Filed under: Afghanistan
Yesterday I posted this at Democracy in America. As you can kind of tell, my actual views on Afghanistan are somewhat stronger than that post’s last paragraph makes it seem. I note in the post that Jeffrey Sachs was widely made light of a few years back when he proposed a plan to end world poverty for $500 billion. I don’t think that plan made much sense either, but it’s worth noting that the US is currently spending $6.7 billion per month in Afghanistan, and that it’s thus pretty likely that by the time we draw down to a commitment of a just a few thousand soldiers, some years down the road, we will have spent $500 billion on Afghanistan alone.
Afghanistan is a tiny, economically irrelevant country halfway around the world that has never had a stable central government. I don’t think the likelihood of our creating a stable, self-sufficient, non-Taliban government there is very good. And I don’t think the benefits of creating such a government, to the US, are really so high. And I think even the benefits of creating such a government for Afghans have been overstated. But let’s say we have a 75% chance of being able to do it. There is surely a maximum price tag at which we are willing to value that outcome. What is it? Nobody will even talk about this. I don’t know what the price tag is either. But I am pretty damn sure it’s not $500 billion. Okay, the first 8 years are sunk costs; but at $6.7 billion a month, the next 2 years are $160 billion. And face it, it’s not that either. The people of Afghanistan are very nice, and they’re facing some bad prospects if the US doesn’t continue to prop up their government. But they’re facing some bad prospects if the US does continue to prop up their government, too; and the Afghans aren’t the only nice people in the world. They’re just the only nice people in the world we’ll be doing anything for, for the next few years.
I mean, seriously: how could the United States alter the dynamic of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict if we were willing to spend $75 billion a year on it, and commit over 100,000 US troops?
There are other considerations to take into account. An abandonment of our goals in Afghanistan at this point would be a severe humiliation for the US, and since we’ve dragged half of Europe into the fight, we have commitments to our allies we can’t realistically just drop. There are also domestic political considerations: a precipitous pullout would be politically fatal for the Obama administration, and would torpedo any chance of precisely the kinds of social spending one might want to use that $150 billion for. And pulling out would earn Obama the enmity of every faction within the military, which would make it impossible to shrink the defense budget in other areas over the next 3 years. These are all pretty cold reasons to continue throwing away money in a tiny and unimportant country, but they do set limits on how quickly the US could realistically disengage. They are, in fact, basically the same issues Richard Nixon faced in Vietnam in 1969, and that led him to increase bombing, build up the Vietnamese military, score some battles that looked like “victories”, and withdraw. What Obama will try to do will be to ramp up the troops, shift the strategies in a fashion that moves the goalposts to something he could possibly “accomplish” within a few years, build up Afghan forces, and then pull back and wash his hands of the mess. I would prefer he did all the same stuff, but without the part where he ramps up the troop presence. It’s all fundamentally a charade intended to save face for the US, so it’s important to keep it as cheap as possible.
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