This Week: Out of Afghanistan, Into the Fire


I’ve struggled mightily in shaping this issue of Nygaard Notes. I knew I had something important to say, but I couldn’t settle on exactly what it is. I edited out more words than I ended up including—and this issue is still a long one!

So I wrote what you see here, and for the first time in the storied history of Nygaard Notes I have included an epilogue! In which I try to explain succinctly what, exactly, I’ve been talking about for the past four issues. I think it makes sense. If you don’t think it does—or if you DO think it does—feel free to drop me a note and say so. I really love hearing from you, y’know.

Peacefully yours,


As always, if you want to download a printable PDF version of this issue of Nygaard Notes, just click HERE.

“Quotes” of the Week: The War on Terror Continues

It’s a two-part QOTW this week.

The first one appeared in a September 1st press release from the Costs of War project at Brown University, a group established in 2010 to facilitate public debate of the idea that “There are many hidden or unacknowledged costs of the United States’ decision to respond to the 9/11 attacks with military force.”

The headline of the release read “Costs of the 20-year War on Terror: $8 Trillion and 900,000 Deaths.”

The release quotes Catherine Lutz, co-director of Costs of War and a professor of international and public affairs at Brown, who stated that the U.S.-declared Global War on Terror “has been long and complex and horrific and unsuccessful… and the war continues in over 80 countries.”

The whole release could be the “Quote” of the Week, but let’s go with this comment about the “end” of the “war” in Afghanistan:

“Even as the U.S. exits Afghanistan, Costs of War estimates show that Americans are far from done paying the bill on the war on terror, which continues across multiple continents.”

Read the press release. It should be common knowledge:

QOTW Part 2: The Eyes of the World

Three weeks after that press release came out (Sept 21) Neta Crawford, a co-founder of the project, was interviewed on National Public Radio’s “All Things Considered.” Host Leila Fadel remarked that “Last week, the Pentagon admitted that an airstrike said to be targeting a would-be car bomber in Afghanistan actually killed only civilians…” Then she asked “What is important about counting these deaths, specifically in drone strikes like this?” Crawford replied with QOTW #2:

“Well, I’m talking about deaths by all different kinds of aircraft—drone, fixed-wing or helicopters. And we decided to count because we’ve noticed that when the United States and other powers have the eyes of the world on them, they get more careful, and airstrikes diminish, and the number of people killed and injured declines.”

The interview story was headlined (online) “A U.S. Strike Recently Killed Afghan Civilians, But It’s Far From The First Time.”

It’s a great interview, if you want to read it.

Screening The War Business From Public Gaze

It was nearly a century ago that the legendary political scientist Harold Lasswell conducted a study of the use of propaganda during the First World War, and published his findings in a 1927 book entitled “Propaganda Technique in the World War.” The book was considered a classic on the subject, and so timeless that it was re-published in 1971. I’ve talked about this book before (back in 2002!) But here I will just recall one bit of advice that can be found on page 98, wherein Lasswell advises future warmakers that “The justification of war can proceed more smoothly if the hideous aspects of the war business are screened from public gaze. People may be permitted to deplore war in the abstract, but they must not be encouraged to paint its horrors too vividly.”

As I said 20 years ago, I had always thought of this as the real “lesson of Vietnam,” where images of napalmed children and body bags helped to awaken the U.S. public to the realities of that imperial tragedy. But, obviously, the lesson is older than that, and the advice is still being followed as the 21st Century unfolds. If we read the media closely there are insights to be had as we look at how modern-day “screening” works, and what exactly constitutes a “horror.”

In August of 2008, then-presidential candidate John McCain was speaking at a town meeting in New Hampshire when the following exchange between McCain and an audience member was heard. The questioner began by saying, “President Bush has talked about our staying in Iraq for 50 years…” when McCain cut him off, saying “Maybe a hundred. We’ve been in South Korea, we’ve been in Japan for 60 years. We’ve been in South Korea for 50 years or so. That’d be fine with me as long as Americans are not being injured or harmed or wounded or killed. Then it’s fine with me, I hope it would be fine with you if we maintain a presence in a very volatile part of the world where Al Qaeda is training, recruiting, equipping and motivating people every single day.”

That’s it! Just as the fear of Communism was used to justify various wars during the Cold War, so has the fear of “Terrorism” been used to justify military actions since the current phase of the “War on Terror” was declared in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. The challenge for warmakers is, and has always been, how to “screen from the public gaze” any “hideous aspects” that might remind people of the powerful anti-war movement that arose during the so-called Vietnam War (Vietnamese people call it the American War).

The degree to which the hideous aspects of the US occupation of Afghanistan have been screened from public gaze is remarkable, and the constant obfuscation is a big part of the reason that the occupation has gone on as long as it has. I’ve been talking about it for at least 15 years, but it’s worth summarizing briefly here:

It was back in February of 2006 that I first wrote in any depth about what I called the “secret” air wars being conducted by the United States in Iraq and Afghanistan. By “secret,” I of course meant that the “hideous aspects” were being hidden from the only people who might be able to stop them: U.S. voters. It was no secret to the people on whom the bombs were falling.

In June of 2007 I wrote in these pages “I recently did a Lexis/Nexis database search of the electronic news media (including ABC, CBS, NBC, NPR, the Newshour with Jim Lehrer, CNN, Fox, and more) for the three months since I last reported on this issue. Looking for the words “Afghanistan” and “air war,” I found a total of ZERO citations.” Lasswell must have been smiling to see how effectively these hideous aspects of the war business were being screened from public gaze.

A piece I published in April 2008 revealed exactly which aspects of the war business are considered hideous to U.S. voters. The piece was called “The Invisible Killing of Remote-Control War,” and it focused on the increasing use of “Unmanned Aerial Vehicles,” or UAVs, commonly called “drones.” I quoted the Army’s deputy assistant secretary for research and technology, Thomas Killion, who had explained to a reporter for the St. Paul Pioneer Press that “We want unmanned systems to go where we don’t want to risk our precious soldiers.”

This is what McCain was talking about. According to him, the violence of the War on Terror “should be fine” with us “as long as Americans are not being injured or harmed or wounded or killed.” Such a statement can only occur in a context of a War on Terror in which one is certain that corpses of the (non-precious) Other can, and will, be ignored. “We don’t do body counts,” said Gen. Tommy Franks at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan in 2002, a point underlined in 2007, when Canadian Brig. Gen. David Fraser—the commander of all of NATO’s forces in southern Afghanistan—told the Toronto Globe and Mail, “I don’t talk about body counts.” It goes without saying that they are referring to the “Other” bodies only, as the fully-human bodies on “our side” are certainly counted, as they should be.

I first mentioned the increasing use of war-making robots by the U.S. in 2010, and developed the point further in 2011 in my piece “War of the Future: Robots.” An official report put out by the U.S. military at the time explained why killer robots are here to stay: “Combatant Commanders and warfighters value the inherent features of unmanned systems, especially their persistence, versatility, and reduced risk to human life.” Substitute “American” for “human” and you get the point.

Skip ahead ten years to July 27th of this year, when the headline in the US Naval Institute’s newsletter, USNI News, read “‘Ghost Fleet’ Hulls Moving Toward Completely Unmanned Operations.” They’re referring to the US Navy’s robotic warfare program, which is named “Ghost Fleet Overlord.” Which is somewhat ominous, when one considers what my thesaurus lists as synonyms for “Overlord:” Chief, Czar, Despot, Emperor, Ruler, Suzerain, Tyrant, Master, Lord, Vassal and Warlord. Suzerain!

Five days a week, for years, the U.S. Central Command Air Forces, or CENTAF, released a “Daily Airpower Summary”, chronicling in some detail what the air forces of the occupying powers were doing in Afghanistan (and Iraq). I reported at the time that “Despite the fact that the United States conducts something on the order of 75-85 airstrikes in Iraq and Afghanistan EVERY SINGLE DAY, it’s a rare media outlet, indeed, that ever reports on the human suffering that is the result of this onslaught.” And this despite the fact that all of the information I reported was available to anyone in the world with access to the internet. (And with support from loyal readers like YOU!)

So what Harold Lasswell said 95 years ago still seems to be true: “The justification of war can proceed more smoothly if the hideous aspects of the war business are screened from public gaze.” But, if you turn your gaze in the right direction you can find evidence that, despite the lack of information, the seeds of a new peace movement may—just may—be ready to sprout. Read on…

Voices for Peace in the War on Terror

On September 20, 2001, President George W. Bush made a major speech to the nation, in which he stated “On September the 11th, enemies of freedom committed an act of war against our country.”

His decision to define the terror attacks of September 11 as an act of war rather than as a crime against humanity was a fateful and tragic one, and set us on the course of what was to become known as the “War on Terror.” Said the President, “Our war on terror begins with Al Qaeda, but it does not end there.” In an ominous portent of coming events, the President promised that “we will pursue nations that provide aid or safe haven to terrorism. Every nation in every region now has a decision to make: Either you are with us or you are with the terrorists.”

And to be with “us,” said the President, is your only hope, because God is on our side. He told the world that “Freedom and fear are at war. The advance of human freedom, the great achievement of our time and the great hope of every time, now depends on us. The course of this conflict is not known, yet its outcome is certain. Freedom and fear, justice and cruelty, have always been at war, and we know that God is not neutral between them.”

I wrote at the time: “Mr. Bush stated that ‘Our war on terror…will not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped and defeated.’ The selling of this preposterous promise depends on the American public believing two things. First, that such a goal is achievable. Anyone who believes this—and apparently many do—is suffering from a dangerous mix of naiveté and a childlike belief in the power and the right of the United States to completely dominate a very large and diverse world. I encourage anyone who hasn’t already done so to seriously try to imagine what would be required to attempt to achieve such a goal. The second requirement is the belief that the United States is somehow absent from the list of terrorist states. It is a remarkable, almost unbelievable, testimonial to the power of American propaganda that some of the most enormous acts of terrorism in the past century have completely disappeared from history as understood in the United States.”

“Messages Rejecting Vengeance”

Calls for vengeance and violent retribution dominated the front pages in the days after 9/11. But other voices could also be heard. I reported on September 21st (2001) on some letters from readers that were being published in the nation’s newspapers. Some “cautioned their fellow Americans against scapegoating Arabs or Muslims. Several urged restraint in our national response, for a variety of reasons. Some warned of the danger to our civil liberties from a possible overreaction on the part of authorities. Some even pointed out that the United States government itself has a history of carrying out terror, and that we may wish to consider our own behavior in the world if our true wish is to ‘eliminate’ terrorism.”

The local paper reported on September 18th that “a ninth-grader spoke up at an assembly attended by U.S. Senator Paul Wellstone, saying ‘I don’t think America should bomb anyone until we’re absolutely sure they did it. We need to find out why they would bomb us because the whole world looks to us for leadership.’” At this, according to the report, “Her fellow students erupted in applause.”

I saw a news report at the time reporting that the Reverend Peg Chamberlain, executive director of the Minnesota Council of Churches, said that “messages rejecting vengeance were being delivered from pulpits across the state Sunday.” I wrote about the comments of one pastor who delivered such a message to his congregation in a Methodist church in a small northern Wisconsin town called Spooner. He stated, ‘It’s an emotionally charged time. I wanted to respond to the people who are saying, ‘Bomb ‘em back to the Stone Age.’ I wanted to respond to those who are saying, ‘We ought to make them hurt, even if it means killing innocent civilians.’ To contemplate the idea that we would reduce ourselves to the level of the terrorists is tragic. If we’re talking about a God of all creation, how could we think that responding that way would solve anything? The concept of vengeance only invites a wider cycle of violence.’ Upon preaching this sermon, the Reverend received a response he’s never received before: The people at the little Methodist church applauded.”

All of these reports led me to say at the time that “a surprisingly large number of Americans are still free enough in their hearts and minds to resist this massive movement toward a pointless and tragic war.”

As the 21st Century unfolds, we can see some seeds from which a renewed anti-war movement—dare I say an anti-imperialist movement?—might grow. But for that to happen, we need to understand that the War on Terror continues, despite all the talk of the “war” in Afghanistan “ending.”

On September 21 President Biden addressed the United Nations, and he told the world, “I stand here today, for the first time in 20 years, with the United States not at war. We’ve turned the page.” But the only page we’ve turned is the last page in the chapter of the unchallenged power of what used to be known as The World’s Only Superpower.

The War on Terror continues—in Afghanistan and around the world. And no matter what page we turn to, the story we see is the story of decline.

The Overlord is Weakening

Back at the beginning of 2003—as the United States was gearing up to commit the Crime of the Century, a.k.a. the attack on Iraq—the establishment think tank The Brookings Institution put out a report called “The Globalization of Politics: American Foreign Policy for a New Century.”

In the report, Brookings noted that the attacks of 9/11 ushered in “a new age, the era of global politics,” in which “The challenge U.S. policymakers face today is to recognize that fundamental change in world politics and to use America’s unrivaled military, economic, and political power to fashion an international environment conducive to its interests and values.”

Brookings summarizes what “Americanists” (what we might today call “America-Firsters”) consider one of “the great virtues” of “American primacy and globalization.” Their idea is that, “because American power enables the United States to pursue its interests as it pleases, American foreign policy should seek to maintain, extend, and strengthen that relative position of power. As President Bush told graduating West Point cadets last June, ‘America has, and intends to keep, military strength beyond challenge, thereby making the destabilizing arms races of other eras pointless, and limiting rivalries to trade and other pursuits of peace.’ In other words, the United States can achieve its policy objectives best if it can prevent others from acquiring the power necessary to oppose it effectively when interests clash. It is as good a definition of what would constitute an American empire as one can get.”

Brookings urges U.S. policymakers to “use America’s unrivaled military, economic, and political power” to maintain its position as the Overlord of this imagined “American Empire.” But, while it may have been the case in the decades after WWII—and certainly for a decade or so after the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990s—that the U.S. was “unrivaled,” that is certainly not the case now. For decades, U.S. economic and political power has been waning as the global order evolves to a multipolar future in which the U.S. is one among several, or many, regional powers. Still, as George W. said, “America has, and intends to keep, military strength beyond challenge.”

So, what does it look like when the Overlord begins to lose its grip and has to increasingly rely on brute force if it hopes to remain King of the Hill? Well, it’s not pretty, which is why so much of the actual implementation of the ongoing War on Terror will continue to be “screened from public gaze.” Still, the Empire won’t be able to conceal all of the mayhem from the public, as the following article from the inside pages of the New York Times illustrates.

“The First Act of the Next Stage of Our War”

In a startling and insightful article in the September 23rd New York Times—unfortunately relegated to page 10 of the print version—reporter Mark Mazzetti got right to the point: “There are no longer American troops in Afghanistan, but America’s wars go on.”

The headline read “Biden Declared the War Over. But Wars Go On; The President’s Assertion after the Withdrawal from Afghanistan That the United States Is Not at War for the First Time in 20 Years Ignored Continued Smaller-scale Conflicts.”

Referring to President Biden’s speech to the United Nations on September 21st in which the President stated that “for the first time in 20 years, the United States is not at war,” Times reporter Mark Mazzetti wrote that this “was just the latest attempt by an American president in the two decades since the Sept. 11 attacks to massage the language of warfare to mask a sometimes inconvenient reality: that America is still engaged in armed conflict throughout the world.”

He quoted Representative Tom Malinowski, Democrat of New Jersey, speaking during congressional testimony from Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken earlier in the month. The Congressman said, “Our troops are not coming home. We need to be honest about that. They are merely moving to other bases in the same region to conduct the same counterterrorism missions, including in Afghanistan.”

It’s not as though any of this is a secret. Here’s the President, speaking to the nation in an August 16th speech: “We conduct effective counterterrorism missions against terrorist groups in multiple countries where we don’t have a permanent military presence. If necessary, we will do the same in Afghanistan. We’ve developed counterterrorism over-the-horizon capability that will allow us to keep our eyes firmly fixed on any direct threats to the United States in the region and to act quickly and decisively if needed.”

Those “multiple countries” include Somalia, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Iraq and “multiple countries in Africa and Asia.”

The Times article referenced a letter that Biden sent to Congress in June, saying “The majority of these deployments do not involve ‘routine engagement in combat,’ the letter said, but in many places American troops ‘may be required to defend themselves against threats or attacks.’”

Threats to the Empire

A word about those “threats”: Back in January of 2012 the New York Times ran an article from the nuclear aircraft carrier The U.S.S. John C. Stennis, in the North Arabian Sea. The article included this: “American Navy officers have a line they repeat passionately and often: A nuclear-powered aircraft carrier is an imposing and versatile manifestation of the United States’ power. A ship like the Stennis, they say, which was sending aircraft on missions over Iraq one day and over Afghanistan 36 hours later, allows Washington to project influence, unrestricted by borders or basing rights.”

In other words, the United States—in line with its conception of itself as the global Imperial power—reserves for itself the right to attack any country, anywhere, anytime. And any attempt by any individual or nation that challenges this right is thus a “threat.” I elaborated on this point in my article in NN #501, “War is Peace. Self-Defense is a Threat.”

The Times noted Biden’s promise to end America’s “forever wars,” and then said “But administration officials have been clear that combat missions in other countries will continue, namely those that do not involve large deployments of American troops or draw intense news media scrutiny.” And it is no doubt true that, as the Times puts it, “Several administrations have concluded that … the American public is broadly supportive of operations that appear to present little risk to American troops.” And as little “news media scrutiny” as possible, one might add.

And “several administrations”—if not every administration—are no doubt keenly aware of Harold Lasswell’s war propaganda advice of 95 years ago: “The justification of war can proceed more smoothly if the hideous aspects of the war business are screened from public gaze.”

And how, without direct censorship, can future administrations be assured that such screening will occur? It’s tragically simple, really: Make sure the victims are always the sub-human “them,” and never “our precious soldiers.”

The Times article ended by once again quoting New Jersey Democrat Tom Malinowski, who was speaking last month on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives. The Congressman was speaking about the U.S. drone strike on August 29th that killed 10 innocent people.

“That drone strike in Kabul was not the last act of our war,” the Congressman said. “It was unfortunately the first act of the next stage of our war.”

The New American Way of War

The political news site The Hill reported on June 10th, “As all American troops withdraw from Afghanistan in line with President Biden’s order to be out by September, U.S. officials have insisted the military will be able to keep terrorism threats in check through what’s known as over-the-horizon operations, or those launched from outside the country.”

And here’s the President himself, speaking on July 8th of this year: “We are developing a counterterrorism over-the-horizon capability…”

And on August 16th: “We’ve developed counterterrorism over-the-horizon capability that will allow us to keep our eyes firmly fixed on any direct threats to the United States in the region and to act quickly and decisively if needed.”

August 20: “And we’re going to retain an over- the-horizon capability…”

August 31: “We have what’s called over-the-horizon capabilities, which means we can strike terrorists and targets without American boots on the ground — or very few, if needed.”

Now we go back to 1996, to look at the opening paragraph of an article in Air Force Magazine, which was headlined “The New American Way of War:

“Gen. Ronald R. Fogleman, US Air Force Chief of Staff, believes that a ‘new American way of war’ is emerging. Traditionally, the US has ‘relied on large forces employing mass, concentration, and firepower to attrit enemy forces and defeat them in what many times became costly but successful battles,’ he said at the Air Force Association’s Air Warfare symposium in Orlando, Fla., in February. Now, however, technology and circumstances are leading to unique military advantages, particularly in airpower, that can be employed ‘to compel an adversary to do our will at the least cost to the United States in lives and resources.’”

Fifteen years later, in October of 2011 then-Vice President Joe Biden had this to say about the U.S./NATO bombing of Libya earlier that year which resulted in “regime change” in that country: “In this case, America spent $2 billion and didn’t lose a single life. This is more the prescription for how to deal with the world as we go forward than it has in the past.”

Back on February 15th 2003, as the U.S. prepared to attack Iraq, global protests against the war revealed a heretofore-unknown resistance to the U.S. plans. Here’s Phyllis Bennis, writing in 2013 on the ten-year anniversary of the protests:

“And across the globe, the call came in scores of languages, ‘The world says no to war!’ The cry ‘Not in Our Name’ echoed from millions of voices. The Guinness Book of World Records said between 12 and 14 million people came out that day, the largest protest in the history of the world.”

Thirty five years earlier popular protests against an earlier U.S. attack—this one on Vietnam—ignited anti-imperialist sentiment that combined with an energized civil rights movement to challenge U.S. power on the world stage and white supremacy here at home.

Like a virus, Imperialism morphs and adapts to changing conditions, and the changes we can expect in the wake of the U.S. withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan will become clear as time goes on. We’re likely to see an increasingly covert war against an increasingly vague enemy known as “terrorism” or “socialism” or simply a refusal by individuals or nations to play their assigned roles in the Imperial order.

The nature of what we are up against, and will be up against, is perhaps best captured by a former intelligence operative and military strategist named Edward Luttwak. In 2009 Luttwak published a book called “The Grand Strategy of the Byzantine Empire” in which he offers “seven lessons” that “the United States would do well to heed” as it goes about managing its empire. Here, verbatim, is his final lesson from the Byzantines, Lesson VII:

“When diplomacy and subversion are not enough and fighting is unavoidable, use methods and tactics that exploit enemy weaknesses, avoid consuming combat forces, and patiently whittle down the enemy’s strength. This might require much time. But there is no urgency because as soon as one enemy is no more, another will surely take his place. All is constantly changing as rulers and nations rise and fall. Only the empire is eternal—if, that is, it does not exhaust itself.”

Secret Air Wars. Remote-Control War. Drones. Robots. And now, “Over-the-horizon Capabilities.” Welcome to The New American Way of War.

It’s a mostly-invisible war conducted from Over the Horizon, an endless war aimed at “Making America Great Again” on the world stage. It’s a war that can’t, and shouldn’t, be “won.” A war to which we must turn our gaze, and which we must fearlessly oppose.

Epilogue: The Greatest Lesson of Afghanistan

The U.S. occupation of Afghanistan has so much to teach us that I have devoted the past three issues of Nygaard Notes to my attempt to illuminate some of the lessons to be found there.

In the first installment, NN #675, I talked about four Lessons of Afghanistan: The War on Terror is a tragic mistake; The U.S. didn’t go to war with Afghanistan, it occupied Afghanistan; The occupation was never supported outside of the U.S. (and the initial support within the U.S. did not last), and; The occupation was an act of Empire, and thus followed Imperial logic, not humanitarian logic.

The second installment, #676, was a refresher course on the meaning of Empire.

The most recent installment, #677, illustrated how very different—fundamentally, radically different—U.S. actions look when viewed from outside the Imperial center (and how hard we work to not see this, or to deny it when we do see it).

Now, in this fourth and final installment of the Afghanistan Series, I have tried to bring into focus the greatest lesson of all, which presents itself in three parts: Part 1. That Empire is about funneling wealth from the weak to the strong. Part 2. That the unjust system that results can only be maintained, in the end, by massive and organized violence. Part 3. That such massive violence can only be “justified” by dehumanizing the targets, the task for which modern-day racism was created (and for which it, along with various other techniques of “othering,” is still utilized).

Not coincidentally, those three parts of what I call The Greatest Lesson of Afghanistan correspond to what Martin Luther King called “the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism.” Do you see it? Part 1 = Materialism. Part 2 = Militarism. Part 3 = Racism.

So, as Afghanistan fades from the headlines here in the Empire, we need to remember The Greatest Lesson: That the Giant Triplets are still with us, still wreaking havoc, still staining our world with the blood that the Overlords believe must be spilled in the attempt to preserve a global order that serves the few at the expense of the many. Great efforts will be made to conceal this fundamental dynamic, but we have to keep looking at what we know is there.

The Reverend King, in the “triplets” speech I mentioned above (“Beyond Vietnam,” delivered on April 4 1967), said it plainly: “I am convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values.”

Those giant triplets can seem pretty overwhelming, I know. But when the task seems daunting I remind myself that many large and imposing structures are built on shaky foundations, and can only remain strong if we believe that they are strong. And I call to mind the lyrics written by Bob Marley back in 1973. He was paraphrasing an old African/Jamaican adage when he sang: “If you are the big tree, we are the small axe. Sharpened to cut you down. Ready to cut you down.”