Afghanistan by the Numbers: Measuring a War Gone to Hell
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Here may be the single strangest fact of our American world: that at least three administrations -- Ronald Reagan's, George W. Bush's, and now Barack Obama's -- drew the U.S. "defense" perimeter at the Hindu Kush; that is, in the rugged, mountainous lands of Afghanistan. Put another way, while Americans argue feverishly and angrily over what kind of money, if any, to put into health care, or decaying infrastructure, or other key places of need, until recently just about no one in the mainstream raised a peep about the fact that, for nearly eight years (not to say much of the last three decades), we've been pouring billions of dollars, American military know-how, and American lives into a black hole in Afghanistan that is, at least in significant part, of our own creation.
Imagine for a moment, as you read this essay, what might have happened if Americans had decided to sink the same sort of money -- $228 billion and rising fast -- the same "civilian surges," the same planning, thought, and effort (but not the same staggering ineffectiveness) into reclaiming New Orleans or Detroit, or into planning an American future here at home. Imagine, for a moment, when you read about the multi-millions going into further construction at Bagram Air Base, or to the mercenary company that provides "Lord of the Flies" hire-a-gun guards for American diplomats in massive super-embassies, or about the half-a-billion dollars sunk into a corrupt and fraudulent Afghan election, what a similar investment in our own country might have meant.
Ask yourself: Wouldn't the U.S. have been safer and more secure if all the money, effort, and planning had gone towards "nation-building" in America? Or do you really think we're safer now, with an official unemployment rate of 9.7%, an underemployment rate of 16.8%, and a record 25.5% teen unemployment rate, with soaring health-care costs, with vast infrastructural weaknesses and failures, and in debt up to our eyeballs, while tens of thousands of troops and massive infusions of cash are mustered ostensibly to fight a terrorist outfit that may number in the low hundreds or at most thousands, that, by all accounts, isn't now even based in Afghanistan, and that has shown itself perfectly capable of settling into broken states like Somalia or well functioning cities like Hamburg.
Sometime later this month, the Obama administration will present Congress with "metrics" for... well, since this isn't the Bush era, we can't say "victory." In the style of special envoy to the region Richard Holbrooke, let's call it "success." Holbrooke recently offered this definition of that word, evidently based on the standards the Supreme Court used to define pornography: "We'll know it when we see it."
According to Karen DeYoung of the Washington Post , the Obama administration is reportedly rushing to "preempt Congress with its own metrics." It's producing a document called a Strategic Implementation Plan, which, DeYoung writes, "will include separate 'indicators' of progress under nine broad 'objectives' to be measured quarterly... Some of the about 50 indicators will apply to U.S. performance, but most will measure Afghan and Pakistani efforts." These are to include supposedly measurable categories like numbers of newly trained Afghan army recruits and the timeliness of the delivery of promised U.S. resources.
The administration is evidently now "tweaking" its metrics. But let's admit it: metrics in war almost invariably turn out to occupy treacherous terrain. Think of it as quagmire territory, in part because numbers, however accurate (and they often aren't), can lie -- or rather, can tell the story you would like them to tell.