Welcome back, my friends
To the show that never ends
We’re so glad you could attend
Come inside, come inside
—Emerson, Lake, & Palmer, Karn Evil 9 1st Impression, Part 2
No, the IRS didn’t come cart me away. Yet.
Yesterday an Afghan security guard opened fire and killed three American medical personnel in a hospital in Kabul. This is the latest instance of so-called “green-on-blue” attacks, where armed Afghans working alongside “coalition” forces turn their weapons against their erstwhile allies. According to longwarjournal.org, as of October 2013 there had been 83 such attacks since 2008. Just another instance of dead Americans in a war zone far away, and I know it’s not nearly as interesting as mysteriously-vanishing airliners, or capsized Korean ferries (hence you won’t see this on CNN), but it does beg a question:
Why are we still there for these latest three Americans to die?
Let’s be clear: Afghanistan is at the crossroads of nowhere. It has no strategic significance, no resources anyone needs, and it wields no political stroke. It’s a godforsaken hellhole that civilization left behind a millennium ago. So why are we there?
To recap some rather unpleasant history, on September 11, 2001, 19 jihadists hijacked four U.S. airliners, crashing two into the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York (ultimately obliterating both buildings), and one into the Pentagon. The fourth was apparently being retaken by the passengers, so the jihadists crashed it into the ground in a field in Pennsylvania.
The attacks killed 2,997 people, excluding the jihadists. Remember that number.
U.S. intelligence quickly identified the militant Islamist group al-Qaeda as being responsible for the attacks, and on September 14 Congress—by a combined vote of 518 to 1—authorized the use of military force against those nations, organizations, or persons the President determines were responsible, and against those harboring such organizations or persons. Al-Qaeda mastermind Osama bin Laden—who later admitted responsibility for the attacks—was traced to Afghanistan, and the U.S. State Department demanded that the Afghan government turn him over. The ruling Taliban—bad guys in their own right—refused. On September 20, in an address to a joint session of Congress, President George W. Bush reiterated the demand, and warned that “they will hand over the terrorists or they will share in their fate.” Still the Taliban refused. So on October 7, the initial bombing campaign in Afghanistan began.
At the time, this was a rational response to the attacks. If the perpetrators were not acting on the Taliban’s behalf (or with their blessing), there was no reason not to hand bin Laden over. The Taliban’s refusal to do so suggests the other alternative—that the perpetrators were acting on the Taliban’s behalf or with its blessing—in which case the attacks were an act of war by Afghanistan just the same as if they had invaded Manhattan with uniformed troops. And Americans—myself included—almost unanimously supported the action at the time. Hell, even Senators Joe Biden (D-DE), Barbara Boxer (D-CA), Hillary Clinton (D-NY), Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), John Kerry (D-MA), and Harry Reid (D-NV), just to name a notable few, voted in favor of authorizing a military response.
But that was nearly thirteen years ago.
By the end of 2001, the Taliban had been overthrown, although they would continue to wage an insurgency war out of neighboring Pakistan (theoretically a U.S. ally). For the next ten years, through the end of the Bush administration and well into the Obama administration, U.S. forces continued to occupy Afghanistan to provide “security” and hunt for Osama bin Laden.
And Americans continued to die.
On May 2, 2011, U.S. special forces troops finally caught up with bin Laden—ironically in Pakistan, which one tends to suspect knew where he was all along—and killed him. Over 1,500 Americans had died in and around Afghanistan by that point. But with the Taliban out and the al-Qaeda mastermind now dead, surely the mission in Afghanistan was complete, right?
Wrong. And as we approach the third anniversary of the killing of Osama bin Laden, U.S. troops are still in Afghanistan.
And Americans still continue to die there.
I asked you to remember the number of victims killed in the 9/11 attacks: 2,997. The American death toll in Afghanistan is now 2,317, meaning our response to the 9/11 attacks has killed nearly as many Americans as the attacks themselves. 761 Americans—roughly a quarter of the total—have died in the three years since Osama bin Laden was killed and the last ostensible purpose of the campaign was achieved. If you count all coalition military casualties, there have actually been more “good guys” killed (over 3,400) participating in our campaign in Afghanistan than were killed by the jihadists in the first place.
At some point, doesn’t the cure become worse than the disease?
Crass as it is compared to the human cost, let’s also consider the financial cost of this crusade. Through fiscal 2011, we had spent something like $468 billion fighting the Taliban and chasing bin Laden. By now, the price tag is surely well over $500 billion and counting. That’s more than 50 times the estimated cost to rebuild the World Trade Center—which, 12 years later, still hasn’t been completed, while we’ve been arguing over the location of mosques and whether documentaries about 9/11 are offensive to Muslims (of course they are; everything offends them). One suspects we could have just bought Afghanistan outright for less (the Louisiana Purchase—a much larger and vastly more resource-rich territory—was had for a paltry $280 million in today’s dollars, and Alaska—almost as large as Afghanistan, and again much more resource-rich—was purchased for mere pocket change of about $119 million).
To give some perspective, $500 billion would rank 20th among world GDP, just behind that of Switzerland, and ahead of countries like Sweden and Norway. The entire U.S. federal budget was less than $500 billion in constant (2009) dollars as recently as 1979. And for all that spending, and all our fancy technology (most of which, if Iraq was any guide, will ultimately be abandoned if and when we ever leave Afghanistan), we’re 12 years in and still can’t declare victory against an enemy that can barely muster better than sticks and stones and the occasional homemade bomb.
This is not a knock on our men and women in uniform. They are the finest professionals, and they do the job they are given, but in this case we’ve never really defined what that job is, which makes their task impossible from the outset. Not only are political (and political-correctness) considerations preventing our military from winning, they’ve never even been told what a win looks like. So on and on it goes, and that begins to highlight the real cost.
Although draft registration is still required for American males between 18 and 25 years old, since 1972 we have operated an all-volunteer military force, or “AVF.” That’s fine for short term military responses in Grenada or Somalia. But the AVF was never designed for decades-long prosecutions of wars/occupations on multiple fronts. With no draft to provide large scale influxes of fresh personnel, the same people have to rotate in and out of country over and over. Years and years of multiple deployments take their toll on morale and numbers.
It’s no wonder, then, that we see two-bit regimes like Iran and Syria now openly thumbing their noses at U.S. threats (or “red lines,” or whatever). It’s no wonder that we see Vladimir Putin feeling his oats in Crimea. It’s no wonder that we see the Chinese in a rapid military buildup mode. Diplomatic pressure and even sanctions are ultimately only as good as the credibility of any military action to back them up. But in large part as a result of a decade in Afghanistan (combined with Iraq), those who would do things counter to the interests of the U.S. and its allies look at us and see a nation whose population is war-weary (and in any event has the attention span of a gnat), and whose military is depleted (and still tied down) and lacks the practical ability to replenish itself. In other words, we’re spent, and we’re spread too thin, and everyone knows it.
Combine that with an obviously weak and indecisive Commander-in-Chief who plainly lacks the stomach to make hard decisions or to commit forces to combat, and a very public drawdown of the U.S. military in general, and just how credible is any sabre-rattling out of D.C. going to be any more? Putin can rest pretty comfortably in his assumption that when push comes to shove, there will be no real pushback from the U.S. in Crimea. Or Moldova. Or Belarus. Kim Jong Un and his benefactors in Beijing have to like their odds that the same is true on the Korean peninsula. Maybe even in Japan. And when you add in the new influx of cash Obama is permitting to run into Teheran, you have to think the Iranians feel less and less apprehensive about pressing their nuclear aspirations.
This must be very comforting to our allies in places like Warsaw, Jerusalem, and Seoul.
Theodore Roosevelt counseled that one should speak softly and carry a big stick. We’ve been swinging blindfolded at the piñata so long now we don’t have any stick left, and once that happens it doesn’t matter how loudly you mindlessly proclaim that “there will be consequences,” or that rivals are on the “wrong side of history.”
Or “we will, at last, have peace in our time.”
This, I fear, will prove to be the real cost of Afghanistan.