The final days of any year require us to take stock of that year, to weigh its merits and demerits, its achievements and ignominies. But history is written on an hourly basis, and every year's glories, catastrophes, triumphs and defeats are added to the long march of history; no year stands alone. One of the common ways to sum up a year is numerically. Numbers are often placed on the bottom rung of the ladder of evidentiary matter ("Lies, damned lies, and statistics") but metrics do have meaning.
The numbers provide useful contextual and comparative information and can serve as a measure of progress, or the lack of it, or the speed at which we are going backwards. For the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the numbers keep piling up, although in 2011 the last of the U.S. combat forces in Iraq drove their up-armored chariots across the Iraqi desert and into Kuwait, ending more than eight years of fighting. Here are some numbers to chew on: $3-4 trillion, and 236,000. The $3-4 trillion is the estimated cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; 236,000 is the estimated military and civilian death toll. More on these numbers later.
The Bush Administration's reasons for invading Iraq remain a mystery to me. Saddam Hussein had nothing to do with the attacks of September 11, 2001; Iraq did not have weapons of mass destruction (and it's pretty clear the Bushies knew this all along); Iraq was no threat to the U.S. or any other country; al Qaeda did not appear in Iraq until well after the invasion, when the presence of our forces gave them a rationale for being there.
The invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 was more understandable: get Osama bin Laden, crush al Qaeda, and kick out the Taliban regime that had played host to bin Laden and his Wahabi followers. But what went wrong? Almost as soon as American boots touched the ground in Afghanistan, the war there seemed to be run as an afterthought, and a fuzzy afterthought at that, while the Administration's eyes were on Iraq. The pursuit of bin Laden was half-assed, and he got away, not to be found until 2011, deep in the heart of our "ally" in the Global War on Terror, Pakistan.
The U.S. has poured billions of dollars and tens of thousands of troops into Afghanistan and Iraq to create and support two of the most corrupt governments on the planet. Transparency International ranks Afghanistan next-to-last, just barely ahead of Somalia and tied with Myanmar for "most corrupt nation;" the U.S.'s other democratization project, Iraq, is third from the bottom, barely ahead of Afghanistan.
And at what cost, in blood and treasure?
Costs of War, a research project of Brown University's Watson Institute for International Studies, has taken into account not just the direct costs of the wars, which has reached $1.2 trillion and counting (if you want to see the cost mount, millisecond by millisecond, visit costofwar.com and watch the numbers roll) but the indirect costs.
Their studies place the overall death toll, military and civilian, in the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts at 236,000 -- and they say even that staggering figure is conservative. The number includes war-related deaths in Pakistan, which has been as much a battleground as Afghanistan, and includes deaths due to a variety of war-related causes such as malnutrition, destruction of medical infrastructure, and the forced relocation of millions of people who became refugees or "displaced persons" because of the wars.
The U.S. has lost more than 6,200 American service members in Iraq and Afghanistan, and suffered more than 42,000 wounded. Many of the injuries would have been fatal in earlier wars, but the speed and quality of medical care in both combat zones kept many of the wounded alive. But their injuries, many caused by Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs), the signature weapons of the wars -- loss of limbs, brain damage, and other disabling wounds including severe post-trauma stress -- will require years of expensive treatment, so that the true cost of the wars will not be known for a generation.
Costs of War estimates the final tab will run $3-4 trillion.
Happy New Year.