Opinion

The deeply unserious thinking of the Afghanistan hawks

It's beyond time to face the obvious truth about the Afghanistan war: America lost

It's time once again to check in on the good old Afghanistan occupation. America was losing badly in 2015 and had made no progress as of 2017. Maybe 2019 will be the year we turn it around?

Haha, of course not. It's probably worse now than it was four years ago. But while even creatures from the foreign policy "Blob," like President of the Council on Foreign Relations Richard Haass, are all but admitting the war cannot be won, they still resist the idea America should cut its losses and get out. Instead of "a strategy for winning ... one for not losing," should be found, he writes.

This is deeply unserious — even pathetic — thinking. It's long past time we faced facts: The Afghanistan war is lost and has been lost for years. We should get out at the earliest practicable date.

So how are things going in Afghanistan? Let's check in on the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, where they have a handy podcast. In the most recent episode (from late December), Jennifer George-Nichol interviews security expert Heather Robinson, who details how the Taliban has mounted major offensives over the last few months, while the Afghan government has lost ground. Here's Robinson:

So, to give you some statistics here, as of July 31st this year, Afghan government control or influence of its districts has hit the lowest level since SIGAR began tracking it in back in 2015, and that’s at 55.5 percent of the country. Population control has essentially stalemated since May 2017, which is quite a while now. The current figures are that the government controls or influences areas where 65 percent of the population lives. [Operation Oversight]

The Afghan government is awesomely corrupt, and all but a failed state. Neither Obama's troop surge nor Trump's changed this in the slightest. Why? One idea that Haass doesn't consider is that maybe the American occupation is part of the reason the Afghan government can't get its act together. The tens of billions of annual spending hugely distorts the impoverished Afghan economy and fuels corruption, as people working for the U.S. military or contractors logically conclude they should squirrel their money away somewhere while the getting is good — often tolerated or accepted by American occupiers. The presence of American troops also no doubt fuels Taliban opposition too, by allowing them to mobilize against foreign domination spurred by the inevitable civilian casualties, accidental or otherwise.

Another yawning analytical absence here is the idea of opportunity cost. Current direct costs for the Afghanistan occupation run to about $45 billion annually, plus enormous future obligations for veteran health care and other costs. All in, the war has cost perhaps $2 trillion, counting only some of those costs.

I'm no accountant, but that sure sounds like a whopping great sum of money. Two trillion bucks is enough to buy one trillion malaria bed nets. It's enough to provide anti-viral meds to every HIV-positive person on Earth for two years. It's enough to give every person in the United States $6,150.

It doesn't take an Einstein brain to conclude that there are better ways to spend tens of billions of dollars than this. Just getting into positive territory — maybe we could pay Raytheon to build the world's largest bouncy castle instead of blowing people up? — would be better than flushing it down the toilet of an endless unwinnable occupation.

So what accounts for this failure to face up to reality? In his final sermon, Martin Luther King, Jr pointed to a corrupted ambition as the reason why the U.S. kept flailing away in Vietnam long after the basic idiocy of the war had been exposed. "[W]e are drifting there because nations are caught up with the drum major instinct. 'I must be first.' 'I must be supreme.' 'Our nation must rule the world.' God didn't call America to engage in a senseless, unjust war as the war in Vietnam … And we won't stop it because of our pride and our arrogance as a nation."

Weak-willed people will look away from failure or attempt to rationalize it to save face. In reality, America has lost the Afghanistan war, something that was obvious by 2009 at the latest. Now it's simply undeniable.

The question for the future is this: Will we recognize the obvious or spend more untold billions avoiding an uncomfortable truth?

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