May 9, 2017

The endless war of Afghanistan

Mark Thompson, Project on Government Oversight - Last week brought the 35th quarterly report from the indefatigable John Sopko about your investment in Afghanistan. It’s kind of like having the Grim Reaper as a houseguest. Repeatedly.

Much of Afghanistan, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction told Congress, remains under the control of the Taliban, which the U.S. drove out of the capital of Kabul nearly 16 years ago. The continuing war, as the Taliban attempts to claw their way back into power, is generating a “shockingly high” number of dead Afghan troops and record civilian casualties, he added in a report made even more depressing because so little attention has been paid to it.

“America’s longest war is now in its sixteenth year, driven by the long-standing goal of ensuring that Afghanistan never again serves as a platform for terrorist attacks on the United States,” Sopko said in his 273-page tome. “The fighting continues, as does a reconstruction effort that has so far absorbed more than $117 billion in congressional appropriations. Both the security and civil aspects of reconstruction—ranging from developing Afghan security forces and advising ministry staff, to building clinics and electrifying towns—have yielded mixed results.”

“Mixed results” is Sopko’s delicate way of describing where the U.S. finds itself: “A dangerous and stubborn insurgency controls or exerts influence over areas holding about a third of the Afghan population. Heavy casualties and capability gaps limit the effectiveness of Afghan soldiers and police. Opium production stands near record levels. Illiteracy and poverty remain widespread. Corruption reaches into every aspect of national life. The rule of law has limited reach. Multiple obstacles deter investors and complicate business operations. The ranks of the job-less grow as the economy stagnates.”

When I first visited Afghanistan, it was six months after the U.S. arrived. There was a sense of optimism on that trip to Bagram, Herat, Kabul and Mazar-e-Sharif that faded on subsequent visits. Increasingly, the country seems like a sick man on life support, kept only alive by a steady infusion of U.S. dollars and troops.

The U.S. invaded Afghanistan on Oct. 7, 2001, to destroy the Taliban government for sheltering Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda, responsible for the attacks of 9/11 26 days earlier.

That was 5,692 days ago. And nearly $1 trillion and 2,185 U.S. troops’ lives ago. What kind of a nation tolerates such a long-sucking chest wound? A raw recruit deployed to the Afghan campaign in its opening days is now thinking about retirement. What kind of military willingly walks onto a perpetual treadmill when the chance of prevailing is next to nil? What does that tell us about our leaders? More critically, what does it say about us, the led?

“You have the watches,” a captured Taliban fighter supposedly said more than a decade ago, “but we have the time.” A Viet Cong could have said the same thing in 1967.

President Trump, unlike Obama, is unwilling to set (oft-ignored) deadlines for U.S. troops to withdraw. Bottom line: There is no end in sight to this war. “Even if the president increased the number of troops there, the war would only be lost at a higher cost,” says Daniel Davis, a retired Army officer and Straus Military Reform Military Advisory Board Member who spent two tours in Afghanistan.

Mark my words: it will eventually end, as it did in Vietnam, with a fig-leaf withdrawal followed by the tides of history, which will wash away, within a decade, any evidence of our presence.

Table: Cumulative Direct War Appropriations for DoD and State

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