Above Photo: Iraq War veteran Mike Prysner being arrested at an antiwar protest in Washington, DC, in 2007. Danny Hammontree / Flickr.
Iraq War veteran Mike Prysner has been an antiwar activist for fifteen years. He has been arrested demonstrating outside the Capitol building, helped active-duty soldiers refuse orders to fight in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and organized grieving families who’ve lost enlisted or veteran loved ones to war or suicide.
Prysner founded the organization March Forward! in 2008. Today, he’s an antiwar journalist, having cowritten and produced multiple documentaries for the program The Empire Files, hosted by his wife, Abby Martin. He’s also a member of the Party for Socialism and Liberation.
As US troops withdraw from Afghanistan, Jacobin’s Meagan Day caught up with Prysner to talk about why the United States stayed in Afghanistan so long, despite knowing it was losing the war and destroying countless lives. Prysner also shared why he’s more hopeful about the mainstreaming of antiwar sentiment, including among active-duty soldiers, than ever before.
MD: How long have you been involved in the antiwar movement in the United States, and what led you to it?
MP: I joined the Army right before the 9/11 attacks and was witness to the quick transformation within the military, the orientation toward war and racism. I was sent to Iraq in the invasion in March 2003 and stayed in the country for a year. I was lucky to get out of the Army in 2005, while most of my friends got stuck in the military and were repeatedly deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan.
I started speaking out against the Iraq War when I was still in Iraq, which I got in a bit of trouble for. As soon as I got out of the Army, I became part of the antiwar movement. It wasn’t that uncommon. There’s a whole generation of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans and active-duty soldiers who went into the antiwar struggle. From that point until today, I’ve been an antiwar activist.
I cofounded the organization March Forward! in 2008. We helped organize mass demonstrations in Washington, DC, and other cities each year, mobilizing contingents of veterans and GIs. But we also had a special focus on organizing active-duty soldiers. We passed out leaflets on military bases saying, “Don’t go to Afghanistan. Here’s how we can help get you out,” and we met a lot of soldiers that way who were opposed to the war and wanted to refuse orders to go.
We also did a lot of work organizing families who had lost loved ones, both in the war or to suicide when they came home from the war. I’ve spoken to many widows, and to mothers who’ve lost sons and daughters. I’ve done a lot of journalism about the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq over the years, including producing short documentaries for The Empire Files. But my time organizing active-duty soldiers and families on the ground has been the most intense and personal.
MD: Yesterday, Joe Biden delivered a speech about the withdrawal of troops in Afghanistan. What’s your take on the president’s speech?
MP: It was entirely expected but still upsetting to hear him be honest about his position that we shouldn’t be focusing on Afghanistan, that we instead need to pivot to other fronts, including Somalia, Yemen, and Syria — away from the wars we’ve lost and toward new places where we can engage in more bombing and more military action. It was like he was offering a compromise with the military-industrial complex and the sections of the ruling class that are interested in expansion, saying, “Yes, we’re closing down this war, but don’t worry, there will be others.”
But the thing Biden said that was correct, and very important, is that if we stayed another eight months or another five years, the same outcome would transpire, and there would still be a Taliban takeover. It’s good to hear him say this, but what’s bothersome is that Joe Biden himself, and Antony Blinken and all the others around him in the Obama administration, knew that this would be the outcome if they left Afghanistan ten or twelve years ago.
The Afghanistan papers released in 2019, which never really became that big of a scandal, revealed that they knew for most of the duration of the twenty-year war that there was no possible way to prevent a Taliban government. But they just figured they could drag it out forever. It’s good for business. It’s good for the military. There aren’t enough American soldiers dying for people to care, and Americans don’t care about Afghan civilians, so there’s not a lot of pressure to end it. It was a good situation for the Pentagon and the military-industrial complex, and Washington didn’t really pay that much mind, because they didn’t have to.
MD: Four presidents have now presided over this war: George W. Bush, Barack Obama, Donald Trump, and Biden. Can you walk us through each of their administrations’ orientations toward Afghanistan?
MP: The Bush administration’s motivation in starting a war in Afghanistan was not to prevent another terrorist attack, which of course would not be accomplished by invading and occupying a country that had no role in 9/11. In fact, there was a survey conducted about ten years ago that showed that 92 percent of young Afghan men in the occupied southern provinces had never even heard of the 9/11 attacks. Meanwhile, the Taliban had offered to cooperate with the United States in catching Osama bin Laden and other counterterrorism efforts, but this offer was ignored.
The reason the United States went into Afghanistan is that, while the Taliban were willing to collaborate with the United States, they were difficult to deal with, because they weren’t behaving like a neocolony. Any country that’s not a totally subservient client, even if it’s willing to collaborate in some way with imperialism, is on the list for overthrow and destruction.
The Bush administration thought it would be easy. They thought: “We just go into Afghanistan, it’ll take a month to overthrow the Taliban government, and we’ll install a puppet government. Then we’ll move on to Iraq and do the same thing, and that will be really easy. Then we’ll move to Iran and do the same thing, then to Lebanon, Somalia, and Sudan.” The Pentagon really thought it would overthrow all those countries in a period of five years.
They didn’t think they were going to get bogged down in a quagmire. It was complete imperial arrogance that led the Bush administration and the Pentagon at the time to think that it would be an easy road.
When these wars blew up in their faces, that’s when Obama came in. Obama’s statement that he was going to end the Iraq War was really what propelled him through the Democratic Party primary in 2008, tapping into the anger and hostility about that war at the time. But he also promised to win the Afghanistan War — not withdraw but win. That’s why you got the Obama troop surge in Afghanistan. Biden says he was against that, by the way, but if you go back and look, he was just advocating for a smaller surge and still continuing the indefinite occupation.
Obama flooded the country with troops to try to exert enough pressure on the Taliban to get them to accept a deal. If you look back at the Afghanistan Papers, the Obama administration and the Pentagon, by that time, never really believed that they could defeat the Taliban militarily. At that point, they believed that if they just gave them enough of a beating, they would accept the power-sharing deal, and they were doing secret talks with the Taliban to that extent.
So, while the public was being told that the United States was making progress in Afghanistan, and soldiers and their families were being told, “We have to keep fighting, we have to keep dying, we have to keep killing for just a few more years until we defeat the Taliban,” behind the scenes, they were trying to negotiate a Taliban government, only with US puppet forces having some kind of role.
The Obama troop surge was a disaster on the ground — just a complete failure militarily. In the Afghanistan Papers, you see that the Pentagon was saying to the Obama administration, “By every metric, we are losing the war and cannot turn it around,” and the White House responded with, “Well, create a metric that shows that we’re doing good.”
There was growing hostility to the war strategy from within the ranks of the military. High-ranking enlisted people were speaking out about soldiers being put on pointless patrols where, every single day, someone was getting their legs blown off. There was a lot of discontent inside the military, and it started to look bad for the United States.
So the end cap of the Obama strategy was basically, “Okay, we’re going to slowly retreat. There’s no possible way for us to accomplish our goals militarily, but instead of withdrawing, over the next decade, we’re going to reduce the number of troops and have them isolated on their little bases. We can still occupy the country, still drop a lot of munitions, still be feeding the military-industrial complex, but we’re slowly going to leave.”
When Trump came in, he inherited a small number of troops on the ground. The withdrawal was already set up. He could have continued at the same pace and gotten out of the war, like he campaigned on. He ripped the Republicans and the Democrats for keeping us in this forever war. He loved that rhetoric, until he was in a position to do it.
What Trump did instead was triple the number of US troops in the country. He pressured other NATO countries to add more troops. He vastly expanded the number of mercenaries, to the point where there were roughly ten times as many mercenaries as there were soldiers. His bombing escalation was one of the more grotesque hallmarks of his presidency. The CIA and the military already faced little restriction when it came to dropping bombs and were killing civilians on a regular basis anyway, but Trump came in and said, “Gloves off.”
Under Trump, the United States dropped so many bombs that it actually killed more civilians than any other previous year for two years in a row. That includes the troop surge under Obama, when there were twenty times the number of boots on the ground. Just as Obama tried to pressure the Taliban into a deal with a troop surge, Trump thought he could pressure the Taliban into a deal by just bombing everything in sight.
For both the Obama and Trump administrations, the violence they wrought in Afghanistan was never even about preventing the Taliban from entering power. Even though that’s what they’re saying, they were behind the scenes trying to form a unity government with the Taliban, or a Taliban government that’s friendly to the United States and has some vestiges of the neocolonial puppet regime they tried to install. And in many ways, that’s exactly the outcome they’re getting right now. When you think about it that way, you realize they implemented years and years of more killing for absolutely no reason at all.
MD: Why is the withdrawal happening now under Biden? He hasn’t exactly been a stalwart opponent of the war in Afghanistan.
MP: It’s funny, because Biden never advocated a full withdrawal. Even up until the last days of his campaign against Trump, he was saying we needed to leave several thousand troops in the country and using all this rhetoric about how we can’t abandon our Afghan partners. Then, when Biden got into office, his tone and rhetoric about the war completely changed to favor a total withdrawal.
The reason is because it isn’t Biden’s plan, it’s the Pentagon’s plan. The Pentagon brass, who are unelected, wield so much control over our elected government. Foreign policy really flows from the Pentagon, not from any so-called democratic institution. So Biden came into office with his idea of leaving troops there forever, and then the Pentagon said, “No, we need to get out,” and that’s why he changed his tune.
Up until recently, the Pentagon had been mostly satisfied with the war in Afghanistan. The United States was losing for most of the occupation, and they knew that, but a drawn-out conflict like that is still good for imperialism, even if you’re losing a war in some capacity. You have this extremely bloated military budget. At times, the United States was spending $400 or $500 million per day on expenditures just for the occupation of Afghanistan. It was a huge boon for the military-industrial complex, and it allowed the US military to grow its technological arsenal.
Think of the energy companies providing fuel to all the different defense contractors that maintain the bases. Think of the companies that were building vehicles that came off the assembly line at the factory and went straight into the roads of Afghanistan, where they would get blown up, sending the military back to the factory to replace them. Think of all the companies that made the bullets, the missiles, the tank rounds. Obviously, the defense industry has an interest in keeping the war going.
As for the officers in the Pentagon, they get their combat experience, they get their medals, they get their command experience, they get promoted, and then they go into these six- or seven-figure jobs in the defense industry a week after they retire. So there is no desire from the Pentagon to end it quickly, when an ongoing occupation is a path to building their résumé and to personal enrichment.
It was good for a long time, but ultimately there comes a point when it poses a problem for the empire to be bogged down in a war they’re clearly losing for twenty years. The United States is supposed to project power as this invincible military machine. At a certain point, the failures in Afghanistan and Iraq make the United States look weak and defeatable. It starts to hurt the image of American imperialism and the kind of dominance it wants to project in the world. And so the ruling class starts looking for other targets for regime change.
Obama was already talking about pivoting away from Iraq and Afghanistan during his presidency. The idea he articulated was that the United States is hurting its overall hegemonic goals in the world by spending all its energy and time trying to win two wars that are impossible to win, and it needs to regroup and put its effort into other places in the world, including other countries in the Middle East, Latin America, and especially Asia.
You started to see this transition happen under Trump, even as the wars in Afghanistan dragged on, with the attempted coup in Venezuela, escalating regime-change policies against Cuba, actions in Yemen and Syria, and a major escalation of patrols in the South China Sea. That hasn’t stopped under Biden. Vice President Kamala Harris went to Vietnam and pressured them to confront China in an apparent effort to provoke conflict in the region. Many countries in Asia are striving to create a region of peaceful cooperation, and then you have the United States coming in and trying to increase tensions.
I think the United States is kind of scared of a war with China and not going to intentionally rush into one. But its behavior on the world stage is so provocative and belligerent that a series of escalating conflicts might cause one to happen anyway. And it’s clear the focus of attention has shifted. All the officers going through training at West Point and the elite military academies are being trained to prepare for this great power confrontation. In light of that pivot, I think the Pentagon wanted to leave Afghanistan in the past, and Biden’s actions reflect that.
MD: Many of the arguments we’re hearing right now against troop withdrawal center around the Taliban’s violation of human rights, particularly women’s rights. How can we respond to those concerns, acknowledging that the Taliban is often brutal and responsible for real suffering, while still making the case for the United States leaving Afghanistan?
MP: First, I think we need to start by acknowledging what an absolute catastrophe the US occupation was for the Afghan people. We need to recognize the amount of violence that was imposed on the country throughout the war — villages being bombed, villages being raided in the middle of the night by special operations forces shooting people in their beds — really heinous stuff. In addition to that violence, there was the constant humiliation of ongoing occupation — having soldiers at the gates to your village, patting you down every time you go in and out. Existence under occupation and under a state of war is horrific.
Polls of Afghans show that the number-one priority of people in the country is ending the war. They want peace. Most Afghans wanted the complete withdrawal of US forces and favored a deal with the Taliban. Something like two hundred thousand civilians were killed in the war, with some estimates a lot higher, and the vast majority of that violence was from the United States. The US media didn’t care much about that violence when it was going on, but now it wants to use human rights as a way to advocate staying.
As for the specific topic of women’s rights, that’s interesting, because it’s not like women’s rights were suddenly implemented in territories under US control. I’m sure it was easier for women to be in Kabul and some other main power centers that were treated like fortresses, but areas that were under US occupation throughout the countryside have mostly maintained the same cultural and religious norms they did under the Taliban.
If we want to see Afghanistan progress socially, it’s important to understand that none of that can happen when you’re under occupation. When there’s fighting in your village every single day, that completely hinders any possibility of progressive movements flourishing and advancing, because the main issue that everyone is grappling with is the war. In the 1970s and ’80s, there were women’s rights advocates and socialists and all kinds of progressive movements in Afghanistan crushed by US policy. The only way for that to reemerge and advance again is to stop the nation from existing in a state of war, which means ending US interference.
MD: Earlier this week, we saw footage of Afghan citizens chasing a US military plane on the tarmac, desperate to be lifted out of Afghanistan, while US soldiers were shooting at them. Meanwhile, French president Emmanuel Macron gave a speech saying, “We must anticipate and protect ourselves against significant irregular migratory flows.” What does the West owe people who remain in Afghanistan, as well as Afghan refugees and asylum seekers?
MP: Biden has gotten some credit for saying we needed to do a complete and immediate withdrawal, and that was the right thing to say and do, but the fact that they allowed thousands of people to be basically run over by these Air Force jets leaving the country is appalling. The videos of people falling from the landing gear as the plane was a thousand meters in the sky were horrendous. The withdrawal itself was necessary, but it was a completely botched operation.
The images of Kabul airport say everything about how the United States views Afghan citizens and refugees, which is to say, complete dehumanization. It also speaks to US incompetence. They had six thousand American soldiers there. They knew that the Taliban was coming into the city, and they should have had a rational exit plan. Instead, they acted like if they didn’t leave in the next hour, they were all going to get killed, and screw all these Afghans standing in their way.
The military is this huge machine with incredible logistical capabilities, and it wasn’t able to come up with an orderly way to manage the crowds that assembled, hoping to leave the country, which was totally inevitable. They ended up shooting into the crowds, killing people on the tarmac. Many of these were people who had helped the United States in Afghanistan, who were on their side. The Taliban didn’t come in shooting. The US military completely panicked for no reason, and people ended up dead. It’s a horrific failure of the Biden administration and the commanders on the ground, and it should haunt them.
As for what the West, and in particular the United States, owes people inside and fleeing from Afghanistan, the first thing I will say is reparations. We have poured money into Afghanistan, but nearly all of it went to either defense contractors or to US puppet forces, which have now fled the country and are living off the tens of millions of dollars they stashed in bank accounts. We owe the Afghan people money to rebuild after the destruction that the United States did in the country. And people who want to leave Afghanistan deserve the right to come to the countries that destroyed it, including the United States and nineteen additional countries that were part of the NATO force.
MD: You’ve had a front-row view of the US antiwar movement for a long time. Do you feel hopeful that antiwar sentiment is growing among the American populace? What do we need to do to build an effective domestic movement that can end the forever wars?
MP: After fifteen years in the antiwar struggle, I’m actually more optimistic than I’ve ever been. We don’t have a mass antiwar protest like we did during the height of the Iraq War, but I think antiwar sentiment is more widespread and mainstream because of people’s experiences with Iraq and Afghanistan. Now that there’s an end cap on Afghanistan, I think we can look back in the rearview mirror of history and see what it really was.
In particular, I think the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan made a major impact on working-class Americans. Any poor person in this country knows someone who was in the military in the past twenty years, which means they likely know someone who went to Iraq or Afghanistan came back a different person, or came back to a life harder than the one they joined the military trying to escape. I think this has had a deep impact on the American working-class psyche.
But the main reason for my optimism is what I’ve seen from within the ranks of active-duty service members in my work organizing war resisters. Throughout my time doing this, we’ve always been able to find people who wanted to speak out against the war or resist orders. There were always discontented people, and even a few willing to make a courageous stand, but it was a tiny minority.
I think it’s grown. In fact, I think antiwar sentiment in the military is stronger than ever. For example, when Trump assassinated Qassim Suleimani and it looked like we were going to go to war with Iran, I was contacted constantly for that one-week period by people in active duty who told me that they would under no circumstances go fight a war with Iran. I had never experienced anything like that, including at the peak of fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, when people knew that if they went over there it was definitely possible they wouldn’t come back in one piece. That represented something really significant for me.
Consciousness in the military is reflective of consciousness in society in general. I think all the big shocks — the Occupy movement, the Bernie Sanders movement, the George Floyd movement — have had reverberations among active-duty soldiers. And in the same way that we see so much more potential for movement building and social change in the United States, that’s there in the military as well. Bernie Sanders got more donations from active-duty troops than all the other Democratic presidential primary candidates combined, plus Donald Trump, during the primary. That says something about the sentiment that’s bubbling underneath the surface in the military.
As for what we do to build a strong antiwar movement at home, we need to be doing the principled work of building that sector of our struggle and linking it to the other important issues that working-class people deal with every day, so that when the next pivotal moment happens, we’re ready to keep up movement pressure and change the outcome.
There’s not always going to be hundreds of thousands of people flooding the streets like they did at the start of the Iraq War, but we can’t anticipate when that kind of moment will come again. What we do know is that there is always going to be a new escalation. There is always going to be a new target of US imperial aggression, and we need to be ready to engage in the day-to-day work of international solidarity.