Afghanistan: Death and the high cost of living

I am the Afghanistan Blogging Fellow for The Seminal and Brave New Foundation. You can read my work on The Seminal or at Rethink Afghanistan. The views expressed below are my own.

Stephen Walt has an interesting piece up at Foreign Policy talking about the recent Wikileaks release. He touches on the idea that massacres like the one in the Wikileaks video are to be expected as part of the price of our interventionist policies:

Notice that I am not suggesting that the personnel involved failed to observe the proper “rules of engagement,” or did not genuinely think that the individuals they were attacking were in fact armed. Rather, what bothers me is that they were clearly trying to operate within the rules, and still made a tragic error. It reminds us that this sort of mistake is inevitable in this sort of war, especially when we rely on overwhelming firepower to wage it. When we intervene in other countries, this is what we should expect.

It’s an excellent point, but unfortunately it’s too easily dismissed with the old “war is hell” cliche, as we see in this piece from Bouhammer:

Soldiers cannot get wrapped around every single life they are forced to take by virtue of being in combat. Soldiers (and I use soldiers generally describing all service-members), use dark humor and take it all in stride when they have to take lives. They can’t be effective by getting wrapped around the axle over taking human lives. So what you hear in this video is soldiers being soldiers. Nobody likes killing innocents, especially children and that is evident when the soldiers on the ground immediately start calling for a MEDEVAC to come get the wounded children.

Clearly not everyone sees killing people as an unacceptable price of war, particularly when it’s soldiers doing it. Bouhammer simply took Walt’s advice, and expected the horrible deaths as a natural result of the policy. But there is a bit more to the price of war than just the loss of lives. So let’s get a little cold-hearted for a moment and just accept that we need to murder these people as part of our strategy. Even if we’re OK with that, the price of this strategy is still astronomically expensive.

Let’s start just with the cost of transporting supplies to our troops. Not the supplies themselves, just the cost of transporting them. Tom Engelhardt explains:

* Believe it or not, according to the Washington Post, the Defense Department has awarded a contract worth up to $360 million to the son of an Afghan cabinet minister to transport U.S. military supplies through some of the most dangerous parts of Afghanistan – and his company has no trucks. (He hires subcontractors who evidently pay off the Taliban as part of a large-scale protection racket that allows the supplies through unharmed.) This contract is, in turn, part of a $2.1 billion Host Nation Trucking contract whose recipients may be deeply involved in extortion and smuggling rackets, and over which the Pentagon reportedly exercises little oversight.

That’s you, the taxpayer, paying 2 billion dollars just for trucks run by corrupt warlords and Taliban interlopers who will use them to smuggle god knows what, probably drugs or guns used to kill our soldiers. Lovely. But we have to pay that right, because in order for our war strategy to work we’ve got to have soldiers in “some of the most dangerous parts of Afghanistan.” Two billion dollars, that’s all.

That’s just for the trucks, though, how do we get the supplies on to those trucks? Well, they come through an airbase in Kyrgyzstan. The price for that is the usual support for a police state dictator and paying rent with US taxpayers’ money. And that price is about to go up:

The news of ongoing unrest in the central Asian republic has been received with concern by Washington. The U.S. embassy in Bishkek said it was “deeply concerned” about “civil disturbances” in the country, in a statement released on Wednesday.

Saying that the situation in Kyrgyzstan was “still very fluid”, John Kerry, the chair of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, expressed “regret for the loss of life” in the country and called on all sides to be “calm and refrain from violence”. He called upon Kyrgyz parties to address the “underlying political, economic and social issues” in a “transparent process that brings stability and fundamental rights to all.”

The U.S. State Department said that transport operations at the Manas military installation outside Bishkek have been “functioning normally.” The U.S. military has used the base over the past several years as a staging post for its operations in Afghanistan. Despite the call for the base’s closure by opposition leaders reportedly in charge now, it remains to be seen whether the new government will take practical steps toward that end.

There are worries in the U.S. that the new opposition-led government may increase the rent for Manas base by renegotiating the terms of its agreement with the U.S., according to Foreign Policy‘s Cable blog. Such a renegotiation, Cable said, may offer Russia an opportunity to influence an agreement over the base.

So our pet dictator was ousted in a violent uprising (I won’t get into the awful stuff he did to deserve that here), and now the new opposition government is going to be raising the rent, if not evicting us completely. This also apparently gives Russia, who we desperately need in other matters like the Iranian nuclear file, some sort of free bargaining chip to play against the US. And this is just for the airbase! Remember the trucks are a whole separate other $2 billion, and we’re not even talking about the cost of the supplies themselves.

But the cost goes even further than just rent or trucks or anything you can put a dollar sign on. We’re also actively working to subvert European democracies as part of the cost of our war:

A newly leaked CIA report prepared earlier this month (.pdf) analyzes how the U.S. Government can best manipulate public opinion in Germany and France — in order to ensure that those countries continue to fight in Afghanistan. The Report celebrates the fact that the governments of those two nations continue to fight the war in defiance of overwhelming public opinion which opposes it — so much for all the recent veneration of “consent of the governed” — and it notes that this is possible due to lack of interest among their citizenry: “Public Apathy Enables Leaders to Ignore Voters,” proclaims the title of one section.

We’re paying the CIA to figure out how to screw over the voters of France and Germany, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the same chicanery was happening in American politics. We’re way past blowing taxpayer funds and into the territory of destroying our own national values. And for what? Who actually stands to benefit from all of these prices that we’re paying?

Afghan President Hamid Karzai has slammed Western backers for the second time in a week, accusing the United States of interference, The Wall Street Journal reported Sunday.

In a private meeting with up to 70 Afghan lawmakers Saturday, Karzai also warned that the Taliban insurgency could become a legitimate resistance movement if foreign meddling in Afghan affairs continues, the Journal said, citing participants in the talks.

During the talks, Karzai, whose government is supported by billions of dollars of Western aid and 126,000 foreign troops fighting the Taliban, said he would be compelled to join the insurgency himself if the parliament does not back his bid to take over Afghanistan’s electoral watchdog

That’s right, we’re paying a couple billion to Taliban warlords over here, propping up a police state over there, subverting democracies all over the place, and all for a corrupt mountebank like Karzai who wants to join the Taliban. And remember, I’m just picking examples out of thin air here; the cost of trucks, the Kyrgyz airbase, the CIA memos. These aren’t even the total cost of the war which will wind up costing in the trillions.

Let’s go back to Walt’s piece:

It reminds us that this sort of mistake is inevitable in this sort of war, especially when we rely on overwhelming firepower to wage it. When we intervene in other countries, this is what we should expect.

See, Americans do expect these costs. They understand the cliches that “war is hell” and, indeed, expensive. But Americans do question why they’re paying these costs only to prop up criminals like Karzai. Why are we paying billions to Taliban smugglers and police states and anti-democratic intelligence operations just to build a country for a guy who wants to join the Taliban? And he’s the best thing we’ve got over there, we’ve been there for over 9 years, there is no one else.

Americans aren’t opposing the cost of this war because they magically turned into pacifist hippies, they oppose the cost because we’re paying for nothing over there. The best case scenario for the current price we’re paying is we shell out trillions in deficit money, leave our soldiers to keep dying and killing innocent civilians for the next few years, subvert democracies worldwide and destroy our own national values. All so Karzai will maybe not join the Taliban. Whatever goals we have in Afghanistan are simply not worth the price we’re paying.

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One comment

  1. Having met men who fought in Vietnam and still struggle with what they saw and did there, I have compassion for those soldiers who are “following orders.” They may never sleep again once they get home. The real culprits are far from the battlefield. The Pink Floyd song “Us and Them” comes to mind: “Forward he cried from the rear…”

    As to who gains what, we cannot overlook (especially in light of the role of drug money on our policies with respect to Mexico) the fact that opium production in Afghanistan had been virtually wiped out under the Taliban. Two years after the war began, record crops were produced. That’s billions of dollars worth of heroin. Coincidence?

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