S3 E1. Red Pill – Part I: The Terrible War

On this 20th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, it’s high time for some bitter medicine.

On the outskirts of Kabul, in August 2021, a fighter poses before beat-up Taliban tank. Our guest today says that for years the American public was offered a pack of lies about the progress of the war in Afghanistan: that the conflict was winnable, that all that was needed was a few more troops, a bit more time and more diplomatic engagement. And with each successive presidential administration — Democrat and Republican — the United States sank deeper and deeper in the quagmire, as the Taliban regrouped and prevailed. Now, instead of beat-up tanks, they use state-of-the-art American equipment confiscated from their adversaries.

Photograph by Trent Inness via Shutterstock.com

In this first of a series, we swallow a painful red pill of truth and take a hard look at the realities of foreign interventions and nation-building efforts. This time: what Americans did to others — and just as bad, to themselves — in the war on terror.

The “forever war” in Afghanistan claimed 243,000 lives and cost $2.3 trillion over two decades before coming to a chaotic end with the withdrawal of U.S. troops last week. But what of the costs you can’t count?

Join us for the start of Season Three as we look at the lessons inscribed in America’s foreign military adventures. Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Spencer Ackerman speaks with Will and Siva about the fallout on the home front from the war on terror. Ackerman says an enterprise built on lies has disfigured our political culture.

About our guest

Spencer Ackerman covers national security issues and has reported from the front lines in Afghanistan and Iraq for the New Republic, Wired and the Daily Beast, where he currently serves as a contributing editor. His new book is Reign of Terror: How the 9/11 Era Destabilized America and Produced Trump (Penguin Random House, 2021). Ackerman shared a 2014 Pulitzer Prize for covering Edward Snowden’s NSA leaks, as well as an online National Magazine Award, in 2012, for a series of stories in Wired on how the FBI’s counterterrorism training practices are rife with Islamophobia. Follow Ackerman on Twitter @attackerman.

This episode was released on Sept. 8, 2021.

What we’re reading

By our guest

In Reign of Terror, Ackerman argues that before Donald Trump embraced xenophobia, nationalism and disinformation as key elements of the political right, America’s response to 9/11 paved the way.

When Joe Biden announced in the summer of 2020 that Avril Haines would join his transition team, Ackerman covered the reaction among liberals and progressives — and the rift that choice revealed. Haines, now Biden’s director of national intelligence, was a voice of restraint on drone strikes within President Obama’s CIA. But her record is mixed; she also helped redact the Senate torture report and shielded agents who spied on congressional staffers.

In addition to covering combat zones in Iraq and Afghanistan, Ackerman has reported on the hardships of prisoners held at the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base and their struggles to gain freedom.

From around the web

Admit it: the war in Afghanistan was not at the top of your news radar for much of the last two decades. So what did you miss? This timeline from the Council on Foreign Relations, dating back prior to 9/11, will help put the story in context.

The way Muslim Americans were treated after the Sept. 11 attacks offered an early sign that the war on terror would lead to security excesses and ethnic discrimination, Ackerman says. Reporting for Vox in 2016, Jenée Desmond-Harris told nine stories illustrating the personal consequences of Islamophobia.

President Obama expanded drone strikes, making them a regular feature of his counterterrorism strategy. In the process, 324 civilians were killed, according to the final data his administration released on the program. After that, President Trump made it much harder to track such figures.

Adam Gabbatt reports for the Guardian on how far-right terrorists have received relatively little attention from U.S. law enforcement, even as American leaders put pressure on countries such as Pakistan to crack down on Islamist militants in their own borders.

For more on how efforts to build democracy in Afghanistan undercut democratic practices back home, listen to this in-depth report from host Steve Inskeep of NPR’s Morning Edition.

Paralleling Ackerman’s perspective, two recent essays — by Garrett M. Graff, in the Atlantic, and Carlos Lozada, in the Washington Post — paint a stark picture of America’s post-9/11 ideological and military failures. But for a contrasting view, check out columnist David Ignatius’s critique of what he calls “radical pessimism.”

A transcript of this episode is available here.

About this series

Gripped by the events in Afghanistan over the summer, we were inspired to launch Season Three with a careful consideration of what happened in the war and why — along with its impact on democracy at home. Plus, we wanted to offer some perspective on America’s bungled international interventions and national-building efforts across time.

Inspired by Spencer Ackerman’s allusion to the 1999 thriller The Matrix, we’ve dubbed this series “Red Pill.” Fans of The Matrix will recall that Neo, the movie’s protagonist, is offered a red pill to escape the simulated world in which he’s trapped. So... just to clarify things, when Ackerman refers to having taken the “red pill” early on in America’s so-called war on terror, what he really means is that he initially took the comforting blue pill — and bought into a rhetoric of retaliation and national security at any cost. For this series, we’re using “red pill” in its original sense: a painful but much-needed dose of reality.

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