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America’s Longest War Is Hardly Its Worst

Just about everyone in America is sick of the war in Afghanistan, especially our Gold Star families who’ve lost sons and daughters, fathers and mothers, sisters and brothers to the Taliban and Al Qaeda. Clocking in at nearly sixteen years, this is the longest we’ve ever fought, yet President Donald Trump, after railing against it for years, is ordering 4,000 more troops into war.

“Let’s get out of Afghanistan,” he wrote on Twitter long before he was elected. “Our troops are being killed by the Afghanis we train and we waste billions there. Nonsense! Rebuild the USA.”

President Barack Obama said almost the exact same thing over and over again. “After more than a decade of war,” he said, “it is time to focus on nation-building here at home.” That was five years ago.

Trump is no more able to extricate Americans from the Afghan morass than Obama was. The running score is Reality 2, Hopes and Promises 0.

The president took a deep breath, straightened his tie, sucked in his gut, stepped in front of the television cameras and admitted he was wrong. War does that to people, especially to foreign policy makers. Prematurely ending a war can be as catastrophic as getting sucked into one that never should have been started.

If we lose the war in Afghanistan—and make no mistake, that’s exactly what will happen if we leave before it’s concluded—ISIS could very well take over the country. It’s what ISIS does. It takes over failed states. If Afghanistan does not fall to ISIS, it will certainly fall to something that looks enough like it that you can’t tell the difference no matter how hard you squint at it. The Taliban doesn’t have the global ambitions that ISIS has (not yet, anyway), but the Taliban did align itself with Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda while they hatched and executed the most spectacular terrorist act in world history, and ISIS is just a rebranded branch of Al Qaeda anyway.

There is no good time to lose a war, but losing one just as ISIS is finally on the verge of destruction in Iraq is enough to make any new president of any political party lose sleep. Talking about ending a war that everyone hates is one thing. Signing your own name to our surrender is something else.

“Decisions are much different,” Trump said, “when you sit behind the desk in the Oval Office.” That’s for damn sure. I’ve never sat behind that desk, and unless your name is Jimmy Carter, George Bush or Barack Obama, you haven’t either. It doesn’t take a political rocket scientist, though, to imagine how much different these kinds of decisions must look and feel when you have to make them rather than bleat about them on Twitter. So the president reversed himself and neverminded the consternation from beleaguered progressives and the populists over at Breitbart.

Nobody—nobody—likes the war in Afghanistan, but how about a little perspective? The United States has lost 2,271 people there over 16 years. It barely even counts as a war at this point. It’s more of a police action, really. Believe it or not, we lose more police officers on American streets every year than we lose troops on the front lines of Afghanistan. Between 1990 and 2010, an average of 164 police officers were killed in the United States compared with a yearly average of 141 troops in Afghanistan.

The war there may be the longest we’ve ever fought, but it’s also, on a per-year basis, the least deadly. Compare how many people we’re losing right now to how many we’ve lost in the past. 

  • American Revolutionary War – 25,000
  • American Civil War – 750,000
  • World War I – 116,516
  • World War II – 405,399
  • Korean War – 36,516
  • Vietnam War – 58,209
  • Iraq War – 4,497
  • Afghanistan War – 2,271

The loss of 2,271 troops in Afghanistan isn’t small. Losing even one is tragic, and it’s everything for the fallen’s immediate family no matter the size of the overall number. We have to compare that number, though, to how many people might be killed in the future if we lose. More Americans were murdered at home by the enemy side on one day—September 11, 2001—than in the entire war that has followed so far.

What about the financial cost? Wars are staggeringly expensive. As of last week, the United States has spent 1.07 trillion dollars in Afghanistan. An enormous number. And yet (and you had to know an “and yet” was coming), the 9/11 attacks cost us 3.3 trillion, more than three times as much. (CORRECTION: War costs make up almost two-thirds of the costs of 9/11, two-thirds of which were spent in Iraq. So while the 9/11 attack was more expensive than the war in Afghanistan, it was not three times as expensive.)

Saying the war in Afghanistan is the longest in our history suggests that it’s the worst, but it is a very long way from being from the worst. It’s even relatively low-key by Afghanistan standards. We are not reliving the Russian experience there in the 1980s. Almost five times as many Russians died in their own doomed war, and they fought there for a much shorter period. Most of the country resisted the Russians, whereas Afghans by the tens of thousands are willing to fight and die alongside Americans against the Taliban.  

Our experience there is nearly as demoralizing as it was for the Russians, though, because we have no path to victory. Afghanistan today is like a Rubik’s Cube that some trickster messed with by moving the stickers around to make it unsolvable. The best we can do is hold the line and make enough incremental improvements that a solution, at some point in the future, might finally snap into place, that the Afghans take hold the line for the rest of the world by themselves. If we were to leave now, we’d only have to go back, and whatever progress we’ve made in the meantime will have been lost. Every single person in Afghanistan would know that we’d pull out again when we got tired of it, and we’d get tired of it a lot quicker the second time than we did the first.

If there’s no military option in North Korea, there’s no non-military option right now in Afghanistan. The price is high, but the price of pulling the pin and leaving is higher.

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