Afghanistan is often called the “graveyard of empires.” It is also Barack Obama’s Achilles’ heel. He has nobody to blame but himself.
Afghanistan has little strategic value and the war is one of choice rather than necessity. Now, at the end of a wasteful and frustrating decade, our objective is to end the fighting and leave a measure of stability behind. But clarifying even this simple goal seems more than the Obama administration can handle.
Like the rest of Obama’s foreign policy, U.S. strategy in that beleaguered country is misguided, confused, and aimless. To the president, the war in Afghanistan is a domestic political issue. It is intended to bolster his electoral future, to help pass his domestic legislative agenda, and to placate critics of his policies in Iraq and the rest of the Middle East. To the extent that he knows his history, I suspect he imagines a replay of Cold War days, when the hawks of both parties had a quiet deal with the liberals: they would support social policies in return for the liberals’ votes for defense spending. We kept the Russians at bay, the welfare state continued to expand, and both sides were happy.
The costs of this war to the United States are huge. We now have nearly 100,000 U.S. troops there, and at least as many contract civilians and employees of 60 federal agencies, all at a cost of nearly $90 billion a year, or $250 million a day. In the 21 months since Obama took office, our military has taken on every task assigned, and fought bravely and effectively. Yet more than 600 U.S. soldiers have died in Afghanistan-more than died there during George Bush’s entire time in office.
To the military, the cost is not only in lives and injuries-we suffered 200 deaths over the past three months-and materiel. Afghanistan is a distraction at time when our troops — already over-extended — need to be ready for emergencies that could easily arise in Iran, Pakistan, and North Korea. Yet Obama and the Congress simply make up for their incoherence and strategic shortcomings by throwing more money and people into the stew.
And what is our goal? Obama has not made that clear. Instead, we seem to have stumbled into “nation-building” (a technology neither we nor anyone else understand) to shore up President Karzai as a substitute for the Taliban. It’s a pipe dream that won’t work now — or ever — regardless of the number of troops and dollars we expend. Afghanistan is dominated by tribes, is hopelessly corrupt and virtually ungovernable, is culturally rooted in the Middle Ages, and is allergic to foreigners. Probably no country in the world is a worse candidate for nation-building — something the U.S. is ill equipped to do in the best of circumstances.
The Afghan war is often compared to Vietnam, although at least in Vietnam we were fighting Communists. As a retired Marine general, who had been in Vietnam for most of that war and much involved in national security affairs ever since, recently told me, “The quagmire in Afghanistan is already deeper than ‘Nam ever was, and will only get worse.” He went on to say that he knows virtually nobody, inside or outside of the defense establishment, who thinks we are on the right course there.
It is time for conservatives, Tea Partiers, and right-thinking Americans, from whatever persuasion, to recognize that Obama’s Afghan war is a fool’s errand with virtually no chance of success, whatever success may mean. America has acquitted herself well, using her best and brightest to give millions of Afghans a chance for freedom and progress. After nine years of war, hundreds of billions of dollars and countless American and Afghan lives wasted, it is inconceivable that anything good, for either the United States or the Afghans, will come of it. Let us recognize that, and end this war as soon as possible.