The Forever War in Afghanistan

How a bloody conflict became background noise


St. Martin's

"When it comes to wars, we Americans have a selective memory," Andrew Bacevich writes in today's New York Times. "The Afghan war, dating from October 2001, has earned the distinction of having been forgotten while still underway."

The fight in Afghanistan does sometimes feel like one of those couch-crushing pachyderms we've all quietly agreed not to discuss. The subject came up only glancingly in James Mattis' confirmation hearings, as though a prospective Pentagon chief's thoughts on America's longest-running war were of only peripheral concern. And Bacevich accuses Donald Trump of avoiding the topic entirely in his inaugural address and in that speech we're technically not supposed to call a state of the union. To be fair, the president did allude vaguely to spending "trillions of dollars overseas," an estimate that presumably included Afghanistan. But a little more specificity would have been welcome.

Bacevich offers some of those missing details:

Despite appropriating over three-quarters of a trillion dollars on Afghanistan since 2001, Afghan security forces continue to be plagued by the problem of inflated rolls, with local commanders pocketing American-supplied funds to pay for nonexistent soldiers; according to [a recent inspector general] report, "The number of troops fighting alongside 'ghost soldiers' is a fraction of the men required for the fight."…

Although the United States has invested $70 billion in rebuilding Afghan security forces, only 63 percent of the country's districts are under government control, with significant territory lost to the Taliban over the past year. Though the United States has spent $8.5 billion to battle narcotics in Afghanistan, opium production there has reached an all-time high.

For this, over the past 15 years, nearly 2,400 American soldiers have died, and 20,000 more have been wounded.

It's a blood-drenched disaster, and yet it's background noise. "As with budget deficits or cost overruns on weapons purchases," Bacevich concludes, "members of the national security apparatus—elected and appointed officials, senior military officers and other policy insiders—accept war as a normal condition." From their perspective, "war has become tolerable, an enterprise to be managed rather than terminated as quickly as possible. Like other large-scale government projects, war now serves as a medium through which favors are bestowed, largess distributed and ambitions satisfied." The costs will be borne elsewhere.