Almost 17 years after Washington’s war on terror was launched, déjà vu all over again hardly sums up the situation. Still, it’s a place to start. Take a headline from nearly a decade ago — July 2009, to be exact. By then, the American war in Afghanistan (the second Afghan War of our era) was already years old and not exactly going well. “U.S. Marines pour into Helmand,” went that headline, “in biggest offensive against Taliban for five years.” That July, in the first year of the Obama administration, more than 4,000 Marines were being dispatched to the heartlands of Helmand Province to secure Afghanistan’s major opium-poppy-growing region. That was, of course, nearly eight years after the Bush administration had declared the country “liberated” by an American invasion. By the fall of 2014, after five more years of fighting the Taliban and advising Afghan security forces in Helmand — and hundreds of American deaths — those troops were finally withdrawn from “one of the few bright spots in the Afghan war.” However, a corrupt Afghan government and its security forces, filled with “ghost soldiers” and “ghost police” (mostly paid for with U.S. funds), couldn’t even hold onto their paychecks, no less the parts of the province that had been “liberated” from the Taliban and the remarkably irrepressible opium trade that went with it. Slowly, much of the province fell back into Taliban hands as opium farming only spread and flourished.
And so in January 2017, headlines like this one began popping up: “U.S. Marines headed back to Taliban hotspot 2 years after pullout.” And not long after, several hundred Marines were indeed rushed back into a Helmand that seemed on the verge of falling to the Taliban. In January 2018, a second rotation of Marines was sent in (a number of whom had been deployed to the same province before 2014, undoubtedly giving that déjà vu feeling a deeply personal meaning) and soon after you got headlines like this: “Inside the Marines’ new mission in Afghanistan: Taking back territory previously won.”
Imagine, then, the headlines still to come in 2020 or beyond in what has now, in American military lingo, become not permanent war but “infinite war” across significant stretches of the planet. One thing not to wait for: headlines like “Taliban defeated, Helmand Province completely in government hands.” To put this twenty-first-century version of American war in context, consider the truly long view offered by a man who gained such a vantage point firsthand, TomDispatch regular and former Vietnam War correspondent Arnold Isaacs.