Americans are good at ignoring the obvious. Yet every once in a while, some particularly grotesque event prompts even the most lethargic among us to take notice. Suddenly, what had been tolerable becomes intolerable.
When security personnel brutally dragged a passenger off an overbooked airline flight, Americans awakened to how flying coach is the modern-day equivalent of crossing the Atlantic in steerage.
When an angry anti-Trump citizen opened fire on Republican congressmen playing baseball, it dawned on people that extreme partisanship just might inspire rash behavior on the part of anyone taking venomous political rhetoric at face value.
A similar moment of discovery may now be at hand with regard to the Afghanistan War, which ranks near the top of the roster of things Americans choose to tune out. A new report by the special inspector general charged with monitoring Afghan reconstruction programs describes in detail Pentagon efforts to provide the Afghan army with that most basic item of soldierly kit: uniforms.
The IG’s report reads like a “Saturday Night Live” skit on bureaucratic bumbling. In their infinite wisdom, officials in Washington decided to outfit Afghan troops in “woodland” camouflage, suitable for operating in forests. Alas, Afghanistan is almost treeless.
Of course, the American public as a whole has been ignoring the realities of Afghanistan for years. President Trump — the commander-in-chief of the military at war — has been almost entirely silent on the war.
If only by default, the Pentagon has assumed responsibility for its conduct. Generals, active and retired, acknowledge that, after more than 16 years of trying, the outlook is not encouraging. General John Nicholson, commanding US and coalition forces from his headquarters in Kabul, describes the war as a “stalemate.” Defense Secretary James Mattis concurs. “We are not winning,” he admits.
With nearly 2,400 Americans killed and over 20,000 wounded, not to mention roughly $900 billion in US taxpayer money expended thus far, not winning has come at a hefty price. Even so, Mattis has now reportedly signed off on Nicholson’s request for 4,000 reinforcements. The Pentagon also promises a new strategy that won’t entail actually defeating the enemy, but merely helping Afghans reduce violence “to a level that local security forces can handle.” All the evidence out of Kabul suggests that even using that watered down definition, winning won’t happen anytime soon.
The camouflage scandal helps explain why.
The Pentagon didn’t just order uniforms for the wrong terrain; it chose a specific camouflage pattern copyrighted by a private firm rather than one of several that it already owns. This decision both complicated procurement and drove up costs by as much as 43 percent. Overall, the IG estimates that Pentagon thereby wasted between $26.6 and $28.2 million. If purchases of this uniform continue, those figures will increase by another $68.6 to $72.2 million over the next 10 years.
Chump change, you might say, when a single F-35 fighter jet costs just shy of $100 million. But the real point is not the ill-spent money or the ill-chosen design — war’s outcome seldom turns on how well the warriors are turned out — but the insight that “camo-gate” provides into how abysmally mismanaged this enterprise has been from the very outset.
It’s one of life’s basic rules: If you don’t get the easy stuff right, the hard parts become harder still. And in Afghanistan, the United States and its allies have been bungling the easy stuff for years.
Imagine the Red Sox taking the field on Opening Day outfitted in Cubs hats and Yankees jerseys, for which the Sox had wildly overpaid, while skimming a little something off the top for the gang in the front office. The Fenway faithful might question management promises of the World Series returning to Beantown come October.
So too should Americans question Pentagon predictions of “winning” in Afghanistan by whatever definition of that term.
The camo fiasco is minor compared to serious problems afflicting Afghan forces — high desertion rates, endemic corruption, and spotty combat performance — not to mention so-called “green on blue” incidents in which Afghan troops attack their Western counterparts. Two such episodes occurred just this month, resulting in 3 American soldiers killed and 8 wounded.
In short, what the war in Afghanistan needs is not a relative handful of reinforcements (or even better uniforms), but a searching examination for ways to extricate the United States from what has become an epic failure.
Such questions rightly belong not to generals, of course, but to the commander-in-chief himself. Too bad the current incumbent of that office can’t be bothered to confer on Afghanistan even a modicum of the attention he once lavished on his golf courses and his own clothing lines.
Andrew J. Bacevich is the author most recently of “America’s War for the Greater Middle East: A Military History.”