Argument

The Wars America Doesn’t Talk About

The Wars America Doesn’t Talk About

Last month was the deadliest for U.S. troops in Afghanistan in the ten years of the war there, with 67 killed, nearly half of them Navy SEALs in the downing of a Chinook helicopter — the deadliest single incident in this, the longest war in American history. More promisingly, it was also the first month since the American invasion of Iraq in 2003 that not a single U.S. soldier was killed there.  

And yet these startling facts received almost no notice: the president never mentioned them, Congress was silent. When it comes to these drawn-out conflicts, both American political parties are increasingly determined to say nothing at all.

The silence is especially striking among the Republican political establishment, on whose watch these wars were launched. At last week’s debate of the 2012 presidential candidates at the Ronald Reagan presidential library, Afghanistan rated barely a mention. It came up only twice, once when libertarian Ron Paul complained that it costs "$20 billion a year" to provide air-conditioning for U.S. troops in the wars and demanded that the U.S. pull the plug, and a second time when the Utah politician-turned-diplomat Jon Huntsman urged a complete withdrawal: "This is not about nation-building in Afghanistan. This is about nation-building at home," he said. "We’ve got to bring those troops home."

The response? Loud applause from the audience, and a brief protest from former senator Rick Santorum. The frontrunners were resolutely silent, including ex-Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney — the same Mitt Romney who as a Republican presidential candidate in 2008 vowed not only to bolster the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan but to wage what amounted to an extensive nation-building campaign as well.

And Democrats, if anything, are even more resolutely determined both to get out of Afghanistan and Iraq as quickly as possible — and to avoid talking about it before they do. President Obama’s calculation here seems purely political; how else to explain the deadline of September 2012 — just a couple months before the presidential election, rather than a couple months after, as his generals recommended — for U.S. troops to officially "end" the surge he began last year to much-disputed effect? In Iraq, a similar calculus seems to be taking effect; Obama, the New York Times reported a few days ago, is now prepared to allow just 3,000 or 4,000 troops to remain after the end of this year, down from the approximately 50,000 still there now — and far below the 10,000 said to be under consideration until recently.

At the same time that silence reigns over these two long-running conflicts, America’s foreign policy elite is falling in love all over again with a new model of war, one that supposedly beckons with modest investment, no boots on the ground, and a convenient narrative of freedom toppling dictatorship. Yes, I’m talking about Libya. 

For even as dozens of American soldiers were being killed in Afghanistan, August was also the dramatic breakthrough in the nine-month-old, NATO-assisted Libyan revolution, when AK-47-wielding rebels charged into the capital of Tripoli and, aided by precision-guided Western missiles dropped from the sky, toppled the Gaddafi regime that had terrorized and overwhelmed them for the last four decades. Members of Congress, even those who had been criticizing the intervention weeks before, were eager to talk about this war, as was the Obama White House, which touted it as a model of the kind of regime change — without American boots on the ground — it would prefer to undertake.

"The fact that it is Libyans marching into Tripoli not only provides a basis for legitimacy for this but will also provide contrast to situations when the foreign government is the occupier," Ben Rhodes, the White House deputy national security advisor, told me and a colleague recently. "While there will be huge challenges ahead, one of the positive aspects here is that the Libyans are the ones who are undertaking the regime change and the ones leading the transition."

In other words: Here’s a war that works. And by the way, did we mention how different we are than George W. Bush, pushing regime change at the barrel of an American gun?

For many liberals, this is a long-awaited vindication of their own deeply held beliefs in the need, at least occasionally, for a form of internationalism that allows for the possibility of armed intervention and a just war. Bush and his neocon-driven foray into Iraq on a false pretext had seemed to discredit, once and for all, the exercise of such American power; Libya, maybe, sort of, brings it back.

But it’s hard not to see the perils in this way of thinking. "When did you drink the Kool-Aid?" a friend asked a longtime human rights activist, after listening to him make the case for the democratic bona fides of the Libyan rebels, never mind the rounding up of dark-skinned Africans taking place in Tripoli or the other acts of vengeance sure to follow.

I was in both Afghanistan and Iraq in the immediate aftermath of the American invasions that swept tyrannical regimes from power. I remember all too well the initial — but sadly fleeting — euphoria that greeted the disappearance of the police state. I walked through the jail cells and torture chambers of Basra with former prisoners who showed me how they had worked, and listened as a tearful doctor recounted the way Saddam’s men had forced them to cut off the ears of military conscripts who deserted. In Afghanistan, I met brave women who had immediately returned to working in school as teachers after years of whispering their lessons to young girls in underground classrooms banned by the Taliban. These are scenes achingly similar to those playing out today in Libya, ruled by the bizarre dictates of Muammar al-Qaddafi for four decades. But freedom isn’t the only story there.  Ending the war, really ending the war, and making a new peace never happened in either Afghanistan or Iraq — that is the unfinished business that keeps American soldiers there.

Which is why I keep thinking of Tim Hetherington, a journalist who died covering this short Libyan war.  A couple years ago, Hetherington made a powerful documentary, Restrepo. It offers harrowing portrait of a team of American soldiers fighting to keep their outpost in Afghanistan’s remote Korengal Valley. At the end of the movie, after all the heart-thumping patrols and bloody mistakes, the dead comrades mourned and the piles of discarded ammunition littering their mountain aerie, a chilling sentence scrolls across the screen: The U.S. military withdrew from the Korengal a year later. In other words, it was all in vain.