The exhalation of relief from the foreign policy establishment was audible. Trump would, at least when it came to military intervention, be a traditional Republican president. His address on Afghanistan — as could be predicted from previous major Trump policy pronouncements — lacked small things like detail (excused as strategic obscurity, to keep the enemy guessing) and a clear description of what indicators could be used for determining if his “policy” was a success. But it appeared to be distinguished by two key features from previous policy — more troops sent back to Afghanistan to kill terrorists, rather than build Afghanistan into anything resembling a viable self-sustaining state, and getting tough(er) on Pakistan.
Cue nods of appreciation and supportive op-ed pieces around the world. Trump would not be the dangerous maverick from his campaign who, even if entirely inconsistently, damned US foreign adventurism abroad and promised an end to it. He even acknowledged that he’d changed his position in support of withdrawal from Afghanistan. The Purity Left who damned the neocon Clinton as a blood-soaked hawk are oddly silent. Bombing Syria. Sending troops into Yemen. Threatening military intervention in Venezuela (thus accomplishing the extraordinary achievement of engendering support for the socialist thug Maduro). Now, back into Afghanistan. But her emails!
There’s now debate about US expectations of increased military support from its allies, including Australia. But we’re experienced at this game: if America is invading or re-invading a country, get in early with your commitment to join. That then can cover for the fact that your contribution is relatively limited. That was the basis for John Howard’s participation in Iraq, from which thankfully Australian forces emerged without a combat casualty. In May, the Turnbull government pre-emptively announced it was sending an extra 30 troops to Afghanistan to train Afghan forces, in response to a US/NATO request. That lifts our commitment back to 300 in a country where we have already lost 41 young men since 2001 and over 260 injured — and who knows how many more with long-term mental health problems.
The justification for expanding the war in Afghanistan once again is that we cannot allow the country to be used as a base for terror attacks — which was the basis for the original invasion and occupation of Afghanistan sixteen years ago. It will be the same justification in another sixteen years. We’re still killing terrorists there, only the terrorists to be killed have expanded to include not merely al-Qaeda but Islamic State, who now compete in Afghanistan with the traditional mix of Taliban forces, local warlords and corrupt western clients. But this is a local variant of the great unspoken question about the War on Terror: why, after sixteen years, trillions of dollars and hundreds of thousands of lives are we told that we’re just as much at risks of attacks as ever, from as many terrorists as ever, representing a greater variety of terror groups than ever? Like the killing of “Al Qaeda’s No. 3” that was triumphantly reported annually throughout the 2000s, we apparently have a literally endless enemy. As a war, the War on Terror has been a spectacular failure — unless you make money from weapons, or you’re an intelligence bureaucrat who enjoys more funding and power than ever before, or media companies that can boost their flagging revenues by talking endlessly about (non-white) terrorists.
The answer to the unspoken question, as a succession of the world’s most senior intelligence officials have told us over the last sixteen years, is that western military intervention is a key, if by no means sole, driver of terrorism, making the War on Terror and extraordinarily expensive exercise in self-perpetuation, one in which the foreign policy establishment in academia, thinktanks, the media and governments are complicit. It’s not a matter of tactics; a premature withdrawal here, a surge there is not the point: our mere presence is. In the words of then then-head of the CIA, “our engagement and direct involvement will stimulate and spur additional threats to our national security interests.”
There is no reason whatsoever to expect we won’t still be in Afghanistan, or Iraq, or whatever other country we decide to intervene in, in another 16 years, long after the Trump presidency is a footnote to the long tale of the decline of the United States, governments still insisting that the goal is to kill yet more terrorists, new generations of them. A “decades-long struggle against terrorism”, we’ll be told, as we spend more money and waste more young lives in the very process of ensuring it continues not merely for decades, but permanently.