Holding This Space for the People of Afghanistan
Most Americans have more or less ignored this twenty-year war: let's take a moment to talk about the enormous cost of this stupid, and failed, 2001 decision
Think of today’s post as a prompt: I want you to write today, to answer me back, pro or con, about the precipitous and predictable end to the war in Afghanistan. The comments section awaits. And if there are friends who you would like to join the debate, please:
Photo credit: By Aleksandra Tokarz/ Shutterstock.com
As I write this, the former president of Afghanistan, Ashraf Ghani, is setting up his new household in Turkmenistan. Taliban forces are entering Kabul and preparing to set up their government. The last American embassy staff will have been evacuated from Hamid Karzai airport by the time you read this.
Twenty years after the forever wars began, they are over, and the Afghan people wait to learn what will become of them under Taliban rule.
On October 11, 2001, a month after the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington, D.C., George W. Bush declared war on the Taliban. The United States launched the attack in retribution for the Taliban’s refusal to hand over Osama bin Laden, the Saudi architect of the first foreign assault on the United States since December 7, 1941. Bush emphasized that the events of 9/11 were not just an affront to American sovereignty but nations around the globe. "The attack took place on American soil,” he said in his carefully enunciated Texas drawl, one that always made it sound as if he was talking to tiny children who would not otherwise understand,
but it was an attack on the heart and soul of the civilized world. And the world has come together to fight a new and different war, the first, and we hope the only one, of the 21st century. A war against all those who seek to export terror, and a war against those governments that support or shelter them.
It wasn’t the only war: more have followed. For example, the United States invaded Iraq on March 20, 2003, on the thin and false pretext that bin Laden and Saddam Hussein, the dictatorial president of that country, were in cahoots and that Hussein was building weapons of mass destruction to use against his enemies. As a result, United States troops left that country in 2011, far worse off than they had found it.
The price paid for two decades of global conflict? According to Brown University’s Costs of War website, the United States spent an estimated $6.4 trillion through 2020 ($925 billion of that in interest if you are concerned about what social spending might add to the national debt.)
Then, most importantly, there are the people. This war sacrificed:
More than 801,000 lives in Afghanistan and Iraq. This number includes collateral deaths from the destabilization of incursions into Syria, Yemen, and Pakistan. Perspective on where this fits in the annals of Republican stupidity? An estimated 36.7 million people worldwide and 621,000 Americans have died of Covid-19 in the last 20 months. 50,000 people alone died of the disease yesterday.
7,014 American military who died in these wars, along with 7 950 military contractors (many of whom were actually veterans of the United States military—but better paid), 12,468 allied troops, 536 journalists, and media workers, and 807 humanitarian workers.
Over 177,000 military and police in the targeted countries have been killed.
More than 5.3 million Afghans and 9.2 million Iraqis are either internally displaced or refugees abroad. By one count, a year ago, over 37 million people had become refugees because of the United StatesWar on Terror. And guess what? We still have terror.
These wars have also led to intensified militarized policing on the domestic front, where American tax dollars have been put to work arming domestic cops to the teeth. Before 9/11, only $27 million worth of military equipment had been transferred to state and local police. In the two decades since those attacks, the number is $1.9 billion worth of sophisticated weapons of war sent to support the policing of our cities. So when people support defunding the police, this is what they are talking about.
There’s more—but on this solemn day, the first without Americans at war in twenty years—let’s pause to acknowledge the enormity of the tragedy that the United States inflicted on the world—not by ending the war, but by starting it in the first place. At Talking Points Memo, Josh Marshall argues that the swift fall of Afghanistan does not represent the failure of Biden’s war policy but a correct evaluation of what a house of cards U.S. policy in the region was. “What we have seen over the last couple weeks,” he writes:
shows decisively and irrefutably that the entire politico-military project in Afghanistan was an illusion. Lots of criticism from this or that person, look at what’s happened to everything we built, look what’s been squandered. But what you built was the Afghan state and the military. What we’re seeing here shows you built nothing. We built nothing.
And we cannot ever make it whole. Never. But we can talk about it. So please leave your comments below to share your thoughts, feelings, and memories.
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