America’s 20-year war and nation-building experiment in Afghanistan came to a predictably bad end over the weekend. Since then, foreign policy “experts” have been speculating what went wrong, but few are admitting the effort was a colossal mistake from the start. Today I asked a local expert, my neighbor Swamp Rabbit, to shed light on this dauntingly complex subject.
“Afghanistan wasn’t a mistake,” he said. “It was a money grab.”
Asked to elaborate, he noted that the U.S. spent well over $1 trillion dollars on Afghanistan since the initial invasion. Many billions went to military equipment and social programs and infrastructure projects, he added, and billions more to people connected to for-profit companies that provided services to the U.S. military — everything from cooking and laundry to the trucking of vital supplies. A significant amount was used to fund protection rackets that ensured safe passage for the trucks by paying off the Taliban.
“That’s crazy,” I said. “Sounds like something out of Catch-22, the Joseph Heller novel.”
“I don’t know nothing about no Catch-22,” he said. “But I know big money is gonna tempt all sorts of peeps to forget their loyalties and line their pockets. Civilian contractors, U.S. soldiers, U.S. government flunkies, Afghan warlords and political big shots, the Taliban — ain’t nobody immune to big money.”
He read from a 2016 article by a New Yorker writer whose words resonate five years later:
Within the U.S. government, there is growing recognition that America’s vast expenditures in Afghanistan have been self-defeating, and that the conflict is more complex than simply fighting the Taliban or terrorism.
“A sad truth, but why were we in Afghanistan in the first place?” I said, paraphrasing the question Norman Mailer asked a half-century ago in his famously incoherent novel Why Are We In Vietnam? “We should have left after failing to get Osama bin Laden when he was there. We were fighting for unclear reasons for people who had contempt for our way of life and a long tradition of successfully resisting foreign invaders.”
“Just follow the money,” Swamp Rabbit said, belaboring his point. “The dough could have been assigned to our own inter-structure and climate change and whatnot. To helping poor peeps at home get decent houses and healthcare. But at-home spending is too easy to track. It’s a lot easier for contractors and everybody else to steal money that gets sent to the other side of the world.”
“But it’s not just about money,” I said. “It’s about ignorance and arrogance. It’s about the mainstream media, which only reports the truth about our wars when the wars are winding down. It’s about America’s refusal to learn from the Vietnam debacle. How did we end up in Afghanistan and then Iraq, an even bigger mistake?”
“Iraq wasn’t a mistake,” Swamp Rabbit countered. “It was a –“
“Don’t say it, you’re driving me crazy,” I said. “Better to call attention to that New Yorker piece and the Washington Post report called the Afghanistan Papers. Maybe people will be on their guard the next time the experts try to start a war.”
“I doubt it,” he replied. “But at least they’ll know it’s nothing but a money grab.”