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Too Big to Fail: Afghanistan as a Bailout State

Why all the president's Afghan options are bad ones.

| Sun Nov. 1, 2009 9:01 PM PST

 Quagmires, Then and Now

It's quite possible, of course, that the president will choose a "hybrid strategy,", mixing and matching from this list. He might, for instance, up drone attacks in Pakistan, raise troop levels "modestly" à la Kerryand send in more US trainers and advisors—a package that would surely be presented as part of a plan to pave the way for our future departure. All we do know, based on the last year, is that "more" in whatever form is likely to prove a nightmare, and yet anything less than escalation of some sort is not in the cards. No one in Washington is truly going to cut US losses anytime soon.

In the Vietnam era, there was a shorthand word for this: "quagmire." We were, as theantiwar song then went, "waist deep in the Big Muddy" and still wading in. If Vietnam was, in fact, a quagmire, however, it was so only because we made it so. Similarly, in changed circumstances, Afghanistan today has become the AIG of American foreign policy and Obama's team so many foreign policy equivalents of Bush Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson. And as with the economy, so with the expanding Af/Pak war: at the end of the day, it's the American taxpayer who will be left holding the bag.

Let's think about what this means for a moment: According to the US Congressional Research Service, the cost of keeping a single American soldier in Afghanistan is $1.3 million per year. According to Greg Jaffe and Karen DeYoung of the Washington Post, it costs the Pentagon about $1 billion per year to station 1,000 US troops in that country. It's fair to assume that this estimate doesn't include, among other things, long-term care for wounded soldiers or the cost of replacing destroyed or overused equipment. Nor do these figures include any civilian funds being spent on the war effort via the State Department, nor undoubtedly the funds being spent by the Pentagon to upgrade bases and facilities throughout the country. In other words, just about any decision by the president, including one simply focused on training Afghan soldiers and police, will involve an outlay of further multi-billions of dollars. Whatever choice the president makes, the US will bleed money.

Let's say that he makes the Kerry choice—"just" perhaps 15,000 troops. That means at least $15 billion for starters. And there's no reason to believe that we're only talking a year here. The counterinsurgency types are talking 5-10 years to "turn the tide" of the insurgency. Those who are actually training the Afghan military and police, when quoted, don't believe they will be capable of taking what's called "responsibility" in a major way for years to come, if ever.

Throw in domestic politics where a Democratic president invariably feels safer kicking the can down the road via escalation than being called "weak"—though Obama is already being blasted by the right for "dithering"—and you have about as toxic a brew as can be imagined.

If the Afghan War is already too big to fail, what in the world will it be after the escalations to come? As with Vietnam, so now with Afghanistan, the thick layers of mythology and fervent prediction and projection that pass for realism in Washington make clear thinking on the war impossible. They prevent the serious consideration of any options labeled "less" or "none." They inflate projections of disaster based on withdrawal, even though similar lurid predictions during the Vietnam era proved hopelessly off-base.

The United States lived through all the phases of escalation, withdrawal, and defeat in Vietnam without suffering great post-war losses of any sort. This time we may not be so lucky. The United States is itself no longer too big to fail—and if we should do so, remind me: Who exactly will bail us out?

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