Earlier this month, as—in a wholly predictable turn of events—the Taliban took control of Kabul, Jamaal Bowman offered an important corrective to the consensus that the US’s long and disastrous military presence in Afghanistan was all a giant waste of blood and treasure. “It’s too generous to say we ‘wasted’ $2.26 trillion on the wars in Afghanistan,” he noted. “The reality is military contractors got rich off of those wars. We didn’t just waste that money—we funneled it to the same people whose political donations will fund more pro-war candidates.”
Bowman’s comments were perceptive: 21st-century American warfare is, among other things, a massive upward redistributor of wealth, siphoning unprecedented piles of capital to the defense industry in general and to private military companies (PMCs) in particular. The privatization of key defense functions is profoundly undemocratic in nature, perfectly matched for waging war without popular support. As such, the lengthy and murderous debacle in Afghanistan was not just an example of imperial hubris and mismanagement, but also a symptom of the democracy deficit that has long characterized American foreign policy: a result not just of civic disinterest, but also of organized attempts to shield the country’s imperial missteps—from the Vietnam war to covert operations in Iran, Syria, and Latin America—from public visibility. It is worth recalling that “we don’t do body counts” became the Bush administration’s unofficial motto in the early years of the global war on terror, and that reporting on Afghan civilian deaths did not even begin until 2007. In 2017 the Department of Defense stopped reporting the number of US military personnel deployed in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria, and in 2019, President Trump signed an executive order that revoked the requirement for US intelligence to report on civilian casualties outside of areas of “Active Hostilities.” Taken together, these actions indicate a clear preference to render both the nature of military interventions and their costs invisible. As John F. Sopko, the US special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction, told the New York Times, “The only people who don’t know what’s going on and how good or bad a job we’re doing are the people paying for it—the American taxpayers.” (His statement, made in 2019, could equally have applied to many of the US’s “conflicts” over the past eight decades: Congress has not formally declared war since 1942.)
As the Taliban was cementing their rule over the Afghan capital on August 16, I visited the “Security Ministries of Afghanistan Advisory Program” page1 on the website of Amentum, a private military company whose subsidiary, DynCorp, has performed contract services in Afghanistan since 2001. “Amentum provides in-depth functional and programmatic support to train, advise, and assist the Afghanistan Ministry of Interior (MoI) and the Ministry of Defense (MoD), and other security institutions in Afghanistan to assume responsibility for Afghanistan’s own self-sustainable security needs,” the pitch read. “Our efforts build organizational capacity and capability at all levels within the MoI and MoD so they can independently plan, program, and manage their Afghanistan National Army (ANA) and Afghanistan National Police (ANP) forces.” It was surreal to read these words as the Afghan government was falling and its leadership fleeing—a grim reminder of the material beneficiaries of nation-building initiatives.
The privatization of military functions began in the 1990s, ostensibly on account of the force reductions brought about by the end of the cold war, but also as a result of the embrace of market-based solutions tout court. (Warfare, of course, was just one of numerous core functions of the state that have been turned over to the private sphere since the Reagan era, based on the almost always wrong assumption2 that corporations would do the job more efficiently and at a lower cost.) In the decades since the Vietnam experience demonstrated that deeply unpopular wars cannot be sustained through conscription, it has proved possible to fund an ever-increasing defense budget through taxation while outsourcing the fighting to the private sector. And particularly as the nature of armed conflict has evolved, the private military sector has marketed itself, successfully, as more nimble, creative, and thus better equipped to deal with nontraditional adversaries.
Among the first PMCs was Executive Outcomes, founded in 1989 by a former lieutenant colonel in the South African army, Eeben Barlow, who had previously worked as a commander in one of the apartheid government’s death squads. Executive Outcomes, which was once given the dystopian epithet “the world’s first fully equipped corporate army,” played a pivotal role in civil wars in both Angola and Sierra Leone while also servicing corporate clients in the oil industry. In 1996, the former Navy SEAL Erik Prince—whose sister Betsy DeVos helped pioneer the privatization of American education—founded Blackwater (later Academi; PMCs change their names like toddlers change clothing) to take advantage of these shifting winds. Half a decade later, Donald Rumsfeld declared war on the Pentagon’s bureaucracy in a speech delivered on September 10, 2001, promising to leverage the private sector’s spirit of competition and innovation to create a leaner war machine.
The attacks that followed enabled the Bush administration to put this agile force to use, even as the President warned that the war on terror was to be unlike any war the American people had experienced. “Americans should not expect one battle, but a lengthy campaign, unlike any other we have ever seen. It may include dramatic strikes, visible on TV, and covert operations, secret even in success.” Twenty years later, it is clear that secrecy and forgettability have continued to rank high among the overarching features of America’s new wars.
The idea that it should be the people, rather than the executive, who held the power to declare war and oversee military engagements was among the innovations introduced by the US’s founders. Building on this principle, 20th century political scientists argued that democracies were unlikely to go to war with one another, and as such, were the necessary components of a stable and peaceful world order. This theory hinged on the presumption that popular majorities would eschew warfare if given the choice, and that military conflicts were less likely if their burdens—from military service to taxation—were evenly distributed throughout society. Democratic peace theory presumed a high level of public control of, and scrutiny over, military power: something that has never existed in practice but has become a much more remote aspiration in recent decades, as the tactics we’ve come to recognize as the hallmarks of the global war on terror—“enhanced interrogation” of detainees, CIA black sites across the world, and a domestic surveillance program that runs afoul of basic constitutional rights—have required a level of secrecy that makes public oversight impossible.
Declining public control over military engagements has proceeded apace the rapid growth and expansion of the private security industry, whose agents are well situated to waging war without democratic consent. As Ori Swed and Thomas Crosbie noted in Military Times, “Because contractors operate in the shadows, without effective public oversight, they allow policymakers to have their cake and eat it too—by appearing to withdraw, while keeping proxy forces in theater.” Indeed, before the recent withdrawal, private contractors had greatly outnumbered US troops in Afghanistan. The Congressional Research Service reports that there were between 22,562 to 27,641 contractors in Afghanistan in 2020, as opposed to an estimated 2,500–4,000 regular troops. Many of them, like the foreign workers lured from poor countries and now unable to return home, performed support services like meal preparation and base cleaning. But others, like DynCorp/Amentum, won lucrative contracts to help train the Afghan national police and army. As David Sedney, a former deputy assistant secretary of defense for Afghanistan, tellingly reported to Foreign Policy, “We built the Afghan army in our image to be an army that operates with air support and intelligence [and] whose backbone is contractors.”
It should be obvious at this juncture that those forces were never positioned to assume “responsibility for Afghanistan’s own self-sustainable security needs,” but the idea that they might has been irresistible to most of the political class and their think-tank enablers, whose totalizing aversion to admitting defeat extended the war in Afghanistan into the longest war in American history. Instead, they spent nearly two decades begging for just a little more: time, weaponry, forces, training, and money above all. At previous points in the history of US empire, military Keynesians could at least make the case that imperial violence abroad—however deplorable—helped build broad-based domestic prosperity: while the defense budget rose sharply in the early 1950s, for instance, reaching over 15 percent of GDP in 1953, it did so alongside wage growth for many workers and an unprecedented expansion of the American middle class. But the last two decades of war-making—characterized by staggering levels of economic inequality and downward mobility, even as private equity firms poured billions into the defense industry—have delivered no such domestic advantage. Like other facets of contemporary economic activity, the benefits of the US’s military spending spree have been politically distorting and unevenly distributed.
It is too early to know for certain what a US withdrawal from Afghanistan will mean for the broader project of American empire. It will very likely not negate the policy of boundless and ongoing war. By drawing a distinction between counterinsurgency and counterterrorism, the Biden administration has left the door open to pursuing the latter in ways that continue the long tradition of covert operations on the one hand, and take full advantage of drone technology and long-range bombers on the other—that is, to continue to funnel the defense industry lucrative equipment, service, and logistics contracts while allowing politicians to celebrate “bringing the boys home” as if it were merely the physical presence of soldiers that indicates a state of war. Indeed, it’s likely that these operations will become even more opaque than they already are: in April, when the Biden administration announced the withdrawal of the troops, current and former American officials reported that “instead of declared troops in Afghanistan, the United States will most likely rely on a shadowy combination of clandestine Special Operations forces, Pentagon contractors and covert intelligence operatives to find and attack the most dangerous Qaeda [sic] or Islamic State threats.” Considering that the US conducted counterterrorism operations in eighty-five countries between 2018 and 2020 alone, there is no shortage of possible targets.