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