You might think that 12-and-a-half years after it began, Washington would have learned something useful about its war on terror, but no such luck. If you remember, back in the distant days just after 9/11 when that war was launched (or, in a sense, "lost"), the Bush administration was readying itself to take out not just Osama bin Laden and his relatively small al-Qaeda outfit but "terror" itself, that amorphous monster of the twenty-first century. They were planning to do so in somewhere between 60 and 83 countries and, as they liked to say, "drain the swamp" globally.
In reality, they launched an overblown war not so much "on" terror, but "of" terror, one that, in place after place, from Afghanistan to Somalia, Pakistan to parts of Africa, destabilized regions and laid the basis for a spreading jihadist movement. In so many cases, as at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, they fulfilled Osama bin Laden's wildest fantasies, creating the sort of recruiting posters from hell for future jihadists that al-Qaeda was itself incapable of.
So many years later, they seem to be repeating the process in Yemen. They are now escalating a "successful" drone and special operations war against a group in that impoverished land that calls itself al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). The drones turn out to be pretty good at knocking off various figures in that movement, but they are in another sense like a godsend for it. In what are called "targeted killings," but might better be termed (as Paul Woodward has) "speculative murders," they repeatedly wipe out civilians, including women, children, and in one recent case, part of a wedding party. They are Washington's calling card of death and as such they only ensure that more Yemenis will join or support AQAP.
The process of creating ever more enemies you must then kill started in Afghanistan in 2001, even if that remains news to most Americans. Now, Anand Gopal in his new book No Good Men Among the Living: America, the Taliban, and the War Through Afghan Eyes offers a stunning history of how the U.S. fought its "war on terror" for almost a year in that country against -- quite literally -- ghosts. In the process, it resuscitated a Taliban movement that had ceased to exist and then found itself in a conflict it couldn't win. It's a story that's never been told before, even if Washington's second Afghan War makes no sense without it.
For many Americans, as Henry Ford so famously put it, history is bunk. In this case, however, history turns out to be everything that matters, and the rest has proved to be bloody, painful, and costly bunk. If you don't believe me, read Gopal's new piece, "How the U.S. Created the Afghan War -- And Then Lost It," part of his hidden history of that war and then get your hands on his book.