The Cost of War: The old “in-out” and Afghanistan

For obvious reasons, Obama’s recent statements on the future of U.S. involvement in Afghanistan have been all over the news lately. Where have we heard discussions of the “old in-out” dilemma before?

Nah, but seriously folks, the question for Obama and his administration today is: “Should I Stay or Should I Go?” We all know the virtues of both positions, don’t we? Thanks, Joe.

But really, will the 100,000+ U.S. military personnel play only an “administrative role” in Afghanistan by the summer of 2011? Just this morning an article in the NY Times covers General David Petraeus’s opposition to any scheduled withdrawal of U.S. military in Afghanistan by the summer of 2011, a position that he apparently defended on the Sunday morning politico-talk shows yesterday. Astonishingly, in this article Gen. Petraeus, who took over the helm in Afghanistan after Obama sacked Gen. Stanley MacChrystal for giving lip about U.S. civilian military leaders in a Rolling Stone interview (such as, to name just one, Vice President Joe Biden), claims that it’d be unwise to withdraw in the near future because only in the last three weeks have he and his troops received the stuff they need to make progress in Afghanistan.

The last three weeks?! This war started on 07 October 2001, didn’t it? What have they had, or been using, for the past nine years? And why has it cost the U.S. so much to supply the apparently wrong stuff?


In the news from an Indian weekly, Frontline, Vijay Prashad weighs in with an essay on the topic, “In Denial Mode.” Prashad writes a regular “letter from America” in Frontline (à la the late Alistair Cooke’s weekly BBC Radio 4 broadcasts), presumably to present the South Asian community with a firsthand desi view of the U.S. sociopolitical scene (Prashad teaches South Asian History and International Studies at Trinity College in Connecticut). He has his own agenda and political leanings in this piece, of course. But what’s useful for the American community to read in this article is the attention Prashad gives to the complexity of the U.S.’s actions in Afghanistan for India-Pakistan relations, and the tensions that arise between these two at times uncomfortable South Asian neighbors because of the instability in Afghanistan.

Finally, while you consider the pros and cons of military involvement in general, and the U.S.’s military involvement overseas, here’s a running tab kept in the Rochester City Newspaper of the number of casualties in the Afghanistan and Iraq wars (as of 04 August 2010):

IRAQ TOTALS – 4,413 US servicemen and servicewomen, 318 Coalition servicemen and servicewomen, and approximately 97,143 to 105,994 Iraqi civilians have been killed in Iraq from the beginning of the war and occupation to August 2. There were no reports of American servicemen and servicewomen, killed after July 21.

AFGHANISTAN TOTALS – 1,216 US servicemen and servicewomen, and 766 Coalition servicemen and servicewomen, have been killed in Afghanistan from the beginning of the war and occupation to August 2. Statistics for Afghani civilian casualties are not available.

5 thoughts on “The Cost of War: The old “in-out” and Afghanistan

  1. wildbillyscircusstory

    Without getting into whether we should stay or go (Hat Tip: Mr. Strummer) I will say that I think you misread Gen. Petreus’ statement. He indicated, “we will have what we have been working to put in place for the last year and a half”, by which I presume he means a relatively “safe” landscape which would encourage locals to cooperate with Coalition forces (his basic blueprint for the Iraqi surge) and that Washington promised the necessary “time and materiel” for success. I don’t read into that a lack of a properly outfitted force, more of a “we’ve turned the corner, and been promised what’s necessary to continue progress” meme. Obviously the veracity of whether that is the situation is enormously debatable. Count me amongst the dubious.

    Prashad…well, I won’t unload on him as I did last time, mainly because I’m out of my element and cannot intelligently respond and furthermore I don’t know the actors he names. But I do believe this: the greatest impact on our Afghan adventure will be the devastating floods in Pakistan. Their army will be focused on humanitarian issues within their borders for years thereby leaving the Taliban/Al Qaeda elements within Pakistan unchecked. Pakistan will likely refuse any US request to conduct operations within their borders, as is their right. The natural disaster may force us to stay even if everyone agrees we should go. I’ve even read the flooding might precipitate a coup in Pakistan.

    Finally, a thought on history. Without minimizing the suffering and sacrifices of those who have perished, it’s worth noting that we’ve been in Afghanistan for about the same period of time as the Soviet Union. In that same time period, the Soviets suffered over 15,000 casualties to our 1300. I offer that not as a jingoistic rah-rah, but rather as a comfort — however small — that perhaps (again, a rather huge perhaps) our motives among the Afghanis have been accepted as altruistic but sometimes misguided.

  2. peashoot Post author

    I don’t know. Of course Petraeus isn’t going to call bullshit on anyone or any institution for specific shortcomings in Afghanistan over the past nine years (and pull “a MacChrystal”). We’ve turned a corner that took nine years to make? Yeah, well then we’ve been on one helluva bender. Whether your reading is right or not, a lot of others see it differently. For example, just over the past two years, on my daily commute to work, I’ve heard soldiers, parents of dead soldiers, and “experts” on radio programs claiming our soldiers in Afghanistan have been poorly outfitted with insufficient body armor, vehicles, and medical care. Could be exaggeration, I suppose. But maybe not.

    You are right that the Soviets had a lot more casualties in Afghanistan than we’ve had thus far. But this comparison is flawed, for, among other things, it suggests that 1300 is a small number. Are you saying that our spending has kept the number where it is (it’s not low in my estimation)? Maybe. By that calculus, is it the Soviet’s lack of spending is what led them to lose 15,000 soldiers? Maybe. We’re also looking at 20-25 years of military advancements and increased knowledge that the U.S. has had over the old Soviet regime, although I strongly question whether the level of knowledge of the South and Central Asian regions has risen much in our government. I wonder if we’re not looking at apples and oranges with your nod to history.

    But even still, history can teach us something here. Why are we still in Afghanistan and why were the Soviets in Afghanistan? When I hear Petreaus (and you) say that we’ve just turned the corner, after nine years, I have to ask, What’s it all for? Control of Afghanistan was for the Soviets an important step to greater control in South Asia. The U.S. of course said it went into Afghanistan to fight al-Qaeda in 2001, to eliminate Osama bin Laden. After 9/11 that was an understandable aim. But we’ve long known that our efforts in this regard have proven futile and that our presence in Afghanistan now is fueled by something else. Since we have the hindsight of the ridiculous run up, misrepresentation, and invasion of Iraq to look back on to understand our government’s motivations and rhetoric for war, we can, I think, question our intentions in Afghanistan beyond the aim of exterminating al-Qaeda. Here the Soviet Union example might be a useful comparison. For the Soviets, a presence in Afghanistan was about power and authority. What about the U.S.? The military brass, and Gen. Petraeus in the NY Times piece, appears to fit this bill. Obama seems to be trying to change this thinking. But the pressure to stay the course, whatever that course may be, from all corners of the U.S. government and populace is palpable.

    And to this, I repeat that the U.S.’s involvement in Afghanistan is directly tied and detrimental to security in South Asia, particularly in Pakistan, which you’ve rightly noted is currently dealing with amazingly tough floods. That you’ve pointed out this natural disaster will have long term effects on the U.S.’s work in Afghanistan bears this out. Natural disasters — and coups, I should add — are nothing new to this region. And as awful as they are, and as horrible as the loss of life is, both flooding and a potential coup (which, again, is nothing new – Zardari has been reviled and considered impotent since the day he stepped into office) are convenient news stories to paper over, or distract from, the systemic reasons that we’re still there; to give justification for our presence there for people (like Petraeus) who beat the dead horse argument that we’re making advancements there when we’re really not, and to portray people who argue that we should leave (like Obama) look unhumanitarian; to somehow distance and differentiate ourselves from history and the Soviet Occupation of Afghanistan because we’re there to, uhh, save lives. If the last case were true, let’s look at the catalog of natural disasters in South Asia over just the past 10 years and try to find an instance in which we’ve taken a leading humanitarian role to help out — in fact, after the 2004 tsunami, Indian PM Manmohan Singh insisted that the U.S. stay out while India and its neighbors handle the situation themselves, which they did. South Asian countries and their people understand what drives economic and military superpowers, and more often than not it’s not goodwill or altruism.

    A striking difference between the U.S. in Afghanistan (and elsewhere around the globe, really) and the USSR in Afghanistan is the scope of entitlement that appears to undergird both both countries’ military actions. Since the mid-16th century, when Russia was under the authority of the Tsars, through the period of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics from 1922-1991, Russian and Soviet leaders regularly considered countries in Central Asia to be within their sphere of influence and important to their national interests. Afghanistan was no exception. For nine years (sound familiar?), from December 1979 to February 1989, the Soviet Union participated in the so-called Soviet-Afghan War (also known as the “Soviet Occupation of Afghanistan”). The ideological motivation for their involvement was to support the Marxist “People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan” (PDPA), which was embattled against Afghani Mujahedeen rebel forces. What is the U.S.’s ideological motivation in Afghanistan if it’s no longer to wipe out al-Qaeda?

    After Partition and the creation of Pakistan and India, Afghanistan became a springboard for the Soviets off of which to exert influence in South Asia. It was also a potential counterweight to Pakistan, who was a staunch ally of the United States during the Cold War. Due to all these factors, the Soviet Union had for a long time tried to exert its influence on policies of the Afghan government. Indeed, for many decades the last Afghan king, Mohammed Zahir Shah (reign 1933-1973), tried to maintain a neutral attitude towards Soviet interference. But all attempts to balance Soviet and U.S.-Pakistani interests in the nation were quashed when Zahir Shah was deposed in 1973 by his cousin, Mohammad Daoud Khan (reign: 1973-78). Daoud quickly became alarmed by the inroads being made by the Soviet supported Afghan communists within Afghanistan and, wishing to maintain his authority in the nation, he showed signs of conciliation toward Pakistan and the United States. As a result, Daoud and his family were assassinated in a communist-backed military coup in 1978. After the communist takeover, a succession of Afghan leaders were plagued by infighting within the various factions of Afghan communists. This infighting, combined with a fear of losing control over their communist clients in Afghanistan, prompted the Soviet Union to invade and occupy Afghanistan in 1979.

    We all know how the Soviet Occupation ended. But hey, Gen. Petraeus says we’ve just turned the corner in our mission in Afghanistan. Things surely won’t turn out so pointlessly for the U.S. I guess we’ve just crossed over to the sunny side of the street.

  3. wildbillyscircusstory

    Interesting — and point taken: I’ve heard the same complaint from veterans, families and embedded reporters such as Michael Yon. And for the record, I did not say we’ve turned the corner — I opined that was Patreus’ point. I don’t think we’ve turned a corner in Afghanistan and doubt we ever will.

    As for the Soviets, my broader point was that our tactics (creating secure “safe havens”) has engendered greater support among Afghanis than the Soviet “Destroy and Search” modus operandi, wherein they employed near genocidal tactics. And 1300 is certainly no small number and my intent was never to trivialize, but merely place it into some form of a context and perhaps demonstrate some indicia of indigenous support.

    I don’t sense a form of US “entitlement” in Afghanistan, but if so, just what is it we feel we are entitled to? Dominating the sub-continent? What began as an effort to neutralize Al Qaeda/Taliban forces morphed into an effort in nation-building. Ironically, in the 2000 campaign, when Bush promised a humble foreign policy, he lashed out at Clinton for the futility of his nation-building in the Balkans.

    Afghanistan, much more so than Iraq, reminds me of George Ball’s statement to JFK/LBJ regarding our involvement in Vietnam (paraphrasing): “When we decide to mount the tiger, we cannot be assured of the time, manner or place where we shall dismount.” The President’s own campaign statements in which he criticized the Iraq War as undermining the “necessary” war in Afghanistan painted him into a corner before he took the oath of office. At a moment when he had maximum flexibility to withdraw (numerous conservative columnists, George Will chief amongst them, wanted out) he instead doubled down. So, we stay atop the tiger praying to easily dismount someday rather than be thrown.

  4. wildbillyscircusstory

    Good to be back. The past few weeks have been completely exhausting. By the way, why such a short time span for the goat-kiss as the EMP banner? Loved it and it gave me a very good laugh at a time when I very much needed it.


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