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Tomgram: Ann Jones, Americans Can't Remember, Afghans Will Never Forget

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This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here .

The Afghan War is officially winding down.  American casualties, generally from towns and suburbs you've never heard of unless you were born there, are still coming in.  Though far fewer American troops are in the field with Afghan forces, devastating "insider attacks" in which a soldier or policeman turns his gun on his American allies, trainers, or mentors still periodically occur.  Civilian casualties continue to rise.  "Surgically precise" U.S. air and drone strikes still mysteriously kill Afghan civilians.  And as U.S. combat troops withdraw, Afghan-on-Afghan fighting is actually increasing, with the U.S.-trained army taking almost Vietnam-level, possibly unsustainable casualties (100 or more dead a week), while the police are similarly hit hard.

Meanwhile, as TomDispatch regular Ann Jones points out, our second longest war has already played Houdini, doing a remarkable disappearing job in "the homeland."  Almost 12 years after it began, no one here, it seems, is considering how to assess American "success" on that distant battlefield.  But were we to do so, what possible gauge might we use?  Here's a suggestion: how about opium production?  In 1979, the year America's first Afghan war (against the Soviets) began, that country was producing just 250 tons of opium; by the early years of the post-9/11 American occupation of the country, that figure had hit 3,400 tons.  Between 2006 and the present, it's ranged from a 2007 high of 8,200 tons to a low of just under 5,000 tons.  Officials of Russia's Federal Drug Control Service now claim that 40,000 tons of illicit opiates have been stockpiled in Afghanistan, mostly to be marketed abroad.  As of 2012, it was the world's leading supplier of opium, with 74% of the global market, a figure that was expected to hit 90% as U.S. combat troops leave (and foreign aid flees).  In other words, success in an endless war in that country has meant creating the world's first true narco-state.  It's a record to consider.  Not for nothing, it seems, were all those billons of dollars expended, not without accomplishments do we leave (if we are actually leaving). 

Today, Ann Jones, who spent years in Afghanistan working with Afghan women and wrote a striking book, Kabul in Winter, based on her experiences, considers the Afghan end game and what to make of it.  In 2010-2011, she put on her combat boots and headed back to that country, embedding with U.S. troops.  Then, having previously focused on the toll the war had taken on Afghan civilians, she decided to see for herself, up close and personal, what that war's cost was for American soldiers.  The result, I believe, is a signal achievement and one of the best pieces of reportage from that war.  She followed American war-wounded from a trauma hospital at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan to medical facilities in Germany, then on to Walter Reed Hospital, and -- for those who made it -- finally back to their homes.  The result is the first original offering from this website's publishing arm, Dispatch Books: They Were Soldiers: How the Wounded Return From America's Wars -- the Untold Story.  Believe me, it's groundbreaking, it's breathtaking, and I'm proud that, in conjunction with Haymarket Books, we will be publishing it this November 7th.

Nothing like her account exists. Of it, Jonathan Schell, no stranger to the costs of war, wrote: "For a decade, the independent journalist Ann Jones has, through her firsthand reporting of war and life on the ground in Afghanistan, given us more of the reality of that conflict than any dozen of her well-connected colleagues in the established media, attuned as they have been to the cant and spin pouring out of official mouths. Now, she has turned her shrewd, wise, compassionate, reality-bound eye to some of the bitterest facts of all: the almost unimaginable suffering of the American soldiers wounded and otherwise impaired in the conflict. The result is a harrowing and compelling tale that is hard to bear but must be borne if we are to understand the rolling disaster this country unleashed in Afghanistan more than a decade ago." Tom

The Forgotten War
12 Years in Afghanistan Down the Memory Hole
By Ann Jones

Will the U.S. still be meddling in Afghanistan 30 years from now?  If history is any guide, the answer is yes.  And if history is any guide, three decades from now most Americans will have only the haziest idea why.

Since the 1950s, the U.S. has been trying to mold that remote land to its own desires, first through an aid "war" in the midst of the Cold War with the Soviet Union; then, starting as the 1970s ended, an increasingly bitter and brutally hot proxy war with the Soviets meant to pay them back for supporting America's enemies during the war in Vietnam.  One bad war leads to another.

From then until the early 1990s, Washington put weapons in the hands of Islamic fundamentalist extremists of all sorts -- thought to be natural, devoutly religious allies in the war against "godless communism" -- gloated over the Red Army's defeat and the surprising implosion of the Soviet empire, and then experienced its own catastrophic blowback from Afghanistan on September 11, 2001.  After 50 years of scheming behind the scenes, the U.S. put boots on the ground in 2001 and now, 12 years later, is still fighting there -- against some Afghans on behalf of other Afghans while training Afghan troops to take over and fight their countrymen, and others, on their own.

Through it all, the U.S. has always claimed to have the best interests of Afghans at heart -- waving at various opportune moments the bright flags of modernization, democracy, education, or the rights of women. Yet today, how many Afghans would choose to roll back the clock to 1950, before the Americans ever dropped in?  After 12 years of direct combat, after 35 years of arming and funding one faction or another, after 60 years of trying to remake Afghanistan to serve American aims, what has it all meant?  If we ever knew, we've forgotten. Weary of official reports of progress, Americans tuned out long ago.

Back in 1991, as Steve Coll reports in Ghost Wars, an unnamed CIA agent mentioned the war in Afghanistan to President George H.W. Bush.  Not long before, he had okayed the shipment of Iraqi weaponry captured in the first Gulf War -- worth $30 million -- to multiple factions of Islamist extremists then battling each other and probably using those secondhand Iraqi arms to destroy Afghanistan's capital, Kabul.  Still, Bush seemed puzzled by the CIA man's question about the war.  He reportedly asked, "Is that thing still going on?"

Such forgetfulness about wars has, it seems, become an all-American skill.  Certainly, the country has had little trouble forgetting the war in Iraq, and why should Afghanistan be any different?  Sure, the exit from that country is going to take more time and effort. No seacoast, no ships, bad roads, high tolls, IEDs.  Trucking stuff out is problematic; flying it out, wildly expensive, especially since a lot of the things are really, really big. Take MRAPs, for example -- that's Mine-Resistant Ambush-Protected vehicles -- 11,000 of them, weighing 14 tons or more apiece. For that workhorse transport plane, the C-17, a full load of MRAPs numbers only four.

The equipment inventory keeps changing, but estimates run to 100,000 shipping containers and about 50,000 vehicles to be removed by the end of 2014, adding up to more than $36 billion worth of equipment now classified as "retrograde."  The estimated shipping bill has quickly risen to $6 billion, and like the overall cost of the war, it is sure to keep rising. 

Seven billion dollars worth of equipment -- about 20% of what the U.S. sent in to that distant land -- is simply being torn up, chopped down, split, shredded, stomped, and, when possible, sold off for scrap at pennies a pound.  Toughest to break up are the weighty MRAPs.  Introduced in 2007 at a cost of $1 million apiece to counteract deadly roadside bombs, they were later discovered to be no better at protecting American soldiers than the cheaper vehicles they replaced.  Of the 11,000 shipped to Afghanistan, 2,000 are on the chopping block, leaving a mere 9,000 to be flown to Kuwait, four at a time, and shipped home or "repositioned" elsewhere to await some future enemy. 

The military is not exaggerating when it calls this colossal destruction of surplus equipment historic.  A disposal effort on this scale is unprecedented in the annals of the Pentagon. The centerpiece of this demolition derby may be the brand-new, 64,000-square-foot, $34-million, state-of-the art command center completed in Helmand Province just as most U.S. troops left, and now likely to be demolished.  Or the new $45 million facility in Kandahar built as a repair center for armored vehicles, now used for their demolition, and probably destined to follow them. Taxpayers may one day want to ask some questions about such profligate and historic waste, but it's sure to keep arms manufacturers happy, resupplying the military until we can get ourselves into another full-scale war.

So this exit is a really big job, and that's without even mentioning the paperwork.  All those exit plans, all the documents to be filed with the Afghan government for permission to export our own equipment, all the fines assessed for missing customs forms (already running to $70 million), all the export fees to be paid, and the bribes to be offered, and the protection money to be slipped to the Taliban so our enemies won't shoot at the stuff being trucked out.  All that takes time.

But when it comes right down to it, the United States has a surefire way of ending a war, no matter when it actually ends (or doesn't).  When we say it's over, it's over. 

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch Interviews (more...)
 

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