In Afghanistan, little to show for America’s longest war

It is the longest war in U.S. history, yet it hardly gets any attention. The public may be suffering from Afghan fatigue, especially when there is little to show for the expenditure of life and treasure.

It has been 15 years since the U.S. invaded Afghanistan to hunt down the architects of the 9/11 attacks. The invasion was an integral piece of President Bush’s hastily conceived “Global War on Terrorism.” By the end of 2001, American forces had toppled the Taliban government. Mission accomplished.

Afghanistan is a country of about 30 million people, approximately the size of Texas, nestled between Pakistan, Iran, and several former Soviet republics. Its location has made it a source of significant geopolitical interest and tension since the 19th century.

The country has historically been wrought with turbulence, characterized by chronic instability and repeated bouts of civil war. Since 329 B.C., when Alexander the Great came to Kabul, Afghanistan has been invaded by Arabs, Chinese, Mongols, Moghuls, the British, and the Soviets. As scholars have written, Afghanistan is the graveyard of empires.

The Taliban took over in 1996. This fundamentalist Islamic group formed from remnants of the Mujahideen (holy warriors) who battled the Soviets for over a decade.

The United States has spent over $1 trillion on fighting and reconstruction, building an Afghan army, instilling western values in a land of warlords and tribal hostilities, and establishing a functioning democracy in a place that has never been changed by a foreign power. Over 2,200 American lives have been sacrificed.

According to the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, about $115 billion has been spent to support Afghanistan relief and assist the government. Yet the World Bank reports that it remains one of the poorest countries in the world, and three quarters of the population is illiterate.

While the United States and NATO formally ended the war in Afghanistan on December 28, 2014, a force of 8,500 Americans remains to train and support the Afghan security forces.

Since the Taliban fell, some progress has arguably been made in opening up the country and expanding democratic freedoms, especially among women. However, lack of security still impedes development, and corruption remains a significant barrier to progress. The 2015 Corruption Perceptions Index ranks Afghanistan 166th out of the 168 countries monitored. Taliban insurgency is on the rise, drug trafficking flourishes, human rights abuses continue, the rule of law is weak. All the while the U.S. picks up the tab for the Afghan army and police, and continues to provide foreign aid.

Billions have been wasted on fruitless projects that are awash in corruption and have little government oversight, according to the Special Inspector General. This office has documented a greatest hits compilation of waste, fraud and abuse in U.S. government-sponsored programs.

Among the more egregious boondoggles was importing rare blond male Italian goats to mate with female Afghan goats and make cashmere. The $6 million program included shipping nine male goats to western Afghanistan, setting up a farm, lab, and staff to certify their wool.

But the entire herd of female goats was wiped out by disease. As a result, only two of the imported Italian goats are still usable; it could not be confirmed whether the others were dead or alive.

Another baaad idea. You goat to be kidding.

That was not the only example of wasting American taxpayer money. The Pentagon’s Task Force for Business and Stability Operations spent nearly $150 million for employees to stay in private luxury villas with flat-screen TVs rather than bunking at military bases. Another $43 million was spent on a gas station that should have cost about $500,000.

America may have good intentions, but we know which road is paved with those. We will be mowing the grass in Afghanistan for the foreseeable future, like Sisyphus rolling his boulder up the hill for all eternity.

originally published: January 7, 2017

A LESSON OF WAR: Iraq, Afghanistan and from a century past

The Battle of the Somme was a meat grinder. The centenary of this battle, fought mid-way through World War I, will be commemorated on July 1 in Great Britain, France and other countries that lost men in one of the largest and bloodiest battles in the history of human warfare.

Between July 1 and Nov. 18, 1916, the British suffered about 420,000 casualties, the French about 200,000 and the Germans about 465,000. All told, 300,000 soldiers died and little was achieved. Somme was like America’s recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan writ large.

After two years of relative stalemate, allied forces decided to make a big push to break through the German lines and hopefully achieve a quick and decisive victory on the Western Front, much like politicians and generals assumed quick victories in Iraq and Afghanistan. The offensive was designed to relieve pressure on the French as a result of the German offensive against French forces at Verdun, and take control of a 20-mile stretch of the meandering River Somme.

The first day of that battle was the bloodiest in the history of the British army . Of the 120,000 troops who went into battle, the British suffered about 60,000 casualties, as many as 20,000 of whom died before the day was over.

The plan drawn up by generals in their chateau headquarters miles behind the battlefield was for an artillery barrage to pound the German defenses to an extent that the attacking British could just walk in and occupy the opposing trenches with minimal opposition. Cavalry units would then gloriously pour through the German lines, pursue the fleeing Germans and turn the tide of a war that had been in a deadly stalemate for the better part of two years.

Before the battle started, the British fired over a million and a half shells at the German soldiers, many of which either did not explode or completely missed their targets.

During seven days and nights of bombardment that removed the element of surprise, German troops simply moved into their deep underground concrete bunkers and waited. When the artillery pounding stopped, scores of British soldiers walked in a row uphill in successive waves across no-man’s-land and were mowed down, easy targets for swarms of German machine gun nests. By nightfall, few of the objectives had been taken despite massive loss of life.

The offensive would continue for another 4 1/2 months in a similar vein. After July 1, a long stalemate settled in as the British employed the same hopeless method of attack conforming to a prefabricated interpretation of events on the ground, despite assault after assault turning into a killing ground. Somme became a bloody battle of attrition.

By the end of the battle, a massive loss of human life had netted the allies roughly six miles of German­ held territory.

The battle helped cement the reputation of World War I as a war of terrible slaughter caused by poor decisions on the part of high commanders. The troubled British offensive resulted in the epithet “lions led by donkeys.”

Today, revisionist historians contend that the battle, while costly and flawed, put an end to German hopes at Verdun, badly weakened the German army and helped the British learn new tactics for successfully prosecuting future offensives.

Traditionalists believe this interpretation airbrushes reality. They say the battle achieved nothing but untold misery and loss. It was an unjustified bloodbath and evidence of the British high command’s incompetence. They argue that British military leaders failed in the fashion of Pyrrhus, who lamented after the battle at Asculum: “another such victory over the Romans and we are undone.”

Having just lived through two conflicts, Americans can relate to this quote. Iraq and Afghanistan, which is ongoing, both created more problems than they solved. Optimistic miscalculations led to unintended consequences and bloody inconclusiveness. And so it goes.

Originally Published: Jun 25, 2016