CounterSpin interview with Phyllis Bennis on Afghan escalation
August 31, 2017
Janine Jackson interviewed Phyllis Bennis about Trump’s Afghan War escalation for the August 25, 2017, episode of CounterSpin. This is a lightly edited transcript.
Janine Jackson: On August 21, Donald Trump gave what one Washington Post writer called a “muscular speech” on his plans for the US’s long war in Afghanistan. Corporate media were critical of the lack of detail: How many new troops would be sent? How long exactly until the US annihilates all the terrorists? And media were critical of the messenger: Didn’t what was often benignly described as “continued US presence” in Afghanistan contradict Trump’s earlier views?
Less compelling for big media than what it means that this is “Trump’s war now” was what the US-led war has meant every day for Afghan citizens, and what escalation is assured to mean.
Writer and activist Phyllis Bennis directs the New Internationalism project at the Institute for Policy Studies. Author most recently of Understanding ISIS and the New Global War on Terror, she’s also co-author of Ending the US War in Afghanistan: A Primer. She joins us now by phone from Washington, DC. Welcome back to CounterSpin, Phyllis Bennis.
Phyllis Bennis: Great to be with you, Janine.
JJ: It isn’t to say that there isn’t critical commentary of various stripes; it’s just that some big things seem to be off the page. You could read multiple news reports, for example, that refer to the costs of the war in Afghanistan and occupation, and that reckoned those costs in US troop casualties or fatalities, and in taxpayer dollars. What’s missing from this sort of accounting, and then what do you make, in general, of media reaction to Trump’s speech?
PB: Well, you know, Janine, one of the points in Trump’s speech, when he said at the very beginning that the American people are “weary of war”—he said they’re “weary of war without victory.” What nobody is asking is, are the Afghans weary of war? There have been 67 percent more civilian casualties this year under Trump than the equivalent time of last year. Every year since the UN began keeping records back in 2009, every year the number of civilian casualties has gone up. Every year, it’s been not only more civilians, but more children among the civilians.
What’s interesting, of course, is that nobody was talking after Trump’s speech about his comparison with his so-called rival, John McCain, who just a couple of days before his speech gave his own speech. And McCain’s strategy was not so different, ultimately, than Trump’s. He also talked about sending more troops, sending more airstrikes, giving the military more power. But one of the things that McCain said explicitly, that Trump only implied, was that the goal has to do with the United States: preventing attacks on the US, preventing attacks on Americans. There is no goal of making life better for Afghans.
And that’s really critical. We have been many years now since anybody in power has claimed that we’re waging this war for democracy, or that we’re waging this war to protect the women of Afghanistan. Remember when that used to be a big, popular meme for this war? Laura Bush was big on this issue, a lot of people were, that we’re doing this for the women.
As it turns out, after 16 years of US military occupation, the conditions are so dire for ordinary Afghan civilians that Afghanistan is still the very worst country in the world for a child to be born and survive to her first birthday. And this is with 16 years of US military engagement in the interest of protecting Afghan women.
So the question of really, what has changed?—whose interest is this?—is not being challenged in the press; it’s not being asked enough. I think what we are seeing is that there’s a willingness to be critical, in the sense that right now in the mainstream press, there’s a willingness to be critical about everything having to do with Trump, and that’s all good. That’s not a bad thing, that’s a good thing. What is missing from it is, one, the recognition of how this has always been a failed and failing war, from October 7, 2001, the day the war was launched. It’s been wrong, it’s been illegal under international law, and arguably illegal, today, under US law.
JJ: You talked about an increase in civilian casualties under Trump, and I see media playing a role in kind of abetting and encouraging this idea that war is very presidential. And you have described Trump seeing deploying troops and sending bombs as almost first and foremost “sending a message,” and that that has to do with the increase in civilian casualties, that that’s kind of his thing.
PB: I think that’s absolutely right. I think that the question of why military force is being used has everything to do with sending the message that we as a country are strong and tough, and I as the president am presidential. It’s an assertion of what he doesn’t have on the basis of strategic thinking and ability to inspire people. Absent that, you send the Marines. That’s sort of an old story.
But it’s extraordinary, the level of increase in civilian casualties that are going on in US wars all around the world. I was looking just this morning, Janine, looking at the Washington Post, page 1, page 8, page 9, page 10—headline after headline about the numbers of civilian casualties that are dying and being severely injured by US airstrikes. Whether it’s in Mosul, the so-called liberation from ISIS that the US was responsible for, in Iraq; in Raqqa, Syria, where civilians are now being killed in huge numbers, again by US airstrikes supposedly aimed at ISIS; in Yemen, where the US-backed Saudi coalition is bombing and bombing and bombing, and killing civilians. And interestingly, in the same context, in Charlottesville, where now the United Nations is actually criticizing the United States for racist violence. So what we’re seeing is a real pattern of an increased level of civilian casualties and a decreased level of concern from those in power to stop it. That’s a very dangerous reality.
JJ: Let me bring you back to another question about perspective. In reading about reaction to Trump’s speech, I found a piece in Foreign Policy that included the expression:
"Like many Americans, I struggle with what the United States should do in Afghanistan. The answers are not obvious, and the options are never satisfying."
And I was thinking, you know, what I struggle with is the presumption that it’s the right of every American to puzzle out what those people over there ought to do with their country, and then make them do it. The commentator in this case is a former DoD employee, but her take isn’t really that unusual. International law appears to be just kind of a quaint idea for much of the press.
PB: No, that’s true. Of course, that was the language that the Bush administration memorably used for both the Geneva Conventions and international law, that it was quaint and it was irrelevant.
And that certainly is the case. I will cut a tiny bit of slack to the author that you quoted, and to others in this country who, in a serious way, think about what should US policy be, what are the options, only because after 16 years of military destruction, that followed decades of military attacks throughout the 1980s, when Afghanistan was a major venue for the hot part of the Cold War…. The US and the Soviet Union were fighting it out in Afghanistan. Of course, some of the people that we were supporting at that time were named Osama bin Laden, and they were the ones who became Al Qaeda later, so that was very much a blowback issue.
But with that history, I think that we do have to recognize that we owe a great debt to the people of Afghanistan. We have destroyed that country, far more than it would have been destroyed internally. So we do owe something to help them rebuild. The really difficult question is, how do we make good on that. We don’t owe military occupation, we don’t owe the imposition, arming, paying of a corrupt leader who has little to no local support, and the creation of a kind of government that has nothing to do with Afghan culture, nothing to do with the history of how Afghans govern themselves over the years when they were not being occupied.
So I think that it is right to say we should think about it. What’s not right is exactly the question that you raise; it’s not our right to decide how they should live now, how they should rebuild their country. We have to figure out a way to make good on our obligations, which has to do with money, it has to do with diplomatic support. It does not include military occupation.
Figuring out how to do that is no easy task, and at this moment, when the State Department has been stripped of so many diplomats—there’s not even an ambassador to Afghanistan at the moment, the office dealing with Afghanistan and Pakistan has simply been closed, shut down, the staff sent somewhere else—that means there are no diplomats available who have the skills and the information to make recommendations that would be taken seriously.
This is what happens when you cut the State Department budget by 30 percent, and turn those billions of dollars over to the Pentagon. You don’t have diplomats? You send the Marines. This is the challenge that we’re now facing. The only option we have, if you talk to people in Washington, is send the military, because there’s no resources anywhere else. So this is a huge challenge for what US foreign policy can and must change.
JJ: I certainly agree, and I see the desire to use US power for good.
PB: Doesn’t happen very often.
JJ: But I guess I also just see the desire to use US power, and the presumption that goes with that. It seems sometimes that a complete, frictionless acceptance of US exceptionalism is just kind of the price of admission for foreign policy debate in the media.
PB: You’re absolutely right. No, I think you’re absolutely right. The assumption is that a military engagement is the first option. Despite all the language about “there is no military solution,” we act as if there is only a military solution. And that’s true in Afghanistan, it’s true in Iraq, it’s true in Syria, it’s true in Libya, it’s true all over the world, and this is a huge problem. There is no easy answer, except to start with ending the military part. Get the troops out. That’s not the end game, that’s step one. That’s step one.
So you remember, Janine, during the early years of the Iraq War, Colin Powell used to use this Pottery Barn analogy: “We broke it, we fix it.” And I always thought that it was the wrong analogy, that the real analogy is the bull in the china shop. What do you do when the bull gets loose in the china shop and breaks all the cups? You don’t ask the bull to fix the cups, you get the bull the hell out of the china shop, and write a check for the damage. That’s step one. That’s not step end, but that’s step one. That’s what we need to be doing in Afghanistan. Then we need to figure out how to help rebuild in a way that’s not based on military force. That’s not something the US has ever been very good at.
We’ve been speaking with Phyllis Bennis, director of the New Internationalism project at the Institute for Policy Studies. She’s author, most recently, of Understanding ISIS and the New Global War on Terror, and co-author of Ending the US War in Afghanistan: A Primer. Thank you very much, Phyllis Bennis, for joining us this week on CounterSpin.
PB: Thank you. It’s good to be with you.