The US president Donald Trump has pledged not to repeat the disastrous foreign policy decisions of his predecessors, but that doesn't make his war doctrine less dangerous, especially for civilians.
Some of the first police in human history were criminals. Ever since, police departments have struggled to avoid devolving back into law breakers.
Rome called upon bands of tough men to enforce order in the city. The first American police were culled from the ranks of urban organised crime or rural slave catchers. Today, American police departments are equipped with military-style gear: powerful rifles, armoured vehicles, and even drones in their arsenals.
When a US city police force shoots an unarmed citizen, it is liable to lose the trust of the community it is supposed to serve no matter the circumstances.
In Afghanistan, the same holds true. The ‘police’ in question are US and Afghan special forces, carrying out wetwork in the death of night, and tasked with killing specific members of the Taliban in silent night raids or explosive airstrikes. Sometimes their work is based on intelligence or confidential tips that may be well off the mark. The very same pattern precedes ‘bad shootings’ by US police departments.
Meanwhile, elite units of American soldiers are tasked with the job of police officers or bounty hunters. This is best seen among highly-trained special forces operations, under Joint Special Operations Command, or SOCOM. Out of the more than 1.3 million active duty and 800,000 reserve members of the US armed forces, a significant 70,000 are part of the special forces. These highly trained, well-equipped units operate in nearly 150 countries around the world, usually in advisory roles. The scale of ongoing operations around the world is staggering to many, yet signifies a new kind of war that never ends.
One of the chief theatres for these operations is Afghanistan, where deaths due to the NATO mission there recently surpassed those caused by the Taliban itself, the group the US vowed to destroy 18 years ago.
Emran Feroz, an Afghan journalist, told TRT World that the US ‘Afghanisation’ of the war had led to rifts and resentments within Afghan society.
“The people who are affected by these forces are the people who lost relatives because of their operations. We know that US and Afghan special forces have killed many civilians, and they continue to do so. The people who were affected by that were angry,” Feroz said.
Continuing and increasing civilian casualties are creating anti-American feelings, and fuelling a lot of hatred, Faroz explains. This is a troubling pattern for the US military, which has gone from aspiring ‘nation builder’ to a trillion-dollar ‘Murder Inc.’
But Afghanistan seems to be the exception, and not the rule to the US strategy of war by proxy. Only a few countries such as Afghanistan, see SOCOM officers in direct combat. Many more host them as advisors and trainers for their own, local special forces.
The deadliness, intensity and frequency of proxy warfare waged directly and indirectly by special operators has only increased under US President Donald Trump.
While Trump has tried to erase the results of President Barack Obama’s tenure, this marks at least one case where he doubled down on some of the risky bets made by Obama, who traded full US control over its war machine for warfare that presents low risk for politicians ordering it.
Although US proxy battles take place in a number of countries, the longest-running example of this strategy can be found in Afghanistan, lasting nearly 18 years, beginning just a month after the attacks of September 11, 2001.
Alex S. Ameter, 32, signed up for the army in 2010, nine years into the war in Afghanistan. His motivations for joining the army were distinctly those of an American millennial. Ameter joined to pay off his student loans.
He became a captain in the US army, first tasked with civil affairs work between the US military and South Koreans, where he was stationed from July 2011 to August 2013. Then he was posted to Afghanistan from October 2014 to September 2015. There he served as a special operations adviser between US forces and Ktah Khas, an Afghan special forces unit. He was discharged from the service in August 2016.
Ameter sees the reliance on special forces to augment proxy wars as having had a corrupting influence on nearly every aspect of the US military.
“If you can do war on the cheap, you can do it as much as you want at anytime. It just sort of ballooned into this crazy operations where we have special forces in all these countries. The point is to set up an interoperable force,” he said.
“If we need to go kill somebody in that country, we can operate with that local force. So we don’t need to have a base in places, if we can just swoop in, merc a dude with a country’s forces, so we can say ‘Yeah we did it with them’. That was the whole plan. It is just that we sucked at diplomacy, so that was never going to work.”
He added: “It’s not an assassination, because that is illegal. It is helping a country kill criminals. You can spin it any way you want.”
Ameter described a managerial environment using the word “churn”, typically reserved for the wheeling of rotors and motors.
“We just churn numbers. We get target lists and then we are like where do we want to send our missiles? Somehow we don’t run out of targets,” he said.
But joining with some of these proxy fighters means deciding that the enemy of America’s enemies are America’s friends. That policy can lead to the establishment of plenty of insincere friendships, based on only a transactional interest. Proxy fighters also tend to have their own shifting interests or goals that will conflict with those of the United States or its allies.
War by proxy conducted by the US in Syria, Yemen, and Afghanistan, primarily, is happening as American diplomatic resources wither under Trump.
In the end, however, evidence suggests that proxy battles and relying heavily on special forces has neither achieved stated US goals, nor has it made anyone safer.
There is also an enormous distance between these acts of violence and any sort of public accountability.
The American voter may not even know where these countries are, or anything about the history, languages, or societies there. A lack of transparency and the increasing potential for automated violence pose serious risks to the fate of both the US and the countries where it sends its citizens to kill people.
Contemporary business jargon can describe big parts of US wars abroad, where Trump’s defence department has created a global violence value chain, pulled around the planet through the supply of weapons and demand for violence. With its special forces, the US can provide boutique war-fighting solutions with the latest data-driven technology.
War can become further automated, powered by machine learning and algorithms that process vast amounts of information far faster than humans can. In drone surveillance technology and cyberwarfare, this automation has already begun.
Now drawn forward into the future by spreadsheets, impersonal map coordinates, and the convenience of killing by remote or by proxy, the US has embraced a war that it can never lose or win, just like a street gang can only be defeated if it stops killing.