The old axiom that war is hell might be one of the most understated sayings we’ve grown accustomed to over the years. Unfortunately, the United States of America hasn’t learned that lesson in recent times. The question for all of us, though, is, do we get it now?
Having ended the longest American war in history, President Joe Biden now must follow through on his pronouncement that America should no longer attempt to remake any country in its image. The failure in Afghanistan is, and should forever be, the final nail in the coffin for the folks who continue to argue for indefinite occupation and conflict in faraway places that want no part of American democracy. Some are calling it the Biden Doctrine. Let’s hope so.
But there will always be those who call for forever wars and occupation no matter the circumstances. Senator Mitt Romney was on CNN’s State of the Union last week equating the United States keeping a small residual force in Afghanistan with what we’ve been doing in Germany, Japan, and Korea for decades.
Last I checked, those countries are all thriving democracies without the kind of tribal hatred and religious extremism that currently exists in Afghanistan. Romney is wrong here, but his one-time rival for the presidential nomination, the late Senator John McCain, would undoubtedly have agreed with him on this. McCain at one time argued we could be in Afghanistan for a hundred years for all he cared.
We don’t seem to learn from these massive mistakes. You’d think losing 58,000 human beings in Vietnam would have been enough to change the minds of those in power forever. But it wasn’t enough for George W. Bush when he and Vice-President Dick Cheney launched their war in Iraq under the pretense they possessed weapons of mass destruction. They told us it would be a walk in the park, they’d greet us as liberators, and freedom was on the march.
Mission NOT accomplished.
When Bush proclaimed victory aboard the US Abraham Lincoln aircraft carrier in May of 2003, I’d began hearing about roadside bombs beginning to kill American soldiers. Slowly but surely, these incidents started increasing, to the point we were in a full-fledged counter-insurgency battle against Al-Qaeda and other elements of disaffected Iraq soldiers from the disbanded military, which ultimately became the building blocks for ISIS’ formation in later years.
You see, neither Cheney nor Bush understood the religious differences in that part of the world. They couldn’t tell you the difference between a Sunni or Shia Muslim if their lives depended on it. It’s the one thing the dictator Saddam Hussein did understand about his country. It’s why he ruled Iraq the way he did – taking care of the minority Sunni population while ultimately brutalizing the Shia majority.
Once we invaded and took out Hussein, it was like uncorking a champagne bottle of religious extremism and hatred. Was it all worth it, knowing what we know now?
Afghanistan was and is much like Iraq when it comes to these centuries-long rivalries among the populace. Now that the Taliban is in charge of the country, like they were before we invaded, I suspect a civil war is about to commence. We’ve heard many reasons for the Afghan military’s ultimate retreat and surrender to the Taliban, but now that we’re gone, it’s time for that country to determine its future.
We know that American-style democracy isn’t what they want. President Biden has said that we’re more than able to contain terrorism from ever taking hold there through “over the horizon” capabilities, at least as it pertains to threats to our homeland. We all should hope he’s correct on that.
The sheer numbers in lost treasure and human life are staggering when you combine both wars over the last twenty years. According to the influential Cost of War project, founded more than a decade ago by two Brown University scholars, the just-released report estimates that the total cost of the country’s post 9/11 wars is $8 trillion. That cost includes, among other things, funding for the Department of Defense, State Department war expenditures, and care for veterans now and in the future.
The death toll stands at an estimated 897,000 to 929,000, including U.S. military members, allied fighters, opposition fighters, civilians, journalists, and humanitarian aid workers. According to the researchers, the toll does not include the many indirect deaths the war on terror caused by disease, displacement, and loss of access to food or clean drinking water.
The horrific loss of life alone ought to be enough to keep America from ever embarking on such a dangerous and pointless endeavor. I’m not hopeful, unfortunately.
And neither is John Sopko, the Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), who just released an equally bleak portrait of our 20-year attempt at rebuilding that country. Sopko somberly predicted it wasn’t a matter of if, but when we have to do this type of thing again.
He argues that in going forward, we ought to have at least a very well-thought-out plan on how to do it. The mistakes we made should serve as a barometer for how NOT to conduct such an operation. Sopko pointedly referenced America’s misunderstanding as mentioned above of Afghan social, cultural, and political differences.
However, it all comes down to the fact that most of us have no idea what happens during war. Roughly one percent of the population has participated in our wars since 9/11, and how can those who haven’t witnessed the carnage ever begin to understand the human sacrifice involved when it comes to these kinds of conflicts?
I want to end with a tweet from someone who does know about war. Longtime journalist and author Dan Rather spent quite a bit of time in Vietnam. No, not fighting it; he reported on it for the American people. When he speaks of war, I listen.
What the world is seeing now in Afghanistan is what the world chose to ignore for far too long. War is hell. It always has been. And it always will be. Its currency is death, dismemberment, desperation, and fear. It doesn’t end in parades. It ends in caskets.
For the love of God, let’s never do this again.