Seventeen years ago this month, in response to an attack on American soil many times greater than had ever occurred before, the United States under Acting President Dick Cheney — sorry, make that Vice President — launched what became the longest and most expensive war in American history.
A war that, strangely and stupidly, still goes on with no more signs of victory than it has ever had in all these years.
The war on Afghanistan, begun in retaliation against the Taliban government of that country that had apparently harbored the al-Qaida organization we held to be instigators of the 9/11 attack, has been responsible for at least 110,000 Afghanistan deaths, including 31,000 civilians, and 2,375 American soldiers killed and 20,320 wounded, according to official statistics. Statistics that, like most things in that country, are highly unreliable and, for Americans, do not include the full number of mental casualties and the number of soldiers who have committed suicide in the years after serving, estimated to be between 10 and 20 a day.
The financial costs are staggering as well. A Congressional Budget Office estimate in 2007 was that it would cost $2.4 trillion by 2017, and newer estimates generally agree. Don’t ask what might have been done with that money if it were spent on real needs within our country.
And what has been gained at such great costs? Approximately nothing.
The latest report by the Special Investigator for Afghanistan Reconstruction, an office set up in 2008 because it became obvious even to Congress that we were throwing money down the drain, says that although we had spent $4.7 billion in “stabilization funds” to make an operational Afghan government to whom we could hand over the war, what exists now is “largely lawless, weak and dysfunctional,” with “significant corruption,” even in the very agency set up to fight corruption.
It is estimated that from 2001 to 2011 between $31 billion and $60 billion has been lost in waste and fraud, and the higher number even seems to be low, considering that we have spent $8.6 billion on “counter-narcotics activities” that have not diminished illegal poppy production and exports, $772 million was spent on aircraft for an “Afghan army unable to operate and maintain them,” and some $406,000 was wasted in the Corps of Engineers’ construction of an Afghan army headquarters.
Stabilization efforts from 2002 to 2017, according to the Inspector General, “did not generally succeed.” “The poor results of Afghanistan stabilization,” says the latest report, “may make it tempting to conclude that stabilization should never be undertaken again.” Indeed.
And on the battlefield? A similar tale of waste and futility. The Taliban operates at full force in far greater areas than it did before and seems able to pull off raids and suicide missions with impunity even in the country’s capital of Kabul. Americans have been trying for a year to work out some kind of truce with the Taliban forces, but they cannot move as long as the government side is so weak as to be unable to stop a complete Taliban takeover, the very thing that we have been fighting all this time to prevent.
The lesson? As Army Gen. John Nicholson said recently upon retiring after 31 months as commander of forces there, “It is time for this war to end.”
And the lesson beyond that? The whole project that has been the basis of U.S. foreign policy since the collapse of the Soviet Union – imposing our values and systems on as much of the rest of the world as we can, even if it takes a war – was a bad idea to begin with, foisted on the nation by the well-funded neocons in Washington. And it has failed, repeatedly, everywhere, as Iraq and Syria, for example, demonstrate daily.
Sad to say, the neocons are still at work in the Trump administration, having not learned this lesson, which is why the drumbeat for war in Iran and demonic Russophobia goes on, even with the death of perhaps the blindest drummer of them all, the senator who flew 23 missions bombing civilians in another failed war. It is time that Trump take the kind of action he pledged to do in his campaign, and for which many voters put him into office to achieve: Withdraw troops and meddlesome forces from Afghanistan and the entire Middle East, curtail adventuresome military operations in Africa and beyond where we have no business being, and bring the troops home.
America has no mandate to be a global imperial power. To make America great again, make America first.
Kirkpatrick Sale, who lives in Mount Pleasant, is the author of 12 books, most recently “Human Scale Revisited.”