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Maxed out: The true cost of futility in Afghanistan

max sept 2
The USA and NATO are just the latest in a string of unending meddlers who have met their Waterloo in Afghanistan.

When all you’ve got is a hammer, everything looks like a nail, or so the saying goes. Cliché or not, it is a truism that extends far beyond those who swing hammers. It’s a myopic human condition that creeps into many, maybe most, professions. Relentless exposure to all sorts of nails has a way to reduce even the most altruistic to hammer swingers.

In a seminal study of the lifecycle of altruism of medical doctors, findings illuminated a high degree of caring for people as a motivating factor in first-year med students. Caring for persons gradually devolved into caring for pathologies, the whole person slowly getting subsumed by the boo-boo being presented for treatment. The generalization being when medicine is your hammer, everything begins to look like a disease.

Police tend to view people with a learned degree of suspicion. Spending years corralling lawbreakers makes everyone look like a criminal. 

And so it goes. Accountants, economists, lawyers, psychiatrists and so on view the world through their own professional lens. 

Of course, this is not to say people become one-dimensional. Just professionally sighted.

And so, 20 years ago, the politicians and military men south of the border, viewing Afghanistan through their own lenses, saw both an opportunity and a threat. What had previously been the threat of another Soviet puppet state, leading to massive U.S. support of the mujahideen and the ultimate defeat of the Soviet Union in the late 1980s, became an all-out nation-building and terrorist hunt after the attacks on 9-11.

That it was a fool’s errand should have been evident from the beginning. For starters, it wasn’t Afghans who commandeered the planes on 9-11, it was Saudis. But the oil and gas reserves of Afghanistan pale in comparison to those of Saudi Arabia and even Bush-lite understood on which side his bread was buttered so, using the excuse of the ruling Taliban government’s refusal to extradite Osama bin Laden and continuing to provide a safe haven for al-Qaeda, operation Enduring Freedom landed boots on the ground and kicked ass.

Having put the Taliban and al-Qaeda on the run, NATO and a coalition of signatories, including Canada, got involved, put their own puppet, Hamid Karzai, in charge, and set about trying to graft a Western version of good government and democratic society onto what was basically a medieval, tribal country. For the second time in a decade, U.S. political and military leaders convinced themselves the people of a nation that shared few of the values they held dear would greet their invading forces as liberators.

What could go wrong? Perhaps a better question is what went right? 

It was difficult to argue against being drawn into what was certain to become a quagmire. Having had the gumption to say, “Non, merci,” to the Americans when they invaded Iraq, Jean Chrétien pledged to support President Bush’s misadventure the day after the 9-11 attacks.

While in the U.S. the mission was popularly supported as a military one—and Canadian troops fought alongside—the war in Afghanistan was largely supported by the Canadian people and media as a puppy dog and sunshine effort. Heck, we’re going to make sure Afghan girls can go to school and grow up to be something other than shrouded baby factories. Judges, lawyers, doctors, everything Canadian women can aspire to is possible in the new Afghanistan.

So, 20 years of effort has led to the circle being completed. The Americans are gone. The Canadians left seven years ago. The other NATO forces are gone. The Taliban is back, having swept the country so fast they put the Nazis’ blitzkrieg to shame. The women who became judges, lawyers, doctors and such are running for cover in the face of Taliban threats against them and their families.

The cost of 20 years of futile effort to the U.S. people is north of two trillion dollars. That’s $2,000,000,000,000. Canada’s efforts were a bargain at around C$18 billion. The UK spent £37 billion. Of course, that’s just money.

The Associated Press reports U.S. service members killed in the 20-year folly were 2,448. Additional allies and NATO deaths totalled 1,144 including 158 Canadian soldiers. Another 2,000-plus Canadian service members were injured. Notwithstanding Canada’s departure in 2014, around 17 per cent of Canadians who fought in Afghanistan receive pension or disability payments for post-traumatic stress disorder... still.

As ugly as those numbers are, they pale in comparison to the larger body count. More U.S. contractors—3,846—were killed than active service personnel. Sixty-six thousand Afghan military and police; 47,245 Afghan civilians; 51,191 Taliban and opposition fighters; 444 aid workers; and 72 journalists.

The highly corrupt and totally ineffective “government” leaders of Afghanistan were spirited out of the country long before evacuation flights began. Not even the most pessimistic military and political observers imagined the Taliban would overrun the country in a week’s time. 

And yet, the voices are still raised in opposition to President Biden’s decision to put an end to the madness. There are calls to do it all over again. There are impassioned pleas from Afghan vets to not let their sacrifices be in vain. Hint: they were. Voices raised to somehow, magically perhaps, save the women who believed Afghan society had somehow become enlightened and accepting.

“The rich are different than you and me,” according to F. Scott Fitzgerald. Yeah, so are the Afghans, the Iraqis, the Vietnamese, ad infinitum. Call me a cynic, but I can’t fathom the depth of delusion of those saying an unending occupation designed to nurture a faux democratic, faux liberal Afghan society is somehow going to come to a different end. The Taliban, with its theocratic worship of Islam and Sharia law managed, after a 20-year hiatus, to sweep through the country and take over more quickly than they initially did after the Soviet invasion. Sure, there are Afghans who have blossomed under the umbrella of unending U.S. military protection. But there would seem to be a whole lot more who are, at best, indifferent about living under Taliban rule and quite possibly see it as preferable.

The U.S. and NATO are just the latest in a string of unending meddlers who have met their Waterloo in Afghanistan. Long before Afghanistan became a “country” it was a perpetual battlefield, the crossroads of empires. 

Thus it shall ever be... regardless of what we call it.