[CW: war stuff]
I was in my high school's band room on September 11, 2001. It was 8:30am and we were all waiting to go to class, like normal. Then the band director came in with a piece of paper in his hand and a furrowed brow. He stopped halfway between the door and his conductor's podium, as though he didn't quite know where to stand to say what he had to say. Everyone got quiet.
Then he said, "There's been an attack on the United States. A plane has flown into the World Trade Center in New York City." A kid I knew named Brad, a pretty good trumpet player, shot up out of his seat. He ran for the exit. His dad worked in the World Trade Centers. We were in Danbury, CT, a medium-sized town an hour and a half north of New York City. We followed the attacks throughout the day in school, watching on TVs and refreshing news sites online.
Twenty years later, almost to the month, as American troops pull out of Afghanistan begun in 2001, Emal Ahmad was pulling into his driveway in Kabul. He was working with a nonprofit called Nutrition and Education International whose mission is to fight malnutrition among women and children in high mortality areas of the Afghanistan. He let his teenage son drive his jeep into the house. They were met by his brother's children, toddlers and young kids, who jumped around the car. Then there was an explosion. A drone missile struck the car, gruesomely killing them. The US suspected Ahmad, specifically his car, for being involved in a suicide bombing at the Kabul airport checkpoint the previous day, killing 13 American soldiers and 80 Afghans. The US officially left the next day.
When I heard the first reports of the drone strike on Ahmad's house, the word education stuck out to me. NEI does some educational work, but the juxtaposition of that E in the nonprofit's name with my first experience of 9/11 in school kicked off some sad and reflective thinking: how is education in the wake of the wars sparked by 9/11?
Empire feeding on the republic
Michael Parenti famously said in Against Empire that the "the success of the empire depends upon its ability to expropriate the resources of the republic." The war cost about $1.95 trillion. The federal government funds these activities and largely doesn't fund schools. But that's changing with Biden's recent spending plans--particularly for a new equity formula for Title 1. What could we have spent?
In 2020, the federal government spent 7.8% of all public school expenditures. Given that the total US expenditure for public schools was $734.2 billion, that's around $57 billion of federal spending. That's a little higher than average. Between 2005-2019, average spending was $40.4 billion. The war cost $2,000 billion. Maybe you're starting to get a sense of what we could've done with that money? The total education spending 2005-2019 was $1,213 billion. Even just doubling federal spending each year during the war and fixing up our school buildings wouldn't have come close to the amount spent. We foreclosed a lot of education.
But don't see these amounts through the lens of traditional money, where there's a finite amount of federal resources that could be directed one place or another. Adam Tooze had an essay recently emphasizing how this spending was a political decision. It was a political decision to devote so much more money to war than to education. In those twenty years, the ruling class decided it was better to keep the war in Afghanistan going then take care of schools. Not a good sign if you remember that the Soviet Union collapsed only three years after they pulled out from a long, unsuccessful war in Afghanistan.
Schools 'over there'
That's just the US side. The Afghan education system is a whole other story. How can you run any kind of education system with perpetual war? Take this attack on a school in Kabul in May that killed at least 90 students as just one example. Of course, war ravages a society's ability to maintain itself so all the social, economic, and cultural costs of the war from housing, healthcare, transportation, nutrition, trade, etc, all comes to bear on education, even though improving education was clearly written into the [Bonn Agreement](https://watson.brown.edu/costsofwar/files/cow/imce/papers/2014/Democratic%20Aspirations%20and%20Destabilizing%20Outcomes%20in%20Afghanistan.pdf). What's the impact on this system?
Specifically, World Education News and Reviews reports that some of the talk about girls' education is indeed true. Since 2002 girls' enrollments increased from near zero to 39% of school kids (though they admit data are sketchy, and we have to remember that all regimes have an interest in good numbers). Overall enrollments went from around 10,000 in 2002 to 320,000 in 2015. According to USAID, university enrollments went from 7800 in 2001 to 174,205 in 2015. But remember that enrollments are just that, they don't say anything about impacts. Literacy is still very low at 34% compared to Pakistan's 56%. In 2015, NUFFIC found that “less than a quarter of the pupils complete the first 9 years of education while less than 10 percent pursue education until [grade] 12.”
When it comes to the numbers on girls' education, there's some pretty gross stuff out there. The mobilization of a liberal, white, ruling class feminism to justify imperial exploits is no more evident than in the case of Allyson Reneau. The Oklahoma conservative pushed hard on the message that she 'saved' the internationally award-winning girls' high school robotics team from Afghanistan, 'helping' them to achieve their 'freedom'. Then the teams' lawyer sent her a cease-and-desist order calling her out explicitly for her white saviorism. It's more than cringe.
Almost everyone lost
Ahmad and his nephew were helping NEI, seeking official recognition and status from the US. Apparently CIA intelligence heard there were bombs in the car. The jury's still out on whether that's true, but families in house who survived the blast told Dutch-Afghan journalist Nagieb Khara that they heard only one explosion rather than the several that would've gone off if the car had explosives. Seems like the intelligence was bad.
That seems to be the general lesson coming out of reflections on this war: the ruling class didn't really know what they were doing in the country itself and they kept doing it anyway. Though in another sense, they knew exactly what they were doing.
If you purchased $10,000 of stock evenly divided among America’s top five defense contractors on September 18, 2001 — the day President George W. Bush signed the Authorization for Use of Military Force in response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks — and faithfully reinvested all dividends, it would now be worth $97,295.
The war was super profitable. I imagine that most of those who made money on the war didn't have kids in the schools, either in Afghanistan or the US, who suffered from its fiscal and physical ravages. Which recalls the antiwar socialist position on this issue. Internationally, the ruling class doesn't have everyone's best interest at heart. Had socialists been in charge of the United States in 2001, I imagine things could've turned out differently for education and everything else.