Costs of war

As rightist ideologues push the US towards a debt crisis in order to maintain tax breaks for the rich, it’s worth reflecting on the costs of recent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

A sizable chunk of the $14 trillion owed by the US government comes from those wars. Costs of War, a recent report from the Eisenhower Research Project at Brown University (directed by Neta C. Crawford and Catherine Lutz), estimates the cumulative economic cost of the wars as up to $4 trillion.

What has this spending accomplished? While it was promised that the US invasions would bring democracy, both Afghanistan and Iraq continue to rank low in global rankings of political freedom and high in rankings of corruption. US-supported warlords continue to hold power in Afghanistan and Iraqi communities are more segregated by gender and ethnicity than before the war.

The project’s findings show that the $4 trillion is only one of the costs:

  • A conservative count of war dead, in uniform and out, is 225,000. The armed conflict in Pakistan, in which the U.S. funds, equips, and trains the Pakistani military, has now taken as many lives as the one in Afghanistan.
  • Almost 8 million people have been displaced indefinitely and are living in grossly inadequate conditions.
  • The wars have been accompanied by erosions in civil liberties at home and human rights violations abroad.
  • The ripple effects on the US and world economy have been significant, including job loss, interest charges on the national debt, and cuts to funding for scientific development, education, and health care.

Alternatives to war were barely considered. A Rand report on 268 groups using terror tactics (How Terrorist Groups End: Lessons for Countering al Qa’ida, by Seth G. Jones and Martin C. Libicki) showed that several approaches have been much more effective than military responses at eliminating future attacks. 40% of the groups were eliminated through intelligence and policing methods; 43% ended their violence as a result of peaceful political accommodation; 10% ceased their violent activity because they had achieved their objectives; and only 7% were defeated militarily.

The lesson here is not that we should default on the debt because much of it was money we shouldn’t have spent. Doing so will just misery to misery. Instead, this is a time for a compromise on the budget that includes acknowledging what’s already been spent, cutting future spending, eliminating dysfunctional tax deductions, and implementing truly progressive tax rates. In a stagnant economy, there is a strong case for increased spending, not on wars, but on infrastructure and jobs that would actually reduce the debt in the long run.

But whatever other lessons we might draw about the budget, there is a lesson that resorting to violence costs everyone in the end.

Evolving thinking in Afghanistan

After the earlier counterterrorism (CT) strategy failed in Afghanistan, the US began to emphasize counterinsurgency (COIN). Now that COIN has been shown to fail (e.g., as in WikiLeaks’s Afghan War Diary in ), we’re switching to CT again. This is called “evolving thinking.”

When President Obama announced his new war plan for Afghanistan last year, the centerpiece of the strategy — and a big part of the rationale for sending 30,000 additional troops — was to safeguard the Afghan people, provide them with a competent government and win their allegiance.

Eight months later, that counterinsurgency strategy has shown little success, as demonstrated by the flagging military and civilian operations in Marja and Kandahar and the spread of Taliban influence in other areas of the country.

Our evolving thinking should be showing us that there is still no clearly articulated and shared goal for the US enterprise in Afghanistan. Without that, it’s difficult to say which of these two, or some other approach, does work or to recognize success once it’s achieved. As Andrew Bacevich writes (2010), there’s growing evidence that western way of war itself has failed.

Harry Paget Flashman (see book cover above) had difficulty separating fiction from reality in his own exploits in Afghanistan. Apparently, reviewers of the Flashman books had the same problem. But we can’t afford to do that any longer in Afghanistan.


Bacevich, Andrew (2010, July 29). The end of (military) history? Mother Jones.

Cooper, Helene, & Landler, Mark (2010, July 31). Targeted killing is new U.S. focus in Afghanistan. The New York Times.

Kaplan, Fred (2009, March 24). CT or COIN? Obama must choose this week between two radically different Afghanistan policies. Slate.

Whitman, Alden (1969, July 29). Gen. Sir Harry Flashman and aide con the experts. The New York Times.

The endless war

There’s some dispute about whether the war in Afghanistan has become the longest war in US history, but there’s no question that it’s gone on a long time and that it shows little sign of heading toward even an end, much less a successful resolution.

When people talk about WWII, there is sometimes disagreement about the means–were the atomic bombs and fire-bombings necessary? There is less debate about the outcome in terms of ending Nazi terrorism and the Japanese expansion. And even during the war there was a sense all around that an end of some sort would be achieved; there would be a surrender or at least an armistice. The fighting would eventually stop, one way or another, and it did.

But we’ve now entered the era of the endless war. Can Kandahar be secured? Maybe, maybe not. But what then? Do the shifting alliances of enemies–Al-Qaeda, Taliban, the Haqqani network simply walk away? Is there a version of Hirohito to say “the war situation has developed not necessarily to Japan’s advantage” and then surrender? Will young Afghani’s ignore the poverty and devastation and choose to move on? Will ordinary people forgive the occupation, the drones, the collateral damage, the cultural insensitivity, the broken promises? Where are even implausible scenarios of how that will happen?

It’s not enough to say that there are people on the other side who have done or want to do bad things. There must be a vision of change. Yet all we hear is that top operatives have been killed, some place has been temporarily conquered, or that we have a timetable for success.

Writing in Mother Jones, Ann Jones says,

It goes round and round, this inexorable machine, this elaborate construction of corporate capitalism at war, generating immense sums of money for relatively small numbers of people, immense debt for our nation, immense sacrifice from our combat soldiers, and for ordinary Afghans and those who have befriended them or been befriended by them, moments of promise and hope, moments of clarity and rage, and moments of dark laughter that sometimes cannot forestall the onset of despair. —Jones (2010)

Obama has been a good President in many ways, and still has the potential to be a great one, but his continuance and expansion of the war, now across a wide swath of Africa to Asia, reveals a spiritual deficiency in the American polity. Rev. Martin Luther King’s words from the Vietnam War time are even more relevant today.

A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death. —King (1967)


King, Rev. Martin Luther (1967, April 4). Beyond Vietnam: A time to break silence. Speech delivered by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. at a meeting of Clergy and Laity Concerned at Riverside Church in New York City.

Jones, Ann (2010, July 2). Counterinsurgency down for the count in Afghanistan…. Mother Jones.

Understanding what we’re doing in Afghanistan

It’s refreshing to hear an admission that we really don’t know much about the country we’ve invaded, and that it would help if we did. Wouldn’t it be even more refreshing if we bothered to do that learning before we invade the next country?

We’re trying to understand what are the … factors that the people of Afghanistan are willing to sacrifice … to achieve,” he says. “And, I think, that right now it’s different depending on where you go, but I don’t think we have as good a grasp of that as we should. –Maj. Gen. Michael T. Flynn, Aug. 11, 2009

via U.S. General: Taliban ‘Comfortable’ In Kandahar : NPR.

Are Iraq and Afghanistan the US’s only wars?

I often see the phrase “manage two wars” in popular media. But are there just two wars now, and is it even helpful to think of US wars in the Mideast in this way?

The phrase refers the fact that President Bush, and soon, President Obama, need to manage wars in Iraq and Afghanistan while also addressing needs in the economy, health care, environment, education, and other areas. One implication is that two wars is too many, and perhaps, if we could just wrap up the one that hasn’t gone so well (Iraq), we could then focus our energies on the one we should have addressed earlier (Afghanistan).

There are several problems with this way of thinking. The first is that it’s not true. The US battles in the Mideast aren’t restricted to two countries. In the last three months, US-operated pilotless drones have launched more than 20 missile attacks in Pakistani tribal areas, killing hundreds of people, some who are violent themselves, but many who are civilians as well. Americans don’t think of Pakistan as the site of a war, because US ground troops are not based there, but the fact is that our drones kill people and US forces regularly violate Pakistani sovereignty. Hundreds of NATO and US military vehicles destined for neighboring Afghanistan have been attacked and destroyed (in multiple attacks) by militants there. We risk a larger-scale war in, against, or through a bitterly divided country.

So, perhaps we should be saying “manage three wars”? or more if we look at the swath of interconnected conflicts running from Israel and Jordan, often including parts of Syria, Iraq of course, possibly Iran, Afghanistan, all the way to Pakistan?

Wars, or at least the kind of war the US has been engaged in, aren’t waged directly against nations or national armies, which means that they cannot be won in the conventional way either. The issue isn’t to track down and subdue a foe, but to engage with people and ideas. That larger enterprise is the one we’re losing, despite enormous cost in lives and dollars, as evidenced by al-Zaidi’s shoe throwing and the widespread support it received.

The idea of wars as neatly defined by national boundaries implies that we just need to pick our wars more carefully, and then prosecute them cleanly and efficiently. We have a management problem with two; wouldn’t one be better? But the reality is that it’s not better management in the narrow sense that’s needed, but a different way of thinking about how we can act productively in the world, starting with a reassessment of why we’re there in the first place.

Powell asks, “What if he is?”

Colin Powell’s endorsement of Barack Obama for President was a powerful statement from a much-respected figure. It will certainly help Obama’s campaign. But at least as significant was his challenge of Islamophobia:

I’m also troubled by, not what Senator McCain says, but what members of the party say, and it is permitted to be said. Such things as ‘Well you know that Mr. Obama is a Muslim.’ Well the correct answer is ‘He is not a Muslim, he’s a Christian, he’s always been a Christian.’ But the really right answer is ‘What if he is? Is there something wrong with being a Muslim in this country?’ The answer is ‘No. That’s not America.’ Is there something wrong with some 7-year old Muslim-American kid believing that he or she can be president? Yet I have heard senior members of my own party drop the suggestion he’s a Muslim and he might be associated with terrorists. This is not the way we should be doing it in America.">Photo courtesy of Tom Gugiluzza-Smith, August 2008</a>I feel strongly about this particular point because of a picture I saw in a magazine. It was a photo-essay about troops who were serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. And one picture at the tail end of this photo essay was of a mother in Arlington Cemetery and she had her head on the headstone of her son’s grave. And as the picture focused in you can see the writing on the headstone. And it gave his awards, Purple Heart, Bronze Star, showed that he died in Iraq, gave his date of birth, date of death. He was 20 years old. And then at the very top of the headstone, it didn’t have a Christian cross, it didn’t have a Star of David. It had a crescent and a star of the Islamic faith. And his name was Karim Rashad Sultan Khan. And he was an American, he was born in New Jersey, he was 14 years old at the time of 9/11 and he waited until he can go serve his country and he gave his life. [Photo courtesy of Tom Gugiluzza-Smith, August 2008]

Powell is not the first to make this point, but it’s difficult to name another such prominent political leader who has done so. Others, including Obama himself, have focused on the fact that some statements about his ethnic or religious background have been false, not on the bigotry revealed by the very question itself. Ignoring the presupposition of those questions shows a lack of understanding and respect for the US Constitution, which should bring shame on Republican and Democratic leaders alike.

See Abed Z. Bhuyan, On Faith: Guest Voices: Powell Rejects Islamophobia