Lost lives, massive waste mark U.S. foray in Afghanistan

Over the last 10 days, Afghanistan’s fall to the Taliban has reverberated in the news.

The United States failed to create a western-style democracy in the landlocked Central Asian nation of some 38 million. Our shallow effort at nation building was marked by massive loss of lives, enormous waste of American tax dollars and hubris.

On Sept. 11, 2001 — almost 20 years ago — al-Qaida launched a savage series of attacks on the United States. Almost 3,000 souls perished that day. America suffered a grievous wound.

That night, President George W. Bush pledged to redeem America’s honor and sought to reassure our reeling nation. “Terrorist attacks can shake the foundations of our largest buildings, but they cannot touch the foundation of America. Their acts shatter steel, but they cannot dent the steel of American resolve,” Bush said on national television.

The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) quickly provided Bush with intelligence reports assessing that Osama bin Laden, an independently wealthy Saudi national and leader of al-Qaida, ordered the attacks. In 2004, Bin Laden openly admitted his foul deeds.

The attacks galvanized American public opinion. Millions supported a strong military response. Within a week of the attacks, a Use of Force resolution passed the House of Representatives and Senate with only one House member in opposition. Only Congresswoman Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) voted again the resolution. She urged restraint before the United States empowered Bush, and subsequent presidents, to vindicate American honor “with all appropriate force.”

Intense patriotism was the order of the day.

Within a month of 9/11, Bush ordered Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF). The campaign consisted of massive bombing of Afghanistan. Bin Laden and his cohorts hid there. The Taliban protected them. Bush demanded that the Taliban surrender Bin Laden. The Taliban refused.

The Taliban buckled under heavy U.S. air attacks. They sued for peace.

“They were completely defeated; they had no demands, except amnesty,” Barnett Rubin, an expert on Afghanistan, told The New York Times.

U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld flatly refused the Taliban’s overtures.

“The United States is not inclined to negotiate surrenders,” Rumsfeld told a news conference. He said the U.S. would not allow Mullah Mohammed Omar, the Taliban’s leader, to live out his days in Afghanistan.

Rather than end the conflict quickly, the U.S. sent large numbers of our military to Afghanistan. Twelve days after the beginning of OEF, American ground forces invaded Afghanistan.

On April 17, 2002, Bush announced a Marshall Plan to aid in the reconstruction of Afghanistan. Congress’ first appropriation for humanitarian efforts and to train Afghan forces exceeded $38 billion. Under American supervision in Afghanistan, a new constitution was drafted and Afghanistan held its first democratic elections on Oct. 9, 2004. Hamid Karzai was elected president. Thus began the sinking of American tax dollars into Afghanistan.

The United States sought to recreate Afghanistan in its own image with massive amounts of cash as its primary tool. Karzai and Afghan warlords netted monthly payments, ranging from hundreds of thousands of dollars per month to millions.

John Sopko, the current Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), warned in reports over a decade that waste, fraud and abuse characterized America’s effort to build a viable democracy in Afghanistan.

The waste, said Sopko, included $43 million spent on an inoperable gas station. More than $28 million was spent on uniforms for Afghan military with camouflage appropriate for only a small sector of the country. Sopko noted that America’s efforts to remake the Central Asian nation were inept.

“If the goal was to rebuild and leave behind a country that could sustain itself and pose little threat to U.S. national security interests, the overall picture in Afghanistan is bleak,” the most recent report stated.

Sopko told USA Today that the United States failed to grasp Afghan history and culture in its efforts to launch a democracy.

“It was a little bit of hubris here that we thought it was easy to turn Afghanistan into, you know, Iowa,” Sopko said. “Turn it into a sparkling city on a hill, like Boston. It was always going to be tough. But it could have turned out better,” he said.

“We really lacked the personnel and expertise to really rebuild the country,” Sopko added. “Not only did we not understand Afghanistan, but we didn’t even understand how we should have done the job. And that’s because we never prepare for these types of actions, this type of reconstruction.”

President Biden is now responsible for America’s exit from a 20-year endeavor that is ending badly. Biden never believed nation building would work in Afghanistan. As vice president, he opposed President Obama’s decision to send a surge of 30,000 troops there in 2009. He campaigned for president promising to withdraw all American forces.

Still, only weeks ago, the president told the American people that the final departure from Afghanistan would not resemble the disaster that occurred as we left Vietnam. Nevertheless, chaos has ensued.

The Pentagon has reported the death toll in Afghanistan at: 2,448 American service members; 3,846 U.S. contractors; 66,000 Afghan soldiers and police; 1,144 service members from other allied nations; 47,245 Afghan civilians. More than 51,000 Taliban fighters have perished; at least 444 aid workers have lost their lives and 72 journalists. The Pentagon reports that more than 20,000 American service members were wounded in Afghanistan.

None of the brave men and women who died in service to America, their nations, aiding others or reporting the conflict, has died in vain. Soldiers follow orders. In every war, those drawn to the conflict — doctors, reporters, aid workers and others — sacrifice their lives. Such sacrifices always have meaning.

The United States has spent more than $2.2 trillion on its collective efforts in Afghanistan. Let us remember, as events unfold in days to come, that this bitter experience was the product of long-term judgments by American leaders, Republicans and Democrats. The statistics are sobering.

Let us pray that America’s evacuation from Afghanistan is consummated without more bloodshed.

A version of this editorial appeared in the Aug. 26, 2021, issue of the Jewish Herald-Voice in Houston.

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