Was the Afghan war a Schell game?

Getting it right is always the wrong approach when it comes to America’s wars.

SOURCETom Dispatch

I waited almost three months for some acknowledgment, but it never came. Not a bottle of champagne. Not a congratulatory note. Not an email of acknowledgment. Not one media request.

Authors wait their whole lives for I-told-you-so moments like these. But mine passed without accolades, awards, or adulation.

Being way ahead of the pack is supposed to bring honors and rewards, isn’t it? Imagine the response if, for example, a writer had predicted the 9/11 attacks.

In fact, one more or less did. “I conceived of Blowback — written in 1999, published in 2000 — as a warning to the American public. It was: you should expect retaliation from the people on the receiving end of now innumerable clandestine activities,” TomDispatch regular Chalmers Johnson recalled of his blockbuster book in a 2004 interview. “The warning was not heeded… But then after 9/11, when, all of a sudden, inattentive Americans were mobilized to seek, at least on an emergency basis, some understanding of what they were into, it became a bestseller.”

Johnson had been ahead of the game by a year and was celebrated for it. In 2010, I published The Case for Withdrawal from Afghanistan, a collection of essays and articles highlighting the futility of that conflict and the need to end America’s involvement there. This summer, the arguments that other contributors (including Johnson) and I made finally carried the day. “Last night in Kabul, the United States ended 20 years of war in Afghanistan,” President Joe Biden announced on August 31st. “I give you my word: With all of my heart, I believe this is the right decision, a wise decision, and the best decision for America.”

It may have been the best idea, but it wasn’t an original one. And yet, Biden never mentioned my book. Or offered me cursory acknowledgment. Or admitted that he was at least a decade behind the curve.

Of course, I understood the reasons. If I were him, I’d want to keep my failings quiet, too. So, I waited for the cable news networks to take note. I kept checking my phone as the war in Afghanistan careened to its close. I could almost imagine the way the interview would go.

“How does it feel to have been so prescient and have had the arguments in your book finally win out?” Fox News’s Chris Wallace would ask.

“Well, Chris, it’s about time somebody asked that…” I would say before launching into an answer that would, of course, double as an advertisement for my book and, after all these years, land it atop the bestseller list.

But that call from Fox News never came. And when I checked the bestseller list, what I found there was some ridiculous book on “the final eight months of the pursuit of Osama bin Laden” — co-written by Chris Wallace, no less! — instead of mine.

Maybe MSNBC would get in touch. So again, I checked my phone messages, my email, my texts. Nothing. Instead, they went with retired Lieutenant General H.R. McMaster, a former national security advisor to President Trump and one of the Americans who lost the war in Afghanistan. In fact, McMaster popped up on MSNBC, CNN, and Fox News seven times between August 16th and August 26th, just edging out disgraced former general, CIA director, and Afghan War chief David Petraeus, who appeared six times on those networks, according to Media Matters for America.

I was heartened to see that some news outlets did, at least, seek out TomDispatch regular and president of the Washington D.C.-based Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, Andrew Bacevich. One of them even referenced prescient comments he made in Foreign Affairs five years ago. But did any of them mention that his work appeared in The Case for Withdrawal from Afghanistan five years before that? Nope!

Let down by the mainstream media, I still held out a shred of hope. Surely my publisher, Verso, would get in touch. “We did it!” the managing director would write. “You offered the argument for withdrawal. A multitrillion-dollar organization made the case against it for 10 years, but as in Afghanistan itself, they lost!” If he tried to send that message, it must have been by Western Union telegram, because it still hasn’t arrived.

Gotta Be Wrong to Be Right

It’s never been a good idea to be right about America’s wars. At least, not from the start. A committed Cold Warrior and CIA analyst, Chalmers Johnson achieved great notoriety only after renouncing his hawkish ways. It was the same for Bacevich, a Vietnam War veteran and also a dedicated Cold Warrior once upon a time. And before Spencer Ackerman was celebrated — in two New York Times book reviews, no less! — for his incisive and insightful Reign of Terror, he supported the Iraq War and was an unabashed cheerleader for David Petraeus.

I’m still waiting for the Times to review The Case for Withdrawal from Afghanistan even once. Admittedly, anthologies are a tough sell, but mine advanced the argument 10 years before Biden finally made his case to the American people. Being that far ahead of the president should demand notice, but not, it seems, in the United States.

And there’s a reason for that. Americans love a conversion story, a tale of redemption. You need to be wrong before you can get it right. At some point, you need to drink the Kool-Aid — even if it leaves you standing in a Jonestown-esque sea of corpses — or they’ll never take you seriously. This country hates to be reminded that not everyone was duped by the domino theory or beguiled by a two-bit camouflage-clad huckster.

To be fair, almost every American was wrong about the war in Afghanistan. In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, a CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll found that 90% of us approved of the United States attacking that country, just 5% disapproved and only a fraction of them actively tried to stop the impending war. During a September 2001 antiwar march in New York City, for example, I can remember a middle-aged man nearly frothing at the mouth only inches from my face. He was so enraged by those who believed it would be a mistake to bomb Afghanistan, the war would fail, and Afghans would suffer, that his face had turned a color somewhere between scarlet and plum. I can still see the spittle flying from his lips as he bellowed “SCUM!”

I hope that incensed man is now hosting Afghan refugees in his home. I wouldn’t, however, put money on it. I would wager, instead, that he’s never apologized for his bellicosity and belligerence, for being wrong on the war, or for all the pain and death that conflict caused. And if so, he isn’t alone.

How many mea cuplas did you hear this August as a defeated American military limped out of Kabul, killing 10 civilians in its final drone strike of the war? That ending was as fitting as it was heartbreaking. Overwhelming evidence of the slaughter of seven children and three adults forced the U.S. military to make a singular and unprecedented apology for those killings. But what about the rest of America? When are the 90% — perhaps even you, dear reader — going to take responsibility for the failed war they backed? When are they going to apologize to Afghans for 20 years of death, failure, and loss?

So Wrong for So Long

If you haven’t caught on by now, the aggrieved tone of this piece is a rhetorical device… sort of. I never expected that call from Chris Wallace or a text from MSNBC or President Biden to name-check me. I never thought that the New York Times Book Review would see the error of its ways and I’d be plenty pleased if they gave Ackerman’s Reign of Terror a third, fourth, or fifth positive review.

I wasn’t kidding, however, about H.R. McMaster or David Petraeus. The truth is: no news producer should ever book either of them unless it’s for a segment on how to lose a war, how to profit from one, or how to live with copious amounts of blood on one’s hands. But that’s hardly a burden they bear alone. I, too, share in the responsibility for the lives taken so needlessly in Afghanistan. I may not have been among the 90% of Americans braying for war in 2001, but I paid my taxes for the next 20 years, so I’m culpable for every Afghan civilian shot at a checkpoint or killed by a drone. And I also bear some responsibility for the deluge of suffering that followed as this country’s Global War on Terror spread across the Greater Middle East and Africa — for civilians executed by U.S.-backed troops in Burkina Faso and Cameroon, killed by air strikes in Libya and Iraq, or wiped out by drones in Somalia and Yemen.

This is all to say that I deserve neither champagne, congratulations, nor special acknowledgment but instead, like the rest of America, shame, blame, and guilt. And I’d be more than happy to see the last copies of The Case for Withdrawal from Afghanistan pulped and the book completely forgotten. But, in return, I do have a small ask: remember TomDispatch regular Jonathan Schell? Twenty years ago, he led his “Letter from Ground Zero: November 1, 2001” at the Nation with this sentence: “The war in Afghanistan is not going well.” How right he was.

Schell proved exceptionally prescient as he saw, even in the opening moments of the Afghan War, that U.S. “military policy is at odds with its political policy. And in a war on terrorism — as distinct from a war on a state — it is politics, not military force, that will probably decide the outcome.” Schell intimately understood this because he had witnessed American hubris and ineptitude decades earlier in Vietnam. He had watched the United States so completely botch the political war there that tens of billions of dollars and decades of effort on the “military half” of the conflict bought the Potemkin state of South Vietnam only two years of existence after U.S. combat troops withdrew from that country.

In that now-ancient “Letter from Ground Zero,” Schell drew attention to a contemporaneous article by Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer who saw “destroying Al Qaeda and the Taliban” as the chief U.S. goal in Afghanistan. “What comes after will be an interesting problem. But it comes after,” wrote that conservative pundit, neglecting to understand the nature of the war. It turned out that the United States all but defeated the Taliban in short order but bungled potential victory into a 20-year insurgency. This country was, then, so completely outplayed on the political front that two decades of effort and trillions of U.S. tax dollars proved incapable of sustaining the Afghan government and its U.S.-built army even until the American departure was complete. In the end, it turned out to be less “an interesting problem” than the disastrous crux of 20 years of conflict.

Schell saw it all too clearly in November 2001. “The United States can unquestionably defeat the Taliban in a ground war and occupy Afghanistan,” he wrote. “But politics will not disappear because it has been ignored. The state that is already missing in Afghanistan will still be missing.”

Schell Game

Schell wasn’t only right about Afghanistan. Earlier, he had been far ahead of the curve when it came to the U.S. war in Vietnam and the peril of nuclear weapons, as he would later be on the increasing strength of people power around the world, and the dangers of climate change. Krauthammer, on the other hand, was an enthusiastic booster of Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush, and the U.S. invasion of Iraq. His prediction: that the conflict would be a “Three Week War.” He deemed David Petraeus “brilliant,” defended the use of torture, touting its efficacy, and promoted climate skepticism.

He was regularly cited for regularly being wrong, as in this September 27, 2009 prediction on Fox News Sunday:

Chris Wallace: “Best guess — will the president end up giving [U.S. Afghan War commander General Stanley] McChrystal the troops he wants, or will he change the war strategy?”

Charles Krauthammer: “I think he doesn‘t and McChrystal resigns.”

Weeks later, as you may recall, Obama announced the deployment of 30,000 additional troops to Afghanistan and McChrystal stated that President Obama had “provided me with a clear military mission and the resources to accomplish our task.” Nobody bothered to look back or keep score on any of it, so Schell continued writing for a niche left-leaning audience in the pages of the Nation, while Krauthammer remained a cable-news regular, his syndicated column available in newspapers across the country.

Neither Schell nor Krauthammer lived to see America’s ignominious defeat in Afghanistan. But last month, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin made an uncharacteristic admission that completely settled the question of who got it right in November 2001. “We need to consider some uncomfortable truths: that we did not fully comprehend the depth of corruption and poor leadership in [the Afghan army’s] senior ranks… that we did not anticipate the snowball effect caused by the deals that the Taliban commanders struck with local leaders.” As the retired general told the Senate Armed Services Committee, “We failed to fully grasp that there was only so much for which — and for whom — many of the Afghan forces would fight.” He only understood this after 20 years of war, trillions of dollars squandered, and at least 176,000 lives spent in vain to achieve outright defeat. Jonathan Schell put it in writing before the war was a month old.

When Charles Krauthammer died in 2018, the New York Times devoted almost 1,800 words to his memory. Four years earlier, at the time of Jonathan Schell’s death, the Times spent less than 1,250 words summing up his life.

As I said, it doesn’t pay to be right about America’s wars, especially from the start. Nobody cares. Nobody remembers. Nobody keeps the receipts, just as nobody who matters is going to hold Lloyd Austin to account for all he “failed to fully grasp” about the Afghan War or any of his other forever war failures.

It’s a given that, when he shuffles off this mortal coil, Austin’s obituary will trump Krauthammer’s or Schell’s (maybe even the two combined). The same for David Petraeus. And, of course, for President Biden. That’s the way it goes in America. Jonathan Schell is never going to get his due, but somebody (other than me) at least owes him an acknowledgment for making the case for withdrawal from Afghanistan 20 years early.


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