history.

The right is blaming Joe Biden for fucking up our departure. The left is deflecting by saying that Trump crafted this plan. Both are lamenting the fate of the poor women of Afghanistan as if we ever really gave a flying fuck about them or their rights. If we gave a flying fuck, we’d be preaching that gospel in Saudi Arabia instead of arming them to the teeth to do our dirty work in the Middle East.

I’ve read that the war in Afghanistan cost the United States a trillion dollars. I’ve also read that it cost 2 trillion. And 3 trillion. All from credible sources. But it’s hard to disentangle the Afghanistan war budget from the entire military apparatus and, in the end, it probably doesn’t matter. I mean, don’t get me wrong. It fucking matters. But it’s spent, it’s over, so we’re here to talk about how it will matter going forward. More on that later.

Perhaps the most consistent media narrative is to liken the evacuation of Kabul to our unceremonious departure from Saigon. The optics do feel like an echo, but this comparison will fall apart in relatively short order.

To be clear, there are parallels between our entanglements and abrupt exits from Vietnam and Afghanistan. Prior to our involvement in Vietnam, the French occupied the territory. Prior to our involvement in Afghanistan, the Russians occupied it. Both of these experiences turned the youth of these countries into hardened warriors who were forged in conflict and prepared to engage for the long haul.

Both were cast out of cities when the U.S. set up temporary institutions that gave the appearance of stability, while the rebels held the rural parts and grew ever more obstinate and radical. Both conflicts crossed multiple U.S. administrations and ultimately ended with us calling it a stalemate rather than admitting defeat. And both fell almost immediately when the paper infrastructure and corrupt puppet governments we installed were left to their own devices.

Both collapses were blamed on backwards and rural people who we considered to be ungovernable savages incapable of running a democracy, as if a military insurgency has ever actually built democratic non-military institutions anywhere, ever.

The Vietnamese deserved communism because they didn’t value human rights and civil liberties. Believe it or not, that was a prevailing intellectual sentiment at the time. And today, it’s that the Afghan people were too simple, too corrupt and too weak to adopt democracy and fight back against the Taliban.

Biden’s disgusting and insensitive defense of our withdrawal and shaming of the Afghanistan people for being cowardly and corrupt is a very Biden thing to do. Biden has always cared deeply about U.S. citizens and American interests. You can criticize him all you want for his politics, but the man is deeply patriotic and fiercely loyal. But Biden is also an old school patriot and loyalist who sees the world as an imperial classist, a typical American exceptionalism view of the world. Aside from the fact that it honestly seemed like he was fighting the urge to fall asleep during this rather significant speech, the callousness of it was kind of jarring.

Contrast this with the always slick and sensitive approach from Trudeau, who made sure to pack his remarks with crucial liberal buzzwords. Why was Trudeau even commenting, you might ask. After all, Canada has been officially out of Afghanistan since 2014. It’s because many of those who worked as translators and facilitators to the Canadian troops remain in the country with immigration options quickly dwindling.

According to the CBC, more than 40,000 Canadians served in Afghanistan, and many of those who returned still suffer the psychological trauma from their deployment. And while deployed, they relied heavily on interpreters who are shit out of luck at the moment, with the Taliban already sending messages directly to anyone suspected of aiding western powers during the occupation.

As usual, Canada’s response sucks less than ours. But it doesn’t excuse them from prior imperialist form. Nevertheless, in addition to saying the right thing about the withdrawal, the Canadian government has agreed to fast track 20,000 visas to Afghan refugees, assuming of course they can somehow get to safety and travel. The United States has agreed to take on 1,200 immediately and up to 3,500 more.

Can you fucking imagine? We invaded a country that literally did nothing to us, occupied it and manufactured a war that killed 47,000 civilians, 66,000 Afghan military and police, 400 aid workers and 72 journalists. Then, we have the hubris to say it was their fault for being weak and that we’ll take in less than 5,000 of them, again assuming they can even find safe passage.

We’re fucking monsters.

And there’s not much we can even say on the way out the door because, as the Afghanistan Papers leak showed, we never knew what the fuck we were doing there. Moreover, like Vietnam, we lied through our teeth about gains we were making, the success of the so-called surge, which did nothing to move the needle, and progress in building their military apparatus to stand on its own someday without us.

Richard Boucher, assistant secretary of state for south and central Asian affairs under President Bush put it rather bluntly, saying, “If we think our exit strategy is to either beat the Taliban—which can’t be done given the local, regional, and cross border circumstances—or to establish an Afghan government that is capable of delivering good government to its citizens using American tools and methods, then we do not have an exit strategy because both of those are impossible.” It was an open secret that the corporate media and U.S. government basically covered up.

As far as the Vietnam comparisons go, they’re mostly fair and accurate. Until this point, and this point only, this is our modern Vietnam. An attack on an impoverished nation of brown people that played patsies to our geopolitical game of chess. But the comparisons between them will end here. The Vietnamese people were able to eventually emerge from the darkness we imposed upon them and regain economic standing in the world. Though even their reemergence is Faustian, as we’ll show.

The plight of the Afghan people going forward will look very, very different than Vietnam. But it won’t matter to us. And most of us will never know. Because in a matter of months, maybe even weeks, we’ll forget about the women, the girls, the whole of the nation of Afghanistan.

That’s what happens… when we leave.

The Four Paths Forward

We have a history of overthrowing countries and installing dictatorships that work closely with our military and industry interests for as long as it suits our needs. Then, when we pull out, lose interest or get our asses handed to us in an uprising, we blame the people of that country for not appreciating our largesse and generosity. Pinochet in Chile, the Shah in Iran, Gaddafi in Libya, Batista in Cuba, Noriega in Panama, Armas in Guatemala, Suharto in Indonesia, Baby Doc Duvalier in Haiti, you get the picture.

Nations such as these that have had the misfortune of attracting our attention have four options to move forward when we leave.

  1. Client State. The first option is to fall in line and become a client state of the United States. Two flavors of this type. Either leave the strongman dictator we selected in place and take what you get from our trade agreements, or organize your entire economy and political system around us as in the case of Japan post World War II. So that’s one.

  1. Rogue State. Another option, if you’re fortunate enough to possess a commodity that holds some economic value in the world, is to give us the middle finger and try to either go it alone or cozy up to our adversaries. Iran, Cuba, Venezuela and Libya come to mind. Cuba had sugar. Iran, Venezuela and Libya had oil. Choose this path, and be forever subjected to economic sanctions and pressure that will ostensibly hobble your ability to develop a broad based economic system beyond your primary commodity. Know that we will never stop fucking with you for committing the sin of independence. And if, like Gaddafi in Libya, we sense an opening to destabilize your nation and oust you from power, you better know we’re coming.

  1. Fringe State. The third path is relevant if you’re of minor strategic importance, but just enough to make us keep our big toe on the scale without too much effort. In this case, we’ll let you live in a suppressed purgatory such as Indonesia or Guatemala. Helping you doesn’t do enough to warrant our love and annihilating you only gives us a headache. So you’re neither here nor there. We might blame you for issues we created like Guatemala, or say you’re someone else’s problem like Indonesia. And we’ll extract what we need when it suits us, but otherwise you’re nothing to us.

And then there’s the dreaded fourth scenario where Afghanistan is about to find itself.

  1. Fucked State. Desolation. Isolation. The Haiti scenario. No real strategic importance. Not enough resources for us to give a shit. Black and brown inhabitants. The deadliest of all combinations. Well, like Haiti, Afghanistan doesn’t have enough natural or fossil resources to warrant our attention. And though it bookends Iran with Iraq on the other side, its proximity to Pakistan and China make it more of an eastern issue; i.e. not our fucking problem. We have so many bases in the region at this point that maintaining a presence in a landlocked country with no oil really doesn’t mean shit to us. No ports, no critical fossil resources, no pipelines, no commerce. Just sand and mountains.

So fuck ‘em.

When we left Vietnam, we left it in shambles. Two million dead, three million disfigured and wounded. 12 million refugees. A decimated public infrastructure. We didn’t hand the communists a victory as much as we handed them a bag of shit. The decade following our exodus was painful for the Vietnamese people. But they had two things their modern Afghan counterparts don’t. Abundant natural resources and ports.

It took the unified socialist government a decade to begin healing the wounds from war with the United States and subsequent skirmishes with China and Cambodia. And then, beginning in 1986, Vietnam opened broad trade agreements and began exporting goods and attracting foreign investment. And, in the ‘90s, it made a deal with the devil and opened itself to trade with the United States. It selected option one, to become a client state and, of course, we graciously accepted the invitation to exploit their labor.

In the 2000s, Vietnam’s GDP increased dramatically and helped lift tens of millions of people out of poverty. Of course, nothing is free. The other side of capitalism is the two headed monster of inequality and pollution.

According to the World Bank, over the past two decades, “Vietnam has emerged as the fastest growing per-capita greenhouse gas emitters in the world—growing at about 5 percent annually. Unsustainable exploitation of natural assets such as sand, fisheries and timber could negatively affect prospects for long-term growth. Compounding the problem is the reality that much of Vietnam’s population and economy is highly vulnerable to climate impacts.”

Now contrast the possibilities in Afghanistan with what Vietnam was able to accomplish. It has none of the geographic, geopolitical or resource advantages. After 20 fucking years of us occupying, nation building and spreading democracy, fully 50% of the Afghan population still lives in poverty, according to the World Bank. It already suffers from floods, earthquakes, heat waves and disease, the biggest causes of death. And the IPCC reports that these circumstances will intensify greatly over the coming decades, with much of Afghanistan and the Middle East becoming uninhabitable by 2100. And unlike Vietnam, Afghanistan—due to its lack of industrialization—is considered one of the lowest contributors to climate change.

If there was any hope that Afghanistan could chart a path forward to create a more resilient infrastructure to battle the effects of climate change that it didn’t create, it just hopped on a jet in Kabul and beat a path back to the United States. Never to be thought of again.

So, as the comparisons continue for the next several weeks, before we wipe the memory of this desolate and utterly fucked nation from our national hard drive, let’s try to refrain from calling this our Vietnam. Afghanistan will not become a client state. It won’t have the strength to give us the middle finger and chart a path forward with our adversaries. It won’t even warrant a passing glance like Indonesia or Guatemala. Afghanistan will reside firmly in the tragic fourth camp with Haiti.

When all you have is a hammer… 

As we know, the United States spends more on national defense than China, India, Russia, the UK, Saudi Arabia, Germany, France, Japan, South Korea, Italy and Australia combined. When all you have is a hammer, then all the world is a nail. So the realpolitik question isn’t what just happened, but what happens next?

As the Intercept noted recently, the past couple of decades were especially good for Boeing, Raytheon, Lockheed Martin, General Dynamics and Northrop Grumman. Then there are the mercenaries and contractors we employ and protect, the ones who carry out covert operations and do our dirty work. The manufacturers and suppliers of the big guys at home and the ones who export arms across the globe.

We all know the military industrial complex is the beating heart of the U.S. economy, with more than three quarters of a trillion dollars committed to it annually, and that doesn’t include veterans affairs and homeland security. How did we go from $300 billion at the turn of the millennium to $750 billion today? And why the fuck are we projecting out years to grow by 5% per year over the next decade? For what? On what?

In last week’s Quickie, we posed this question, which is what prompted this episode. Where the fuck is the media in questioning this preposterous level of spending?

Last year, Representative Barbara Lee of California—the only fucking member of Congress to vote against the war in Afghanistan—introduced House Resolution 1003 with 24 Democratic cosponsors. While largely symbolic, at least someone is thinking about this shit and introducing it into the public record. Here’s the summary of the resolution:

This resolution expresses the sense of the House of Representatives that Congress supports (1) reducing waste at the Department of Defense (DOD), (2) making cuts to DOD's budget while simultaneously improving support for members of the Armed Forces, (3) exercising aggressive oversight over DOD, (4) eliminating the Overseas Contingency Operations account, and (5) reallocating certain defense funds to instead support U.S. diplomacy and domestic programs.

The preamble to the resolution says it all.

Whereas Pentagon spending adjusted for inflation since 9/11 has increased 50%.

The rest outlines the waste and mismanagement that comes when you’re forced to spend more money than you asked for or know what to do with. And that’s precisely what has happened for the past 20 years.

Normalizing Wartime Budgets

When I was putting this together, my mind was going in so many directions, Unf*ckers. And when I was reviewing Bernie’s out year projections in the Quickie last week, my blood was boiling. Why the fuck are we just assuming that these budgets will continue?

You know that this kind of non-inflationary spending isn’t what tweaks me, even if it’s demonstrably offensive, evil and irresponsible. It’s the fact that we’ve normalized this level of spending on industrial militarization, surveillance and dirty wars to such an extent that it’s not even news when we simultaneously pull out of our longest war and propose a budget that increases spending for the next ten years.

From $300 billion per year to $750 billion per year—and growing—despite the fact that we aren’t at war. What are we doing? Are there really only 20-odd members of Congress that see this bullshit? And why aren’t they holding a press conference every day? Or a vigil? A fucking hunger strike! Anything.

The resolution pointed out a handful of deficiencies to illustrate the point that maybe, just maybe, the DoD has more money than it knows what to do with.

(1) the Pentagon awarded a $7,000,000 cloud-computing contract to a 1-person company; (2) the Defense Logistics Agency lost track of $800,000,000 in construction projects; (3) last year, the Pentagon spent $4,600,000 on crab and lobster in an-end-of-the-year spree; and (4) the Pentagon had no way to track replacement parts for the $1,400,000,000,000 F–35 Joint Strike Fighter program; Whereas the military budget accounts for more than half of all discretionary spending;

It’s almost a bad joke at this point. The problem with the Democrats’ messaging is that they always have to offset it with what else it could cure. It’s all over social fucking media right now. If we hadn’t gone to war, we could have ended world hunger. How about this? We can go to war AND end world hunger. Take a fucking economics class.

The war machine isn’t stupid, by the way. Military contractors are located mostly in Republican districts, which are largely so because the districts have been so gerrymandered. And they’re funding the political machine to ensure that Republicans maintain control of state legislatures and give themselves an advantage in congressional elections.

Progressive Revolution

The answers are right in front of the Democrats right now, but you’re witnessing deliberate inaction that ensures nothing will change.

  1. The new voting rights act, “H.R. 1 For The People,” would take back control of our election system and ensure total participation and reduce the influence of special interests.

  2. With the new census data in hand, the Democrats should be working overtime to draw realistic district maps that deliver true representation.

  3. The filibuster has to go because the things we need to accomplish won’t always get done through reconciliation.

  4. And Congress could use this brief window with literally no foreign entanglements to repatriate federal military funds and personnel to deliver on the promise of the Green New Deal, which would convert the domestic industrial military supply chain to create a manufacturing revolution that would help convert the nation’s energy and transportation infrastructure to a clean energy economy.

If only we approached this with wartime speed and efficiency.

But as I said before, if all you have is a hammer, then the whole world is a nail. The military industrial complex has only one incentive, and that is to generate conflicts abroad in order to sustain its standing in the world and exorbitant contracts at home.

There is officially now zero reason to maintain a budget this extraordinary. We have the satellite technology to surveil every inch of the planet and target a purported enemy of the state in the backseat of a fucking car thousands of miles away. We see all and know all, so even if you truly believed that there was an imminent threat on U.S. soil, we have the power to snuff it out at a moment’s notice.

We’re not fighting China over nukes and acts of aggression. We’re fighting them over patents and intellectual property. We’re not fighting the Russians over territory in some country that ends in “stan,” we’re fighting cyber attacks and disinformation campaigns. And yet we maintain a military apparatus that stands at the ready to deploy troops, carriers and fighter jets for conflicts that simply don’t fucking exist. Unless we make them up.

And that’s the danger. That’s always been the danger. That we’ll invent a conflict, will ourselves into battle and convince our neighbors and allies like Canada and the UK to join in so we can spread the blame and responsibility. The Tyson Principle is self revelatory, Unf*ckers. And we have precious little time to act on it.

No tilting at third party windmills. There’s no time for that. It’s up to us to lift up the voices of the progressive caucus and vocally support those who are raising these issues and concerns.

There are currently 100 out of 435 representatives who have joined in the Progressive Caucus. It’s not enough. We need numbers and mobilization and pressure on sitting Democrats to align with them on procedural matters, such as voting access, ending the filibuster and controlling the redistricting process. The Republicans will be coming fast and furious for all of us at the midterms, and if you’re paying attention to our current leadership—78 year old Joe Biden, 70 year old Chuck Schumer and 81 year old Nancy Pelosi—it should be apparent that they’re not the ones that will make this happen.

If it sounds ageist, it is. They’re part of yesterday.

We need a groundswell of support for the likes of Ayanna Pressley, AOC, Ilhan Omar and Pramila Jayapal. They need numbers. That’s where we come in. Follow these reps on social media, and let them know you’re here for them. Contact their offices and ask how you can canvas for support in battleground districts that have a chance of going progressive. Stay positive, but get noisy.

Reclaim the American flag from the mouth breathing Trump fuckers, and show them what a real fucking badass looks like. Because real badass motherfuckers are progressive. Real badass motherfuckers are here for it and ready to Unf*ck the Republic.

Endless war has ended. Don’t let them restart. Seize the motherfucking day.

Here endeth the lesson.

Max is a basic, middle-aged white guy who developed his cultural tastes in the 80s (Miami Vice, NY Mets), became politically aware in the 90s (as a Republican), started actually thinking and writing in the 2000s (shifting left), became completely jaded in the 2010s (moving further left) and eventually decided to launch UNFTR in the 2020s (completely left).