It’s been said that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again expecting a different result. President Biden has taken the decision to pull out of Afghanistan, a country that his been called the “Graveyard of Empires.”
The British were mired in Afghanistan from 1839-1842, then off and on again in the Anglo-Afghan wars until finally giving up as World War I became primary. Britain lost tens of thousands soldiers. More historically, the Mongols and Alexander the Great got caught up as well in Afghanistan’s rugged mountainous topography of the Hindu Kush in this diverse tribal landscape.
Why did we go there to begin with? Maureen Dowd of the New York Times put it succinctly. “Awash in grief and anger we invaded Afghanistan after 9/11 to hunt down Osama Bin Laden (leader of Al Qaeda) and punish the Taliban for letting him turn a maze of caves into a launching pad to attack America.” But defining over time who the enemy was, especially after the assassination of Bin Laden, became complicated. The Taliban were complicit, but Al Qaeda was the perpetrator. The Taliban are antithetical to our values and way of life, but not involved directly in 9/11.
From a modern historical perspective, the Soviets were mired in Afghanistan for a decade, losing over 15,000 soldiers with more than 35,000 wounded. To date since 2001, the U.S. has lost 2,312 soldiers with 20,066 wounded. Civilians killed during these wars is estimated to be well over two million. The estimated total cost to the U.S. government of military operations, aid to Afghanistan and related costs in Pakistan is just short of one trillion dollars. But the full cost of these wars is the carryover and continuing costs of caring for our disabled soldiers and those struggling with PTSD.
What did we gain and what did we lose from these over and over again expeditionary actions into Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan? That’s a matter of some conjecture. In the case of Afghanistan, the initial impulse was to strike back after the attack on Sept. 11, 2001 and the desire to eliminate Osama Bin Laden and his crew of Al Qaeda terrorists along with their diverse but local tribal collaborators, the Taliban. But after 20 years of an “endless war,” was there anything of a rationale left?
Having been educated and taught in matters of international relations, I have always believed that engagement is an essential tool in foreign policy, if used wisely, and if there is a sense of erstwhile interest in mutual, constructive gain. The Taliban is a coalition of medieval tribes with nothing to offer bilaterally except a promise not to extend their terror and malevolence outside their own boundaries. What’s left of Al Qaeda is increasingly distanced from the Islamic State and its efforts to create a califate in the Middle East. With all the challenges in today’s world, can we afford to try to nation build in the Middle East given these conflicting Islamic influences?
What we have lost in blood and treasure in Afghanistan is tragic in human terms and wasteful relative to our own infrastructure. Our 20-year investment in Afghanistan both in military and civilian aid has come close to one trillion dollars. One way to put that in perspective is to look at the total cost of our entire Interstate Highway System. According to the American Society of Civil Engineers, that cost was half of what we have spent in Afghanistan, and that assessment ignores the cost of American lives along with the continuing costs of helping those who served valiantly to support U.S. policy in that part of the world over this 20-year period.
Rosy military assessments of what we needed to do to win in Afghanistan, including one surge of over 100,000 soldiers, were repeated over and over again through a revolving door of military leadership and three presidencies, promising different winnable outcomes every time. And yet, we are left with a spiraling financial sink and a frustrating political stalemate. The only thing consistently said over time by military leaders was: “Now is just not the time to pull out.”
Dave Phillips and John Ismay, in a piece for the New York Times, illuminated the frustration. “How is it possible for the United States to win almost every battle and still lose the war? How could the countless sacrifices and small victories leave Afghanistan with no better promise of peace than it had a generation ago? What does it say about the value of the nearly 2,400 Americans who were killed?”
John Dempsey served two tours of duty in Afghanistan and says, “There’s no easy answer, no victory dance, (or) they were right and we were wrong.”
President Biden, trying to focus on our own crumbling infrastructure and the need to stimulate our own post-pandemic economy, has said, “So when will it be the right moment to leave? One more year? Two more years? Ten more years? Ten, 20, 30 billion dollars more above the trillion we’ve already spent? ‘Not now’ — that’s how we got here.”
It seems like the right decision. Not to diminish in any way the courage of our soldiers and the trust they put in their civilian and military leaders regarding the complicated and evolving mission in Afghanistan. For me, after 20 years of blood and treasure, it’s time to vacate this infamous “Graveyard of Empires” and focus on home.
Bill Sims is a Hillsboro resident, retired president of the Denver Council on Foreign Relations, an author and runs a small farm in Berrysville with his wife. He is a former educator, executive and foundation president.