The Ultimate Quagmire

The American military involvement in that forbidding place called Afghanistan has dragged on for 15 years, and as recent developments continue to indicate, it is not over yet.

By comparison, the Vietnam War went on for 10 years (most historians date it from the deployment of U.S. combat troops, not just advisors, in 1965).

In Vietnam, the Department of Defense (DOD) has calculated, the United States spent about $168 billion (worth around $950 billion in today’s dollars), whereas the Afghanistan involvement has passed the $1 trillion mark. The bill for the nation-building component has already exceeded that of the Marshall Plan. But whereas the Marshall Plan was one of the great triumphs of foreign policy, enabling Western Europe to rebuild after the devastations of World War II, it is difficult to say what has been built or rebuilt in Afghanistan, where the most thriving sectors encompass the production of addictive substances and corruption.

In terms of casualty figures, it is true that Vietnam took a far greater toll of American lives: 58,315 soldiers killed in action, 153,303 wounded. In Afghanistan, 2,247 Americans have been killed and 20,000 wounded.

None of this sad accounting should be reason to blame either the well-meaning policy-makers or the brave soldiers who carried out their decisions. Other nations have been there before us, and we have not fared better, despite the incredible advances in military technology that the U.S. has in its arsenal, including unmanned aircraft, which saw its first battleground use there.

There isn’t space here for the complete list of conquerors whose names and cultures attached themselves to the region known as Afghanistan, from Alexander the Great to the Moslem invasion, the Mongols, and many others who were less exalted or infamous. Whatever it was in its ancient glory days, in modern times it has become less a country with a coherent society and way of life than a black hole into which foreign aspirations and large chunks of their armies disappear.

The Americans follow the British and the Russians in experiencing the futility of trying to control it or bring some semblance of peace and stability to the country. Considering its predecessors, the U.S. cannot fault itself for being insufficiently cynical or ruthless in achieving its objectives in Afghanistan, though it certainly may have entered the area with more idealism and naiveté.

President Barack Obama’s goal of a final drawdown of the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan by the end of his second term to a token force has now come under review by the Trump administration. While the fighting continues with ferocious intensity, and U.S. military leaders admit it has ground to a stalemate, the case is being made to stay put, even to increase force levels. Army Gen. John Nicholson, the U.S. commander there, is asking for an additional 1,400 U.S. troops to bolster the 8,400 still in country, plus another 2,000 from NATO to top those off at about 7,000.

To those who say “Enough, Afghanistan!” Nicholson answers, as he did in a Senate hearing this month: “We believe … that our operations in Afghanistan directly protect the homeland.” They are also credited with reducing the amount of territory held by the Islamic State’s Afghan affiliate. And in October, U.S. forces killed an al-Qaida leader who was planning an attack on the homeland.

Such is the irony of the situation, that the very success of the operation — denying a major staging ground for terrorist operations to the Taliban and their ilk — is what keeps the U.S. from pulling out at this juncture. (That, and the chimerical goal of injecting into Afghan fighters the skill and determination necessary to defend their homeland without endless help from foreigners.)

Military analysts have said that to really win the war in Afghanistan — if such a goal can even be rationally formulated — would require not a few thousand more troops, but hundreds of thousands more troops, at least another trillion dollars, and a commitment for as long as it takes, which could be the rest of the century.

Clearly, Americans are unwilling to even think about such a proposition. So, the question remains whether an ongoing presence on a limited scale can be justified. Or, to put it the other way, can the cost of a complete withdrawal be sustained?

In the end, it was decided that the U.S. would leave Vietnam to sort out its own affairs. As painful as that departure was for all concerned, the nation finally extricated itself from that quagmire.

Is it possible for U.S. forces to leave Afghanistan without endangering the security of the American homeland? There is no clear answer to this question, nor a real solution to this quagmire.