A failed war in Afghanistan is the byproduct of a foreign policy rooted in colonialism and the myth of American exceptionalism.
Brittany Ramos DeBarros and Pam Campos-Palma, both veterans of the Afghanistan war, know the obvious. The withdrawal has been a disaster, and the Afghans who have depended on U.S. support—including those who supported American troops and the now-collapsed western-backed government in Kabul—feel abandoned.
Thirteen U.S. service members were killed in a suicide bombing outside of Kabul’s airport at the end of August, and the Taliban carried out gruesome killings as the U.S. closed out its withdrawal from Afghanistan.
“It's the decades of CIA operations, and meddling, and proxy wars that led us to this moment,” DeBarros, who is running for U.S. Congress out of New York’s 11th district on an anti-war platform, said. “For me, that means that we need real change to the ways that decisions are made and the authority that individuals hold. Which means we have to get money out of politics broadly, but particularly as it comes to military and defense decisions.”
Both women agree that it is time to leave and knew it would be a rocky transition. But they say the disastrous pullout has further proven how reckless U.S. interventions have been and that the only way to correct it is to elect politicians who are divorced from the colonial frameworks of foreign policy and the myth of American exceptionalism. And we can only do that by educating and organizing the American public around the fact that military expansionism has failed us, just as we are seeing with Afghanistan.
Campos-Palma’s role at the Working Families Party as the director of peace and security is to help candidates running for office, like DeBarros, to create messaging that engages voters around how wasteful and harmful a war-centered approach to foreign policy is. Much of her gripe with the media and Washington elites, for example, is that too many of them speak as if working-class people only care about domestic issues and that they are unable to understand complex cultural and political issues taking place around the world.
“There's a perpetuated myth that working-class Americans simply don't care,” Campos-Palma, who served as an Air Force intelligence officer during her deployment, said. “The foreign policy establishment has made foreign policy so sophisticated, so elitist, that people feel cut out. When I talk to people in the South, when I talk to people in the projects, they're like, ‘What the hell is going on?’ They care. They just need to be engaged. It's about how we're engaged, how we're facilitated, how we're giving political education to our masses, to our members and our voters, so that they can make informed decisions to understand what happens in Haiti, in Colombia, in Afghanistan, in Cuba, what happens across the world impacts me. If we're voting members of the most powerful and wealthy country in the world, you better believe that all of us have a stake in it.”
As jarring as the images of Afghans falling from departing planes and reported deaths of U.S service members and civilians are, the news coverage is driving home the fact that U.S. military power is limited. The trillions of dollars spent occupying the country only to have it unravel in a matter of weeks tells us that policymakers have not learned the lessons of the past, such as when the Soviet Army was forced out of Afghanistan during the 1980s and the embarrassing defeat of U.S. forces at the hands of the North Vietnamese in the 1970s.
Part of the reimagining of U.S. foreign policy, Campus-Palma and DeBarros said, is divesting money from military spending and reappropriating it to the State Department and focusing on civil society and women’s rights, the latter of which is expected to experience severe rollbacks. The Department of Defense, for example, got a small increase for the 2021 fiscal year, while the State Department and U.S. The Agency for International Development had their budgets slashed by 20 percent.
More than $6.4 trillion dollars has been spent on post-9/11 wars since 2001.
“It's frustrating that human rights is always the skunk of the national security party when it is also our best solution,” Campus-Palma said.
As a candidate for office, DeBarros is leveraging her status as an Afghanistan war vet and expertise on national security to drive home why America can afford to defund its military. If she wins her race, she plans on joining the Defense Spending Reduction Caucus, where more than 20 progressive members of Congress are strategizing on how to get a modest 10 percent cut in military spending.
“A lot of people don't realize that more than half of the military budget goes to corporations,” DeBarros said. “And you have 30,000 to 40,000 troops on food stamps, but all of this is sold as a way to benefit the troops.”
To reverse the politics that can pull America into another endless war that costs the country trillions of dollars and thousands of American lives, there needs to be a focus on explaining to voters what exactly foreign policy is and who it serves. Too often, the definition has been coined by the male, pale, and Yale crowd who do not look like the people whose lives are impacted by their decisions. To stop disastrous foreign policy decisions from repeating themselves, you need to replace the decision-makers, DeBarros and Campos-Palma argue.
Over the years, progressive candidates have won on anti-war and defund platforms. Congressman Jamaal Bowman (D-New York) defeated the sitting House foreign relations chair Eliot Engel in 2020, and Cori Bush (D-Missouri) won against a candidate who, along with his father, held on to the seat for decades. Bush made national news for pushing the Biden administration to extend the eviction moratorium until the Supreme Court reversed the decision. Both Congress Members are on the Defense Spending Reduction Caucus.
What is also important to note is that Bush and Bowman are very much supporters of the Defund the Police movement, a movement that Campus-Palma says shares a similar framework of reimagining safety and security for the American people. This includes cutting America’s nuclear arsenal and divesting money from the Pentagon and local policing to support efforts to fight climate change. If this Afghanistan withdrawal has taught us anything, she says, is that we can no longer rely on the myth that the military, alone, will protect America and its allies.
“Violence begets more violence,” she said. “Violence will never be a tool for peace. Ever. I think that we're in a reckoning moment in the United States, where we're having to question everything about ourselves. Who do we want to be in the world? It's devastating because I gave my youth, and I feel so pained for the Afghan people who saw us in a certain way. If the United States is going to hold the moral high ground, we have to do it in actions, and not just words. This war didn't happen on its own. We can't just scapegoat the Afghan people and Black and brown people all across the world for it when we have Supreme power and money to not be as sloppy and devastating as we are.”
Terrell Jermaine Starr is a senior reporter at The Root, where he writes about U.S. politics and interviews elected officials. He is also the founder of Black Diplomats, a weekly foreign affairs podcast that tells stories from a Black perspective. His Twitter handle is @russian_starr