The costs of war
"We are winning" in Afghanistan, says Gen. David H. Petraeus. President Obama declares that the December military review shows we are "on track." No doubt the president and the general are right: We will keep "making progress" for as many months or years as we choose to fight what is now America's longest war - until we finally pull out, in defeat or in political exhaustion, wondering what we have accomplished for all the blood and treasure spent.
The president's review only confirmed what informed observers already know. U.S. troops can win nearly any firefight. But ultimately we are no more secure, and Afghanistan is no closer to becoming a stable and developing country. No matter how light or agile their "footprint," U.S. and allied occupying forces end up generating as many enemies as they kill, not only in Afghanistan but in other Muslim lands. No matter how much help we give to the Afghan people, inevitably it is seen as being on behalf of a government that is more a kleptocracy than a democracy.
How does one measure progress in what should be more accurately described as a counterproductive and now unnecessary war? We're chasing a diminished band of al- Qaeda terrorists who now pose little threat to us in the forbidding terrain of North Waziristan and Baluchistan on the Pakistani border, while our Pakistani allies cynically buy into both sides of the fight.
We're spending $100 billion a year on a country that had a gross domestic product of a little more than $2 billion when we invaded in 2001. We manage this feat only by helping to fund both sides of the conflict (much of the aid ends up in the hands of the Taliban as well as regional warlords who don't support the Karzai government). The military focus displaces attention that should be devoted to regional diplomacy and a political settlement within Afghanistan. Instead we are "making progress," even as the review quietly shifts our departure date from 2011 to 2014.
Missing in the president's review are the actual costs of the war. That includes what economists call "opportunity costs," or what we miss by continuing this course. By 2014, this administration will have spent more than $700 billion on Afghanistan directly. Poverty is an unfashionable word in Washington, but it afflicts a record 43 million Americans. Childhood poverty is rising. Nationally, only one in seven black male teens held any type of job in the first quarter of this year. We should not fool ourselves: A generation of children raised on dangerous streets is being condemned to a life of misery - hunger, broken families, unemployment, drugs and crime. The nation we are failing to build in Afghanistan is our own.
If poverty is too liberal a concern, consider the costs of Afghanistan to our economic competitiveness. America is literally falling apart. Our aged and decrepit infrastructure is becoming a clear and present danger. Lives are lost when a bridge falls in Minneapolis or the levees collapse in New Orleans. SUVs are swallowed by collapsing sewage systems in New York. Children go to schools judged dangerous to their health. Hours are lost when aged train switches freeze, sewer systems collapse or traffic snarls. Even the basics of civilization, such as access to clean water, are increasingly at risk because of aging and leaky sewage systems. Our electric grid, our broadband system and our transportation system all lag behind those of global competitors. Combine the $700 billion spent in Afghanistan and the $700 billion to be squandered on tax breaks for the richest 1 percent of Americans over the next decade, and you have real money, even for Washington. Money that this increasingly challenged country can no longer afford to waste.
Notably absent in the commentary about the president's review, too, are the war's human costs. The service of those in our volunteer army is routinely praised on all sides. The Democratic Congress under President George W. Bush and Obama committed itself to improving military pay, educational benefits and medical and psychological care. But celebrating servicemembers' courage ignores the basic question: How do you ask young men and women to give their life or limbs for a cause that you know is lost? Or worse, has no justifiable purpose?
The December military review has resulted in a predictable political straddle. The president fulfills his pledge that some troops will come home in 2011; General Petraeus gets a commitment for another four years of occupation before the Afghan government might "assume responsibility." In the 2012 presidential race, the withdrawals can be advertised to unhappy doves, while the continuing commitment can be used to appease the appetite of hawks.
Afghanistan now awaits its Fulbright. It is time for the Senate to make an independent review of the war, and to challenge - as Sen. J.William Fulbright did during the Vietnam war - a president unwilling to end a conflict he knows will not be won. Surely, it is fate that the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee is Sen. John Kerry. Nearly 40 years ago, as a brave, decorated, young Navy lieutenant returning from Vietnam, he challenged senators to do their duty, saying that each day "someone has to give up his life so that the United States doesn't have to admit something that the entire world already knows . . . that we have made a mistake. . . . How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?"
Does Sen. Kerry, now steeped in Washington's political culture, have the same courage as that young man? Will he stand up, as Fulbright did before him, to challenge a president of his own party in the nation's best interest? A new generation of young men and women depends on him to lead.
Katrina vanden Heuvel is editor and publisher of the Nation and writes a weekly online column for The Post.