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Tom Engelhardt on “The American Way of War: How Bush’s Wars Became Obama’s”

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We discuss the latest in the ongoing US war in Afghanistan, the longest-running war in American history, with Tom Engelhardt, creator and editor of the website TomDispatch and author of The American Way of War: How Bush’s Wars Became Obama’s. Engelhardt says the US war in Afghanistan has troubling parallels with the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan of the 1980s. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: We go now to Afghanistan, where the Ministry of Mines has announced Thursday it is taking the first steps toward opening the country’s vast mineral resources to international investors. News of Afghans’ mineral reserves made headlines earlier this week when the New York Times detailed findings of the Pentagon and US Geological Survey that Afghanistan has at least $1 trillion in untapped mineral wealth. Afghan officials suggested the reserves could be worth as much as $3 trillion.

Meanwhile, back on Capitol Hill, debate over the US war effort continues. Senior Pentagon and military officials spoke to lawmakers Wednesday to urge patience and support for their operations. The head of US Central Command, General Petraeus, told the Senate Armed Services Committee that the war was moving in the right direction, and they were on track to begin withdrawing forces from Afghanistan by next summer.

    GEN. DAVID PETRAEUS: The conduct of a counterinsurgency operation is a roller coaster experience. There are setbacks, as well as areas of progress or successes. It is truly an up and down, when you’re living it, when you’re doing it, even from from afar, frankly. But the trajectory, in my view, has generally been upward, despite the tough losses, despite the setbacks.

AMY GOODMAN: For more on the ongoing US war in Afghanistan, the longest-running war in American history, we’re joined now here in New York by author Tom Engelhardt. He is the creator and editor of the website His latest book is called The American Way of War: How Bush’s Wars Became Obama’s. His latest post on TomDispatch “Call the Politburo, We’re in Trouble: Entering the Soviet Era in America.”

What do you mean? Welcome to Democracy Now!, Tom.

TOM ENGELHARDT: What I mean is that in the Cold War, which we’ve largely forgotten at this point, the Soviet leaders made a kind of a basic miscalculation. They mistook military power for global power. They poured all their money functionally into their military. They got stuck in Afghanistan, very much like us, for ten years. In the meantime, their budget deficits were going up. They were growing — their indebtedness to other countries was growing. Their infrastructure was beginning to crumble. The very society they had built was beginning to crumble. And when the Red Army came out of Afghanistan — it limped out in 1989, after a decade — it basically returned to a country that didn’t exist, because within two years the Soviet Union collapsed.

In Washington, this caught everybody by surprise. Everybody expected the Cold War to go on and on. When American leaders saw this happen, they declared victory. The world was without an enemy at this point. And they — in one of the more striking decisions, I think, that’s been made in many, many years, they decided then to follow the Soviet path. And they began — and they put the so-called peace dividend in a ditch, and they began to pour money, successive administrations, as we know, up through the Bush administration into today, into the American military, while budget deficits rose, indebtedness rose, infrastructure crumbled, and the society began to — you know, began to weaken. Now, the United States is not the Soviet Union. It was always by far the more powerful country. And it isn’t today the Soviet Union in 1989 or 1991. But it is striking that our leaders, in declaring victory, decided to go down, in essence, the Soviet path, which was the path to implosion.

JUAN GONZALEZ: You spend quite a bit of time on the book in one chapter talking about the language of war and how the American media portrayed Muslim resistance fighters in other wars, initially in the first war in Afghanistan against the Soviets —-

TOM ENGELHARDT: Yes, yes, yes.

JUAN GONZALEZ: —- and in Chechnya, as well. Could you talk about the language of war?

TOM ENGELHARDT: Well, you know, if you go back, in the 1980s, of course, we were supporting many of the very people we’re now fighting. And at that point, they were not Muslim extremist whatevers. They weren’t Islamic totalitarians. They were — well, the President said it at the time. That was President Reagan. He called them “freedom fighters.” And when you look at the language in the press for these very same people doing many of the very same things, they were — it just happened to be against the Soviets — car bombs, camel bombs, bike bombs, suicide attacks, so on and so forth. I mean, and this included Osama bin Laden and so on and so forth. They were portrayed as resistance fighters. You no longer — you would never say the word “resistance” fighter with — put with the Taliban, nor, to give you an example in the Iraq war — it was very interesting. The phrase that the military often used for those they were fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan is they referred to them as “anti-Iraqi forces” or “anti-Afghan forces,” as if they were foreigners. And, of course, nobody would refer to us as anti-Iraqi forces or foreign forces or anything of the sort.

I mean, there’s a whole language that goes with American-style war. To give you just a simple example, and you hear it relatively often, when things start to go badly, American officials — Robert Gate said it relatively recently — say, let’s put an Afghan mask — an Afghan face on the war. And that’s just a commonplace thing. And it means, let’s get an Afghan out front. But if you think about that phrase for a minute, an Afghan face is, of course, a mask over really an American war. And often the words that they use, the images that they use, are very telling, if you just look barely under them, about what they think about who’s actually running what war. I mean, you can really see in our language that we feel this is ours, it should be ours, you know, it’s our war. I mean, this has — the Afghans are ancillary to the war we’re fighting.

AMY GOODMAN: How do you propose pulling out? How do you propose Obama get out?

TOM ENGELHARDT: Well, let me say, as a start, that one of the problems with answering a question like this is, you know, basically, we’ve never tried it. I mean, in other words, it’s like talking about peace. All the money goes into war. So, you know, and in addition, as you try to get out, as was true in Vietnam for years, future fantasies are put forward: you know, there’s going to be a bloodbath, terrible things will happen. We don’t know what actually will happen in Afghanistan, if we were to pull out. We know what’s happening now, and it’s quite terrible, and it’s actually devolving. I mean, I think it’s perfectly reasonable, whether you — I mean, you could simply announce a withdrawal, a reasonable withdrawal schedule, and pull out American troops. You could offer — you could offer money. We really don’t know. I think it’s very unlikely, for instance, that the Taliban would simply take over the country. They didn’t the last time. They might get part of the country, but not all of it. We really don’t know what would happen. We just know that this will otherwise be a trillion-dollar war, which, like the Soviet war, will go on forever and ever. I mean, the Soviets, from about 1986 on, for about the last three or four years, they wanted to get out. The Soviet leadership, you look at their documents, they want to get out, but they can’t muster the will. They keep worrying, will Afghanistan be stable?, etc., etc. It goes on for years. And the problem isn’t how will we get out of Afghanistan, but when Obama decides he wants to, it’s going to be difficult.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And this most recent announcement about the vast mineral wealth —-


JUAN GONZALEZ: —- in Afghanistan, especially coming, the timing of it, as the war is actually not progressing as well as the Obama administration had hoped, is it your sense that this was more sort of rallying the corporate and financial elites of the world to take more renewed interest in supporting the US effort?

TOM ENGELHARDT: I’m want convinced it’s going to have that effect, actually. First of all, as you can see from the Times today — the Times had a piece on it today — and as was true with Iraq, it’s very hard to get Western, these big Western mining companies, to come into a situation where, you know, the lithium that they’re talking about is basically under lands that basically are Taliban-controlled right now. They don’t want to send their people in there. The people who might come in are the Chinese, maybe, who would be willing to take more risks, or various state mining interests that we wouldn’t be interested in. So I’m not sure this is a great benefit in that sense.

Secondly, you know, to get — in a country with almost no infrastructure and no mining infrastructure to get anything out of the ground there, I mean, I’m sure you’re talking a — you’re not talking about now, you’re not talking about something striking that’s going to happen now. I think — yeah, I mean, it was a kind of a good news story at a bad news time, and it is significant that there’s all this stuff under Afghanistan, which was known —-

AMY GOODMAN: It’s not as if it wasn’t known.


AMY GOODMAN: And the question is why it’s being raised as a story now, if not to justify the US’s continued presence, that maybe the US can get these natural resources.

TOM ENGELHARDT: Let’s point out that it was known by the Russians. You know, in the Russian war, the Russians knew this. I mean, I’m struck by one small thing. Mikhail Gorbachev, the Russian leader who did finally get them out, his term for Afghanistan was “the bleeding wound.” Our Afghan war commander recently referred to his kind of pet offensive in the small southern area of Marjah, where they threw in 15,000 troops in the spring, declared it a victory, and now find out that things are not going well, he’s called it a “bleeding ulcer.” There is kind of an eerie parallel there, and it reminds us that both countries will now have been in a war in Afghanistan, a place known as the graveyard of empires, for a decade.

AMY GOODMAN: You talk about, finally, garrisoning of the planet.

TOM ENGELHARDT: Yes. Well, the American way of war, which is the title of my book, is based on something that, in the United States, we have basically no interest in. Unless a base closes in the United States, and then there’s an enormous uproar, a military base, we really don’t think about much our basing policy around the world. And yet -—

AMY GOODMAN: Ten seconds, then we go to a web special after.

TOM ENGELHARDT: And yet, we have maybe up to 1,200 bases, depending on what you’re counting, maybe even more, around the world. We basically garrison the planet. Washington is a war capital. We are in a state of war. We don’t know it.

AMY GOODMAN: Tom Engelhardt, congratulations on your new book, The American Way of War: How Bush’s Wars Became Obama’s. We’re going to continue this after the show and put it up at

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