Heading into its sixteenth year, with no endpoint in sight, America’s longest war is its least talked about.
Afghanistan has not come up in any Republican or Democratic debate, except perhaps as one of a list of countries where Islamic State must be destroyed (left out is the reality that no Islamic State existed in 2001 when the U.S. invaded Afghanistan to defeat the Taliban, who, by the way, are still not defeated.)
For her part, the only mention of Afghanistan from Hillary Clinton is a vague statement last year of support for Barack Obama’s decision to keep 5,500 troops in Afghanistan when he leaves the White House in 2017. Bernie Sanders’ web site has a long series of statement-lets that generally say things have not worked out well in Afghanistan, but stays away from much of a stance.
Republican front runner Donald Trump, least at first, was more honest on the situation. “We made a terrible mistake getting involved there in the first place. We had real brilliant thinkers that didn’t know what the hell they were doing. And it’s a mess. It’s a mess. And at this point, you probably have to stay because that thing will collapse about two seconds after they leave. Just as I said that Iraq was going to collapse after we leave.”
However, once it was clear no one wanted to handle the truth, Trump quickly walked his statement back, denying that he had characterized U.S. entry into Afghanistan as a mistake and said he had only talked about Iraq.
As the United States appears prepared for an indefinite presence in Afghanistan, what really is the situation on the ground 15 years in?
The Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, John Sopko, had a few thoughts on what has been achieved in those years, all at the cost of an estimated 149,000 Afghan deaths, alongside 3,515 American/Coalition deaths. No one really knows how much the U.S. has spent in dollars on the war, but one reasonable guess is $685 billion.
Sopko, in remarks recently at Harvard University “The Perilous State of Afghan Reconstruction: Lessons from Fifteen Years” said:
— Conditions are not, to put it mildly, what we would hope to see 15 years into a counterinsurgency and nation-building campaign.
— Large parts of Afghanistan are effectively off-limits to foreign personnel.
— Other consequences of insecurity are less headline-grabbing, but are still evil omens for the future of a desperately poor and largely illiterate country. Late last month, a spokesman for the Afghan Ministry of Education was quoted as saying 714 schools have been closed and more than 2.5 million children were being denied schooling, mainly because of the war.
— Bombings, raids, ambushes, land mines, and temporary seizures of key points can all serve to undermine the government’s credibility and affect security force and popular morale.
— Security is where most of the U.S. reconstruction funding has gone, about 61% of the $113 billion Congress has appropriated since fiscal year 2002, or $68 billion.
— As a result of the U.S. military draw down in Afghanistan, the Department of Defense has lost much of its ability to collect reliable information on Afghan security capability and effectiveness. We continue to rely on Afghan reporting on unit strengths, a concern because the rolls may contain thousands of “ghost” personnel whose costs we pay and whose absence distorts realistic assessments of Afghan capabilities.
— Fifteen years into an unfinished work of funding and fighting, we must indeed ask, “What went wrong?” Citing instances of full or partial failures, is part of the answer. But no catalog of imperfections captures the full palette of pathologies or root causes.
A lot of chew on there. Perhaps at some point the media, the voters, or the next debate moderators might inquire of the candidates what their current thoughts are.