Stephanie Savell – Informed Comment https://www.juancole.com Thoughts on the Middle East, History and Religion Sat, 21 Sep 2019 01:26:39 +0000 en-US hourly 1 https://wordpress.org/?v=5.7.6 The Imperial Debris of War: Why Ending the Afghan War Won’t End the Killing https://www.juancole.com/2019/09/imperial-debris-killing.html Sat, 21 Sep 2019 04:02:48 +0000 https://www.juancole.com/?p=186443 (Tomdispatch.com ) – I’ve never been to Afghanistan, but I am the mother of two young children. So when I imagine what life must be like there after 18 years of war, my mind conjures up the children most vividly — the ones who have been affected by the conflict — and their parents. I think of the 12-year-old boy who was carrying water to a military checkpoint in a remote part of that country, earning pennies to help sustain his family, whose legs were blown off by a landmine. Or the group of children at a wedding party, playing behind the house where the ceremony was taking place. One of them picked up an unexploded shell, fired from a helicopter, that hadn’t detonated in battle. It blew up, killing two children, Basit and Haroon, and wounding 12 others. What must it be like to care for a five year old — the age of my oldest child — who is maimed and who needs to learn how to walk, play, and live again with ill-fitting prosthetics?

A major legacy of the U.S. war on terror in Afghanistan, which began in October 2001 and shows little sign of actually ending anytime soon, will be the “explosive remnants of war” — a term for all the landmines and unexploded bombs and other weaponry that have been left behind in the earth. This debris of America’s endless war, still piling up, is devastating in many ways. It makes it so much harder for an agricultural population to sustain itself on the land. It wreaks havoc on Afghans’ emotional wellbeing and sense of security. And it poses special hazards for children, who are regularly injured and killed by the left-behind explosives of an already devastating war as they play, herd livestock, or collect water and firewood.

Given the expected drawdown of American troops in Afghanistan — despite the recent breakdown in peace negotiations with the Taliban, President Trump continues to indicate that he may pursue such a path — and the possibility of an official end to the U.S. war there, this topic is both pressing and relevant to public debate in America. Offering aid and reparations for the horrific ongoing costs of explosive military waste should be a priority on Washington’s future agenda.

“The Human and Financial Costs of the Explosive Remnants of War in Afghanistan,” a new report issued today by the Costs of War project, which I co-direct, at Brown University’s Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs, offers a sense of the scale of the damage in Afghanistan. According to the report’s authors, Suzanne Fiederlein and SaraJane Rzegocki of James Madison University, at least 5,442 people have been killed and 14,693 people have been injured by devices embedded in or left on the ground since the start of the US-led war in 2001.

Of those victims, the great majority are boys and men. A casualty analysis by the Danish Demining Group in 2017 suggested that boys are particularly vulnerable because of their day-to-day activities and chores, but women and girls, too, are increasingly becoming casualties of unexploded ordnance, particularly when traveling. In 2017, the United Nations Mission in Afghanistan expressed concern about a “65% jump in the number of children killed or wounded by explosive remnants as fighting has spread to heavily populated civilian areas.”

The U.S. has provided significant financial support for humanitarian mine-clearing programs in Afghanistan. In recent years, however, that funding has been dropping. According to the United Nations Mine Action Service, Afghanistan has made some genuine progress toward its goal of freeing itself of landmines and other unexploded debris by 2023. Yet international financial support for such activities has dropped to 41% of what it was in 2011. Even if the Afghan War truly ended tomorrow, a sustained commitment of financial aid over many years would be necessary to clear that country of all the ordnance sewn into its soil as a result of the last 18 years of America’s war.

A Legacy of War

The new Costs of War report reveals that the leading weapons causing such damage have changed over time. Even before 2001, when the U.S.-led coalition invaded Afghanistan, that country stood near the top of the list of those afflicted by abandoned landmines. The devices remained from the 1980s conflict between the Soviet Union and extremist Islamist rebels, the mujahedeen, backed by Washington and funded and supported by the CIA.

In the wake of the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989, international and Afghan clearance groups worked hard to clean up those minefields. Their efforts were, however, often thwarted by brutal new conflicts, including an Afghan civil war from 1992 to 1996 and the period from 1996 to 2001 in which the Taliban largely controlled the country. Still, over the past few decades, such groups managed to remove two million pieces of unexploded ordnance.

As the latest data indicates, landmines from the Soviet conflict have still been causing 7% of remnant-related casualties since 2010. Most of those hurt by explosive ordnance, however, are victims of the ongoing, complex armed conflict that emerged from the U.S.-led invasion — that is, a range of weapons used and left behind by American forces, Taliban fighters, and Islamic State-affiliated groups. These include grenades, projectile weapons, mortars, cluster munitions, and large bombs that failed to explode as intended, but are still live and prone to going off if touched or moved at a later date. Taliban and ISIS militants are also increasingly relying on improvised explosive devices (IEDs) set off by someone stepping on them or otherwise unwittingly activating them. If not triggered at the time of battle, they can kill or injure civilians long after, even in areas in which there is no longer active fighting.

Since 2015, casualties from explosive remnants of war and abandoned IEDs have been rising rapidly. One reason is an increase in fighting between the U.S.-backed Afghan National Security Forces and both the Taliban and ISIS, as well as intensifying conflict between these extremist groups themselves. According to report author Suzanne Fiederlein, improvised explosive devices are growing more common in Afghanistan and other conflicts across the Middle East, partly thanks to the Internet, which has spread knowledge of how to build them. Such information, she writes, is “commonly available now, not just on dark-web sites. Such knowledge is also linked to the manufacture of more sophisticated and complex devices, such as anti-handling devices (booby traps).”

In addition, since 2017, the U.S. has dramatically increased its airstrikes against the Taliban and other militant groups in Afghanistan, while the Taliban itself, as it gains ever more territory, has expanded its attacks on government targets as well as on Afghan and international security forces. In the past year, as U.S. and Taliban officials have engaged in peace talks, both sides have only ramped up their aggression further, assumedly in order to strengthen their hands in the negotiatons.

Finally, in recent years, as the American-led coalition has closed down bases in advance of a prospective U.S. military withdrawal, more and more Afghans have died or been injured by military waste exploding in abandoned areas once used by international security forces as firing ranges. From 2009 to 2015, the United Nations recorded 138 casualties from explosions in or around such former training facilities. Seventy-five percent of those victims were children.

Living with Explosive Military Waste

It’s important to grasp just how long explosive remnants of war can remain active in a landscape after a conflict ends. If uncleared, they pose a danger to people living nearby or passing through for generations. In Belgium, for instance, more than a century later, significant numbers of explosive shells are still being removed from former World War I battlefields. Many countries struggle with this problem, including Bosnia-Herzegovina, Colombia, Korea, Laos, and Vietnam, but Afghanistan has been one of the hardest hit.

As of 2018, roughly 1,780 square kilometers of that country are considered contaminated by military waste. As the Costs of War report points out, this is “roughly ten times the area of Washington, D.C., but spread across a country almost as large as Texas.” Danger zones include farms and grazing land, roads that people regularly use to get to markets, schools, and hospitals, and lands surrounding militant strongholds, allied military bases, and those former firing ranges.

From the research I’ve done, it’s clear why people continue to use such contaminated lands. At the most basic level, it’s a story of inequality. Many Afghans undoubtedly know which areas pose a threat. In addition, risk education programs have made progress in getting teachers, midwives, and police officers to spread awareness of how to recognize and avoid such dangers. However, poverty often forces Afghans to make terrible and terrifying decisions about the risk of injury and death.

Dilemmas of this sort are commonly faced in places marked by such legacies of conflict. Anthropologist David Henig, for instance, describes how rural villagers in the Bosnia-Herzegovina highlands still knowingly enter contaminated forest areas to gather firewood. For them, living with the danger of landmines left over from the Bosnian War of the 1990s is a matter of economic survival. Many Afghans face a similar plight. I can only suppose that the boy who stepped on a landmine while carrying water for soldiers would not have been earning money in that fashion if his family had any other way to scrape together an existence.

While people learn to live with the presence of explosive waste in their landscapes, doing so exacts a grim toll. Imagine the fear and emotional distress you might feel at merely passing through places where a misstep could kill you, no less your children. Henig recounts how one Bosnian woman, returning from a mined part of the forest where she had filled her wagon with wood, broke down and cried, yelling feverishly, “Why, why do we have to do this?”

In Afghanistan, the Costs of War report points to the “deep psychological impact” of such long-lasting contamination: “For Afghans, the fear of being harmed by these weapons is magnified by knowing or seeing someone injured or killed.” People are terrorized and traumatized by the threat of explosions, and this continuous sense of foreboding must create an undertone of anxious melancholy that runs through every minute of the day.

Then there are the thousands of Afghans who live not only with the fear of such explosions, but also with the need to rebuild their lives after being maimed by one. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) physical rehabilitation program in Afghanistan manufactures over 19,000 artificial legs, arms, and other orthopedic devices each year. Groups like the ICRC and Handicap International post photos of children on their websites as they are being fitted with and trained to use prosthetic legs. In one, a boy of no more than five looks bleakly at the camera, his hands resting on two parallel bars at his sides, the stumps of his legs settled uncomfortably in new plastic devices. In another, Nilofar, a young woman in a wheelchair, prepares to shoot a basketball; hers is a remarkable story of recovery, of moving from complete paralysis, after a back injury due to an explosion, to partial mobility. Today she works for the ICRC’s Kabul Orthopedic Center as a data entry operator, a job that has given her an income, a sense of purpose, and renewed hope.

The United Nations Mine Action Service has called for more long-term support for survivors of such wounds. They need such care to learn to walk on and use prosthetic limbs, as well as to deal with the depression and other psychological effects that accompany such injuries. According to the ICRC, they also require “a role in society and to recover dignity and self-respect.” All of the more than 800 staff at the seven ICRC orthopedic centers across Afghanistan are former patients. But there are thousands of others and no one can doubt that, in a war seemingly without end, there will be thousands more.

Imperial Debris and U.S. Responsibility

Scholars have called landmines and other explosive remnants of war “imperial debris” — the detritus, in particular, of imperial America and its expansive global military footprint, including its forever wars around this planet. Even if U.S. troops are finally withdrawn, as Afghans encounter such debris from the war on terror and find their lives eternally shaped by it, the association with the American project in their country will remain alive for years into the future, as such weaponry keeps right on killing. In the process, it will undoubtedly seed hatred of the United States for generations to come.

Sadly, American funding for the humanitarian mine-clearing program in Afghanistan has been in decline since 2012. Afghanistan today has some of the best-trained demining technicians on the planet, but the scale of the problem is massive and the money available for it far too modest. The very goal of achieving mine-free status by 2023, a project once expected to cost $647.5 million, is likely unattainable, even if the fighting ends, because funding targets have fallen so far short of being fulfilled.

The U.S. has been the single largest donor to that program, making $452 million in contributions since 2002. Since 2012, however, it’s been another story, as Washington has dispatched much of its funding and resources for such programs to Iraq and Syria instead. In fiscal year 2018, the Mine Action Programme of Afghanistan raised just $51 million of its $99 million funding goal and only an estimated $20 million of that came from Washington, less than half what it gave between 2010 and 2012.

Americans have an obligation to clear explosive hazards in that country, a large portion of which are of U.S. origin. Given the taxpayer dollars Washington has already spent on or committed to the war on terror through fiscal year 2019 — $5.9 trillion, according to the estimate of the Costs of War project — what it’s donated to deal with imperial debris in Afghanistan is scarcely more than a drop in the bucket. A multiyear funding commitment to clear the explosive remnants of the war on terror there would be one small way to carry out a tiny portion of America’s responsibility to the Afghan people after so many years of destruction.

Someday, Afghanistan stands every chance of becoming America’s forgotten war. The conflict will be anything but forgotten in that country, however, and therein lies one of the saddest stories of all.

Stephanie Savell, a TomDispatch regular, is co-director of the Costs of War Project at Brown University’s Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs. An anthropologist, she conducts research on security and activism in the U.S. and in Brazil. She co-authored The Civic Imagination: Making a Difference in American Political Life.

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer’s new dystopian novel (the second in the Splinterlands series) Frostlands, Beverly Gologorsky’s novel Every Body Has a Story, and Tom Engelhardt’s A Nation Unmade by War, as well as Alfred McCoy’s In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power and John Dower’s The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II.

Copyright 2019 Stephanie Savell

Via Tomdispatch.com

——-

Bonus video added by Informed Comment:

France24 English: “Errant US drone strike kills dozens of farmers in Afghanistan”

]]>
Half a Million Dead, $5.9 Trillion Bill: The True Costs of US ‘Global War on Terror’ https://www.juancole.com/2019/02/million-trillion-terror.html Wed, 20 Feb 2019 05:20:53 +0000 https://www.juancole.com/?p=182345 (Tomdispatch.com) – In September 2001, the Bush administration launched the “Global War on Terror.” Though “global” has long since been dropped from the name, as it turns out, they weren’t kidding.

When I first set out to map all the places in the world where the United States is still fighting terrorism so many years later, I didn’t think it would be that hard to do. This was before the 2017 incident in Niger in which four American soldiers were killed on a counterterror mission and Americans were given an inkling of how far-reaching the war on terrorism might really be. I imagined a map that would highlight Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, and Syria — the places many Americans automatically think of in association with the war on terror — as well as perhaps a dozen less-noticed countries like the Philippines and Somalia. I had no idea that I was embarking on a research odyssey that would, in its second annual update, map U.S. counterterror missions in 80 countries in 2017 and 2018, or 40% of the nations on this planet (a map first featured in Smithsonian magazine).

As co-director of the Costs of War Project at Brown University’s Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs, I’m all too aware of the costs that accompany such a sprawling overseas presence. Our project’s research shows that, since 2001, the U.S. war on terror has resulted in the loss — conservatively estimated — of almost half a million lives in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan alone. By the end of 2019, we also estimate that Washington’s global war will cost American taxpayers no less than $5.9 trillion already spent and in commitments to caring for veterans of the war throughout their lifetimes.

In general, the American public has largely ignored these post-9/11 wars and their costs. But the vastness of Washington’s counterterror activities suggests, now more than ever, that it’s time to pay attention. Recently, the Trump administration has been talking of withdrawing from Syria and negotiating peace with the Taliban in Afghanistan. Yet, unbeknownst to many Americans, the war on terror reaches far beyond such lands and under Trump is actually ramping up in a number of places. That our counterterror missions are so extensive and their costs so staggeringly high should prompt Americans to demand answers to a few obvious and urgent questions: Is this global war truly making Americans safer? Is it reducing violence against civilians in the U.S. and other places? If, as I believe, the answer to both those questions is no, then isn’t there a more effective way to accomplish such goals?

Combat or “Training” and “Assisting”?

The major obstacle to creating our database, my research team would discover, was that the U.S. government is often so secretive about its war on terror. The Constitution gives Congress the right and responsibility to declare war, offering the citizens of this country, at least in theory, some means of input. And yet, in the name of operational security, the military classifies most information about its counterterror activities abroad.


The U.S. is fighting its global war on terror in 40% of the world’s nations

(Stephanie Savell, Costs of War Project, originally published in the February issue of Smithsonian magazine)

This is particularly true of missions in which there are American boots on the ground engaging in direct action against militants, a reality, my team and I found, in 14 different countries in the last two years. The list includes Afghanistan and Syria, of course, but also some lesser known and unexpected places like Libya, Tunisia, Somalia, Mali, and Kenya. Officially, many of these are labeled “train, advise, and assist” missions, in which the U.S. military ostensibly works to support local militaries fighting groups that Washington labels terrorist organizations. Unofficially, the line between “assistance” and combat turns out to be, at best, blurry.

Some outstanding investigative journalists have documented the way this shadow war has been playing out, predominantly in Africa. In Niger in October 2017, as journalists subsequently revealed, what was officially a training mission proved to be a “kill or capture” operation directed at a suspected terrorist.

Such missions occur regularly. In Kenya, for instance, American service members are actively hunting the militants of al-Shabaab, a US-designated terrorist group. In Tunisia, there was at least one outright battle between joint U.S.-Tunisian forces and al-Qaeda militants. Indeed, two U.S. service members were later awarded medals of valor for their actions there, a clue that led journalists to discover that there had been a battle in the first place.

In yet other African countries, U.S. Special Operations forces have planned and controlled missions, operating in “cooperation with” — but actually in charge of — their African counterparts. In creating our database, we erred on the side of caution, only documenting combat in countries where we had at least two credible sources of proof, and checking in with experts and journalists who could provide us with additional information. In other words, American troops have undoubtedly been engaged in combat in even more places than we’ve been able to document.

Another striking finding in our research was just how many countries there were — 65 in all — in which the U.S. “trains” and/or “assists” local security forces in counterterrorism. While the military does much of this training, the State Department is also surprisingly heavily involved, funding and training police, military, and border patrol agents in many countries. It also donates equipment, including vehicle X-ray detection machines and contraband inspection kits. In addition, it develops programs it labels “Countering Violent Extremism,” which represent a soft-power approach, focusing on public education and other tools to “counter terrorist safe havens and recruitment.”

Such training and assistance occurs across the Middle East and Africa, as well as in some places in Asia and Latin America. American “law enforcement entities” trained security forces in Brazil to monitor terrorist threats in advance of the 2016 Summer Olympics, for example (and continued the partnership in 2017). Similarly, U.S. border patrol agents worked with their counterparts in Argentina to crack down on suspected money laundering by terrorist groups in the illicit marketplaces of the tri-border region that lies between Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay.

To many Americans, all of this may sound relatively innocuous — like little more than generous, neighborly help with policing or a sensibly self-interested fighting-them-over-there-before-they-get-here set of policies. But shouldn’t we know better after all these years of hearing such claims in places like Iraq and Afghanistan where the results were anything but harmless or effective?

Such training has often fed into, or been used for, the grimmest of purposes in the many countries involved. In Nigeria, for instance, the U.S. military continues to work closely with local security forces which have used torture and committed extrajudicial killings, as well as engaging in sexual exploitation and abuse. In the Philippines, it has conducted large-scale joint military exercises in cooperation with President Rodrigo Duterte’s military, even as the police at his command continue to inflict horrific violence on that country’s citizenry.

The government of Djibouti, which for years has hosted the largest U.S. military base in Africa, Camp Lemonnier, also uses its anti-terrorism laws to prosecute internal dissidents. The State Department has not attempted to hide the way its own training programs have fed into a larger kind of repression in that country (and others). According to its 2017 Country Reports on Terrorism, a document that annually provides Congress with an overview of terrorism and anti-terror cooperation with the United States in a designated set of countries, in Djibouti, “the government continued to use counterterrorism legislation to suppress criticism by detaining and prosecuting opposition figures and other activists.”

In that country and many other allied nations, Washington’s terror-training programs feed into or reinforce human-rights abuses by local forces as authoritarian governments adopt “anti-terrorism” as the latest excuse for repressive practices of all sorts.

A Vast Military Footprint

As we were trying to document those 65 training-and-assistance locations of the U.S. military, the State Department reports proved an important source of information, even if they were often ambiguous about what was really going on. They regularly relied on loose terms like “security forces,” while failing to directly address the role played by our military in each of those countries.

Sometimes, as I read them and tried to figure out what was happening in distant lands, I had a nagging feeling that what the American military was doing, rather than coming into focus, was eternally receding from view. In the end, we felt certain in identifying those 14 countries in which American military personnel have seen combat in the war on terror in 2017-2018. We also found it relatively easy to document the seven countries in which, in the last two years, the U.S. has launched drone or other air strikes against what the government labels terrorist targets (but which regularly kill civilians as well): Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Pakistan, Somalia, Syria, and Yemen. These were the highest-intensity elements of that U.S. global war. However, this still represented a relatively small portion of the 80 countries we ended up including on our map.

In part, that was because I realized that the U.S. military tends to advertise — or at least not hide — many of the military exercises it directs or takes part in abroad. After all, these are intended to display the country’s global military might, deter enemies (in this case, terrorists), and bolster alliances with strategically chosen allies. Such exercises, which we documented as being explicitly focused on counterterrorism in 26 countries, along with lands which host American bases or smaller military outposts also involved in anti-terrorist activities, provide a sense of the armed forces’ behemoth footprint in the war on terror.

Although there are more than 800 American military bases around the world, we included in our map only those 40 countries in which such bases are directly involved in the counterterror war, including Germany and other European nations that are important staging areas for American operations in the Middle East and Africa.

To sum up: our completed map indicates that, in 2017 and 2018, seven countries were targeted by U.S. air strikes; double that number were sites where American military personnel engaged directly in ground combat; 26 countries were locations for joint military exercises; 40 hosted bases involved in the war on terror; and in 65, local military and security forces received counterterrorism-oriented “training and assistance.”

A Better Grand Plan

How often in the last 17 years has Congress or the American public debated the expansion of the war on terror to such a staggering range of places? The answer is: seldom indeed.

After so many years of silence and inactivity here at home, recent media and congressional attention to American wars in Afghanistan, Syria, and Yemen represents a new trend. Members of Congress have finally begun calling for discussion of parts of the war on terror. Last Wednesday, for instance, the House of Representatives voted to end U.S. support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen, and the Senate has passed legislation requiring Congress to vote on the same issue sometime in the coming months.

On February 6th, the House Armed Services Committee finally held a hearing on the Pentagon’s “counterterrorism approach” — a subject Congress as a whole has notdebated since, several days after the 9/11 attacks, it passed the Authorization for the Use of Military Force that Presidents George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and now Donald Trump have all used to wage the ongoing global war. Congress has not debated or voted on the sprawling expansion of that effort in all the years since. And judging from the befuddled reactions of several members of Congress to the deaths of those four soldiers in Niger in 2017, most of them were (and many probably still are) largely ignorant of how far the global war they’ve seldom bothered to discuss now reaches.

With potential shifts afoot in Trump administration policy on Syria and Afghanistan, isn’t it finally time to assess in the broadest possible way the necessity and efficacy of extending the war on terror to so many different places? Research has shown that using war to address terror tactics is a fruitless approach. Quite the opposite of achieving this country’s goals, from Libya to Syria, Niger to Afghanistan, the U.S. military presence abroad has often only fueled intense resentment of America. It has helped to both spread terror movements and provide yet more recruits to extremist Islamist groups, which have multiplied substantially since 9/11.

In the name of the war on terror in countries like Somalia, diplomatic activities, aid, and support for human rights have dwindled in favor of an ever more militarized American stance. Yet research shows that, in the long term, it is far more effective and sustainable to address the underlying grievances that fuel terrorist violence than to answer them on the battlefield.

All told, it should be clear that another kind of grand plan is needed to deal with the threat of terrorism both globally and to Americans — one that relies on a far smaller U.S. military footprint and costs far less blood and treasure. It’s also high time to put this threat in context and acknowledge that other developments, like climate change, may pose a far greater danger to our country.

Stephanie Savell, a TomDispatch regular, is co-director of the Costs of War Project at Brown University’s Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs. An anthropologist, she conducts research on security and activism in the U.S. and in Brazil. She co-authored The Civic Imagination: Making a Difference in American Political Life.

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer’s new dystopian novel (the second in the Splinterlands series) Frostlands, Beverly Gologorsky’s novel Every Body Has a Story, and Tom Engelhardt’s A Nation Unmade by War, as well as Alfred McCoy’s In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power and John Dower’s The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II.

Copyright 2019 Stephanie Savell

Via Tomdispatch.com

—–

Bonus video added by Informed Comment:

NTV Kenya: “52 Al Shabaab militants killed in a US military airstrike in Somalia”

]]>
Bankrupting Ourselves to Death: How We’re Borrowing to Fight the Wars we’re Losing https://www.juancole.com/2018/06/bankrupting-ourselves-borrowing.html Sat, 30 Jun 2018 04:50:29 +0000 https://www.juancole.com/?p=176756 Providence ( Tomdispatch.com) – In the name of the fight against terrorism, the United States is currently waging “credit-card wars” in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and elsewhere. Never before has this country relied so heavily on deficit spending to pay for its conflicts. The consequences are expected to be ruinous for the long-term fiscal health of the U.S., but they go far beyond the economic. Massive levels of war-related debt will have lasting repercussions of all sorts. One potentially devastating effect, a new study finds, will be more societal inequality.

In other words, the staggering costs of the longest war in American history — almost 17 years running, since the invasion of Afghanistan in October 2001 — are being deferred to the future. In the process, the government is contributing to this country’s skyrocketing income inequality.

Since 9/11, the U.S. has spent $5.6 trillion on its war on terror, according to the Costs of War Project, which I co-direct, at Brown University’s Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs. This is a far higher number than the Pentagon’s $1.5 trillion estimate, which only counts expenses for what are known as “overseas contingency operations,” or OCO — that is, a pot of supplemental money, outside the regular annual budget, dedicated to funding wartime operations. The $5.6 trillion figure, on the other hand, includes not just what the U.S. has spent on overseas military operations in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Syria, but also portions of Homeland Security spending related to counterterrorism on American soil, and future obligations to care for wounded or traumatized post-9/11 military veterans. The financial burden of the post-9/11 wars across the Greater Middle East — and still spreading, through Africa and other regions — is far larger than most Americans recognize.

During prior wars, the U.S. adjusted its budget accordingly by, among other options, raising taxes to pay for its conflicts. Not so since 2001, when President George W. Bush launched the “Global War on Terror.” Instead, the country has accumulated a staggering amount of debt. Even if Washington stopped spending on its wars tomorrow, it will still, thanks to those conflicts, owe more than $8 trillion in interest alone by the 2050s.

Putting the Gilded Age to Shame

It’s hard to fathom what that enormous level of debt will do to our economy and society. A new Costs of War study by political scientist and historian Rosella Cappella Zielinski offers initial clues about its impact here. She takes a look at how the U.S. has paid for its conflicts from the War of 1812 through the two World Wars and Vietnam to the present war on terror. While a range of taxes, bond sales, and other mechanisms were used to raise funds to fight such conflicts, no financial strategy has relied so exclusively on borrowing — until this century. Her study also explores how each type of war financing has affected inequality levels in this country in the aftermath of those conflicts.

The implications for today are almost painfully straightforward: the current combination of deficit spending and tax cuts spells disaster for any hopes of shrinking America’s striking inequality gap. Instead, credit-card war spending is already fueling the dramatic levels of wealth inequality that have led some observers to suggest that we are living in a new Gilded Age, reminiscent of the enormous divide between the opulent lifestyles of the elite and the grinding poverty of the majority of Americans in the late nineteenth century.

Cappella Zielinski carefully breaks down what effects the methods used to pay for various wars have had on subsequent levels of social inequality. During the Civil War, for example, the government relied primarily on loans from private donors. After that war was over, the American people had to pay those loans back with interest, which proved a bonanza for financial elites, primarily in the North. Those wealthy lenders became wealthier still and everyone else, whose taxes reimbursed them, poorer.

In contrast, during World War I, the government launched a war-bond campaign that targeted low-income people. War savings stamps were offered for as little as 25 cents and war savings certificates in denominations starting at $25. Anyone who could make a small down payment could buy a war bond for $50 and cover the rest of what was owed in installments. In this way, the war effort promoted savings and, in its wake, a striking number of low-income Americans were repaid with interest, decreasing the inequality levels of that era.

Taxation strategies have varied quite significantly in various war periods as well. During World War II, for instance, the government raised tax rates five times between 1940 and 1944, levying progressively steeper ones on higher income brackets (up to 65% on incomes over $1 million). As a result, though government debt was substantial in the aftermath of a global struggle fought on many fronts, the impact on low-income Americans could have been far worse. In contrast, the Vietnam War era began with a tax cut and, in the aftermath of that disastrous conflict, the U.S. had to deal with unprecedented levels of inflation. Low-income households bore the brunt of those higher costs, leading to greater inequality.

Today’s wars are paid for almost entirely through loans — 60% from wealthy individuals and governmental agencies like the Federal Reserve, 40% from foreign lenders. Meanwhile, in October 2001, when Washington launched the war on terror, the government also initiated a set of tax cuts, a trend that has only continued. The war-financing strategies that President George W. Bush began have flowed on without significant alteration under Presidents Obama and Trump. (Obama did raise a few taxes, but didn’t fundamentally alter the swing towards tax cuts.) President Trump’s extreme tax “reform” package, which passed Congress in December 2017 — a gift-wrapped dream for the 1% — only enlarged those cuts.

In other words, in this century, Washington has combined the domestic borrowing patterns of the Civil War with the tax cuts of the Vietnam era. That means one predictable thing: a rise in inequality in a country in which the income inequality gap is already heading for record territory.

Just to add to the future burden of it all, this is the first time government wartime borrowing has relied so heavily on foreign debt. Though there is no way of knowing how this will affect inequality here in the long run, one thing is already obvious: it will transfer wealth outside the country.

Economist Linda Bilmes has argued that there’s another new factor involved in Washington’s budgeting of today’s wars. In every other major American conflict, after an initial period, war expenditures were incorporated into the regular defense budget. Since 2001, however, the war on terror has been funded mainly by supplemental appropriations (those Overseas Contingency Operations funds), subject to very little oversight. Think of the OCO as a slush fund that insures one thing: the true impact of this era’s war funding won’t hit until far later since such appropriations are exempt from spending caps and don’t have to be offset elsewhere in the budget.

According to Bilmes, “This process is less transparent, less accountable, and has rendered the cost of the wars far less visible.” As a measure of the invisible impact of war funding in Washington and elsewhere, she calculates that, while the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense discussed war financing in 79% of its hearings during the Vietnam era, since 9/11, there have been similar mentions at only 17% of such hearings. For its part, the Senate Finance Committee has discussed war-funding strategy in a thoroughgoing way only once in almost 17 years.

Hidden Tradeoffs and Deferred Costs

The effect of this century’s unprecedented budgetary measures is that, for the most part, the American people don’t feel the financial weight of the wars their government is waging — or rather, they feel it, but don’t recognize it for what it is. This corresponds remarkably well with the wars themselves, fought by a non-draft military in distant lands and largely ignored in this country (at least since the vast public demonstrations against the coming invasion of Iraq ended in the spring of 2003). The blowback from those wars, the way they are coming home, has also been ignored, financially and otherwise.

However little the public may realize it, Americans are already feeling the costs of their post-9/11 wars. Those have, after all, massively increased the Pentagon’s base budget and the moneys that go into the expanding national security budget, while reducing the amount of money left over for so much else from infrastructure investment to science. In the decade following September 11, 2001, military spending increased by 50%, while spending on every other government program increased only 13.5%.

How exactly does this trade-off work? The National Priorities Project explains it well. Every year the federal government negotiates levels of discretionary spending (as distinct from mandatory spending, which largely consists of Social Security and Medicare). In 2001, there were fewer discretionary funds allocated to defense than to non-defense programs, but the ensuing war on terror dramatically inflated military spending relative to other parts of the budget.In 2017, military and national security spending accounted for 53% of discretionary spending. The 2018 congressionally approved omnibus spending package allocates $700 billion for the military and $591 billion for non-military purposes, leaving that proportion about the same. (Keep in mind, that those totals don’t even include all the money flowing into that Overseas Contingency Operations fund). President Trump’s proposals for future spending, if accepted by Congress, would ensure that, by 2023, the proportion of military spending would soar to 65%.

In other words, the rise in war-related military expenditures entails losses for other areas of federal funding.Pick your issue: crumbling bridges, racial justice, housing, healthcare, education, climate change — and it’s all being affected by how much this country spends on war.

Nonetheless, thanks to its credit-card version of war financing, the government has effectively deferred most of the financial costs of its unending conflicts to the future. This, in turn, contributes to how detached most Americans tend to feel from the very fact that their country is now eternally at war. Political scientist and policy analyst Sarah Kreps argues that Americans become invested in how a war is being conducted only when they’re asked to pay for it. In her examination of the history of the financing of American wars, she writes, “The visibility and intrusiveness of taxes are exactly what make individuals scrutinize the service for which the resources are being used.” If there were war taxes today, their unpopularity would undoubtedly lead Americans to question the costs and consequences of their country’s wars in ways now missing from today’s public conversation.

Pressing for a real war budget, though, is not only a mechanism to alert Americans to the effects (on them) of the wars their government is fighting. It is also a potential lever through which citizens could affect the country’s foreign policy and pressure elected officials to bring those wars to an end. Some civic groups and activists from across the political spectrum have indeed been pushing to reduce the Pentagon budget, bloated by war, corruption, and fear-mongering. They are, however, up against both the power of an ascendant military-industrial complex and wars that have been organized, in their funding and in so many other ways, not to be noticed.

Those who care about this country’s economic future would be remiss not to include today’s war financing strategy among the country’s most urgent fiscal challenges. Anyone interested in improving American democracy and the well-being of its people should begin by connecting the budgetary dots. The more money this country spends on military activities, the more public coffers will be depleted by war-related interest payments and the less public funding there will be for anything else. In short,it’s time for Americans worried about living in a country whose inequality gap could soon surpass that of the Gilded Age to begin paying real attention to our “credit-card wars.”

Stephanie Savell, a TomDispatch regular, is co-director of the Costs of War Project at Brown University’s Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs. An anthropologist, she conducts research on security and civic engagement in Brazil and in the U.S. She co-authored The Civic Imagination: Making a Difference in American Political Life.

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, Beverly Gologorsky’s novel Every Body Has a Story and Tom Engelhardt’s A Nation Unmade by War, as well as Alfred McCoy’s In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power, John Dower’s The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II, and John Feffer’s dystopian novel Splinterlands.

Copyright 2018 Stephanie Savell

—-

Bonus video added by Informed Comment:

WION: “Rocket strike kills 50 Afghan Taliban leaders: US military”

]]>