America Loses Another War
When it comes to war, we Americans can’t seem to make up our minds. We say we don’t like war yet cheer our troops in battle like a high school football team. We vote for presidents who vow to end wars, yet still re-elect them when they don’t and rally behind them when they start another one. We don’t like starting wars, but we never want to admit we lost one, either.
Stop right there. Whatever else you think of him, give Joe Biden a lot of credit for finally pulling the plug on the war in Afghanistan. It took guts. Biden had the courage to do what George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and Donald Trump did not: To recognize there was no way America was ever going to win the war in Afghanistan, to admit we’d lost the war – and to get the hell out.
If there were ever a war not worth fighting, it’s the war in Afghanistan. Its initial mission was fine: to roust out Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda, who’d planned and carried out the September 11 attacks against the United States. But that mission was over in weeks. In effect, we lost the war in Afghanistan once we didn’t pull out right then and there. Everything after that was a disaster.
The war in Afghanistan dragged on for 20 years, longer than any war in our history. Longer than World War I, 1.6 years; World War II, 3.7 years; the Civil War, 4 years; the Revolutionary War, 8.4 years; and the war in Iraq, 8.9 years.
According to the Costs of War Project of Brown University, the war in Afghanistan cost $2.6 trillion, with no new taxes to pay for it, all added to the deficit. That does not include $1.8 trillion for health care and disability payments to veterans, nor $6.5 trillion in interest on that debt by 2050. By contrast, the entire Marshall Plan after World War II cost only $13 billion (over $100 billion in 2021 dollars), for which we gained a rebuilt Western Europe. For over $2 trillion in Afghanistan, we gained a weak, corrupt, central government that’ll probably collapse within six months.
Finally, as calculated by Harvard’s Kennedy School, the war in Afghanistan also cost the lives of 2,448 American military; 3,846 American contractors; 66,000 Afghan military; and 42,245 Afghan civilians. And what did we get for it? Nothing. It’s tough to admit that American sons and daughters killed in Afghanistan died in vain, but they did.
In so many ways, the war in Afghanistan is a repeat of the war in Vietnam, the last war we lost. It’s all spelled out in the Afghan Papers, a trove of 400 interviews of top officials in Afghanistan conducted by the Pentagon’s Special Investigator from 2014 to 2018, but – like the Pentagon Papers – kept secret until published by the Washington Post in 2019.
The Post summed up 2,000 pages of documents in four points: (1) Year after year, U.S. officials failed to tell the public the truth about the war; (2) U.S. officials admitted the mission had no clear strategy; (3) Many years into the war, U.S. officials still did not understand Afghanistan; (4) the U.S. wasted vast sums of money trying to remake Afghanistan and bred corruption in the process. Sound familiar? Vietnam! Been there, done that.
No doubt, America’s departure from Afghanistan will create problems. Afghan civilians who helped American troops could be targeted. Afghan women risk losing all the gains they’ve made. The Taliban could topple the weak central government. But to those who cite those factors as a reason to continue the war, President Biden asked the right question: “Let me ask those who want us to stay: “How many thousands more Americans, daughters and sons, were you willing to risk?” The answer is: None. It’s just not worth it.
What lesson did we learn from Afghanistan? The same lesson we should have learned in Vietnam. Joe Cirincione, former head of the Ploughshares Fund, told me on my podcast this week: “We once again learned that America is not good at empire building, and that Afghanistan really is the place where empires go to die.”
This week, President George W. Bush, who started the war 20 years ago, called Biden’s Afghanistan pullout a “mistake.” No, Mr. President. Your mistake was invading Afghanistan in the first place, with no clear mission and no clear timetable for getting out. For better or worse, only Afghans can determine their own future.
(Bill Press is host of The BillPressPod, and author of the new book, “Trump Must Go: The Top 100 Reasons to Dump Trump (And One to Keep Him).” His email address is: email@example.com. Readers may also follow him on Twitter @billpresspod.)
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