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Afghanistan 20 Years Later: Another Costly Quagmire

As Congress debates the massive investment in American infrastructure, President Biden announces the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan.

Squad,Of,Three,Fully,Equipped,And,Armed,Soldiers,Standing,On
U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan.
(Shutterstock)
You can listen to the companion audio version of this and other essays in the series using the player below or on Apple PodcastsGoogle PodcastsStitcher or Audible.


What can you buy with a trillion dollars, let alone four or five trillion? It’s not that government expenditure is a zero-sum game (guns or butter), and we all understand that national security and national defense are among the most essential expenditures of any sovereign nation. Still, had the United States not invaded Afghanistan and Iraq or prolonged our incursions there, that same national treasure might have been spent to address domestic needs, including the repair of America’s endangered infrastructure, with a shining new airport in each of America’s major cities. It might have been invested in inner city renewal programs, including enterprise zones, or equalization programs to lift all boats, or supporting public education, perhaps making college education more affordable (and less indebted) for millions of young Americans.

About a decade ago, I had the honor of interviewing former South Dakota Senator and 1972 presidential candidate George McGovern at a forum in western North Dakota. It was just a few months before his death on Oct. 21, 2012. He said he was beginning to work on a new book. I asked what it was about. “It’s called The Grave of Empires,” he said, “how any nation that invades Afghanistan gets bogged down there and loses untold treasure and the flower of its youth.” He was never able to complete the book, in part, perhaps, because the U.S. never left.

And we have not left yet. On April 13, President Biden announced  his plan to withdraw all remaining U.S. troops from Afghanistan by Sept. 11, 2021, the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. Currently there are approximately 3,500 American troops in Afghanistan.

Our involvement in Afghanistan has been called “America’s longest war.” Operation Enduring Freedom began on Oct. 7, 2001, just one month after the 9/11 attacks. The goal was to capture or kill Osama bin Laden and to make it impossible for Al Qaeda to train Islamic insurgents for terrorist attacks on the United States and Europe. The attempt to kill bin Laden at Tora Bora failed in December 2001, though he may have been wounded. The Saudi mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks was not killed in Afghanistan but in neighboring Pakistan, not in 2001 but on May 2, 2011, more than ten years into the war, in a daring SEAL team raid on his compound in Abbottabad, the location of Pakistan’s equivalent to West Point.

Afghanistan: The Battleground of Empires



Here are some points that Sen. McGovern might have made in his book. Invasions of Afghanistan have been undertaken by Alexander the Great, the Rashidun Caliphate, the Mongol Empire (Genghis Khan), Persian empires, the Sikh Empire, Britain (three times), the former Soviet Union (three times, most recently 1978), and the United States and NATO. And this is the short list. Blood and treasure. And loss of empire. Who can explain the goals of these invasions? It is easier to remember their failure than their strategic purposes. It’s nearly impossible even to articulate the purpose of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan on Dec. 24, 1979, but we know the Soviets left in ignominy ten years later, after the Mujahideen — heavily supported and armed by the U.S. CIA — wore down the resolve of the invaders, who had the comparative advantage of living right next door, not 6,800 miles away. And, of course, in one of the saddest ironies of our time, the Mujahideen soon turned their American-armed and American-trained aggressions against the “Great Infidel,” the United States.

McGovern’s point was that the two most recent empires to invade Afghanistan, Britain in the 19th century and the USSR in the 20th, are both gone now, after their ultimately unsuccessful attempts to pacify the country and achieve their strategic interests. McGovern feared that the United States was likely to enter a period of spiraling national decline thanks to its unending war in Afghanistan, and that we should take a sobering lesson from the long tragic history of foreign invasions of that troubled nation (more accurately, a tribal region), strategically situated at the crossroads of the Middle East and Asia.

Whether the United States has achieved its post-9/11 strategic interests in Afghanistan is a matter of heated debate. The Taliban still exists. Taliban and other insurgent forces continue to terrorize the country and undermine the Afghan government. If the far-right Taliban regains control of the country after the U.S. and NATO withdrawal, it will almost certainly engage in widespread reprisals against Afghan citizens who cooperated with the United States and engage in violent repression of women, who have been liberated from the harsh Sharia law under the security guarantee of the U.S. and NATO occupation.

Most wars, said Thomas Jefferson, end with the restoration of the status quo ante bellum (things go right back to the way things were before all the loss of blood and treasure). That has been the principal concern of the U.S. military in the last two decades, often at odds with the civilian political administration under which it operates. For at least 15 years, the U.S. has maintained a strong military presence in Afghanistan mostly because it isn’t ready to give up on the idea of a more stable, largely secular government there; because it doesn’t want to admit the futility and failure of the war; and, because it does not want the 2,500 American soldiers who have been killed in the war “to have died in vain.” More than 30,000 American soldiers have been wounded, many of them grievously. Are the people of Afghanistan better off now — more secure, more free — than they were when our incursion began? Many of the U.S. soldiers now stationed in Afghanistan were not yet born when Operation Enduring Freedom began.

On the other hand, bin Laden is dead, al-Qaeda is largely extinguished and Afghanistan has not served as the training ground for further jihadist attacks on the United States. By that calculus, the war can perhaps be regarded as a success. The financial cost of all this has been well over a trillion dollars, as much as $6.4 trillion if you include all of America’s post-9/11 wars and military action in the Middle East and Asia. Critics of the war, including former President Donald Trump, ask what we have to show for it. A trillion dollars is so great an amount of money that it staggers the imagination. The annual budget of New York City is about $2.7 billion, of Los Angeles Country $37 billion, of California $200 billion. Virtually all American cities are cash-starved. That money might have been used to give them the capacity to meet the needs of their citizens without ruinous property tax hikes. You could buy all professional sports teams in America with a trillion dollars, a new home for everyone who lives in San Francisco, or 5.6 million average American homes, 41 million new cars. A trillion dollars is greater than the GDP of any of the following countries: Indonesia, Turkey, Netherlands, Saudi Arabia, Switzerland, Sweden, Iran, Norway, Poland, Belgium, Argentina or Austria.

Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.
Dwight D. Eisenhower


The High Cost of America's Endless War



As Donald Rumsfeld might say, there are measurables and immeasurables in a war at the other end of the world. We can calculate the American casualties with some precision and find some roughly accurate measure of the financial cost of the war. It is much harder to determine the number of Afghan lives that have been lost or shattered. The “war on terrorism” has displaced at least 37 million people in and from Afghanistan, Iraq and other nations in the war zone.

Donald Trump deserves credit for calling into question the usefulness of what he called “America’s endless wars.” At an early Cabinet meeting he said, “I got elected on bringing our soldiers back home,” and he made his critique of the post-9/11 wars a major theme of his 2019 State of the Union address. Pledging to withdraw from Afghanistan is easy; accomplishing it has bedeviled at least three American presidents. Donald Trump was unable to get it done, as Barack Obama had been unable to get it done, as G.W. Bush had been unable to get it done. Whether President Biden will succeed in his pledge remains to be seen. Like Vietnam, Afghanistan has been a quagmire that proved a great deal easier to get into than get out of. President Obama also pledged to close Guantanamo Bay in Cuba. But about 40 prisoners (from the total of 730) continue to be detained there 13 years after Mr. Obama made that vow.

Sen. McGovern, who was an early and principled opponent to the war in Vietnam, believed that the United States stubbornly plodded on in Vietnam long after it had become clear that we could not win the war, because neither Lyndon Johnson nor Richard Nixon was prepared, as they put it, “to be the first U.S. President to lose a war,” and because they wanted desperately — even pathetically — to find some formula (invade Cambodia, bomb Hanoi over Christmas in 1972) to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. McGovern knew that criticizing a war while it is still raging comes at a great political cost. He won the 1972 Democratic nomination for president, but he lost to the incumbent Richard Nixon, who insisted we would not leave Vietnam until we could secure “peace with honor,” in one of the greatest political landslides in American history.

Eisenhower Understood the Cost of War



Who will be the last American killed in Afghanistan? And what will we tell his parents? Charles McMahon (who was 21) and Darwin Lee Judge (who was 19) were the last two U.S. servicemen killed in Vietnam. They died in a rocket attack on April 29, 1975, one day before the fall of Saigon. They were both Marines. The two most recent U.S. troops to die in Afghanistan were Javier J. Gutierrez and Antonio R. Rodriguez, killed in combat on Feb. 8, 2020. At least according to official statistics, the last 14 months have been the longest stretch of the war without U.S. casualties.

I wonder what Sen. McGovern would say about President Biden’s announcement? I think he would be heartened and supportive, but characteristically skeptical. I know he would want the United States to acknowledge the folly of thinking it could buck the history of Afghanistan and actually win a war in that rugged, remote, mountainous country fractured into a dizzying array of tribal regions, ethnicities, religious sects and political factions. And I know he would want America to begin now to have a sober national conversation about “the cost of empire.”

photograph-of-president-dwight-d-eisenhower-delivering-a-special-broadcast-f0a209.jpg
President Dwight D. Eisenhower. (National Archives)
In 1953, a prominent American said, “Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children. The cost of one modern heavy bomber is this: a modern brick school in more than 30 cities. It is two electric power plants, each serving a town of 60,000 population. It is two fine, fully equipped hospitals.” That was President Dwight David Eisenhower, who had a notable military career, culminating in his role as supreme commander during the invasion of Normandy. He knew something of the cost of war.




You can hear more of Clay Jenkinson's views on American history and the humanities on his long-running nationally syndicated public radio program and podcast, The Thomas Jefferson Hour, and the new Governing podcast, The Future In Context.
Clay S. Jenkinson is the editor-at-large of Governing. He is a humanities scholar, historian and founder of the Theodore Roosevelt Center. He can be reached at cjenkinson@governing.com or on Twitter at @ClayJenkinson.
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