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The human and actual cost of Afghanistan’s forgotten conflict

Written By | Jun 20, 2017

MISSOURI, June 20, 2017 — The President, military generals, and some members of Congress want to keep sending money, supplies, and troops to save Afghanistan.

At the age of 87, I have seen many wars, but the one most like the Afghanistan conflict was Vietnam, known by history as “the Unwinnable War.” Our involvement in that war started when our political leaders plunged the U.S. and our youth into an unwinnable colonial struggle that killed millions until Presidents Nixon and Ford pulled us out of Vietnam.

Why did the United States start a war in Afghanistan? The Bush administration wanted to eliminate the terrorist threat of al-Qaeda’s leader, Osama bin Laden, following the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. It also wanted to remove the Taliban from power after they provided refuge for bin Laden.

Al-Qaeda had been in Afghanistan since the Taliban came to power in 1996. Before that, it had operated in Pakistan’s mountainous western border. It returned to Pakistan when the United States ousted the Taliban in 2001. (Source: “Al-Qaida Backgrounder,” Council on Foreign Relations, June 6, 2012.)

The Taliban grew out of Muslim opposition to the 1979-1989 Soviet occupation of Afghanistan as thousands of mujahedeen (holy warriors) arrived from all over the world to fight the Soviets.

Ironically, the United States supplied anti-aircraft missiles to the mujahedeen to stop the spread of communism in the Middle East. (Source: “The Soviet Occupation of Afghanistan,” PBS Newshour, October 10, 2006.)

When that war ended, the mujahedeen battled each other for control of the country. An Afghan contingent joined with Pashtun tribesmen to create the Taliban. They practiced a fundamentalist version of Islam called Wahhabism. The Taliban (which means “student”) had attended schools funded by Saudi Arabia.

The West must understand the divide between Sunni and Shia

The Taliban promised peace and stability. They controlled 90 percent of the country by 2001. They also imposed strict sharia law, required women to wear burqas, and imposed a viciously anti-gay, anti-infadel program that led to many deaths. The United Nations Security Council issued resolutions urging the Taliban to end its oppressive treatment of women. (Source: “The Taliban in Afghanistan,” Council on Foreign Relations, July 4, 2014.)

Al-Qaeda shared a similar fundamentalist Sunni Muslim ideology. The Sunnis believe that Shiites want to revive Persian rule over the Middle East. This Sunni-Shiite split is the driving force of tensions in the area. It is also an economic battle. Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shiite Iran both want to control the Straits of Hormuz, through which 20 percent of the world’s oil passes. (Source: The Atlantic)

War in Afghanistan has been constant since the Russian invasion in 1979. And like Vietnam, war in Afghanistan is not winnable.

President Trump has given Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis the authority to send an additional 4,000 American troops to Afghanistan, yet this costly war has in large part been forgotten by the American people.

U.S. SecDef Mattis ready to send 4,000 troops to Afghanistan

We need to bring this war back into the forefront of our national attention as American troops are paying the price for an impossible war, not to mention the cost to our economy. There is also the clear and indisputable fact we are not winning.

Over 2,350 American troops have died and over 20,000 who have suffered injuries, emotional to severely life altering, in Afghanistan. Over 1600 have lost part of or entire limbs due in this conflict.

Traumatic brain disorders among returning veterans have destroyed lives and families. The number of veterans returning from the Middle East attempting suicide is estimated at 22 per day, or one every 65 minutes.

Additionally, the tremendous toll on their families is on a scale that is hard to measure but certainly exists.

The direct cost of this confrontation exceeds $700 billion and is second only to World War II in inflation-adjusted dollars. Medical care for injured veterans and their families will surpass $300 billion over the next two decades.

The Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America found that 47 percent of its members knew of someone who had attempted suicide after returning from active duty. The group considers veteran suicide to be its number one issue. (Source: “A Guide to U.S. Military Casualty Statistics: Operation New Dawn, Operation Iraqi Freedom, and Operation Enduring Freedom,” Congressional Research Service, Hannah Fischer, February 19, 2014. “Veterans Group to Launch Suicide Prevention Campaign,” Washington Post, March 24, 2014.)

The cost of veterans’ medical and disability payments over the next 40 years will be more than $1 trillion according to Linda Bilmes, a senior lecturer in public finance at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. “The cost of caring for war veterans typically peaks 30 to 40 years or more after a conflict,” Bilmes said. (Source: BusinessWeek, January 3, 2012. “Final U.S. Troops Leave Iraq,” Bloomberg, March 19, 2013).

These are direct costs, but there is also the indirect cost of a war that is unwinnable. because you cannot change a culture with armies. The only way to stop the Taliban and other terrorist groups are the people who live in Afghanistan.

Unlike during the Vietnam War and World War II, there is no draft. There was no tax imposed to pay for the war. Unlike earlier wars, not every American family is impacted by the Afghanistan War.

As a result, those who served and their families bear the brunt of the emotional and physical toll. It will cost them at least $300 billion over the next several decades to pay for their injured family members. That doesn’t include lost income from jobs they quit to care for their relative.

Future generations will also pay for the addition to the debt. Researcher Ryan Edwards estimated that the United States incurred an extra $453 billion in interest on the debt to pay for the wars in the Middle East. Over the next 40 years, these costs will add $7.9 trillion to the debt. (Source: “Costs of War,” Watson Institute, September 2016.)

Not only families but also companies, particularly small businesses, are disrupted by National Guard and Reserve call-ups. The economy has also been deprived of the productive contributions of the service members killed, wounded or psychologically traumatized.

There’s also the opportunity cost in terms of job creation. Every $1 billion spent on defense creates 8,555 jobs and adds $565 million to the economy. That same $1 billion in tax cuts stimulate enough demand to create 10,779 jobs and puts $505 million into the economy as retail sales. The same $1 billion spent on education adds $1.3 billion to the economy and creates 17,687 jobs.

This war is militarily unwinnable. Without strategic plans on how to benefit the Afghan people by U.S. and NATO prescence, its time for General Mattis, and President Trump, to rethink our continued presence.

However, that’s a Time and Place I am from.

“The views expressed in this piece are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or management of Communities Digital News.”

Charles Vandegriff, Sr.

Charles spent a fifty-four-year career in technology, retiring at the director level from three major corporations. Followed by three-plus years as a freelance columnist, he has published three books, made over three hundred speeches to senior organizations, and been involved in numerous radio interviews and one television commercial. He has been married for sixty-five years, and has four children, seven grandchildren and thirteen great-grand children. Charles is also a Navy veteran.