Afghanistan War: Out of Sight, out of Mind
Exactly a year before he was assassinated, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave one of the most important speeches of his life, titled “Beyond Vietnam.”
In the speech—its 50th anniversary was Tuesday—King addressed the “giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism and militarism.” It was a milestone for the Nobel Peace Prize-winning civil rights icon, in which he endorsed the nascent anti-war movement and linked racism and economic injustice with war. The Vietnam War eventually earned the distinction of being the most protracted fight the U.S. ever waged, turning into a sinkhole for lives, money and mental and physical scars.
As The New York Times pointed out, “This year, America’s war in Afghanistan will pass a grim milestone as it surpasses the Civil War in duration, as measured against the final withdrawal of Union forces from the South.” But it’s worse than that. If one places the official start of the Vietnam War in the 1960s, the Afghanistan conflict has continued for even longer than the war in Vietnam. While some argue that the Vietnam conflict began a decade earlier, the same case could be made for Afghanistan, where, starting in the 1970s and through the mid-1990s, the U.S. poured weapons and money into the country, to the proxy soldiers who were fighting the Soviet occupation.
The long arc of U.S. involvement in Afghanistan likely makes it the United States’ single longest military engagement ever. It became the starting point for al-Qaida’s jihad against the West, and, after the Sept. 11 attacks, the long and endless “war on terrorism” launched by George W. Bush and continued by Barack Obama and now Donald Trump. The longest war the U.S. has ever waged is rivaling the disaster that was Vietnam.
Unlike Vietnam, the Afghanistan War has waxed and waned in public and political consciousness and has yet to inspire a massive anti-war movement, despite the fact that there are currently more active-duty U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan than in any other country, including Iraq, Syria and Yemen. There is very little appetite for ending the war in Afghanistan. We are simply playing a fatal waiting game, driven by the inertia of public and political disinterest.
Journalist Douglas Wissing, who has written two books about Afghanistan and been among a handful of reporters writing about the war, shared many of the grim human and financial costs being incurred in a recent article for The Hill. If the success of the war is measured by the weakness of the Taliban, Wissing points out that the U.S. has failed, because the insurgent movement “has been growing at double-digit rates” and the “Taliban shadow governments operate in virtually every province, and essentially control several.” If it is measured by the human development of ordinary Afghans, Wissing reminds us that Afghanistan, which had the worst rates of maternal and child mortality, literacy and poverty in the world in 2001, is “still near the bottom of virtually every Human Development Index” today. If judged by the amount of money American taxpayers have spent, Wissing notes that the U.S. has spent more money on “a country of about 30 million with a per capita annual income of about $400 … than was spent on the Marshall Plan, adjusted for inflation,” with little to show for it. So by most measures, the U.S. war has been a miserable failure.
Rather than aim for tangible achievements, the Obama administration adjusted the standard by which it measured success in Afghanistan. Insiders let slip a phrase that is stunning in its hubris and disregard for Afghan lives: “Afghan good enough.” Any benefits gained from the war have not been good enough, but they are “Afghan good enough.” By such a standard, Afghans are relegated to living under myriad U.S.-empowered strongmen, corrupt government officials, an increasingly powerful fundamentalist and misogynist regime, and grinding poverty.
“Afghan good enough” implies that Afghans are less than human, that what is good enough for them is likely not good enough for the rest of us.
When Obama left office, he made little mention of Afghanistan, even though he campaigned in 2008 on a foreign policy platform of expanding the Afghanistan War, saying that he would “make the fight against al-Qaida and the Taliban the top priority that it should be.” He added, “This is a war that we have to win.”
Under the standards of “Afghan good enough,” Obama may consider the current status quo a “win,” but more than 8,000 U.S. troops still remain on the ground.
As several generals have done in the past, Gen. John Nicholson, who currently leads coalition forces there, has asked the Trump administration for “a few thousand” more troops, as if that is all that lies between a stalemate and a victory. When Obama requested a “surge” of 17,000 U.S. troops for the war in 2009, he justified the increase by saying it was “necessary to stabilize a deteriorating situation in Afghanistan, which has not received the strategic attention, direction and resources it urgently requires.” Eventually that surge grew to a whopping 33,000 U.S. troops, who were eventually withdrawn in 2012 with little fanfare and no explanation as to why the “stabilization” effort failed. One military official simply told CNN, “We have not seen as much success as we had hoped for.”
A series of so-called “peace talks” with a supposed Taliban representative turned into an embarrassing dead end for the administration when it was discovered that the leader in question was a fake.
So far, there is little indication about whether Trump would approve of an increase in U.S. troops, or, for that matter, whether he even has a clear-cut policy on Afghanistan. Indeed, Politico described him as a “blank slate” on the war and said that Afghanistan was a “non-issue” during his presidential campaign.
Trump’s main foreign policy focus related to the U.S. “war on terrorism” has been on Islamic State, a late player on the war front. Unfortunately, the newly discovered presence of Islamic State soldiers in Afghanistan and Pakistan could keep U.S. troops in the region for years more, as Trump may want to keep his belligerent pledge to “totally destroy” the terrorist group.
It is ironic that in discussing U.S. funding of mujahedeen soldiers in Afghanistan against the Soviet occupying army, Zbigniew Brzezinski—President Jimmy Carter’s national security adviser—bragged in 1998 about “the opportunity of giving to the USSR its Vietnam War.”
Afghanistan did not just become the Soviet Union’s Vietnam; today it is also the United States’ Vietnam. Perhaps Afghanistan should supersede Vietnam to become the new definition of a failed and protracted war. Perhaps we should start worrying openly about Iraq, Syria or Yemen turning into “the United States’ Afghanistan.” But that would only happen if Americans actually paid attention to our unending war.