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Peter Apps is the executive director of PS21 and a veteran reporter. He tweets @pete_apps
Fourteen years old this month, the West’s war in Afghanistan had all but vanished from the headlines. Even before the fall of Kunduz this week, however — the first provincial capital to be taken by the Taliban in more than a decade — it was clear that all was not going well.
Last week, the Wall Street Journal reported that United States and allied officials were reviewing White House plans to scale down NATO troop numbers in Afghanistan to several hundred by the end of next year, from some 10,000 now. A reduction on that scale, they apparently worry, could leave the door open for not just a Taliban recovery, but also significant inroads by elements of Islamic State.
Like the Russians before them, NATO appears to have squandered lives, resources and a surprising degree of goodwill — and with little left to show for it.
Even the most cursory examination reveals phenomenal waste. According to calculations at the end of last year by the Financial Times and others, the war had already cost almost $1 trillion (less than the $1.7 trillion spent on Iraq, but still staggering). The official responsible for scrutinizing spending, U.S. Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction (SIGAR) John Sopko, says that, adjusted for inflation, efforts at development in Afghanistan have now cost more than the Marshall Plan to reconstruct post-World War Two Europe.
Divided equally among Afghanistan’s 30 million citizens, the trillion dollars amounts to some $33,000 per head. That would be more than $2,300 per year, per person spread across the 14 years of the war. (Although, in reality, the lion’s share of spending has come in the last seven years of the Obama administration.) Annual per capita Afghan income in 2014 was only $670.
According to SIGAR, the United States has no real idea, even now, how many Afghan troops, health centers or schools its money has backed. The money is almost certainly going to pay for personnel who never existed. (SIGAR’s reports and comments make depressing but fascinating reading — a must for anyone who really wants to understand what has gone wrong in Afghanistan.)
The simple truth, I would argue, is that we tend to look at the Afghan war in entirely the wrong way, and because of that the United States has spent its money poorly, too. The United States, British and broader Western media outlets have focused their coverage on the Western soldier experience.
Even now, if you told most Americans or Brits to consider the “real tragedy” of the Afghan war, they would think of dead and maimed NATO personnel, of their widows and children. But that’s like my view of the Sri Lanka war being entirely colored just because I broke my neck in it (which of course it is). It’s understandable, even unavoidable — but it misses the bigger picture.
According to fatalities monitoring website icasualties.org, 3495 coalition soldiers have been killed since 2001 — 2364 Americans, 453 Brits and 678 others. Brown University’s Cost of War Project, however, estimates that a total of 92,000 Afghans were killed over the same period. At least 26,000 of those, they believe, were civilians.
The real fight that counted was always the struggle for control between the government in Kabul, the various regional power centers and the Taliban. It’s a fight that had been ongoing since the Russian withdrawal in 1989.
The hope in Afghanistan was that several years of tough action by Western troops would break the Taliban and shape a country that could be handed back to the Afghans. The reality, though, seems to have been that all sides knew Western troops would eventually leave.
Exact breakdowns of where the money went in Afghanistan are difficult to make — not least because Western personnel rotating through the country often failed to keep proper records, according to SIGAR. But it is clear that a very large amount — probably the vast majority — went to the Western military effort. According to the Washington think tank the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, by 2014 the war cost $2.1 million for every U.S. service member on the ground.
Huge amounts of equipment — from mine-hardened patrol vehicles to new patterns of camouflage clothing — were rushed into production. By 2010, a U.S. or NATO soldier suffering catastrophic injuries in Afghanistan could expect a better standard of medical care than that available at any major Western city trauma center.
For all the talk of strengthening the Afghan forces, their kit was always much more basic — troops without body armor, often in civilian-style pickup trucks.
This weekend, the New York Times reported Afghanistan’s most decorated helicopter pilot complaining that new U.S.-delivered attack helicopters were all but useless — unable to reach the mountaintops often occupied by Taliban, often suffering jammed guns and other mechanical failures. According to SIGAR, Afghan security forces are seriously lacking in cold-weather gear — a must for soldiers based in mountainous regions where winter can last for seven months.
Several commanders, particularly U.S. General Stanley McChrystal, tried to focus on building Afghan capacity and winning hearts and minds. For most of the troops and more junior leaders in warfare, however, Afghan forces were rarely more than a distraction, danger or joke. Given the number of times Afghan troops turned on NATO members, that’s hardly surprising. And while the New York Times might only just have discovered the alarming habit of Afghan forces having sex with teenage boys, the phrase “man love Thursday” had long been the topic of horrified conversation among Western soldiers not easily shocked.
The problem, though, is that if Western troops don’t stay in Afghanistan forever — and they probably will not — the Afghan forces are almost the only show in town. And if Afghan forces can’t hold, power will be transferred to the kind of warlords who preceded them, Taliban or otherwise.
Even the work done on strengthening the Afghan government may simply have created something unsustainable. SIGAR estimates that the Afghan government costs $8 to $10 billion a year to run — but can raise no more than $2 billion itself in revenue. That leaves it more dependent on outside support than probably any other nation.
It’s not all bad news. Even SIGAR — never prone to put a gloss on things unnecessarily — points to reduced maternal mortality rates, at least modestly improved access to education, and a new government under President Ashraf Ghani that seems genuinely keen to assert its authority and tackle corruption.
The U.S. forces that remain there may still be able to make a difference. Indeed, it is easy to forget now that many, many fewer — only a handful of special operators and intelligence agency paramilitaries — worked with local groups to oust the Taliban from much of the country within weeks after September 11.
Their departure, though, would not mean the end of the fight for Afghanistan. It might only be the beginning.
This article originally appeared on Reuters.com on October 1, 2015.
PS21 is a non-governmental, non-ideological, non-national organization. All views expressed are the author’s own.