American soldiers aren't dying for our freedom in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. They're dying for nothing

No mother wants to think that her child died in vain. But, as two more Americans die in Afghanistan this week, we need to face the truth. I know what I'm talking about: my family fought in Vietnam

Jerrod A. Laber
Washington DC
Thursday 28 March 2019 17:18
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Make no mistake: future American casualties in either of these conflicts will not occur on behalf of our safety or our liberty — whose constitutional rights are threatened by Iranian proxies in Syria?
Make no mistake: future American casualties in either of these conflicts will not occur on behalf of our safety or our liberty — whose constitutional rights are threatened by Iranian proxies in Syria?

President Trump has promised repeatedly to end “endless wars,” during both his campaign and his tenure so far in office. Despite this rhetoric, endless — and, frankly, pointless —wars are, sadly, still the American norm.

Two more Americans were just killed in Afghanistan — a war that the Trump administration realises needs to end, but seems in no hurry to actually do so. In December 2018, Trump announced that all US troops would be withdrawn from Syria, only to later rescind that declaration in favour of a small force of 400 to 1,000 troops to stay behind indefinitely, complementing the more than 5,000 troops in Iraq, who are there to satiate the administration’s obsession with Iran.

Soldiers who were children when the Afghanistan war began are dying. It’s well past time to bring all of our troops from Afghanistan, Syria, and Iraq home.

My uncle fought in Vietnam. After his deployment, he called my grandmother and said she needed to do everything possible to ensure that my father, who was several years younger, did not eventually find himself sent to South Asia. An easy way to avoid the draft would have been enrolling in college, but in Appalachian Ohio in the 1970s, college wasn’t exactly an option for everyone.

Fortunately, the Vietnam War ended before my father was eligible for the draft, so it was a bridge they never had to cross. I’m not sure what my uncle’s thoughts were when he made that phone call — he died in the mid-90s, so I never got to ask. But it’s reasonable to assume he thought there was something wrong about what the US was doing overseas, and wanted to spare his brother the risk of dying in a pointless war.

We assume that American soldiers die in defence of our rights and freedoms, as they protect us from existential threats. We thank veterans for their service and revere the dead as martyrs. By and large, we never dig deep into why they actually fight and die. After all, no grieving mother wants to think her child gave their life for nothing. But in Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan, that’s exactly what’s happening.

President Donald Trump speaks to U.S. troops in Iraq

Consider Syria. The small contingent of US troops will be be posted there with the primary goal of containing Iranian influence, but also to continue to combat Isis after the fall of the so-called caliphate.

Can you imagine sorting out the mess of spillover effects from the Syrian civil war and balancing against the adversarial regional power with only 400 troops? Hubris that unique can only be found in US foreign policy. “Playing politics with people’s lives” is an overused and oft-abused phrase, but in this case, it’s quite literally true. Four Americans were killed in Syria in January. Of those troops who remain: how many of their lives are worth a set of unobtainable objectives?

Just across the border in Iraq, there are still more than 5,000 troops present for the same reasons that troops are remaining in Syria: to help the Iraqis fight Isis, but mainly to keep an eye on Iran. It’s not a wise policy move, since Isis has largely been defeated (although terrorism is a fact of life and can never be fully eradicated) and yet thousands of troops are stuck in one of the most dangerous places on the planet because the president wants “to be able to watch Iran.”

The Trump administration always fails to mention that Iran is too weak to project meaningful power at the expense of its neighbours, and the International Atomic Energy Agency says they are still in compliance with the 2015 deal struck by the Obama administration that limits their nuclear capabilities, even despite the US’s exit from that agreement. It’s not clear just what the president thinks he’s keeping watch over. Meanwhile, 17 Americans were killed in Iraq in 2018, according to iCasualties.org.

In Afghanistan, the US has accomplished very little, despite a lot of sacrifice. The Taliban has steadily regained control of significant swathes of the country, while the Afghan government is weak, seemingly corrupt, and completely dependent on US support. Civilian deaths were at record highs in 2018.

War hawks argue that America needs to stay in Afghanistan to prevent a repeat of September 11. But those attacks were aided by multiple US intelligence failures and orchestrated across the globe, including at flight schools right here in the US. As international security expert Patrick Porter has said, there “is no straight line from Helmand to Manhattan.” Counterterrorism doesn’t require occupation.

Trump has reportedly made plans for a major drawdown in Afghanistan, and US envoys are attempting to facilitate peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban. In the meantime, US forces muddle along, and, too often, die in a conflict that should have ended years ago.

Make no mistake: future American casualties in either of these conflicts will not occur on behalf of our safety or our liberty — whose constitutional rights are threatened by Iranian proxies in Syria? Instead, US forces are held hostage by a path-dependent foreign policy that either aims for the impossible (such as the total defeat of “terror”) or refuses to see the entire world as anything other than a US protectorate.

Imagine the US left Iraq or Syria tomorrow. Imagine yourself tasked with notifying the family of the last American soldier to die there. For what would you tell them that he or she had died?

Jerrod A. Laber is a Washington-based foreign policy writer and journalist, and a Senior Contributor for Young Voices. His work has been published in The National Interest, Defense One, and the Columbus Dispatch, among other outlets. Follow him on Twitter @JerrodALaber.

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