Learning Lessons from Afghanistan

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by Joshua Foust on 7/23/2012

Last week I launched a new paper from my think tank, The American Security Project. In it, I identify five big lessons we need to learn from Afghanistan but aren’t. I laid them out in a post for PBS as a quick summary:

  1. The danger of magical thinking.
  2. The need to understand the environment.
  3. The war is a political conflict.
  4. The consequences of the failure to plan.
  5. Real success only matters over the long term.

You can read the paper in full to see why I chose these five and how they have affected the war. For The Hill, I also explained a bit about how these unlearned lessons result in untold amounts of waste:

According to a 2012 Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction report, the Department of Defense is actually the primary aid donor agency in Afghanistan, making up 65% of the budgeted aid expenditure for 2011. While there are many problems related to how USAID and the Department of State have administered infrastructure development projects, good governance programs, and humanitarian assistance, those projects pale in comparison next to the military’s non-combat assistance spending.
To put this into perspective, consider the outcry over a 2011 Senate Foreign Relations Committee report that estimated the Department of State and USAID were spending $320 million per month in Afghanistan. That money “pales beside the overall $10 billion monthly price tag for U.S. military operations,” according to a 2011 report in the Washington Post.

It is difficult to believe that a poor country like Afghanistan can absorb the nearly $90 billion in aid that the U.S. spends each year when its GDP was only $20 billion in 2011. When almost three fourths of Afghanistan’s economy is driven by foreign aid expenditure, we should expect there to be fraud, waste, abuse, and corruption in the Afghan government.

And that, finally, prompted this rumination in The Atlantic on how many lives the war in Afghanistan has destroyed:

By most rough estimates, about 30,000 Coalition soldiers and civilian contractors have been wounded during this same period of time. An unknown number of Afghan soldiers and policemen have been wounded as well, though we can safely assume it is in the thousands (the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction estimates about 3,000 were wounded between 2007 and 2011).

When we include contractor deaths — 2,800, according to a July 12 report in Bloomberg Government by Barry McGarry — the number of coalition dead soars to almost 6,000.

Notably, no one compiles a comprehensive dataset of how many Afghan soldiers and policemen have been killed during the last 10 years. Wikipedia comes close, though their counting is only current as of last summer. According to this obsolete number, more than 10,000 Afghan soldiers and policemen have been killed since 2003.

As for civilians, The Guardian recently estimated just over 8,000 Afghan civilians were killed in combat between 2006 and 2011. The UN estimates more than 3,000 died in 2011 alone. There are no reliable counts before then, and afterward, the U.S.-led coalition force and the UN present widely different estimates. There are no overall estimates of civilian wounded.

In other words, we don’t have a firm handle on how many people have really died and been wounded. For several years, the US didn’t even try to keep track — they didn’t even report some fudged number of how many civilians got harmed.

I really think that because the war has gone on for so long, with so little attention paid to it, that we don’t know what it’s really cost us: tens of thousands of lives and hundreds of billions of dollars. And because of that we don’t really understand just how horrific it has become.

And that makes me really depressed.


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This post was written by...

– author of 1848 posts on Registan.net.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from Registan.net. His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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