There is a website called www.costofwar.com that keeps track of the costs of U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. I visit the site once in a while, particularly to closely stare at its three number counters on its main page. After a few seconds the rapidly flipping numbers literally, and I mean literally literally, make me somewhat dizzy and nauseous. (I have motion sickness).
With Afghan President Hamid Karzai mounting a particularly unvarnished verbal assault on the United States in the past few days, I decided to visit the website this morning just to get me in the right mood. For those of you who may not keep abreast of such things let me give you a quick background.
On March 10, as the new U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel was on his maiden visit to Kabul, Karzai said something that even his biggest skeptics would not have anticipated him to say. He said, in so many words, that America is now colluding with the Taliban to destabilize Afghanistan. Going by the media reports the implication of Karzai’s comments is that both the Taliban and the U.S. have a vested interested in keeping Afghanistan in ferment so that the American military presence can continue. He also said that the U.S. is simultaneously engaging the Taliban in talks behind-the-scenes even as it was taking on it militarily, thereby sending conflicting message.
The immediate provocation for Karzai to launch a verbal assault on the U.S. is the latter’s refusal to hand over to his government the control of the Bagram prison.
Nationalism is the last refuge of a waning politician. It appears that Karzai is embracing Afghan nationalism as he prepares for a possible life beyond his presidency. He is justifiably worried about what might happen to him once he leaves office. He is all too aware of the fate that the late Afghan President Mohammad Najibullah Ahmadzai met on September 27, 1996, when the Taliban captured him, reportedly castrated him, dragged to his death through Kabul’s streets and hanged his body from a traffic light in Ariana Square. Dr. Najibullah was the last Communist president of Afghanistan, a legacy of the Soviet invasion.
Incidentally, after I shifted to New Delhi from Bombay in 1989-1990 I used to live in a private guest house in the Asiad Village. Close to my guest house, there was another guest-house fortified with sandbags and armed Indian guards. I was told that was where Dr. Najibullah’s family was hosted temporarily by the Indian government. (I had to bring up my extremely tangential connection to Afghanistan in the hope of establishing some miniscule measure of credibility on the subject.)
So unless Karzai burnishes his nationalist credentials he could face serious existential challenges. Of course, Karzai has dismissed the fears of what might happen after 2014 when the U.S. withdraws its troops. He has argued, and perhaps with some justification, that it is not as if Afghanistan will unravel just as soon as the Americans leave. At the same time though he is obviously deeply concerned about the consequences of Washington engaging the Taliban. He knows that in the end he has to live inside Afghanistan’s deeply entrenched tribal equations. Invoking Afghan nationalism offers him as good a chance as any at this point.
It is in this overall context that I was looking at the Cost of War number counter this morning. According to the Afghan number counter, the U.S. has already spent more than $620 billion on the war there. If someone told you 12 years ago that 12 years and $620 billion later, there would be in Kabul a president who would accuse the U.S. of sort of colluding with the Taliban, you would dismiss that person with contempt. The fact is that many had expressed that skepticism. Now that we are here, where do we go?
I am not at all qualified to pronounce historic judgment on whether the American invasion of Afghanistan has materially improved the latter as a country or not. One can be pretty sure that there is something to show for it. The question is whether that something is commensurate with the cost of war. That does not seem to be the case even remotely. Afghanistan is the kind of historic morass where invaders suffer from the delusion that they are really rapidly marching towards their goal. In reality, they are merely mostly shuffling about in the same spot. It is the sheer effort of keeping up with the morass that creates the illusion of forward movement and success.
For instance, Alissa J Rubin and Rod Nordland of The New York Times report today about a warning issued by the U.S. commander in Afghanistan about risks to their security intensifying in the aftermath of Karzai’s rather incendiary comments. One would have thought that such a massive, costly and prolonged military engagement by the world’s only superpower would have, at the very least, eliminated such basic challenges. Evidently, not.
I was not the only one to see the staggering folly of the Afghan war almost as soon as it started. Millions of others saw it as well. Unless there is a mindboggling and complex strategy behind the U.S. engagement, which lesser minds like mine cannot grasp and which only the chosen few are privy to, I think it is fair to say it is an epic mess right now.
I think Afghanistan’s other less known name is Ironistan. Or it should be.