Details of Secret Pact Emerge: Troops Stuck in Afghanistan Until 2024
Maybe you thought we’d get out of Afghanistan this very year, the drawdown date President Obama set as he surged U.S. troops into the country in December 2009; or maybe you thought the Obama administration’s target for withdrawal might be the last day of 2014, that date certain of recent vintage for turning over U.S. and NATO combat duties to the Afghans; or maybe -- if you happen to be a news jockey -- you took note when Brigadier General Walter Givhan suggested that the Afghan air force he was training might finally be up and running in 2016; or when his successor Brigadier General Michael Boera suggested that the date might slip to 2018 if Congress insisted that the Pentagon buy American, not Russian, helicopters for its pilots. Or maybe you noticed when Lieutenant General William Caldwell, commander of NATO Training Mission Afghanistan, recently suggested that the Afghan military would need the support of thousands of foreign trainers until at least 2020.
Whatever you thought, it turns out that you were wrong, and it’s time to recalibrate. After all, according to Ben Farmer of the British Telegraph, the Obama administration is now negotiating a “pact” with the government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai that could leave American military “trainers” -- thousands of them -- as well as special operations forces, and the U.S. Air Force settled into some of the enormous Afghan bases the Pentagon has built there until… 2024.
Let’s try, as a start, to put 2024 in perspective.
It was 1979 -- and I was 35 -- when the U.S. embarked on its first Afghan war. If 2024 is truly the Afghan endpoint for Washington, I’ll be 80 when the last American soldier leaves.
Or think of it another way: this September’s kindergarteners will be high school graduates in 2024 (and so eligible to join the all-volunteer army in the utterly unlikely event that victory hasn’t been achieved by then).
Or thought of another way, Mullah Omar, head of the Taliban, born in 1959, will 65 and ready for retirement in 2024; George W. Bush, the president who launched the war against the Taliban in 2001, will be 78; Barack Obama, the president who made Bush’s Afghan war his own, will be 63; and David Petraeus, the general who ran the Iraq War, Centcom, the Afghan War, and then the CIA, will be 72. (Expect years of Afghan-war-related memoirs.) And NASA’s Voyager 1 spacecraft, launched in 1977, may be only a year from losing power in 2024 and perhaps less than 73,600 years from the nearest star (by which time, the U.S. will be out of Afghanistan).
But let’s not get downhearted. If Farmer’s 2024 date turns out to be accurate, based on what we’ve repeatedly seen over the last near decade, there’s plenty to look forward to in the intervening 13 years -- and here’s just a sampling:
The U.S. Office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (call it the IG), government task forces, and various media organizations can do periodic investigations and issue corruption reports for 13 more years, just like the one Task Force 2010, set up by General Petraeus, recently issued. It indicated that some $360 million in U.S. taxpayer dollars have “ended up in the hands of… the Taliban, criminals, and power brokers with ties to both,” all thanks to “profiteering, bribery, and extortion.”
And here’s something else to look forward to: If all goes well, the U.S. and its allies can continue to offer another 13 years’ worth of military and “development” funding that, as a June report by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s Democratic majority staff indicated, already accounts for 97 percent of Afghanistan’s gross domestic product. And as that report (and so many others before it) also made clear, that funding has a remarkable way of “developing” next to nothing.
Or look forward to years more of reports like the one issued in April by the IG pointing out that some of the $10 billion a year being poured into training, building up, and supplying Afghanistan’s police is simply missing-in-action. Gone. Nowhere in sight. Not accounted for. The IG reported that “the country's police rolls and payrolls cannot be verified because of poor record keeping,” which meant that the numbers “for all practical purposes become somewhat fictitious.” In other words, you can expect 13 more years in which your tax dollars fund significant numbers of “ghost policemen.”
Or look forward to more than a decade of news articles and official reports on the approximately 30 percent of Afghan army troops who desert each year. (Lieutenant General Caldwell supplied that figure in June.) To be exact, if enrolment in the army reaches 171,600 by this October, as scheduled, you’re talking about slightly more than 51,000 deserters a year, or a minimum of 668,000 by 2024 (and since army troop levels are slated to rise, however absurd that number already sounds, it’s undoubtedly an underestimate).
Or consider the cost of the war as reflected in the Pentagon’s 2012 budget request: $107.3 billion a year. (Of course, like those police figures, that’s probably a kind of happy fiction.) A group of experts on the Afghan war, for example, puts the actual number at $120 billion -- and neither of these figures includes the money that Washington will be spending in 2024 and beyond to care for the war’s damaged veterans. Still, just for argument’s sake, let’s go with $107 billion a year through 2014, when the last U.S. “combat” troops are slated to depart, and then just arbitrarily slash that figure by half to 2024. That would total $856 billion over the next 13 years. (By comparison, were President Obama’s proposals to close corporate tax loopholes and tax the mega-rich at Clinton-era rates put into effect, that would pull in only $700 billion over 10 years.)
And of course, while a rollicking good time would be had by all over those 13 years of training local forces and carrying out special operations and air missions in the greater Afghan region, a newly released report from the Medicare and Social Security Trustees predicts that “the Hospital Insurance fund, which pays for hospital stays of Medicare recipients, will run out in 2024, five years earlier than last year's report estimate.” And don’t even think about what’s likely to happen to America’s infrastructure, already sorely underfunded -- all those dams, bridges, natural gas pipelines, roads, and other basics of our lives -- in those same years.
I could go on, but you get the idea. If by dint of sheer grit and tons of dough, the Pentagon somehow outlasts the Taliban (and whatever is left of al-Qaeda in the region), victory in Afghanistan in 2024 will assumedly leave in place a desperately frail semi-nation with a still-hemorrhaging security force of 400,000 that it will be utterly incapable of paying for.
In the meantime, the U.S. will undoubtedly be a nation unbuilt. Still, what a 13 years to look forward to!
So mark it on your calendars. If that Washington-Kabul pact goes through as planned, consider it settled: victory in 2024 and mission accomplished.
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Tom Engelhardt, co-founder of the American Empire Project and the author of The American Way of War: How Bush’s Wars Became Obama’s as well as The End of Victory Culture, runs the Nation Institute's TomDispatch.com. His latest book, The United States of Fear (Haymarket Books), will be published in November.