With the Biden administration’s promise to withdraw U.S. forces from Afghanistan on the 20th anniversary of 9/11, one might think that America’s endless wars are finally starting to come to an end.
And yet nothing could be further from the truth.
That is because over two decades of fighting, perpetual war has literally become a worldwide network — a juggernaut — that is so streamlined, so invisible, and so seemingly cost free, especially in continued American military lives, that it is both highly resilient and hard to grasp. And so it continues on and will continue even after the last “troops” are withdrawn from the country, a part of the global wallpaper that is little ubiquitous but little understood.
After 20 years of fighting, we’ve reached the epitome of military efficiency. Fighting terrorists demands fewer and fewer human resources in the form of troops, and what resources are employed are increasingly either unaccountable and secret, or remote from the battlefields. And though the overall enterprise of perpetual war is obscenely expensive, military spending stays steady, what actually gets spent fighting in the Middle East and Africa is deeply hidden in the very global network that has also been created for 21st century conventional and nuclear warfighting.
So even as the U.S. military shifts its attention to what it labels “great power competition” — war against Russia and China, North Korea and Iran — the addiction to use the military to fight terrorism and for the United States to work towards local “stability” and good alliance relations keeps us cemented in place, even if the form of our fighting shifts.
Take Afghanistan for instance: With no “troops” on the ground, CIA and “black” special operations will continue, some of it based in neighboring countries, while a combination of “trainers,” contractors, and non-military assets (e.g., DEA, FBI, State Department) will continue. And of course, given that air and drone strikes are the epitome of counter-terrorism, high-value targeting will continue against al-Qaida and ISIS and even the Taliban, just from remote bases.
Outside Afghanistan, the United States has troops deployed in over 50 nations, every day an occasion where America might bomb or kill in one of at least 21 different countries, from the Philippines and Pakistan in the east to Mali and Burkina Faso in the west. The shift has steadily mounted since the 2011 “withdrawal” from Iraq, with special operations forces, CIA paramilitaries and civilian contractors increasingly supplanting regular soldiers. Secret forces do not facilitate an honest accounting. And the secrecy has become more intense, especially as the U.S. bows to the wishes of allies like Jordan or Saudi Arabia or even Turkey to keep U.S. military activity quiet.
And the war-making infrastructure itself has shifted, less of it on the ground in the Middle East and Africa and more of it in remote (and seemingly safer) regional countries or even back home in places like Georgia, South Carolina, Florida and Maryland, where much of the intelligence analysis and targeting takes place. In fact, for every single service member — each “trigger-puller” — actually fighting forward in the Middle East or Africa today, there are literally thousands more service members and civilians directly supporting them back in the United States. So while the American footprint in volatile areas has been reduced, the capacity to continue perpetual war stays the same — especially through drone, air (and increasingly cyber) strikes.
For many, the current model might seem like a good thing — fewer service members in harm’s way and more secret and clandestine operations against the bad guys. But what of the outcome? While it is true that there hasn’t been another terrorist attack of 9/11 proportion, after two decades of fighting, neither al-Qaida nor the Taliban have been eliminated, ISIS has emerged as a potent and global force very much on the move, and radical Islam has expanded.
What is more, there isn’t a single country where we have been fighting that enjoys greater security and stability than it did before 9/11, not even those so-called “safe” countries — Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, the other Gulf States. And as for the two countries where we have been fighting the most (and after spending hundreds of billions on military training and infrastructure), neither Afghanistan or Iraq are on positive paths towards either security or stability. Perpetual war already emulates the war on drugs, an autonomous background government program where the activity is completely divorced from the results.
This perpetual war machine, moreover, has been created to fight just a couple of hundred thousand terrorists, never depleting the net number. The U.S. military was never a good match for these lightly armed insurgents, and now over two decades, almost 11,000 Americans have been killed and more than 53,000 have been injured.
Because of the design of perpetual war and because of secrecy, that number of deaths is thousands more than most people think. That’s because the widely accepted number of American deaths — that over 7,000 troops have died — excludes the number of private contractors who have also died. These are civilians, some highly skilled technicians, but some just security guards, who have become an increasingly large proportion of the machine, sometimes added when host countries don’t want to see people in uniform, sometimes added because the military itself wants to obscure how many people are engaged in the fight. By 2018, the number of contractors killed began to exceed the number of troops. Not only does this say something profound about how out of view perpetual war has become; it also shows how distanced we have become from the physical realities on the ground. For a country that so reveres its fallen warriors, so many unnoticed and unrecognized American deaths are a double standard, both for the government and the public.
There isn’t some single formula to end perpetual war, though an honest accounting of our effort and the effect of all of our fighting would be a good first step. But at the same time, we need to face facts. Terrorism is a part of modern life, something that not only can’t be defeated on the battlefield, but is actually made worse by efficient warfare and the attendant and permanent American military occupation in the region.
The proficiency of the American military, moreover, and the secrecy endemic to the endeavor, has separated the American populace from military affairs and warfare more than ever. The news media hardly notices that there is fighting by American in a dozen countries every day. What we need is a radical reordering, transparency and accountability being the prerequisites.
I suggest three programs as well to end perpetual war in the long term. First is true civilian control instituted over the American military. Another general as secretary of defense is unacceptable. The machine has to stop running itself.
Second, we need greater citizen participation in matters or war and peace. An education system that teaches civics is vitally necessary, but short of a draft (which is not needed), we need ways to engage the American public, so they can have an informed opinion.
And finally, we need a tool for better and truer accounting — of both our activity and the nature of the threats we face. For that I’ve conceived what I call the Global Security Index (GSX), a sort of world security ticker like the Dow Jones Industrial Average that will join the stock market’s various indices in tracking of progress — or the lack thereof — towards greater or lesser security.
The GSX would first establish a “security” ranking of every country — based upon hundreds of markers from economic might to infant mortality to political stability. Then the news would be mined for events that either improve or detract from this holistic definition of security. A terrorist incident might connote dangerous currents, but like the significant activities (SIGACTS) tracked so meticulously on the battlefield by the U.S. military, the frequency of attacks and their lethality, even the year-over-year ranking of dangers might indicate positive rather negative trends.
It would be a daunting task to quantify security, to determine in real time whether events were making countries, regions, and then the globe more or less secure. But in our world of big data, such an effort — even the course of creating a GSX — will precipitate a debate over what is security, and provide a tool for governments, international organizations, think tankers and academics, journalists and then citizens to be able focus on what is important in the news and what is the perpetual theater of war.
William M. Arkin is author, most recently, of “The Generals Have No Clothes: The Untold Story of Our Endless Wars” (Simon & Schuster) and a dozen other books on military affairs. He writes for Newsweek magazine.
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