Alternative facts in the Middle East: Obama has left Trump a disaster in Afghanistan

Despite what the media has told you, experts say we're losing in Afghanistan. And Trump is unlikely to change that

Published January 29, 2017 1:00PM (EST)

U.S. Army soldiers in Panjwai district, Kandahar province southern Afghanistan, June 12, 2011.   (Reuters/Baz Ratner)
U.S. Army soldiers in Panjwai district, Kandahar province southern Afghanistan, June 12, 2011. (Reuters/Baz Ratner)

In President Trump’s inaugural address he promised that “America will start winning again, winning like never before.” He said while the U.S. “defended other nations' borders, it spent trillions and trillions overseas while America’s infrastructure has fallen into disrepair and decay."

A major theme of Trump's campaign was that he wanted a muscular military but was going to be less interventionist and more pragmatic in the application of military force. But in his tone since being sworn in and his picks for secretary of defense, CIA chief and national security adviser he has signaled an end to the kind of ambivalence and nuance that was the hallmark of the Barack Obama years.

Trump's flood of executive orders, including one that bars entry to the U.S. for 90 days to nationals from certain countries in the  Muslim world, represented a kind of blunt-force trauma exercise. In just a few hours thousands of protesters took to airports around the country in solidarity with the foreign travelers and green card holders.

A federal court order overturned part of what Trump had ordered, giving relief to those individuals stranded in transit. The Trump ban resulted in the 19-hour detention  at New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport of Hameed Khalid Daweesh, an Iraqi who for a decade put his life on the line acting as a translator for the U.S. military, As the New York Times recounted, a tearful Daweesh asked "What I do for this country?" They put cuffs on. You know how many soldiers I touch by his hand?"

Just nine days into Trump's tenure the first counterterrorism mission ordered by the new president resulted in the death of a member of the Navy's elite SEAL Team 6 and the wounding of three other troops as they executed a raid in Yemen. The MV-22 Osprey aircraft that sent to rescue the SEAL team could not take off after it landed and had to be destroyed on the ground by U.S. fire so it would not fall into enemy hands. Is this what "winning like never before" looks like?

Over what is now a generation we have thrown trillions of dollars into that region only to see the conflict widen and engulf more and more nations, setting off the worst refugee crisis since World War II. Trump's predecessor made a major effort to extricate us from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, but he was dragged back in because he did not want to be the president that lost either one. Even as Obama vowed to avoid U.S. boots on the ground, they were found all over the place, from Yemen to a dozen countries in sub-Saharan Africa.

Obama was no doubt handicapped by "alternative facts" that came in the form of rose-colored intelligence briefings that  falsely led him to believe that the U.S. and its allies had ISIS in check. Real success and a satisfactory conclusion in both places has repeatedly eluded two presidents of opposing parties, the loss of thousands of American lives and the infliction of untold misery on the civilian population and significant environmental damage. For years both theaters of combat have been hotspots for the circulation of American alternative facts, often embraced by mainstream media.

By the time the formal December 2011 Iraqi withdrawal was upon President Obama, he had to resort to his own version of Bush’s 2003 “mission accomplished’’ at Fort Bragg to mark the formal exit of the U.S. military from a half-finished conflict.

“We knew this day would come. We've known it for some time. But still there is something profound about the end of a war that has lasted so long," said Obama. "It's harder to end a war than begin one. Everything that American troops have done in Iraq -- all the fighting, all the dying, the bleeding and the building and the training and the partnering, all of it has landed to this moment of success."

Just a few years later Obama declared “our combat mission in Afghanistan” was “ending, and the longest war in American history” was “coming to a responsible conclusion.”

By 2015, Obama was forced into an about-face after the Taliban seized the northern city of Kunduz and held it for two weeks. The United Nations reported the Taliban were as prevalent throughout the country as they had been at any time since 2001.

As the world braces for Trump’s rhetoric to manifest into hot lead. it is important for the public to be aware how significantly things have deteriorated on the ground in Afghanistan over the last several years. If Trump wants to display his geopolitical "turnaround" skills, that should be at the top of his to-do list. The latest news paints a pretty dire picture.

“Though more than half of all U.S. reconstruction dollars have gone toward the Afghan National Defense Force (ANDSF), it has lost territory to the insurgency,” according to the latest analysis earlier this month from John Sopko, the U.S. special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction. “As of Aug. 28, 2016, only 63.4 percent of the country’s districts were under Afghan government control or influence, a reduction from 72 percent as of Nov. 27, 2015.”

Our decade-long effort at nation-building in Afghanistan has been a spectacular failure for which no one has been held accountable, other than perhaps former secretary of state Hillary Clinton. For the corporate news media, the key to reconciling this vast gap between our evident failure in Afghanistan and the bipartisan hype about our military being the greatest in the world is simply not to not cover what is going on there.


In his first week on the job, Trump is making clear there is a new sheriff in town who just can’t be bothered with nuances. After he was sworn in, the new president went to CIA headquarters to promise a more robust and muscular approach to America’s ongoing war on terrorism. “We have not used the real abilities that we have. We have been restrained,” Trump said. “We’re going to be winning again and you are going to be leading the charge.”

Based on Trump’s remarks, that charge could be back into Iraq, where the president lamented that the U.S. initially erred because we "should have kept the oil.” He appeared to leave the possibility open: “Maybe we’ll have another chance.”

In Trump’s off-the cuff remarks, warns Adil Najam, dean of Boston University’s Frederick S. Pardee School of Global Studies, he helps makes the same case made by Islamic radicals like ISIS that "the U.S fought the war in Iraq for oil. Trump’s comments could be used for their narrative.”

“What this may signal," Najam believes, "is a more transactional approach” to countries like Iraq and Afghanistan.“Trump in essence is saying, if you want our security what do we get for it? Under Bush, the approach was that we were giving  Iraq democracy [and] not taking their oil,” whereas the current president will try to demonstrate that he can strike a better “deal” with Iraq. Doing so with Afghanistan may be more difficult.

Andrew Bacevich, a historian  and author of several books, including “The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism,” is a West Point graduate and former Army colonel. He served in the Vietnam War and right up through the early 1990s, and asserts the U.S. is in deep denial about its failures in prosecuting its war on terrorism in Iraq and Afghanistan. “We have not won this war,” Bacevich told a Boston University audience in 2014. “We are not winning this war and simply pressing on is unlikely to produce more positive results this year or the year after."

“To insist on accountability is to go out on a limb,” said Bacevich, whose son, an Army  lieutenant, was killed in Iraq in 2007. “You would open yourself up to the charge of not supporting  the troops, or of being an isolationist, or in not believing in American global leadership and, worst of all, in not believing in American exceptionalism's unique calling to save the world.”

Bacevich believes the American public has been insulated from the ongoing global war on terrorism in Iraq and Afghanistan because the U.S. relies on a voluntary military and Washington has been hesitant to raise taxes to pay for the hundreds of billions needed for the widening war on terror.

In a recent email exchange Bacevich said he hopes Trump gets down to basic questions that have not been asked for years. “I want him to ask a very fundamental question with regard to U.S. military policy, especially in the Islamic world,” Bacevich wrote. “And the question simply is, is it working? Are we winning? When will this war, this semi-permanent war, come to an end? Because I think if you confront those questions directly, you cannot help but reach the conclusion that our military endeavors have failed. And only when we acknowledge that they have failed does it become possible then to consider alternatives to simply pressing on.”

In his flurry of executive orders Trump has set a 30-day deadline for the U.S. military and national intelligence agencies to give him a plan "to take decisive action to defeat ISIS." Despite assurances to Congress from his national security team, Trump apparently endorses torture, telling David Muir of ABC News last week that he "absolutely" believes waterboarding works. It appears the president wants to double down on a failed U.S. policy while at the same validating ISIS propaganda that America is an anti-Muslim nation whose only enduring loyalty lies in its greed for oil.

Can't wait for next week.

By Bob Hennelly

Bob Hennelly has written and reported for the Village Voice, Pacifica Radio, WNYC, CBS MoneyWatch and other outlets. His book, "Stuck Nation: Can the United States Change Course on Our History of Choosing Profits Over People?" was published in 2021 by Democracy@Work. He is now a reporter for the Chief-Leader, covering public unions and the civil service in New York City. Follow him on Twitter: @stucknation

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