Peaking Over the Fiscal Cliff: Afghanistan

As policymakers look over the fiscal cliff, one can hope that their eyes fix on Afghanistan, the seemingly endless experiment in nation building. I understand that no president wants to seem the inevitable occur on his shift (consider the “optics”), but I sometimes wonder how many people would notice.  I gave a lecture on the war the other day in an introductory course and asked the students (who presumably read the assigned readings) to write down how many members of the US military had been killed in Afghanistan and report their estimates. The responses ranged from 268 to 6000, with only a  fifth of the class landing within a thousand of the correct number.

My students—at a university that is renowned for its culture of left activism—seemed relatively untroubled by their ignorance. Having a son in the Marines–a machine gunner who has not deployed–I was interested in how they would explain their lack of knowledge. Some representative comments:

  • “Its so far away.”
  • “It started when we were in grade school so we never really pay attention any more.”
  • “There is no draft so it really doesn’t impact us.”

There is an interesting piece (NYT)  for the handful of people who still pay attention to the war in Afghanistan.  It reviews some of the findings from the DOD’s “Report on Progress Toward Security and Stability in Afghanistan,” something is issues twice a year (the full report can be found here). Some takeaways:

  • Only one of the Afghan National Army’s 23 brigades is able to operate independently without support from the US or NATO
  • Violence in Afghanistan is “higher than it was before the surge of American forces into the country two years ago”
  • Insider attacks by Afghan security forces is a growing problem
  • Corruption remains rampant in the Afghan government
  • Pakistan continues to provide support for insurgents [Note: Pakistan received almost $3 billion in US aid in 2012, about $1.6 billion for security]

This is not to say that we have not accomplished anything of value  (one of my friends, a former Marine who spent a year in Afghanistan, can make a rather passionate case that we are doing much good, although he remains confident that things will return to the original position as soon as we exit).

Of course, although we appear to be facing some serious problems in getting a constitutional democracy to grow in Afghanistan, there is one thing that is growing quite well: opium. As Alissa Rubin reports (NYT): Under the watchful eye of NATO, Afghanistan has once again assumed its role as the “world’s largest producer of opium… harvesting about 80 percent of the world supply.” The Taliban used to ban opium. Now it has learned that it is far better to tax the opium crop. (“The Afghan counternarcotics minister, Zarar Ahmad Muqbil, estimated that the Taliban made at least $155 million from the poppy crop in 2012, and perhaps considerably more”). It is hard to imagine that the Taliban is going anywhere soon, with a steady stream of resources and an ineffective Afghan Army.

We are scheduled to “leave” Afghanistan in 2014. By leave, of course, we don’t really mean “leave” since some number of troops north of 10,000—and perhaps as high of 25,000 will remain in country for another decade.  At a cost of $1 million per year per troop, that remains a fairly significant commitment.

One can only hope that the fiscal cliff and the need for significant long-term spending cuts will create a moment when we can evaluate our Afghanistan policy with a clear head.

One thought on “Peaking Over the Fiscal Cliff: Afghanistan

  1. Your Wesleyan anecdote could be evidence of narcissism among students, as your essay suggests. However, I wonder what would happen if you also asked them how many people died on 9/11. Would they remember that number more readily? Then you could also compare the numbers: 9/11 deaths versus U.S. deaths in Afghanistan. What might that comparison tell us about costs and investments? Afghan insurgent and civilian deaths, deaths from other ISAF nations would change the discussion significantly too.

    A minor grammar comment that can be deleted if you choose to edit your piece: “a cost of $1 million per year per troop”: troop is a collective singular noun, emphasis here being on the collective. It is not a purple bandaid to cover “soldier,” or “Marine,” or even “sailors and airmen.” If you are uncomfortable using “soldier” to cover all members of the military (and with a son in the Marine Corps, you might be), you could say “per military member.” Here is a sane discussion of the issue that puts my grammar caviling in context:

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