When will this futile war finally come to a close?

Published:

The following editorial appeared in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch on Tuesday, July 10:

Six U.S. soldiers got into a truck Sunday morning and set out on patrol in Afghanistan’s Wardak Province. Soldiers have a straightforward phrase for what happened to them: They got blown up.

Whenever possible, the Obama administration obfuscates about Afghanistan. So the news about the explosion in Wardak first came out of NATO’s International Security Assistance Force, which described the victims as NATO personnel whose vehicle encountered an improvised explosive device.

Simpler is better. Like nearly half of the 174 U.S. troops killed in Afghanistan in this, the 11th year of America’s longest war, they were blown up. “You get hit, you never see the enemy,” one U.S. soldier says in “Wardak Soldiers,” a remarkable online documentary produced by the Associated Press in 2009.

Wardak is a province south of Kabul dominated by the Pashtun people, who mostly live along the Kabul-to-Kandahar highway. South and east of Kabul, in rural Afghanistan, the people tend to be Pashtun. So do the Taliban.

North and west of Kabul, the Afghanis tend to belong to other ethnic groups. This will be important to know come 2014, when American combat troops will leave Afghanistan and the civil war among these groups will enter its next phase.

History’s long lens will foreshorten the 12 years between 1989, when the Soviet Union ended its nine-year adventure in Afghanistan, and 2001, when America stepped in. Places had shifted, but it was the same war.

The Soviets were propping up a communist government. The Americans drove out the Taliban, who came in when the Soviets fled, and replaced them with a democratically elected kleptocracy. The Soviets lost 13,500 combat troops and their empire; the United States is in for 2,038 deaths as of Monday. But we’ve also blown $450 billion without creating any institutions likely to survive after our troops leave.

We had the best of intentions. Drive out the Taliban, deny sanctuary to al-Qaida, install a Western-style democracy, build some schools and roads, free women from tyranny and replace the poppy economy.

But as Rajiv Chandrasekaran of The Washington Post reports in his new book, “Little America: The War Within the War for Afghanistan,” we had no chance for success. We sent too few troops to mount a counterinsurgency, being otherwise occupied in Iraq. Our reconstruction effort was hampered by a sometimes craven corps of aid officials. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee reported last year that some 97 percent of the Afghan gross domestic product was dependent on donations from the United States and its allies.

Even assuming success in rebuilding an Afghan national army that ignores ethnic divisions (not a safe assumption), how is that going to be sustained after 2014?

Good money after bad: An international donors conference in Tokyo on Sunday pledged $16 billion for economic development in Afghanistan over the next four years. Afghan officials had hoped for more — well, they would, wouldn’t they?

Some good will be done with that. Much of the rest will be stolen. The donors conference made some of the aid contingent on reducing corruption in the Afghan government. The United States has been working on that for a decade; Afghan officials are not interested.

In the meantime, there are two more years in which our soldiers will mount up in this noble but futile cause, head out on patrol and get blown up. What a tragic, tragic waste.

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