By Bob Gast–
As we in the United States “celebrate” the tenth anniversary of the war in Afghanistan with a cost of several billion dollars a month for the military alone, I have become increasingly curious as to if and when the United States Government will finally decide that we must intelligently assess our role in this part of the world and move towards disengagement. Nearly everyone seems to agree that the burden on our national economy has become serious, with the cost in military terms only the beginning. How do we put a value on the thousands of young men and women who have been killed or wounded and the additional $57 billion spend on an “alphabet soup” of other US agencies who are deployed in this unfortunate part of the world. Overall, the Military cost to the American taxpayers now exceeds $450 billion dollars.
Having served in the Government for over 30 years, I have some sense of what is possible when we enter these foreign conflicts, and I have every confidence in our military and its ability to win a war in the conventional sense. We are simply the best in the world both in terms of our men and women and in our development and use of the various tools of war. Witness our recent successes with unmanned drones. However, I have much less confidence in that same military engaging in “nation building,” which we appear to be doing in Afghanistan. Let’s consider some of what I consider to be overriding issues that are too rarely emphasized or even mentioned in the press but are likely to be vital in the ultimate decision making process leading to a withdrawal.
- Afghanistan is a land-locked country with borders drawn up by a joint British-Afgahn dermarcation team in 1894. Referred to as the Durand Line the poorly marked eastern border cuts through Pashtun tribal areas, dividing ethnic Pashtuns on both sides of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. It lies in what has been described as one of the most dangerous areas in the world. The Durand Line, as well as other borders to the west (Iran) and the north (Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and Tajikistan), were established with little or no regard for traditional tribal areas of influence or deep ethnic and religious differences which significantly affect the country to this day. The population of Afghanistan is made up of hundreds of tribes, many of which have deep emnity for one another going back for centuries. The one unifying factor of these tribes is a general disregard for a strong central government.
- I recently received the following e-mail from a colleague: “I have just returned from 14 months in Afghanistan where I served as a senior advisor to two Afghan Government Departments. I’ve come away believing that the major challenge to a stable Afghanistan is NOT the Taliban, but rather the low quality, completely self-centered character of the very over-centralized Kabul Government. Historically, no Afghan administration has existed successfully for long that ignored the folly of trying to run the multi-ethnic, tribal, severely isolated and divided national reality, from the center. The Taliban, the warlords, organized crime, bans of brigands, violent ‘commercial’ activities, e.g. drug trade and smuggling continue to exist because the national government is ineffective or unknown in numerous districts. The Kabul administration has 44 ministries and umpteen independent directories, is populated at the senior levels by numerous halfghans, many of whom are staggeringly corrupt, see little reason to serve the people and do little or nothing to convince the 23 million non-urban population there is more reason to support the Karzai regime that the omni-present Taliban. There are exceptions, some of whom I worked with and respect, but they are few.” Now, admittedly, this is the opinion of but one individual and there are many who say we are making “significant progress,” but I wonder if that is accurate.
- The total GNP of Afghanistan is between 25-29 Billion dollars a year so of which over 20% or 7 billion is in the poppy (opium) trade, which has climbed 7% in 2011. Profits from that trade are a significant source of income for the insurgents, notwithstanding continued efforts by the US and our NATO allies to divert farmers into other crops. The profits are simply too large. The country is totally dependent upon foreign aid and, although this has equaled some $57 billion in the last decade, the people are desperately poor, the government is corrupt and this is not likely to change in the foreseeable future.
- Literacy is a very serious problem in Afghanistan, with many people unable to grasp even basis concepts despite extensive education and training. Overall the literacy rate is 29.8% (45.2% males and 13.5% females). Conversations I have had with several contract employees who have worked with the Afghan military for years strongly suggests that literacy is also a problem with Afghan officers.
- Geographically speaking, Afghanistan is a real challenge with serious mountains, brutally hot summers , cold winters, and a transportation system that is third world to say the least.
- Lastly, having spoken with retired military officers who have an intimate knowledge of the area, I have become convinced that, once the US and NATO forces leave, be it in 2014 or many years later, it is just a matter of time before the Taliban returns in force and takes over the country.
So the big question is “Where do we go from here” Should we simply stay the course and probably spend another $500 billion dollars or so in the faint hope of developing a stable and viable country in Afghanistan in our lifetime?? Or perhaps we should “cut and run,” recognizing that pursuing this war is simply not worth it and perhaps the ultimate solution rests with those countries in the region and not with the United States. These are very serious Foreign Policy questions for this administration (or any other) and the consequences of ultimate decisions will have a long-lasting effect on our country.
Image courtesy of Digital Journal.