No, America’s War in Afghanistan Was Not Worth It

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Nathaniel Haas argues against America’s War in Afghanistan in this “Face Off” edition (Photo by author). Please see J.T. Blakely’s “Face Off” article for a counter opinion.

Mousa: “This is Afghanistan…Alexander the Great try to conquer this country… then Genghis Khan, then the British. Now Russia. But Afghan people fight hard, they never be defeated. Ancient enemy make prayer about these people… you wish to hear?

Rambo: “Um-hum.”

Mousa: “Very good. It says, ‘May God deliver us from the venom of the Cobra, teeth of the tiger, and the vengeance of the Afghan.’”

-Rambo III, 1988

Kabul during the First Anglo-Afghan War 1839-42

“Afghaunistan (1839-1842),” a lithograph by Lieutenant James Rattray, shows the British army before its “total annihilation” near Kabul during the first Anglo-Afghan War. (The British Library/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain).

With the full withdrawal of coalition forces from Afghanistan set to be completed by the end of 2016, Barack Obama is gearing up to join Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan, Lord Auckland and Leonid Brezhnev in a club that appears to add a new member every few decades: the club of world leaders who have miserably failed to successfully reshape Afghanistan, a country that historians have come to call “the graveyard of empires.” Reflecting on this withdrawal, it is clear that America’s War in Afghanistan has not been worth the cost, measured in terms of the loss of human lives, financial resources and international credibility.

American engagement began with airstrikes in October 2001. By May 2003, President Bush declared the end of major combat and NATO assumed the responsibility of managing the transition to a civilian Afghan government. In 2004, for the first time, Afghanistan democratically elected Hamid Karzai, who subsequently announced a partnership with President Bush on the War on Terror. He opened bases in Afghanistan to US soldiers in exchange for training the Afghan national army.

In 2006, violence erupted again. In December 2009, Obama announced a troop surge, which sent 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan and officially stamped his application to the graveyard of empires club.

13,000 Afghan soldiers, 3,440 coalition soldiers and almost 20,000 civilians have died to date in Afghanistan. Accounting for the future cost of medical care and fighting, a Harvard Kennedy School of Government study estimated the cost of Iraq and Afghanistan combined at $4-6 trillion.

Less quantifiable in terms of dollars and body counts, but equally as significant is the cost of the war on the United States’ image in the world. The Karzai regime’s refusal to sign the Bilateral Security Agreement, which would allow continued US presence in the country after 2014, speaks to the lack of credibility in the American war machine, namely due to the use of drones and night raids that have a dismal history of civilian casualties. These problems make it not only impossible to negotiate with Afghanistan, but will also directly hamper allied cooperation in the future.

The United States should also commit to end the indefinite detention of detainees at Guantanamo Bay and abroad, which was established during the first months of the War in Afghanistan. Guantanamo Bay and covert rendition programs have come to be seen by Americans and our allies as the most egregious manifestation of America’s post-9/11 foreign policy. The Germans may have raised a diplomatic fuss over the tapping of Chancellor Merkel’s cell phone, but I would bet her data plan that they took much more seriously the unlawful detention and alleged torture of Turkish citizen Murat Kurnaz, a German resident who was captured in Kabul by US forces.

The kicker is that for all of the aforementioned costs, we have gained almost nothing.

As the Taliban launches its spring offensive and begins to control larger territories, the thousands of Afghani citizens who have been displaced over the past ten years say little progress has been made. Gaetan Drossart, the chief of the Kabul branch of Medecins sans Frontieres, has treated such refugees for years and observed the violence that has gripped the country. “The truth is there is no such success story at all,” Drossart told RT. “The international forces are leaving the country so they need a reason and they need also a rationale to explain to their population why now they can leave.”

Beyond the Taliban, Afghanistan will continue to suffer from the potent attacks of the Pakistan-based Haqqani Network. In a book out this year, Anand Gopal, who covered the war for the Wall Street Journal, recently wrote in her book, No Good Men Among the Living: America the Taliban, and the War Through Afghan Eyes, that the War in Afghanistan was misguided from the start. Though almost no insurgencies existed in mid-2002, the war, through faulty alliances with Afghani drug lords and power brokers, created the very enemies it sought to eradicate. Haqqani and his network were two of them. “By classifying certain groups as terrorists, and then acting upon those classifications, the U.S. had inadvertently brought about the very conditions it had set out to fight,” Gopal commented.

When this counter-terrorism evolved into a full-fledged counterinsurgency and nation building, the war efforts in Afghanistan fell prey to the concept known as mission creep – the phenomenon where a mission of limited scope morphs into one much more complex. Though the most tangible accomplishment of the war is the establishment of the Afghan National Security Forces and the success of a democratic election that will be completed by the end of the year, proponents of the war should ask themselves: couldn’t we have done that in the first 6 months of conflict? Did it really take 12 years (the longest war in American history), a few trillion dollars and over 2,000 soldier lives to train 350,000 Afghani soldiers and hold an election? We aren’t even out of the woods – the instability and accusations of corruption in the election to select President Karzai’s successor demonstrates it has come at too high a price.

Three-star Army lieutenant general Daniel Bolger, whose 35 years of experience culminated in extensive work in Afghanistan and Iraq, is publishing the first after-action report on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. In the book, aptly titled “Why We Lost,” Bolger argues that the mission creep described above sacrificed the key gains made within the first six months of each war. Like the Gulf War, Bolger argues that after the removal of the hostile government (in Afghanistan’s case, the Taliban), the United States should have packed up and gone home. Instead, perpetual war and nation building that will take decades longer than the US (and the public) is willing to commit to have created more enemies than friends.

The failure in Afghanistan certainly won’t kill the American empire, but like Rambo, America hasn’t escaped Afghanistan unscathed. Afghanistan, like Vietnam, has exposed the limitations of the US war machine for all to see, and made the leaders and nation behind it less credible in the process. That doesn’t bode well going forward—just ask Colonel Trautman, Rambo’s mentee: “You expect sympathy? You started this damn war, now you’ll have to deal with it.”

The views expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect those of the Glimpse from the Globe staff and editorial board.