Though the war in Afghanistan is over, its grim history is filled with hard truths about what it really means to serve in the American military.
Those truths are particularly relevant to anyone contemplating enlistment or commissioning in the armed forces. With that in mind, here’s a warning label informed by the grim lessons of Operation Enduring Freedom—the failed and futile 20-year war in Afghanistan.
YOU COULD LOSE YOUR LIFE OR LIMBS IN A WAR THAT ACCOMPLISHES NOTHING
After 9/11, the U.S. government was right to lash out at Al Qaeda in Afghanistan. However, that mission was largely accomplished by the end of 2001. As Scott Horton wrote in Fool’s Errand: Time to End the War in Afghanistan, within three months of 9/11, “there were not enough (al Qaeda) left alive to fill a seventeenth-century pirate ship.”
The balance of the war was a futile effort to replace the Taliban with a government more palatable to western powers. Today, after more than 2,400 U.S. service members were killed and more than 20,000 wounded, Afghanistan is ruled by the Taliban, just as it was two decades years ago.
YOU MAY HAVE TO FIGHT ENEMIES CREATED BY YOUR OWN GOVERNMENT
Al Qaeda and the Taliban can be traced directly to a 1979 CIA operation, conceived by national security advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski and approved by President Carter, that provided aid to opponents of Afghanistan’s then-pro-Soviet government, in hopes of drawing the USSR into a protracted, hopeless war.
As I wrote in a pointed 2017 Brzezinski obituary, “the Carter and Reagan administrations, along with Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, funded, organized, transported, armed and trained Salafist extremists to fight the Red Army in a holy war on behalf of Islam. Among those who joined the cause were future al Qaeda leaders Osama bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri and Khalid Sheikh Mohammad.”
“The enduring global impact of this 10-year program bears emphasis: The CIA and Saudi GID recruited jihadists from all around the Muslim world, creating relationships and networks that would evolve into not only al Qaeda, but also ISIS and many other Salafist terrorist groups across several continents.”
YOU MAY BE ORDERED TO TOLERATE PEDOPHILIA
A disturbing, centuries-old Afghan custom called bacha bazi (“boy play”) frequently involves the enslavement and sexual abuse of young boys. In the 1990’s, the Taliban government outlawed it. Under the U.S.-sponsored government, however, it was not only tolerated, but was often practiced by Afghan officers within nightly earshot of U.S. service members.
Veterans say superiors told them to ignore the sickening crimes. One of them, former Special Forces captain Dan Quinn, told the New York Times, “We were putting people into power who would do things that were worse than the Taliban did.”
RECKLESS WASTE MANAGEMENT COULD KILL YOU, YEARS AFTER YOUR SERVICE IS COMPLETE
The U.S. military is regularly billed as a modern fighting force. However, when it came to disposing of vast amounts of waste in Afghanistan and Iraq, military commanders chose a decidedly medieval method.
In both theaters of operation, the military piled everything from batteries and Styrofoam to human body parts, paint, chemicals, fuel, electronics, medical waste and plastic in enormous, open-air pits and simply set it on fire, often using jet or diesel fuel as an accelerant.
In a phenomenon that’s been likened to the illness and death caused by Agent Orange jungle defoliant in Vietnam, there’s a growing consensus that the burn pits have given War on Terror veterans respiratory conditions and a variety of cancers. As with Agent Orange, symptoms may surface years after exposure.
YOUR MISSION MAY BRING DEATH AND MISERY TO VAST CIVILIAN POPULATIONS
According to Brown University’s Costs of War Project, some 335,000 civilians have been killed in America’s post-9/11 wars in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq. At least 38 million people have been forcibly displaced in those countries along with Syria, Libya, Yemen, Somalia and the Philippines.
SERVICE MAY HARM YOU PSYCHOLOGICALLY
There have been more than 30,000 suicides among those who’ve served in the post-9/11 wars, and upwards of 20% of Operation Enduring Freedom veterans experience post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in a given year.
If PTSD strikes you, you may be inflicted with angry and aggressive behavior, recurring memories of traumatic events, nightmares, physical reactions to certain stimuli, difficulty expressing emotions, detachment from family and friends, feelings of hopelessness, lack of interest in things you used to enjoy, substance abuse, feelings of overwhelming guilt and suicidal thoughts.
Even thousands of miles of distance from your enemies can’t immunize you against PTSD: Drone operators working from the comfort of an air-conditioned buildings at stateside bases have been stricken too.
“How many women and children have you seen incinerated by a Hellfire missile? How many men have you seen crawl across a field, trying to make it to the nearest compound for help while bleeding out from severed legs?” asked one former drone operator at The Guardian.
SUPERIOR OFFICERS MAY DECEIVE THE AMERICAN PEOPLE ABOUT A WAR YOU’RE STUCK IN
In 2019, the Washington Post published a large set of documents about the Afghanistan war, including 1,900 pages of transcripts and notes from Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) interviews of U.S. and other officials.
Much like the Vietnam War’s Pentagon Papers, the Afghanistan Papers revealed senior officials’ optimistic public pronouncements about the war’s progress were completely at odds with the facts being reported to them on a daily basis.
As the Post wrote, “the documents contradict a long chorus of public statements from U.S. presidents, military commanders and diplomats who assured Americans year after year that they were making progress in Afghanistan and the war was worth fighting.”
COUNTERINSURGENCY WARFARE MAKES YOU MORE LIKELY TO SUFFER GENITAL INJURIES AND DOUBLE-LEG AMPUTATIONS
Unlike conventional warfare, counterinsurgency operations emphasize foot patrols, which make soldiers vulnerable to improvised explosive devices.
Following a 2010 shift toward counterinsurgency operations in Afghanistan, the military’s Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany saw a 60% spike in the share of inbound casualties with a limb amputation and a 90% increase in the proportion with genitourinary wounds.
IF YOU’RE KILLED BY FRIENDLY FIRE, THE PENTAGON MAY LIE TO YOUR FAMILY ABOUT IT
Eight months after 9/11, NFL player Pat Tillman turned down a $3.6 million contract and enlisted in the U.S. Army. In April 2004, he was killed by fellow soldiers in the midst of a battle in Afghanistan.
Army brass, however, presented the public with a Hollywood ending to his unlikely story of selfless American patriotism. For weeks, the Army promoted a false account of his death—declaring he’d died in a line of “devastating enemy fire.”
Tillman’s family wasn’t told the truth until weeks after his death, and his nationally-televised memorial service. Subsequent Army and DOD investigations determined Tillman’s superior officers had almost immediately learned he’d been killed by friendly fire.
AFTER YOU SWEAR LOYALTY TO THE CONSTITUTION, YOU MAY BE USED IN A WAY THAT VIOLATES IT
By virtue of a widely-worded, open-ended congressional authorization to use military force (AUMF), one can reasonably argue the Afghan war was within the bounds of the U.S. Constitution, which reserves the power to declare war to the Congress.
The same can’t be said for most U.S. military action over the recent years. From an attack on Syria in “retaliation” for a government gas attack that didn’t happen to regime-change intervention in Libya, brazenly unconstitutional warfare is now the norm, not the exception.
YOU WILL BE JOINING AN ENTERPRISE THAT’S PUSHING THE U.S. GOVERNMENT TOWARD FINANCIAL RUIN
Based in over 800 installations in more than 70 countries around the world, the sprawling U.S. military empire will this year consume $700 billion that the U.S. government doesn’t have.
If you naively thought the end of the Afghanistan war would spark some belt-tightening, consider that House Republicans just announced a proposal to tack on another $25 billion to President Biden’s already bloated 2022 proposed DOD budget of $753 billion.
The national debt is a towering $28.7 trillion..and counting. So-called “defense” spending—which has enriched contractors as steadily as it’s helped bring despair and alternating destruction and reconstruction to countless millions—is a major reason why the government is marching steadily toward a financial meltdown.
JOURNALISTS MAY DESERT YOU
If your war is being mismanaged, don’t count on major American media to keep your plight in the public eye, pressure Congress to perform oversight of your mission or urge the president to end it.
In 2020, the regular nightly evening news broadcasts of ABC, CBS and NBC added up to over 14,000 minutes of programming. Out of that, the three networks devoted just five minutes to Afghanistan.
MILITARY SERVICE DOESN’T EQUATE TO SERVING ONE’S COUNTRY
Despite the best hopes of many an enlistee or newly-commissioned officer, it’s essential to understand that military service is primarily service to one’s government—not to one’s country. There’s a vast difference.
After the prompt shattering of al Qaeda in Afghanistan was complete, the 20-year nation-building fiasco there didn’t render a service to the people of the United States. Neither did the catastrophic invasion of Iraq on false premises, or the ensuing occupation.
Indeed, the entire war on terror has made the world a more dangerous place for Americans and non-Americans alike.
As Scott Horton writes in Enough Already: Time to End the War on Terrorism, “In a perverse imitation of our enemies, the policy of American dominance in the Middle East amounts to murder-suicide on a mass scale. The treasury is empty, the infantry is exhausted, the Bill of Rights is in tatters and the American people do not believe in the war anymore.”
Even if Horton’s correct in saying the American people have had enough already, eager foreign interventionists—working in harmony with defense contractors and parasitic foreign governments—still dominate Washington and the media-think tank ecosystem that surrounds it.
The war in Afghanistan may be over, but the potential for would-be U.S. military service members to be pointlessly harmed and to inflict pointless harm remains high.
Between a continued presence in Iraq, the illegal occupation of Syrian territory, troops deployed in Africa without the knowledge of Congress, saber-rattling over Taiwan, the pointlessly provocative expansion of NATO up to Russia’s borders and an Israeli government seemingly eager to fight Iran down to the last American, the late-stage U.S. empire and its too many allies are still poking hornet nests all around the globe.
As a (non-combat) veteran of the U.S. Army Reserve, Pennsylvania National Guard and U.S. Army, I can attest to the fact that there are many benefits to military service, and they’re well-advertised.
However, anyone contemplating military service owes it to themselves to look inside the shiny red, white and blue packaging wrapped around it, and come to a full and sober appreciation of what service in today’s stumbling U.S. empire could really mean to them.
This originally appeared on Stark Realities.