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Measuring the cost of ‘winning’ in Afghanistan

A US soldier patrols in Asad Khil village near the site of a US bombing in the Achin district of Jalalabad, east of Kabul, Afghanistan.Rahmat Gul

Even in the face of a looming constitutional crisis over Russian interference in an American election, it is easy to lose sight of all the other things that matter. For instance, four times per year, a team of auditors files a report to the American people and their leaders about the progress of the country’s longest war. Few people read through all the hundreds of pages, much less parse the details they contain. The forever war in Afghanistan long ago became a forgotten fiasco.

There’s no excuse for this willful blindness. Indeed, the continued calamity that these reports meticulously document is made possible only through public inattention. As the Trump administration mulls an escalation of the war, Americans should read through the report cards of where things stand.

And a president inordinately obsessed with “winning” should consider what that means in Afghanistan, if it’s possible, and what’s it’s likely to cost.

To read the 35 reports, issued quarterly since 2008 by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, is to appreciate the vast scale of the failure. US taxpayers have allocated more than three-quarters of a trillion dollars to the fight in Afghanistan since the 9/11 attacks, including $71 billion for reconstruction and security. Adjusted for inflation, that’s more reconstruction money than the United States spent on the Marshall Plan after World War II.

The return on that investment? Staggeringly poor. “Afghanistan lacks the capacity — financial, technical, managerial, or otherwise — to maintain, support, and execute much of what has been built or established during more than 14 years of international assistance,” the SIGAR report concludes.


The decades of war that have ravished the region and its people is both a cause and effect. Right now, the war is going badly for the Afghan government. It controls only 63 percent of the country’s districts. The Taliban insurgency, aided by Pakistan’s geostrategic complicity, is growing its ranks and seizing more ground.

One economic success, such as it is, has been the creation of the world’s largest opium crop — despite $8.5 billion spent on counternarcotics efforts. The value of the drug trade, which employs 12 percent of the population and provides 60 percent of Taliban revenue, is worth $1.56 billion — meaning the global heroin habit supplies the equivalent of about 7.4 percent of Afghanistan’s GDP.


Corruption is at the root of much of this woe. US officials — stunningly — didn’t fully appreciate its corrosive effects until 2008, when efforts to eradicate it were put on par with those against the poppy. And it was just about as successful.

Desertion and corruption are rife in the security forces. More than 1,300 army personnel, including a few generals, were fired for corruption just last year. Members of the security forces have been caught selling supplies to the Taliban, extorting their own men, and inflating the number of people under their command and keeping the extra paychecks. Last year, “Afghans paid more in bribes than the government is expected to generate in revenue from taxes, customs tariffs and other sources of income,” SIGAR found.

“The ultimate point of failure for our efforts . . . wasn’t an insurgency. It was the weight of endemic corruption,” Ambassador Ryan Crocker concluded.

Whatever its root cause — or the secondary cause, for that matter — the human suffering has struggled for description. There have been 111,000 Afghans killed since 2001, and more than 116,000 injured, including 31,000 civilians. Millions have been displaced, fueling the global refugee crisis.

Since the 9/11 attacks, 2,396 US soldiers have lost their lives in Afghanistan, and more than 20,000 have been wounded. That’s a bill that will not fully come due for generations: “The single largest accrued liability of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is the cost of providing medical care and disability benefits to war veterans,” researchers from Harvard concluded.


A new surge of forces is a familiar tactic in a conflict plagued by failed strategy.

In 2010, the Obama administration had 100,000 pairs of boots on the ground and tried to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table through aggressive bombardment and increased fighting. It didn’t work.

Today, there are about 8,400 US soldiers and Marines deployed — along with 25,000 contractors and others. There are 4,900 NATO troops there too, though their official combat operations ended in 2014.

That’s a “few thousand” short of what’s needed to break the stalemate, the top US commander in the country recently told the Senate. “Breaking a stalemate” sounds an awful lot like “unwinnable.” That’s something to keep in mind for a president who has rarely spoken about Afghanistan.

Trump’s fickle definition of “winning” may be just what the war in Afghanistan needs. He’ll have the perfect chance to articulate it at a NATO summit in Brussels on May 25. More than 1,130 people from NATO nations have died in the fighting.

Americans and our alliance partners deserve a full accounting of what soldiers will risk their lives to achieve, what their tax dollars will buy, and what the metrics for success are.


Those who’ve lost their lives in the conduct of America’s longest war deserve from us vigilant attention to this conflict, the details of which we’ve ignored for too long. Whatever fresh firefight erupts in Washington tomorrow, remember that there are still many Americans in actual gun battles.