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Opinion | Linda J. Bilmes

Afghanistan is missing from the campaign

CARLO GIAMBARRESI FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE

After 11 years, 2,000 American lives, trillions of dollars, and lifelong disabilities for nearly half of the soldiers who have fought there — we are still at war in Afghanistan. Yet if you listen to the election campaign, you would hardly know it.

The war has become an inconvenience that nobody wants to mention. President Obama — who added 30,000 troops in 2009 in a failed effort to stabilize the country — says he plans to bring these 30,000 home in the fall, leaving “only” 68,000 or so to toil for a further year alongside a similar number of unhappy NATO troops. Beyond that, he expects the troop levels to drop to a smaller “unspecified” number.

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Governor Romney is less specific. He calls for a “harder line,” saying this isn’t “time for America to cut and run.” But he hasn’t proposed his own war strategy. More troops? Staying longer? Romney isn’t saying.

One reason for the conspiracy of silence is that it is obvious that the United States — like the British, the Russians, the Greeks, the Romans, the Huns, and many others — cannot “win” in Afghanistan. We invaded Afghanistan in 2001 with the clear aim of rooting out Al Qaeda and preventing it from reestablishing itself. Now, with Bin Laden dead and the rump of Al Qaeda located in Yemen, our goals are unclear. The Afghan people don’t want us there, the Karzai government is riddled with corruption, and our remorseless drone attacks are creating the next generation of America-haters across the border in Pakistan. Within Afghanistan, the hand-off to local security forces is not going well; Afghan police officers and soldiers have already killed 25 coalition members this year. Innocent civilians are routinely maimed and killed as they try to go to school and mosque and buy food in the markets.

The human and financial toll of the war is debilitating for the United States, if only we would stop to hear it. Last weekend, we lost six more young Americans. Every single day we pay out $328 million for Afghanistan, much of it to ship fuel to remote locations. On average, one active-duty soldier commits suicide each day. Half of all US veterans from this war are claiming disability benefits, racking up trillions of dollars in long-term support costs. Women veterans are suffering disproportionately, with higher rates of unemployment, depression, homelessness, suicide, and divorce.

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Congress, which hasn’t managed to enact a regular budget in three years, has already appropriated another $200 billion to be disbursed into Afghanistan during 2012-13 (in addition to $500 billion previously), according to a new report by Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. As Cordesman puts it, “This is an incredible amount of money to have spent with so few controls, so few plans, so little auditing, and almost no credible measures of effectiveness.”

Despite all this, no one is seriously debating our role in Afghanistan. Last week representatives from some 70 nations and international organizations pledged ongoing support when the United Sates and the coalition pull out in 2014. Despite Afghanistan’s atrocious disregard for human rights, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced that it is now a “major ally” of the United States — in the same league as Israel and Japan. Accordingly, the United States promised to give our new BFF several billions of dollars per year in ongoing financial aid over the next decade.

Faced with all this, why are voters not demanding that the war, with its uncertainties and its enormous cost in lives and money, be a central issue in the presidential campaign? Some argue that the war is eclipsed by our economic problems at home. But as Joe Stiglitz and I showed in our book “The Three Trillion Dollar War,” these issues are closely related. The money we spend in Afghanistan is not helping the US economy. The same amount, whether spent on middle class tax cuts or aid to state and local governments, could put people back to work at home.

Voters must ask the presidential candidates why US troops should be in Afghanistan for another two years — or longer? And if the end game is some type of political deal with the Taliban, why not sooner rather than later? In short, the election provides an opportunity for Americans to take a clear-eyed view of our policy in Afghanistan. The war is costing too much for us to simply push it under the carpet.

Linda J. Bilmes, a senior lecturer at Harvard University, is coauthor of “The Three Trillion Dollar War: The True Cost of the Iraq Conflict.”
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