How many Americans know that the war in Afghanistan has been the longest, deadliest and most costly war in our history? American troops have fought there for 17 years. Seven thousand soldiers, nearly eight thousand private contractors, more than thirty- five hundred coalition forces and well over one hundred thousand civilians have died during this conflict. The current price weighs in at just under 6 trillion dollars, excluding interest due on this borrowed money.
Of course, for nearly a generation our troops were sent to Iraq too. The cost of this war is estimated at slightly over 1 trillion dollars and may eventually double. Nearly five thousand troops and over one hundred thousand civilians have been killed in Iraq. The human and financial sacrifice of these wars is staggering. And due to our all-volunteer military, they never evoked the outrage that transformed the cultural and political landscape of the 1960’s. But while the public remained mostly silent, our leaders presided over two political and military stalemates reminiscent of Vietnam, as the Taliban still control large portions of the countryside in Afghanistan and the foremost political figure in Iraq is a Shia cleric aligned with Iran.
What went wrong? To begin with, American policymakers neglected history’s lessons. Or perhaps more to the point, they continued to believe those lessons remained irrelevant because our cause was “right” or “just”. In Vietnam, American involvement came at the heels of a French military campaign that ended in humiliating defeat. Our “enemy” there, the North Vietnamese and their Vietcong allies in the South, construed the conflict not as a revolutionary struggle to establish a communist regime, as Washington defined it, but as a war to liberate their country from foreign invaders and their domestic allies. For the enemy, American troops behaved like supporters of King George who took up his cause after the British were defeated in our war of independence.
In Afghanistan, the hunt for Bin Laden and Al Qaeda’s terrorist infrastructure widened into a war against the Taliban. Our attempt to establish an effective national regime in Kabul faced considerable opposition, previously encountered by the Soviets and the British, from powerful warlords controlling many areas of the country. Our neglect of history in Afghanistan is particularly striking because during the 1980’s the U.S. supported Mujahideen fighers, including Bin Laden, against the Soviets. In our effort to turn Afghanistan into “Russia’s Vietnam”, in the words of Zbigniew Brzezinski, we understood that Afghan warlords, determined to resist any central authority that threatened their tribal and regional dominance, entered into a strategic alliance with religious extremists against the Soviet puppet regime in Kabul.
The protracted war in Iraq ignited the chronic hatred simmering between a Shia majority and their minority Sunni rivals who dominated them for centuries. And the ferocious violence between Sunni and Shia in Iraq reflected an expanding global civil war between these Muslim factions.
As American policymakers remained poor historians, their political and military decisions spawned consequences they neither anticipated or controlled. First and foremost, we never recognized, and even blithely dismissed, that military intervention would prompt the need to create national institutions to achieve our political objective, namely, the establishment of Western style democracies in Afghanistan and Iraq.
One of the important measures of our inept “nation building” in Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq involved our inability to create a reliable army. In each country, American advisors trained and equipped an enormous military force at great economic cost over many years. Yet these national armies proved incapable of waging an effective war. Widespread desertion by fully trained soldiers signaled that many conscripts remained unwilling to protect national governments deeply tied to the U.S. Despite massive military and financial assistance, the South Vietnamese, Afghan and Iraqi armies were never willing to fight and die for our interests. It is why the South Vietnamese army was easily overwhelmed by Vietcong and North Vietnamese forces even after being armed and trained for over a decade. It is why the Afghan army continues to be incapable of turning the military tide against the Taliban despite nearly a generation of American assistance. And it is why ISIS assumed control over Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, without a shot ever being fired and were able to secure American weapons, captured from Iraqi troops who refused to fight against them, to kill American soldiers.
If so many citizens remain unwilling to fight on behalf of national governments allied with our interests, then any victory achieved with American assistance on the battlefield will be reversible. In this context, we win individual skirmishes but lose the war, because the latter is not simply about military prowess but the establishment of a government that inspires loyal citizens. In all three countries, we failed to create political institutions and governments that enjoyed support from a majority of its citizens and a military capable of defending the nation’s territorial integrity.
In Afghanistan, Iraq and Vietnam, American soldiers represented the interests of unpopular elites, political forces deemed illegitimate by significant elements of the population. Moreover, the Vietcong and Taliban insurgencies used resentment against the presence of foreign fighters on their soil to bolster their cause, while in Iraq, we managed the remarkable feat of alienating both Sunni and Shia militias. Is it any wonder we remained no closer to achieving a military victory or political stability in either Afghanistan or Iraq, even after many years of armed combat and massive financial investment?
National lawmakers who advocate our continued involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq refuse to accept the sober truth: despite the loss of so much life and treasure, if our troops left Afghanistan tomorrow, the regime in Kabul would collapse like the South Vietnamese regime. And in Iraq, the political center of gravity will remain allied with forces skeptical if not hostile to a continued American presence. The current problems in Iraq were not the result of US troops leaving the country but were generated when they entered it. And there is little or nothing we can do to alter this reality on the ground.
A remarkable bitter irony of our recent war effort involves the fact that the true beneficiary of our spilled blood and massive expenditure in Afghanistan and Iraq is Iran. We vanquished Saddam Hussein, its political and military antagonist in Iraq, and overthrew the Taliban regime, its Sunni rival in Afghanistan. This consequence stemmed from our inability to distinguish between destroying Al Qaeda’s terrorist infrastructure and waging all- out war against the Taliban or between the search for WMD and the overthrow of Saddam. Our flawed strategic planning, premised on a willful neglect of history, parroted the egregious mistake made by the “best and the brightest” to ignore Vietnam’s struggle against the French. So it will be important to foster a national conversation about why we went to war and what the wars accomplished. Citizens deserve to understand what we were fighting for and on whose behalf.
If we fail to establish this discussion, the legacy of these wars will haunt our nation just as our Vietnam experience does a half century later. Meanwhile, we have condemned a whole new generation of American men and women to spend their lives hobbled with symptoms of trauma and enriched a new extensive cohort of corrupt generals and officials at American taxpayer expense. And then there is the nagging central question: did our involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq shield us from terrorist attack? Do we even know how to address this issue? The absence of a clear answer after nearly a generation of war and sacrifice, underscores the immensity of the tragedy experienced not only in Afghanistan and Iraq, but here at home too.
Neal Aponte, Ph.D.
Editor of Delano