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The War in Afghanistan Was a Scam

The 20-year conflict was a boon to the military-industrial complex, at the cost of untold lives.

A U.S. Air Force Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor stealth fighter jet
SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images
A U.S. Air Force Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor stealth fighter jet parked inside a hangar at Joint Base Langley-Eustis in Hampton, Virginia, in 2015.

“War is a racket. It always has been. It is possibly the oldest, easily the most profitable, surely the most vicious.… It is the only one in which the profits are reckoned in dollars and the losses in lives.”

These words, penned by Major General Smedley Butler in 1935, nearly a century before the global war on terrorism began, decades before the notion of a “military-industrial complex” became a glint in Dwight Eisenhower’s imagination, could sum up the last 20 years of war in Afghanistan. Butler’s tract gives a good answer to one of the basic questions of war: Who benefits?

This question should be central to our interrogation of this moment, as our withdrawal from Afghanistan sets off a paroxysm of recriminations about how the war was “lost” and how the United States has been “humiliated.” For those who built the racket, the whole 20-year fracas was a victory. After all, as any Vegas casualty can tell you, the house always wins.

The Washington suburbs are far from the Vegas strip, but here, buildings adorned with the logos of military contractors are a monument to the timeless relationship between hustlers and marks. As many have pointed out in recent days, the war in Afghanistan has been a colossal boom time for the military-industrial complex, mostly at the expense of the military operation’s ostensible goals. As Harvard public policy professor Linda Bilmes told Marketplace this week, “the whole system was set up in a way to enable contractors to rip off the government.” And Foreign Policy’s C. Christine Fair described the “bewildering corruption by U.S. firms and individuals working in Afghanistan,” in which Afghans were, in many instances, straight-up defrauded.

Just as the fossil fuels still buried underground represent future profits too dear for petrochemical companies to part with for the sake of saving the planet, the war in Afghanistan represented crucial future gains for Big War’s balance sheets. As Pacific Standard’s Catherine Lutz noted in 2017, “For many companies that have, for years, been cashing giant checks from the Pentagon’s trillion dollar war budget, there are still an extraordinary number of dollars to be made.” That same year, there was a “1.1 percent increase in global military spending,” driven in part by a “$9.6 billion hike in U.S. arms expenditure”—all on “Donald the Dove’s” watch. Hardly any of this largesse was trickling down to the actual soldiers fighting the war, by the way.

There’s a lot of anger and angst in Washington over the Afghanistan withdrawal at the moment, as lawmakers of all stripes decry the treatment of those who have been left to face the Taliban; no small amount of effort is being expended to get would-be refugees out of the country. But a significant portion of the teeth-gnashing is in fact emanating from those furious at the slaying of a sacred cash cow. It’s little wonder: The mainstream media is flush with ex-generals and Pentagon habitués, who took refuge in cable news green rooms during the war, where they enjoyed lucrative second careers as the war industry’s “message force multipliers.”

So if it seems like this week the media has abandoned its pretensions of objectivity and neutrality to fervently plump the Forever Wars, you’re not wrong. As Quincy Institute senior adviser Eli Clifton pointed out, “The weapons biz also had [financial] ties to 2/3rds of the Afghanistan Study Group, currently being cited by The Washington Post and Wall Street Journal editorial boards as offering an alternative to Biden’s withdrawal.” Dig into, if you will, this week’s Politico story about “Biden’s two tragic Afghanistan missteps,” which was “presented by” Lockheed Martin. This has been one fearsomely vertically-integrated military engagement.

In the end, this two decade–long calamity was the very thing General Butler described back in 1935: “Conducted for the benefit of the very few, at the expense of the very many,” only “a small inside group” ever really knew what this war was about. You can at least credit Osama bin Laden for knowing the score: In one of his propaganda videos, he mused about how easy it was to bait the United States into a fight, leaving us to “suffer … economic and political losses” without achieving “anything of note other than some benefits for their private companies.” In Afghanistan, the goals of all of the agitants were perfectly synergized.

This article first appeared in Power Mad, a weekly TNR newsletter authored by deputy editor Jason Linkins. Sign up here.