Why We Lost the Afghan War (Again)

Image result for Afghanistan ruins

December 11, 2001: Three months after 9/11, two months after George W. Bush ordered bombs to begin raining on Kabul, the day The Village Voice published one of my war reports from the front in Afghanistan.

“We’ve lost this war,” I wrote. To drive my point home, the headline was: “How We Lost Afghanistan.”

I continued: “So how much will it cost?”

Seventeen years later, the end of America’s longest war—since history suggests Afghans will keep killing each other long after our departure, it would be more precise to say the end of America’s involvement in Afghanistan—appears to be drawing near. Peace talks between the Trump Administration and the Taliban in Qatar have culminated with an “agreement on principle” whose main U.S. demand is easy for the Taliban to grant. Afghanistan, the Taliban must assure the U.S. and the Afghan puppet regime in Kabul, cannot again become a “platform for international terrorist groups or individuals.” Even according to estimates by the Obama-era CIA, Al Qaeda’s presence in Afghanistan was more of a coincidence than a fearsome terrorist organization: “about 50 to 100 Qaeda operatives.”

They could have fit on one bus. For this we fought a war?

Now we know the pricetag of the invasion and long occupation: 2,400-ish U.S. troops killed, 4,000-ish U.S. “civilian contractors” killed, 59,000-ish Afghan soldiers and police killed, 38,000-ish Afghan civilians killed, 42,000 “enemy” Afghan soldiers killed, 50-ish journalists killed, 400-ish NGO workers killed, 20,000-ish U.S. troops wounded. No one counts the other non-fatal casualties. Obviously the non-U.S. death counts are way lowball.

U.S. taxpayers spent $5 trillionenough to wipe out all outstanding student loans three times over—on bombing and pillaging and torturing Afghans. Wind-down costs, interest on the national debt, etc. will cost more still. Caring for wounded veterans adds another $8 trillion going forward. For that total of $13 trillion you could pay off every debt owed by every American citizen: home mortgages, car loans, credit cards, student loans, everything.

No one estimates the total cost of the buildings and other Afghan infrastructure destroyed by the war.

Of course no one can begin to calculate America’s loss of moral standing in the world. You don’t get to invade the world’s poorest nation, kidnap the locals and torture them in gruesome concentration and death camps, coddle local perverts and child rapists and come out looking half-decent.

Special Forces captain Dan Quinn beat a U.S.-backed Northern Alliance commander he found sexually abusing an Afghan boy chained to his bed on a U.S. military base. “The reason we were here is because we heard the terrible things the Taliban were doing to people, how they were taking away human rights,” Quinn said. “But we were putting people into power [the Northern Alliance] who would do things that were worse than the Taliban did—that was something village elders voiced to me.” Quinn was drummed out of the military.

As I mentioned at the top of this essay, the war was lost before it really began, in 2001.

Anyone who paid attention knew losing was inevitable.

Not many Americans paid attention. 89% of American voters polled in December 2001 approved of the invasion of Afghanistan. Now, 70% disapprove.

So why did we lose?

It’s too facile to say: graveyard of empires. Afghans really did welcome us as liberators in 2001. We had a better shot at success than the Brits and the Russians.

The short answer is: we did both too little and too much.

Too much cash spent, too little reconstruction.

“It would take billions of dollars to even begin rebuilding this country,” an American officer told me for my 2001 Voice piece. “Billions of dollars and many, many years. We don’t have that kind of attention span. Bombing Iraq will be a lot sexier than teaching Afghans how to read.” Afghanistan didn’t have phones, electricity, paved roads, bridges or public records. Streets didn’t have names, houses had no numbers—which was fine since there was no mail. There was no central bank or monetary system. People didn’t know their own last names.

Billions were spent, some of it on rebuilding public infrastructure. “A year ago it took about two days to drive between Kabul and the southern city of Kandahar. Today it takes about five hours on a smoothly tarmacked road paid for by millions of US taxpayers’ dollars,” the BBC reported in 2004.

Problem was, reconstruction money didn’t go to ordinary Afghans or even their towns. The U.S. installed a puppet president, Hamid Karzai, whose corrupt family looted millions, possibly billions, of dollars in cash. The drug trade, suppressed by the Taliban government before the U.S. invasion, exploded. “Private money, a substantial portion of it thought to be from the illegal drugs trade, is also funding a spurt of new building in the cities, but many say they have seen little change, especially in rural areas where most Afghans live, where villages without even basics like running water, power or schools remain the norm,” reported the BBC. By 2010 half of Afghans told pollsters they hadn’t seen any reconstruction whatsoever paid for by foreign aid. It’s just as bad now.

If an Afghan wanted to fix his house after it was damaged by a U.S. drone attack, that was on him.

Too little self-determination.

“The Afghan people have lost faith in the democratic political process, and regardless of the Taliban’s intimidation they have already boycotted the ongoing voter registration throughout the country,” Asia Times reported in 2018. What “democratic” process? Fraud was widespread in presidential and parliamentary elections. “Everyone was cheating in my polling station. Only 10% voted, but they registered 100% turnout. One man brought five books of ballots, each containing 100 votes, and stuffed them in the boxes after the elections were over,” an Afghan voting official said in 2009.

The message that elections can be fixed came straight from the self-declared crusaders of electoral democracy. In November 2001 while the initial invasion was still underway the U.S. staged a farcical political conference in Bonn, Germany where the Bush Administration attempted to foist the exiled king Zahir Shah, an 87-year-old exiled in Italy since the early 1970s, on the Afghans as a weak English-style constitutional monarch. Ironically, the Afghans present liked the idea—then the Americans pushed him out of the way to make room for Karzai.

The message was clear: American-style democracy is BS.

P.S. Afghanistan, it turns out, has vast mineral wealth worth more than $1 trillion. China has locked up the rights to exploit those reserves.

(Ted Rall (Twitter: @tedrall), the political cartoonist, columnist and graphic novelist, is the author of “Francis: The People’s Pope.” You can support Ted’s hard-hitting political cartoons and columns and see his work first by sponsoring his work on Patreon.)


13 thoughts on “Why We Lost the Afghan War (Again)

  1. Oh, c’mon Ted – next you’ll be telling us we lost in Vietnam, Iraq, Korea …

    “Declare victory and go home” – that’s the American Way!

  2. I would like to present this link. It’s a scene from Dr. Who. The main actor is Peter Capaldi. When it aired several years ago, I thought it was brilliant. I still do.

  3. Each year, how many of the 16 year-olds are willing to risk their lives fighting for a given faction?

    This should be the central metric, militarily speaking, especially in a country where each year a substantial cohort of young people enters the traditional farming / urban labor force / black market racketeering / killing fields.

    If the factions labelled “Taliban” in the West get most of the young volunteers – and keep or increase their share with each passing year – then the occupation is indeed losing. (Although that loss may be covered up temporarily for an ever increasing price in “blood and treasure”, of poor people, mostly theirs, naturally).

    I have talked to people who support the war, from their armchairs as well as as active duty soldiers. While they are willing to debate the points Ted has made in the article – unconvincingly in my view – I have yet to meet someone who would claim that “we” are “winning” according to the metric above. The metric as such is never mentioned, though the military bureaucracy loves metrics.

    Probably because it would follow that the occupier should primarily build hospitals and schools, something the Soviets did – and still lost the war. But who am I telling this ;-):

  4. Re: “P.S. Afghanistan, it turns out, has vast mineral wealth worth more than $1 trillion. China has locked up the rights to exploit those reserves.”

    Are we then to conclude that making $13 trillion of war against a country/people is NOT necessarily sufficient to obtain their resources that we want?!?


    Note that even at the high end of the reported value of those resources, i.e. $5 trillion, the
    return-on-(criminal)investment would have been, incontrovertibly, very negative.

    It gives some insight into the hackneyed meme that “the government” is less efficient than private enterprises. That is, the government (er taxpayers) take(s) all the “risks” and hands over all the rewards, IF ANY ACCRUE, to the corporations along with 1) big wet kisses on ample asses and 2) generous invitations for suggestions for opportunities in new quagmires, atrocities and rampant genocide.

  5. “It would take billions of dollars to even begin rebuilding this country,” an American officer told me for my 2001 Voice piece. “Billions of dollars and many, many years. We don’t have that kind of attention span. Bombing Iraq will be a lot sexier than teaching Afghans how to read.”

    Ted, if successive US government’s had given a flying fuck about Afghanis – in particular, those of the female persuasion – being taught to read, it would have supported the then Afghan government, the efforts of which to extend primary schooling to all>/u> Afghani children, including (gasp !) girls, so woke the ire of Pashtun tribesmen that they took up arms against the godless central government in Kabul, with, at least from 3 July 1979 (i e, nearly six months prior to the Soviet intervention at the behest of that government), the benign aid of the US government….


    • To Henri,

      Re: ” … nearly six months prior to the Soviet intervention at the behest of that government … ”

      (I don’t read French, so maybe this is covered in the link you gave, although, since its an interview of Z-big, I doubt my interpretation was presented!)

      May I underline: the Soviet “invasion” of Afghanistan was a direct result of, and response to, USA MEDDLING in the sovereign affairs of a country, (sharing a ~1500 Km border with the USSR) to undermine its legitimate government that favored the USSR. (See most obvious recent repeat in the Nuland/McCain supported regime change in Ukraine.)

      It was as if the USSR had recruited and outfitted terrorists in Mexico to overthrow the new government that favored the USA to install one that would favor the USSR.

      • Thanks, Henri, for the translation.

        Certainly Z-big here was at his supremely reckless and arrogant “best.”

        I like this part: “It had the effect of drawing the Russians into the Afghan trap and you want me to regret it? The day that the Soviets officially crossed the border, I wrote to President Carter, essentially: “We now have the opportunity of giving to the USSR its Vietnam war.”

        This was said in 1998. By 2001 the “blow-back,” of this “clever” ploy, of course, with the aid of puppet George “the profoundly impaired,” saddled the USA with its SECOND Viet Nam, in spades, and, it appears its concomitant “demoralization and finally the breakup of the” exceptionally stupid, if heroically hypocritical, murderous US empire.

      • But keep in mind, falco, that this «SECOND Vietnam» – like the first – was immensely profitable to the US military-industrial complex, in addition to drawing the country’s allies vassals into the fray, thereby binding them further to the liege lord in Washington. Afghanistan has been a failure for US policy only if one assumes that the objective was to bring peace to that land – to my mind, a view for which there is as little evidence as there is for the notion that the US objective there was to promote primary education for girls….


      • Hi Henri,

        Well certainly Viet Nam II will not be as big a financial bath as a $13 trillion price tag might suggest since the US is quite adept at getting other countries to pay for the wars it makes on them via their purchase of US treasury bills, notes and bonds.

        As to the profitability to the Military-Industrial-Media Complex, the $$$$’s being replenishes via the bills, note and bonds, above, have already been paid to the US’s only remaining, healthy manufacturing industry***: the M-I-MC’s accoutrements & celebration of mass murder.

        This is the issue I mentioned in my separate comment immediately below in this thread.

        I’d suggest that “the primary education of Afghan girls” was not a justification of the war by those who initially proposed it but, rather, that of the incredibly cynical, feckless & spineless Democrats who supported the obviously futile war initially then had to insult us further by having Obumma bloviate (but, oh, so sincerely) about making “very comprehensive inquiries” (or some such egregious bull-fuck) to inform “his” decision to remain in Afghanistan.
        *** the utterly clever and resilient bastions of capitalism being unable to figure out a way to make a profit other than perpetual global war and total surveillance of its citizens, again
all ultimately financed, for the most part, by the abused.

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  7. As I screamed to anyone who would listen, once the Taliban had been defeated (in a month) all that would have been required to stabilize Afghanistan on the basis of a prosperous peasantry was to establish an “opium poppy authority” that would buy up directly from its farmers their entire poppy crop at, say, four times the going price; process it into morphine to supply cost-free the entire world’s needs for that important drug and/or stockpile any surplus; and then get all the foreign militaries out, leaving the Afghans to set up their own government responsible to the Afghan farmers and other workers themselves. Compare the cost of that benign “intervention” to all the death and destruction and looting imposed over nineteen years and counting. Now tell me that the whole atrocity is anything more than collateral damage from the “War On Drugs!”