President Trump’s reckless threats to escalate the Afghan War could lead to the killing of tens of millions of civilians
(January 10, 2020) — On February 4, 2002, a Predator drone circled over Afghanistan’s Paktia province, near the city of Khost. Below was Al Qaeda’s founder Osama bin Laden — or at least someone in the CIA thought so — and he was marked for death. As Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld put it later, both awkwardly and passively: “A decision was made to fire the Hellfire missile. It was fired.” That air-to-ground, laser-guided missile — designed to obliterate tanks, bunkers, helicopters, and people — did exactly what it was meant to do.
As it happened, though (and not for the first time in its history either), the CIA got it wrong. It wasn’t Osama bin Laden on the receiving end of that strike, or a member of Al Qaeda, or even of the Taliban. The dead, local witnesses reported, were civilians out collecting scrap metal, ordinary people going about their daily work just as thousands of Americans had been doing at the World Trade Center only months earlier when terror struck from the skies.
In the years since, those Afghan scrap collectors have been joined by more than 157,000 war dead in that embattled land. That’s a heavy toll, but represents just a fraction of the body count from America’s post-9/11 wars. According to a study by the Costs of War Project of Brown University’s Watson Institute, as many as 801,000 people, combatants and noncombatants alike, have been killed in those conflicts.
That’s a staggering number, the equivalent of the Rwandan genocide of 1994. But if President Donald Trump is to be believed, the United States has “plans” that could bury that grim count in staggering numbers of dead. The “method of war” he suggested employing could produce more than 20 times that number in a single country — an estimated 20 million or more Afghans, almost all of them civilians.
It’s a strange fact of our moment that President Trump has claimed to have “plans” (or “a method”) for annihilating millions of innocent people, possibly most of the population of Afghanistan. Yet those comments of his barely made the news, disappearing within days. Even for a president who threatened to unleash “fire and fury” on North Korea and usher in “the end” of Iran, hinting at the possibility of wiping out most of the civilian population of an ally represented something new.
After all, America’s commander in chief does have the authority, at his sole discretion, to order the launch of weapons from the vast US nuclear arsenal. So it was no small thing last year when President Trump suggested that he might unleash a “method of war” that would kill at least 54 percent of the roughly 37 million inhabitants of Afghanistan.
And yet almost no one — in Washington or Kabul — wanted to touch such presidential comments. The White House, the Pentagon, and the State Department all demurred. So did the chief spokesman for Afghan President Ashraf Ghani. One high-ranking Afghan official apologized to me for being unable to respond honestly to President Trump’s comments. A current American official expressed worry that reacting to the president’s Afghan threats might provoke a presidential tweet storm against him and refused to comment on the record.
Experts, however, weren’t shy about weighing in on what such “plans,” if real and utilized, would actually mean. Employing such a method (to use the president’s term), they say, would constitute a war crime, a crime against humanity, and possibly a genocide.
A TRUMPIAN CRIME AGAINST HUMANITY
“Massive Soviet military forces have invaded the small, nonaligned sovereign nation of Afghanistan,” President Jimmy Carter announced on January 4, 1980. “Fifty thousand heavily armed Soviet troops have crossed the border and are now dispersed throughout Afghanistan, attempting to conquer the fiercely independent Muslim people of that country.”
Nine years later, the Red Army would finally limp out of that land in the wake of a war that killed an estimated 90,000 Mujahideen fighters, 18,000 Afghan troops, and 14,500 Soviet soldiers. As has been the norm in conflicts since World War I, however, civilians suffered the heaviest toll. Around one million were estimated to have been killed.
In the 18-plus years since US forces invaded that same country in October 2001, the death toll has been far lower. Around 7,300 US military personnel, contractors, and allied foreign forces have died there, as have 64,000 American-allied Afghans, 42,000 opposition fighters, and 43,000 civilians, according to the Costs of War Project. If President Trump is to be believed, however, this body count is low only because of American restraint.
“I have plans on Afghanistan that, if I wanted to win that war, Afghanistan would be wiped off the face of the Earth. It would be gone,” the president remarked prior to a July 2019 meeting with Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan. “If we wanted to fight a war in Afghanistan and win it, I could win that war in a week. I just don’t want to kill 10 million people.”
In September, he ramped up the rhetoric — and the death toll — further. “We’ve been very effective in Afghanistan,” he said. “And if we wanted to do a certain method of war, we would win that very quickly, but many, many, really, tens of millions of people would be killed.”
If America’s commander in chief is to be believed, plans and methods are already in place for a mass killing whose death toll could, at a minimum, exceed those of the Holocaust, the Cambodian genocide, the Rwandan genocide, the Vietnam War, the Korean War, the Hundred Years’ War, and the American Revolution combined — and all in a country where the Pentagon believes there are only 40,000 to 80,000 Taliban fighters and fewer than 2,000 Islamic State militants.
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