Public Sphere Interview: Spencer Ackerman on How the War on Terror Produced Trump

A national security reporter writes how the post-9/11 wars abroad led to authoritarianism at home. Plus, why Biden's pullout of U.S. troops in Afghanistan isn't an end to the forever war.

Spencer Ackerman is a national security reporter living in New York. For nearly all of the War on Terror, he has reported for outlets such as The New Republic, Wired, The Guardian, and The Daily Beast, where he is now a contributing editor. He has reported from hotspots such as Afghanistan, Iraq, and Guantanamo Bay. He is the author of a new book, "Reign of Terror: How the 9/11 Era Destabilized America and Produced Trump." In the book, he chronicles how the endless conflict known as the War on Terror led to the foundations of American authoritarianism under Donald Trump. I spoke with Ackerman by phone earlier this week, after the Taliban had retaken Afghanistan following the pullout of U.S. troops. Our conversation follows, condensed and edited for clarity.

Luke Johnson: The first thing that struck me about the book was starting with the Oklahoma City Bombing, as opposed to 9/11. Can you explain that choice?

Spencer Ackerman: In order to see the War on Terror and what it is, we need to see who is the exception to it. We have a dramatic, real life test case for that in the American response to Oklahoma City, which shows what happens when terrorism is committed by white people, for white supremacy. From a journalistic level, the rationales for it will be obscured.

From a governmental level, the responses to that attack will make sure to spare the broad infrastructure of white supremacy -- not necessarily those who actually committed acts of violence -- but the broader ideological infrastructure and networks of affiliation, and associations, which won't be actually criminal. After 9/11, with the Patriot Act, with the Department of Homeland Security, the securitization of immigration, with the onset of indefinite detention, all of that is put under a crucible, while sparing all of this white terrorism, despite the fact that the acts are so fundamentally similar.

LJ: Let's talk about the name Global War on Terror. You write that it was a compromise. How so? Why was the name problematic?

SA: When you look at the name, War on Terror, the thing that's most conspicuous is that it means either a metaphysical condition that is fundamentally subjective, or viewed in a different definition, it means a method of warfare that is old as humanity when it's asymmetric. 

The reason why I say it's a social compromise, is because there is a deliberate imposition by the Bush Administration behind that name, in order to not tie itself just to the activities of fighting al-Qaeda and destroying al-Qaeda. Also, it wraps together the social feeling after 9/11 of this tremendous dislocation that doesn't really make a lot of sense in the context of American exceptionalism. Under American exceptionalism, America acts and is not acted upon. The consequences of this are profound, because they show on the one hand, that this excessive, extractive, violent, repressive atmosphere and infrastructure won't disappear after al-Qaeda is gone. It would stand in finding new targets. It will also encourage those who subscribe to this kind of violent American exceptionalism. That is by no means limited to conservatives, it extends to liberals as well. A feeling that the enemy in this case is not just a band of religious fanatics that are led by billionaire, but quite possibly includes Palestinian resistance groups, quite possibly includes Iran, and quite possibly includes your Muslim neighbors.

LJ: You write that Obama made the war on terror "sustainable." What do you mean by that?

SA: Obama takes an approach to the War on Terror that uses anti-war language and anti-war rhetoric, but he's never trying to dismantle the War on Terror. Instead, what he does is maintain the War on Terror, wrapping it in layers of bureaucratic process. He pulls back from Iraq and abolishes torture, to him, the most conspicuous examples of the disasters of the War on Terror, but he doesn't locate the disaster of the War on Terror with the War on Terror itself. He views the problem as being of excesses of the War on Terror that enlightened technocrats might instead mitigate or rectify. In making that choice, he continues things like NSA bulk surveillance, indefinite detention, not just Guantanamo Bay where he's frustrated in [trying to] close, but as part of an atmosphere of terrorism response that he explicitly argues for in May 2009, which expands and becomes synonymous with drone strikes. He's used all alternatives to things like ponderous, brutal, painful, and expensive ground occupation. He makes the war on terror less conspicuous. He makes it continue onward. We see the wages of that immediately, as soon as Trump is elected.

LJ: You link the War on Terror directly to the rise of Trump. You write,

Experiencing neither peace nor victory for such a sustained period was a volatile condition for millions of people. Trump knew how to explain such humiliations: the War on Terror was an enraging story of insufficient brutality wielded by untrustworthy elites.

Can you explain how the war was so destabilizing and how it led to Trump's victory in 2016?

SA: As the War on Terror unfolded, it unleashes these nativist currents for who in fact the enemy is. That is the inevitable consequence of the deliberate imprecision of the naming of the war and directing it globally. It became a disaster in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere. It becomes extremely difficult in the minds of people who had most fulsomely embraced the war, particularly as an exercise in righteous, patriotic, civilizational vengeance against an identifiable non-white, non-Christian other. 

They [the enemy] are treated as both marauding, relentless, irrational, almost subhuman. But then those guys are winning. How do we explain that? The way to explain it, especially when elites like Obama, the heads of the Democratic and Republican parties, and the entire foreign policy establishment, holds that the war on terror ought to continue while delivering neither peace nor victory. Those people are the ones who are stopping America from winning, the institutions that are supposed to express American power that have been exposed as weak are, in fact, being wielded by people who are not prepared to do what is necessary to win. Only when this violence can be unmoored from -- in this telling -- the cravenness of those who are not prepared to win by people who are prepared to say outright, that the enemy is not really al-Qaeda, the enemy is radical Islam, which is just a step away from saying Islam itself, which is a step away from saying, your neighbors. It is also a step away from saying there's no distinction between refugees fleeing ISIS and ISIS itself, no distinction between the Afghan refugees who are trying desperately to flee the Taliban and the Taliban itself. 

All of that is a circumstance that is just waiting for a political figure like Trump to take up that critique and topple the elites in the Republican party that have husbanded the War on Terror; put it all in a civilizationally violent direction that is not primarily interested in violence overseas but is interested in dominating its enemies at home.

LJ: In one of the sections of the book, you describe a man named Sergeant Rob [his real name is obscured at family request]. He has a multitude of goals in the Afghan War: counterinsurgency, training security forces and trying to pursue insurgents. Can you explain his story and how it shows the confusion in the Afghan war?

SA: In September 2008, I went on a reporting trip to Afghanistan embedded with a cavalry troop in Paktia province. Among the really astonishing characters that I met in that unit was a Platoon sergeant, Rob. One day, I accompanied them on a mission where they had gotten credible intelligence that this guy they were looking for was hiding, who was fencing stolen American items and assembling them into a weapons cache for the Taliban. They went out to go get this guy and found him being sheltered in this very poor compound. The Afghan police who were accompanying as mentees go into the house, bring the guy out, and there are all of these women who have been living in the compound, screaming, wailing, and crying, freaked out about their home being invaded by men with guns, a lot of whom are foreigners.

To make a long story short, one of the Afghan police decides this is a really great opportunity to rob the joint. He [the policeman] comes out with the resident's motorcycle between his legs and is getting ready to steal it. Rob has the composure at that moment to recognize and tell his lieutenant, we have to step in here or they're going to steal these women's property. There is, understandably, some hesitation at the start, because one of the important aspects of the mission is to train, develop, and maintain a good working relationship with the Afghan police. But Sergeant Rob has the presence of mind to do the right thing [and tell the police not to rob the women]. When that happens, the Afghan police just say, well, we're done with this mission. Because of the rules that they were under at that point, that also meant that there were no Afghans accompanying the Americans on these raiding missions looking for this weapons cache; Americans couldn't enter Afghan houses. They had to go home without the weapons cache. There was some suspicion towards the Afghan police. 

To me, not only was that an actual act of battlefield heroism that I was there to witness, but it also crystallized one of the many ways in which this work was doomed. It was pulling people in irreconcilable directions. As a matter of theory, counterinsurgency held that the decisive elements of the war lay within the allegiances of civilian populations. That means making sure that these women were not robbed. But another element held that you needed to train, mentor, and ultimately, work yourself out of a job by getting the Afghan police ready to take over these missions. When you look at this on paper, and then you look at the circumstances in front of you, what do you do? The war doesn't give you guidance for that. Throughout 20 years in Afghanistan, and in Iraq, Syria, Libya, and Somalia, the Sergeant Robs of this war had to make their choices and their choices have enormous impact. It was my privilege to be able to see a decent, honest man choose the side of the people who are being victimized. Because I was the only reporter there to see it, if I didn't record that and make sure it was in something like my book, then it would be forgotten; that didn't sit well with me. Especially because as the Afghanistan War unfolded Sergeant Rob was redeployed and that was where he was killed in action.

LJ: The Taliban takeover of Afghanistan caught the Biden administration by surprise. Biden said Monday that no amount of military force could stabilize the country in one year, five years or 20 years. Is he right about that?

SA: Yes. The War in Afghanistan has done nothing but kill people, immiserate people, and extract wealth from the Afghan people This isn't a circumstance in which war is the alternative to the human horror that we're seeing, as people race to grab hold of departing C-17s. The War on Terror produced that. The war in Afghanistan produced that. 

In December 2001, when the Taliban had been routed from Kabul, the Taliban were fighting a last stand battle in Kandahar. Ultimately, Taliban figures told Hamid Karzai that they recognized this was the end and they were prepared to surrender, as long as Mullah Omar [the founder of the Taliban] could live under some form of house arrest. Karzai, for all of his faults, recognizes in that moment, the right thing to do is to take the deal, and at that point, the Taliban is a defeated enemy, and can find some way to reconcile itself within the next phase of Afghan Government. Instead, Donald Rumsfeld refused, and said that such a negotiated circumstance is not acceptable to the United States, because the United States wants unconditional surrender. The Bush administration has now spent the three months, in between that moment and 9/11, arguing that there's no real distinction between al-Qaeda and the Taliban. As a result, the Taliban have every incentive to bide their time, coalesce, reassemble their power, and pursue an insurgency, in order to reclaim power. They win again, and again, and again. 

The deal that the Trump Administration reaches with the Taliban in the Afghan peace process -- not to host or sponsor international terrorism in exchange for the departure of American forces --  are the terms of the deal in 2001. Whether you want to say the Taliban wouldn't have abided by them, the United States maintains in 2001 exponentially more leverage than it had in 2020. The horrors that we are seeing today are the direct result of that [decision not to accept the Taliban surrender]. They are not the alternative to waging war. I think we have yet to really recognize that, because recognizing that raises very fundamental questions about American foreign policy. 

I have my problems with what Biden has both said and what Biden has done. The United States is on a mission at this point to pull its people and coalition foreign nationals out of Afghanistan and then also get out those Afghans who have helped both the war effort and Western institutions. What Biden is not doing and needs to do, if he is devoted to helping the Afghan people, is to throw open temporary protected status for Afghan refugees, so people who did not serve the occupation, people who merely saw, as human beings in all wars seek to survive, can have a life they could live. The United States also owes the Afghan people reparations for the material harm. Those are things that the Biden administration isn't doing and isn't arguing for. 

We are now seeing, whether it's Stephen Miller or Tucker Carlson, now explicitly starting to raise a nativist cudgel. Even because Biden is admitting some Afghan refugees who worked for the United States, Miller and Carlson are talking about how Biden is importing these foreign refugees. In between the lines, the dog whistle is that they are here to replace you, white America. Unless Biden challenges that argument head-on politically, and it is defeated, it seems like a glide path to get right back to where we were under another Trump figure, who will probably be more competent.

LJ: Do you think that in his speech, Biden is the first president since to acknowledge an end to the forever war? He did also say that counterterrorism would continue. I'm curious where you come down on that.

SA: It is an inauspicious moment. First of all, no one should say that Biden is ending the forever war by pulling troops out of Afghanistan, while talking about how he reserves the right to bomb Afghanistan as he determines U.S. national security requires. That is something we've seen throughout the War on Terror, when the United States supposedly leaves the battlefield. We saw the same thing with Iraq, there have been four declared ends since 1991 to combat operations in Iraq, and we're still there. These wars are not, in fact, ending -- they are becoming far less conspicuous. There's always an option to escalate when it seems like things are going badly. That is what is happening here. Biden didn't even say that Afghanistan will be kind of the place where the forever war ends; he's conflating the War on Terror with the Afghanistan War. He also says, we will attack terrorism targets, not just there, but wherever else we see fit. The global aspect continues. 

He is not pushing to repeal the either the institutions or the authorities that make up the broader War on Terror -- abolishing bulk NSA surveillance, section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, abolishing the Department of Homeland Security, repealing the Patriot Act in its entirety, not just to close Guantanamo, but to commit the United States against any further form of indefinite detention anywhere else. All of those things survive. 

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