In reporting about a Taliban attack against Camp Bastion in southern Afghanistan last Friday, The New York Times pointed out that the eight U.S. Marine Harrier jets destroyed in the attack were worth about $200 million. America's real loss is harder to quantify, as is so much in this war, but it's always more than we realize.
While Harriers cost about $23 million a copy when they were first purchased 10 or 20 years ago, they can no longer be replaced by anything that doesn't cost many times that amount. The cost of the two Marines killed in the attack can't be calculated at all. What is also beyond calculation is why, after 11 years of war and assurances by our top government and military leaders that things are improving in Afghanistan, the Taliban can stage such an attack against a fortified British/U.S. base.
There are numerous reasons: The Taliban are ever better at asymmetric warfare; we can't tell friend from enemy; the country has been and would be difficult for any army to control, etc. The reasons stop to matter. They are simply there, and they are compelling enough to make anyone who thinks we should spend another minute in that country have to provide a cogent explanation for that position.
Then, there's the really tough stuff. One problem is the mounting number of "green-on-blue" attacks, the shooting of our people by Afghans we are supposed to be training. Everyone clucks over this horrifying phenomenon, and members of Congress who support the war want to know what we're going to do to offer more protection for our troops. If we continue our present policy based on training the Afghans to take over their own security, there is nothing we can do to improve security! Every Coalition soldier has become an individual target. How does one propose that we protect tens of thousands of individual targets? In a conventional war, troops stay behind the heavily patrolled wire and screen anyone who approaches. But when the troops need to get among the population for any purpose, they cannot be guaranteed safety. U.S. spokesmen have talked about an "angel" approach, where one soldier observes his mates training Afghan counterparts and watches for trouble. Who watches the "angel" to make sure he's not shot? Is this where we've come after 11 years?
Just as important is the internal rot that affects the Afghan government, led by its malignant president, Hamid Karzai. Karzai never misses an opportunity to denigrate us to the rest of the world, and to explain to his people what we're doing wrong, all the while sucking up every nickel we're stupid enough to give him. Good governance was one of the five pillars of our initial strategy in Afghanistan, going back to the invasion in 2001. Unfortunately, the Taliban murdered the best candidate for Afghan leadership, Ahmad Shah Massoud, two days before 9/11, and we were left with Karzai to work with us.
The tenacity with which we have backed Karzai defies understanding. Those who are well versed about Afghanistan know that Karzai's family was involved in the drug trade. Karzai has consistently shoveled money and contracts to cronies, and has done little to help the Coalition build a functional Afghan infrastructure. Most recently, he criticized the United States over our reluctance to turn over detainees, which is based, among other reasons, on consistent Afghan failure to properly manage detainee incarceration. This has resulted in repeated jailbreaks and premature paroles.
There are also our own consistent failings. Experts at places like the World Bank will tell you that there is nothing tougher than nation building, and there is no more challenging place to try than Afghanistan, with its difficult terrain and almost ubiquitous illiteracy. This means that there is little margin for error, but the scope of the job has defied proper oversight because real talent in this area comes at a premium, and is always in short supply. We let contracts to locals who do shoddy, unsupervised work; we get fleeced by our own contractors; and we struggle with the inconsistent efforts of our Coalition partners. There has never been enough money or coherent planning to do the job, which was probably impossible in the first place. The most important fact we managed to forget was that nothing was possible without true security, and, eleven years later, it is still lacking.
Some might argue that keeping Afghanistan free of al-Qaeda will keep America safer. They are failing to see the simplest truth about terrorism: that it is never going away, and that it sets up business anywhere that governance is weak. (Witnesses the ever-widening scope of our drone targeting.) In any event, we repeatedly forget the most basic rule of counterinsurgency. As long as the Taliban have a safe haven in Pakistan, we're not going to be rid of them.
Others state that the critical mistake was that the administration revealed our departure date. How many years were we in Afghanistan before that, where it made absolutely no difference? The only thing wrong with the departure date is that it is so far in the future. No one who supports the war can give a clear picture of what Afghanistan might look like in three to five years if we stayed, but I suspect we know anyway. "In for a penny, in for a pound" is no way to formulate a foreign policy.