The wars America doesn’t talk about

September 12, 2011

By Susan Glasser
The opinions expressed are her own.

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 three 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 Gaddafi for nearly 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 Heatherington, a journalist who died covering this short Libyan war. A couple years ago, Heatherington made a powerful documentary, “Restrepo.” It offers a harrowing portrait of a team of American soldiers fighting vainly 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.

PHOTO: Afghan workers watch as U.S. soldiers from Task Force Bronco take part in a memorial run to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, at a U.S. military camp FOB Shinwar in Nangarhar, Afghanistan September 11, 2011. REUTERS/Erik De Castro






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Excellent observations.

This is a marvelous illustration of why the American people must cripple the offensive military capability of the USA. We simply cannot trust our own Government. It is in the hands of pro-Israeli extremists who will bleed us dry. They are Israelis, not Americans, and we have become an Israeli colony.

The best method for ensuring that we have no more foreign wars in the Muslim areas of the world is to draw an arbitrary line in the sand, such as January 1, 2006, and refuse to pay salary or benefits for any and all military or para-military (contractor, “intelligence”)personnel who spend more than two weeks per year on the ground in a Muslim country. This would include credit for time in service. It would make all benefits provided by crooked politicians reclaimable, including any amounts held in trusts foreign or domestic.

That would stop cooperation from the military. And it would finally stop these wars. Cripple the military.

Posted by txgadfly | Report as abusive

While i would disagree with the subtle anti-semitism, I would agree with his gist. Right now American war isnt about a noble cause, or even base colonialism. It isnt even about winning and losing. Its about maintaining war simply for the sake of the military industrial complex, to keep the money flowing as a form of stimulus. This war for war’s own sake is madness, and must be stopped before it is visited upon us.

Posted by billt568 | Report as abusive

Excellent analysis, great article. Thats exactly what we need to do.

Posted by CoolArslan | Report as abusive

Hey that’s cool one way or the other. Take their pay away. The armed forces will still support your ungrateful self-righteous opinions.
While they’re at it just do away with the post office, medicare, medicaid, social security, the treasury, department of homeland security, department of the interior and every other blood-sucking entity that our government and its corrupt leadership invests in. It all goes toward the heir of American imperialism right?

Posted by dhayes82 | Report as abusive

The USS Liberty incident of June 8, 1967, which occurred during the six-day war in the Middle-East in 1967, has been released and declassified. It was declassified and released with redactions January-February 2007. It was and is the basis for United States foreign policy in the Middle East. It is sad that so many have died so horribly. One may access the USS Liberty incident at or by reading Chapter 7 in Body of Secrets by James Bamford. One only need review the money AIPAC donates to US Congressional campaigns to see the influence.

Posted by RitaR | Report as abusive

There were some great points made in this article. I would point out that it is far to early to say whether money spent in Libya will be a benefit for US taxpayers or the Libyans.

Posted by M.C.McBride | Report as abusive

What about he Gulf War? Why was this excluded?

Posted by JoeDietz | Report as abusive

Some interesting points made. To paraphrase the CIA’s former Chief of the bin Laden Unit, Dr Michael Scheuer, “If you think you’re going to see a Democracy in the Arab Middle Ease, I have a bridge to sell you.” However, Miss Glasser, please check your facts. “…with 67 killed, nearly half of them Navy SEALs in the downing of a Chinook helicopter…”? Of the 30 U.S. military men who lost their lives when the Chinook went down; 17 of them were SEALs (with one canine SEAL). Five of them were USN non-SEALs, three of them were from the USAF, and five of them were the U.S. Army crew of the Chinook. That is about 25%, not 50% in the previous month? I love Seal Team; however, we must remember the sacrifices of the other branches of Service.

Posted by Bullmusth | Report as abusive

In a war on security, you fight to reduce or eliminate the security problem and go home, if you win.

In an economic war, you fight to gain the resources you’re after and stop.

In both cases, keep fighting is for the insane, or for the defeated.

But in both Iraq and Afghanistan, US just keep fighting years after years. Got all involved with civil wars and other people’s business. Why?

Because it is a holy war. In a holy war, or a crusading war, you try to change other people ideology or society to fit yours’. You do that by killing their people, so that they will admire you enough to surrender.

Europeans have been fighting holy wars for centuries – civil wars within Christendom and against the Muslim. Finally in the 20th century, they discovered that holy war is for the stupid or insane.

So the business in now transferred to that between America and Islamic extremists. For America, much of it is on behalf of Israel. It may go on for another century because holy wars never really end. Now the Jews have been fighting their wars for about 2500 years. I wonder if America can last that long?

Posted by TomKi | Report as abusive

“Oceania is at war with Eurasia. Oceania has always been at war with Eurasia.” George Orwell 1984

It is simple arithmetic to see that the military-industrial complex, which governs us, needs perpetual war to maintain itself. There will never be peace as long as the MIC rules. Why was no one on either side of the debt debate talking seriously about cutting “defense” spending? Why aren’t the media seriously considering either Ron Paul or John Huntsman? Neither men will become president because neither will be allowed to, they’ll end the wars, and that in the eyes of the MIC is the unforgiveable sin

Posted by jclimacus081 | Report as abusive

“The wars America doesn’t talk about” LOL haven’t we talked enough? From WMD to democracy, from “too big to fail” to “debt default”. Has anything been solved? Wouldn’t we be better off just keeping month shut and let Darwinism sort it out?

Posted by Whatsgoingon | Report as abusive

Funny how the first commenter’s remarks observing the facts about US foreign policy leads instantly to accusations of anti-Semitism. There are plenty of weapons of mass destruction and dictators abusing their people out there that the US does not touch. No invasions of Burma and no ground forces taking out Kim Jong Il. We only see media hype and propaganda for invasions in Muslim countries whose leaders did not play ball with Israel: Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran. None of these countries had anything to do with 9/11, but they had plenty to do with antagonizing Israel.

The occupations (not wars, occupations… that is why they drag on so long) have been cheered on by foreign policy hawks in the US, who almost invariably have strong religious and cultural ties to Israel, going back to the neocons and PNAC. The occupations in Afghanistan and Iraq have been voted “yes” on by politicians on the AIPAC payroll. These are not facets of some deranged imagination, they are reality.

Obama is the first politician in years to even put up a modicum (and it is a modicum) of protest against the unjust Israeli occupation of Palestine, and the first to make some token effort (and it is merely token) to dial down the multi-front war on Islamic countries.

The linkbait title of this piece is unreflective of its true content. Were it more accurately titled, it would read “Hack Journalist Fired from the Washington Post Doesn’t Like the Libyan Model”.

Here we have the toppling of a known dictator, by his own people, aided by NATO air power, intelligence, and special forces, with minimal collateral damage and a generally positive response from the population. Cheaper, safer, and more effective than Afghanistan or Iraq (or the espionage and sabotage efforts that have thus far failed in Iran).

Why slander this success story with sly remarks like “the rounding up of dark-skinned Africans taking place in Tripoli or the other acts of vengeance sure to follow”? The rounding up occurring is of mercenaries hired by Gaddafi, most of whom happen to be black Africans. That does not equate to rounding up black people wholesale. Photos of those celebrating in Tripoli show many black people in the crowds, just as happy as anyone else. They don’t look “rounded up” to me. As for “the other acts of vengeance sure to follow”, thus far the Libyans have been extremely restrained and have chosen to negotiate first with the holdouts rather than go in guns blazing. They have publicly called for their fighters to refrain from rough justice, saying “the world is watching”. So, absent any actual atrocities to point to, we are meant to disregard Libya as a success based on the author’s personal assessment that Afghanistan is “achingly similar” to Libya? This is hack journalism at its finest and subtle propaganda of a flavor that has long since grown rancid and foul to the taste.

Posted by reuters_reader | Report as abusive

I think you’re referring to market forces, Whatsgoingon. If only we let them work every once in a while…

Posted by FoxPylon | Report as abusive


Really?!. “Cripple the military.” That’s the best you can do? This retired MSgt doesn’t appreciate your tone. And before you start your elitist railing against me for my fatcat retirement; I was a ‘traditional’ Air Guardsman. I am 45 and don’t start receiving my partial annuity until I’m 60, assuming I live that long. While currently a full-time employee of the much maligned USPS, I struggle to make ends meet as we’re still being raked over the coals by the insurance industry down here on the post Katrina gulf coast.

As for your anti-semitic, pro-muslim comments: who do you think begged us to come over after Saddam invaded Kuwait? The correct answer would be the Saudis. Muslim, not pro-Israeli extremists, the last time I checked. Served three months in Kuwait during Operation Southern Watch listening to Saddam’s forces take pot shots at our pilots in the UN sanctioned no-fly zones EVERY day. We go where our orders take us. Cooperation doesnt’ enter into the equation once you’ve sworn the oath and signed the dotted line, slick.

Your “more than two weeks per year on the ground in a Muslim country” idea is beyond drivel. What difference does it make whether or not it’s a Muslim country? Two weeks is barely enough time to get spun-up in a combat deployment. Would love to know if you are American born, Texas bred with a military background. If so, you’d think the irony of asking ‘the American people’ to ‘cripple the military’ would be obvious…

I’m all for Ron Paul’s ideas. Bring the troops home. Saddam and bin Laden are dead. Afghanistan is a lost cause and Iraq was poorly conceived and executed from the start. Our troops can secure OUR borders. Stop aid to Israel, Africa and everybody else and let the rest of the UN, NATO, etc. take care of the mess for awhile. We have enough on our own plate as it is. An insular US is not a bad thing.


Pretty sure you could substitute ‘general populous’ for ‘armed services’. Thanks for the excellent comment and the laugh. Antigua and Barbuda… Guess we could institute national blunt day;)


OIF was specifically mentioned as a counterpoint to the recent deaths in Afghanistan. The original ‘Gulf War’ of Desert Shield/Storm ended in 1991. This article addresses ongoing wars only.


Thanks for an excellent, insightful article. The silence from both sides of the aisle is deafening as any finger pointing might as well be done into a mirror. Joint resolutions were passed for OIF and OEF. Libya just kind of happened. Very reminiscent of the ’98 cruise missile strikes in Afghanistan and the Sudan after the African embassy bombings.

I’d say OEF (or Infinite Justice) is a tie for the Vietnam war for length, though far less costlier in lives. As for the longest… Well, you could bunch Desert Storm/Shield, Operations Northern/Southern watch and OIF together and say that it has been going on for 20 years. The amount of money spent on OIF in 8 years and the loss of life there is beyond appalling. Ron Paul 2012. It’s time.

Posted by murzak | Report as abusive

Well, they could have stopped mentioning the two wars because they are winding down and because the tea party forced the debt issue, or universal healthcare was being fought over, or the arab spring, which all obviously are partially based or linked to the wars. Or the wars aren’t new any more; so thus the media, being a business, goes onto to reporting new things which increases viewership which increases profits, hence the term “news” reporting.

Posted by sweeks6833 | Report as abusive

I guess the most obvious thing to point out is how there is little difference between the two parties… One is a little worse than the other but both are pretty much the same.

Politicians are proffessional PR experts. They study PR at length, and have a team of specialized experts telling them what to say 24/7.

So you can’t put too much weight into anything they say.

To understand them is to understand the decryption code to a cypher.

Once you know the real core party objectives (the decryption code) you can apply this code to decrypt almost everything they say. Because the last thing they will ever tell you is their true party objectives.

One is obvious and not too secretive – re-election.

Another is very secretive but still quite obvious – Paying off their financiers. That is, using their political power to ensure their campaign financiers get what they want.

The last is the most secretive and least obvious – Pursuing a globalized agenda and serving the true rulers of your democrasy. BIG Money… The people that lend money to the USA… The people that single handedly control the ebb and flow of money in America, and dictate to you the state of your economy.

The human cost of war, the financial cost of war, the moral cost of war, and many other things that matter to the common man…. are utterly subservient to these cheif political needs of your 2 party system.

Because without serving these needs, they know there is no hope of them being elected in the first place.

Posted by brian-decree | Report as abusive

The military industrial complex backing the US resource industries (primarily oil) is the greatest threat to American democracy and prosperity. You have conservatives in the Republican party and blue dog Democrats chanting away about fiscal responsibility, yet Congress continues 2 wars without the necessary funding.

Get a very real idea of the billions handed out every day through military contracts by just going to which is the industry web page for listing of upcoming contracts, awarded contracts, and key players in the industry. Huge swaths of US industry rely on US defense spending which obviously is much more about just waste and corporate welfare than about making the USA safer.

Many great powers have fallen due to unfunded and debilitating military campaigns. The US fiscal crisis, its fragile economy, high unemployment, detiorating infrastructure can all be explained by the waste in the US military budget.

The US calls itself a democracy yet every poll shows that the vast majority of Americans want to end both wars. Popular opinion against the wars was partly behind Obama’s election. Yet, even with a Democrat in the White House, the wars continue. Americans are no longer in charge of their destiny – its completely in the control of the Military Industrial Complex.

Posted by Acetracy | Report as abusive

Despite some similarities in the first days after regime defeat, between Libye and Iraq-Afganistan, the beginings of the battle were very different and they will surely reflect in the near and long future. Wait and see.

Posted by canbeiro | Report as abusive