There is no instance of a nation benefitting from prolonged warfare.
– Sun Tzu, author of The Art of War
In 2011, Brown University released the Costs of War report. Written by economists, political scientists, lawyers, anthropologists and humanitarian personnel for Brown’s Watson Institute for International Studies, the report details the human, economic, and social and political costs of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. That report contained, among other things, the following three numbers:
- $4 trillion. This number represents the financial cost of the wars, costs that have already been paid or are obligated to be paid. Note that this is far above the Congressional Budget Office’s 2007 report estimating that by 2017, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan will have cost the United States up to $2.4 trillion.
- 298,000. This number represents the number of casualties from the wars, both in uniform and out. Coalition military casualties account for 3,190 of these fatalities. The United States has suffered the heaviest military losses at 2,125.
- 7.4 million. This number (more specifically: 7,424,780) represents the number of people that have been displaced indefinitely and are living in “grossly inadequate conditions.” To put this figure into perspective, consider the fact that it is greater than the populations of West Virginia, Nebraska, Idaho, Hawaii and South Dakota combined.
To individuals who have kept apprise of the tremendously painful costs of war to the people of Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, and the United States and her allies, these numbers may not be that surprising. But they will likely be staggering to the average American, who is often inundated with media coverage aimed at attracting the highest ratings (e.g., coverage of a celebrity death) rather than celebrating the heroism of our fallen men and women in uniform or asking tough questions about our continued engagement in the military conflicts in the middle east. According to a study by the Project for Excellence in Journalism, the Afghan war accounted for merely 4 percent of the nation’s news coverage in major outlets in 2010, down slightly from 2009, when the war accounted for 5 percent.
It does not matter if you identify yourself as a Democrat, Independent or Republican, these numbers – $4 trillion, 298,000, 7.4 million – are numbers that every American should be familiar with. But not only are these figures scarcely mentioned by the individuals in our society tasked with delivering important information to the public. At a time in which our country is facing numerous problems of increasing complexity (e.g., the economy, unemployment, climate change, social unrest overseas), three of the hardest questions – “Can the Afghan war be won?”, “Why are we in Afghanistan?” and, perhaps most importantly, “Does the current situation justify our continued presence in Afghanistan?” – are not even being asked of the two men campaigning for the title of Commander in Chief.
President Obama has made his vision for the future of the Afghanistan war clear: transition combat responsibility to Afghan forces by the end of 2014. In May, on a surprise visit to Afghanistan, Obama noted that “[we’ve] begun the transition to Afghan responsibility for security. Already, nearly half of the Afghan people live in places where Afghan security forces are moving into the lead . . . And as our coalition agreed, by the end of 2014 the Afghans will be fully responsible for the security of their country.” In contrast, Mitt Romney has been either completely evasive or remarkably vague in his statements on Afghanistan. And in a remarkable strategic error, Romney failed to mention Afghanistan or praise U.S. troops in his convention speech, which drew acute criticism from both Democrats and Republicans. Conservative columnist William Kristol, for example, asked the following pointed question: “Has it ever happened that we’ve been at war and a presidential nominee has ignored, in this kind of major and formal speech, the war and our warriors?”
Throughout the campaign, Mitt Romney and his advisors have appeared to deliberately downplay foreign policy. There are two primary explanations for this. First, wading into the waters of foreign policy would expose Romney and Ryan’s own inexperience. The campaign’s “ham-handed” handling of the recent crisis in the middle east, particularly with regard to the storming of the American embassies in Egypt and Libya, seemed to highlight the depth of the gulf of this experience. Second, targeting foreign policy would cast a spotlight on Obama’s foreign policy successes (e.g., ending the war in Iraq, eliminating Osama Bin Laden), elevating the standard rhetoric that is already present in Obama’s stump speeches to a potent and devastating refutation of Romney’s arguments.
A third argument can be made, however, that the deeper reason behind Romney’s obfuscation is that the Romney campaign is having difficulty distinguishing some of Romney’s positions from the stance of the Obama Administration. In an election that is supposed to be a referendum on the Obama Administration, Mitt Romney would gain no political advantage by showing his similarities with Obama.
It should be obvious that this explanation does not apply to everything. Comparing candidates positions is always a fact-specific inquiry. Notably, for example, President Obama and the Romney campaign depart on their belief as to whether the United States military should torture its detainees. With regard to Afghanistan, however, the similarities might just hold true. Following Romney’s convention-speech blunder, Romney sought to clarify his (current) position on Afghanistan, noting, “Our goal should be to complete a successful transition to Afghan security forces by the end of 2014. We should evaluate conditions on the ground and solicit the best advice of our military commanders.”
In an earlier post this week (Climate Change and Political Accountability), I lamented the absence of debate over the issue of climate change. In contrast to the issue of climate change, however, where neither candidate has proposed a meaningful solution, in terms of the Afghan war both candidates seem to have endorsed the same strategy. If this is indeed the case, as is suggested by the above quotation from Romney, it is extraordinarily disconcerting.
In 2010, President Obama ordered more than 30,000 troops into southern Afghanistan in order to stop the momentum of the Taliban insurgency. Two years after Obama’s order, some argue that the “surge ordered by President Obama . . . had a huge positive impact on security.” However, data recently released by NATO command in Afghanistan belies this assertion. NATO’s report makes clear that the surge failed to achieve its stated goal of stopping the Taliban’s momentum.
Although the NATO report notes that enemy initiated attacks have decreased 5 percent in Jan-Aug 2012 compared to the same period in 2011, as Wired noted, the more relevant comparison is to 2009, which clearly demonstrates that conditions in Afghanistan have deteriorated.
Americans increasingly believe that the United States made a mistake in sending military forces into Afghanistan. In 2002, 93 percent of Americans believed that the U.S. had made the right choice invading Afghanistan; only 6 percent believed that the U.S. did not make a mistake. By 2011, however, the number of Americans believing that the U.S. made the right choice had fallen to 58 percent, whereas the number of Americans who believe that America made a mistake rose to 39 percent. Similarly, 50 percent of Americans now believe that the United States should abandon the 2014 timetable and speed up the withdrawal. Whether or not it actually was a mistake to invade Afghanistan is immaterial (we did). But what polls like this highlight is an American public increasingly weary of war.
Now that the surge is over and the last U.S. surge troops have returned home, its effectiveness will surely be litigated. What must also be part of this conversation, however, is whether conditions in Afghanistan justify our continued presence in the country, and whether the United States should seek a more aggressive withdrawal from the longest war in U.S. history.
On October 22nd at 9 p.m., Bob Scheiffer will moderate the third presidential debate in Boca Raton, Florida, centered on foreign policy. And in this debate, the American public must be reminded of the following three figures: $4 trillion; 298,000; 7.4 million. These are not merely numbers; they represent some of the costs of a war that is devastating lives and will reverberate for years to come. And if they mean anything, the candidates must be asked pointed questions about Afghanistan. Our candidates for the presidency must be made to justify America’s continued presence in Afghanistan. They must be made to answer for the $4 trillion spent, 298,000 lives lost, and 7.4 million people impacted by the conflict. America can and must do better.