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Why Americans Can't Remember Afghanistan

The US has been trying to shape the country since the 1950s.

| Tue Oct. 1, 2013 2:13 PM EDT

This story first appeared on the TomDispatch website.

Will the US still be meddling in Afghanistan 30 years from now? If history is any guide, the answer is yes. And if history is any guide, three decades from now most Americans will have only the haziest idea why.

Since the 1950s, the US has been trying to mold that remote land to its own desires, first through an aid "war" in the midst of the Cold War with the Soviet Union; then, starting as the 1970s ended, an increasingly bitter and brutally hot proxy war with the Soviets meant to pay them back for supporting America's enemies during the war in Vietnam.  One bad war leads to another.

From then until the early 1990s, Washington put weapons in the hands of Islamic fundamentalist extremists of all sorts—thought to be natural, devoutly religious allies in the war against "godless communism"—gloated over the Red Army's defeat and the surprising implosion of the Soviet empire, and then experienced its own catastrophic blowback from Afghanistan on September 11, 2001. After 50 years of scheming behind the scenes, the US put boots on the ground in 2001 and now, 12 years later, is still fighting there—against some Afghans on behalf of other Afghans while training Afghan troops to take over and fight their countrymen, and others, on their own.

Through it all, the US has always claimed to have the best interests of Afghans at heart—waving at various opportune moments the bright flags of modernization, democracy, education, or the rights of women. Yet today, how many Afghans would choose to roll back the clock to 1950, before the Americans ever dropped in? After 12 years of direct combat, after 35 years of arming and funding one faction or another, after 60 years of trying to remake Afghanistan to serve American aims, what has it all meant? If we ever knew, we've forgotten. Weary of official reports of progress, Americans tuned out long ago.

Back in 1991, as Steve Coll reports in Ghost Wars, an unnamed CIA agent mentioned the war in Afghanistan to President George H.W. Bush. Not long before, he had okayed the shipment of Iraqi weaponry captured in the first Gulf War—worth $30 million—to multiple factions of Islamist extremists then battling each other and probably using those secondhand Iraqi arms to destroy Afghanistan's capital, Kabul.  Still, Bush seemed puzzled by the CIA man's question about the war. He reportedly asked, "Is that thing still going on?"

Such forgetfulness about wars has, it seems, become an all-American skill. Certainly, the country has had little trouble forgetting the war in Iraq, and why should Afghanistan be any different? Sure, the exit from that country is going to take more time and effort. No seacoast, no ships, bad roads, high tolls, IEDs. Trucking stuff out is problematic; flying it out, wildly expensive, especially since a lot of the things are really, really big. Take MRAPs, for example—that's Mine-Resistant Ambush-Protected vehicles—11,000 of them, weighing 14 tons or more apiece. For that workhorse transport plane, the C-17, a full load of MRAPs numbers only four.

The equipment inventory keeps changing, but estimates run to 100,000 shipping containers and about 50,000 vehicles to be removed by the end of 2014, adding up to more than $36 billion worth of equipment now classified as "retrograde." The estimated shipping bill has quickly risen to $6 billion, and like the overall cost of the war, it is sure to keep rising. 

Seven billion dollars worth of equipment—about 20% of what the US sent in to that distant land—is simply being torn up, chopped down, split, shredded, stomped, and, when possible, sold off for scrap at pennies a pound. Toughest to break up are the weighty MRAPs. Introduced in 2007 at a cost of $1 million apiece to counteract deadly roadside bombs, they were later discovered to be no better at protecting American soldiers than the cheaper vehicles they replaced. Of the 11,000 shipped to Afghanistan, 2,000 are on the chopping block, leaving a mere 9,000 to be flown to Kuwait, four at a time, and shipped home or "repositioned" elsewhere to await some future enemy. 

The military is not exaggerating when it calls this colossal destruction of surplus equipment historic. A disposal effort on this scale is unprecedented in the annals of the Pentagon. The centerpiece of this demolition derby may be the brand-new, 64,000-square-foot, $34-million, state-of-the art command center completed in Helmand Province just as most US troops left, and now likely to be demolished. Or the new $45 million facility in Kandahar built as a repair center for armored vehicles, now used for their demolition, and probably destined to follow them. Taxpayers may one day want to ask some questions about such profligate and historic waste, but it's sure to keep arms manufacturers happy, resupplying the military until we can get ourselves into another full-scale war.

So this exit is a really big job, and that's without even mentioning the paperwork. All those exit plans, all the documents to be filed with the Afghan government for permission to export our own equipment, all the fines assessed for missing customs forms (already running to $70 million), all the export fees to be paid, and the bribes to be offered, and the protection money to be slipped to the Taliban so our enemies won't shoot at the stuff being trucked out. All that takes time.

But when it comes right down to it, the United States has a surefire way of ending a war, no matter when it actually ends (or doesn't). When we say it's over, it's over. 

Enduring Operation Enduring Freedom

As it happens, things probably won't be quite so decisively "over" for everybody. Look at Iraq, for example. The last American troops drove out of Iraq in December 2011, leaving behind a staff of at least 16,000, including 5,000 private security contractors, assigned to the vast $750 million fortress of a US Embassy in Baghdad. That war has now been over for almost two years, the embassy staff is being trimmed, and yet, the drumbeat of news about car bombs, suicide bombers, and the latest rounds of sectarian cleansing has not slackened. Nearly 6,000 Iraqis have been killed so far this year, 1,000 in July alone, making it the deadliest month in Iraq since 2008. Even Iraqis who lived through the war in their own homes are now fleeing, like millions of Iraqis before them—many the victims of sectarian cleansing practiced during the American-led "surge" of 2007 and now polished to a fine art. From the foreign diplomatic corps in Baghdad come informal messages that include the words "worse than ever."

In Afghanistan, too, as the end of a longer war supposedly draws near, the rate at which civilians are being killed has actually picked up, and the numbers of women and children among the civilian dead have risen dramatically. This week, as the Nation magazine devotes a special issue to a comprehensive study of the civilian death toll in Afghanistan—the painstaking work of Bob Dreyfuss and Nick Turse—the pace of civilian death seems only to be gaining momentum as if in some morbid race to the finish.

Like Iraqis, Afghans, too, are in flight—fearing the unknown end game to come. The number of Afghans filing applications for asylum in other countries, rising sharply since 2010, reached 30,000 in 2012. Undocumented thousands flee the country illegally in all sorts of dangerous ways. Their desperate journeys by land and sea spark controversy in countries they're aiming for. It was Afghan boat people who roused the anti-immigrant rhetoric of candidates in the recent Australian elections, revealing a dark side of the national character even as Afghans and others drowned off their shores. War reverberates, even where you least expect it.

Afghans who remain at home are on edge. Their immediate focus: the presidential election scheduled for April 5, 2014. It's already common knowledge that the number of existing voter cards far exceeds the number of eligible voters, and millions more are being issued to new registrants, making it likely that this presidential contest will be as fraudulent as the last, in 2009, when voter cards were sold by the handful. 

With President Hamid Karzai constitutionally barred from a third term, the presidential race is either wide open, or—as many believe—already a done deal. In August, Afghan news services reported that Karzai had chaired a meeting with a few of the country's most powerful warlords to call for the candidacy of Abdul Rab Rasoul Sayyaf, intimidator of women in parliament, longtime pal of Osama bin Laden, mentor of al-Qaeda's Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, likely collaborator in the assassination two days before 9/11 of the Taliban's greatest opponent, Ahmad Shah Massoud—in short the quintessential untouchable jihadi

There's an irony so ludicrous as to be terrible in the thought that while the US supposedly fought this interminable war to insure that al-Qaeda would never again find a haven in Afghanistan, the country's next president could be the very guy who invited bin Laden to Afghanistan in the first place and became his partner in building al-Qaeda training camps.

Even Karzai, who likes to poke his finger in American eyes, quickly backed away from that insult. Within hours of the news reports, he announced that he would remain "neutral." Americans scarcely seemed to notice, but Afghans noted what Karzai had done in the first place. Now, as Sayyaf and other potential candidates do backroom deals, jockeying for position, Afghans wait anxiously to learn which ones will actually register to run before the October 6th deadline.

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The names bandied about are those of the usual suspects: familiar militia commanders from times past, former jihadis, and political hacks. At this writing, a coalition of some of the most powerful are said to be aligning behind former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah, who came in second to Karzai's overstuffed ballot boxes in 2009 and declined to take part in a runoff likely to be just as fixed by fraud. One Afghan politico, surveying a recent gathering of likely candidates, expressed to the Washington Post an opinion widely held by Afghans: "These are the people who destroyed our country. They should all be thrown down a well." Beleaguered Afghans have lived through all of this with all of them before. Sometimes it ends in a crooked election. Sometimes in a coup. Once in recent memory, in a civil war that could go into reruns.

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