I read recently that at the beginning of President Obama’s first term in office, the literacy rate in Afghanistan hovered at around 31 percent. Since then, America has spent more than a trillion a dollars in that country. More than 1,500 American soldiers have been killed, well over half the 2,279 total casualties since the war began. Much of Afghanistan remains under control of the Taliban and various terrorist groups. Major cities like Kabul are attacked almost weekly by suicide bombers; our eyes glaze over stories like this one, despite the fact that they take place in what is ostensibly a liberal democracy like Belgium or Costa Rica. The Afghan literacy rate in 2019? Thirty-eight percent. Bar napkin math suggests that it has cost us roughly $550,000 per additional reader. Very frugal, our military.
Some readers will be inclined to argue that my treating the sum total of our post-2008 expenditures in Afghanistan as the budget for literacy promotion is bad math, but I wonder what else we are supposed to think the money was for. As I write this, peace talks are ongoing between the Taliban and American diplomats — the Afghan authorities themselves have been left out at the insistence of militants, who consider the government in Kabul a puppet regime — and are expected to yield an agreement for the total withdrawal of American forces by the end of the year in exchange for — what? A temporary ceasefire.
Goodness knows what this will mean in the long term, but it's hard not to imagine that the future in Afghanistan is one of unopposed Taliban government in specially designated autonomous regions. This is code for "the entire country outside a few cities, which are occasionally visited by IMF economists and where bombing attacks are officially attributed to lone wolves or rogue elements rather than to local government authorities 50 miles away."
What the hell have we been doing there? And why? When we invaded in 2001, i.e., when this year's college freshmen were younger than my eight-month-old son, our stated objective was to find and kill Osama bin Laden. Despite our best efforts, he managed to slip out of his cave and make his way to neighboring Pakistan, where he spent his long retirement reflecting on his achievements and enjoying his vast collection of pornography.
Our other goal — they have a way of multiplying, these things — was to eradicate the Taliban and replace sharia-inflected narco-primitivism with a thoroughly modern liberal capitalist democracy. Why we thought this was a worthy goal is clear enough. Why we thought it would be feasible is anyone's guess. We all know what the road to hell is paved with.
In 2017, The Onion published an article headlined "Soldier excited to take over father's old Afghan patrol route." Not to be outdone, Army.com ran a virtually identical piece on the inspiring story of a serviceman whose own father had served in the early days of the Afghan conflict. This is now the longest war ever fought by a major power in modern history. What have we got to show for it? Afghanistan has a president with a Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins,one whose numerous accomplishments include giving a TED talk in 2005. The subject? "How to rebuild a broken state."
There is only one argument to be made in favor of maintaining American troops in Afghanistan, one that, strange to say, has rarely appeared in print, though I have heard it argued privately by supporters on many occasions. This is simply that we are not fighting a war in Afghanistan but rather colonizing it, a venture we should not expect to pay off for another 50 years or more. The idea, I suppose, is that we are supposed to be transmitting something called "values" and that this takes time. How refreshingly old fashioned.
But imperialism is a serious business for a serious people. The United States is a country that can be brought to its knees trying to decide whether we should spend $6 billion on pieces of concrete. We are a nation whose elites can be fixated for as long as 72 hours on the question of whether a 17-year-old boy in a hat possibly said a rude thing to an activist. Americans have no meaningful universally agreed-upon values to share with one another, much less with people abroad.
Our failure in Afghanistan is a fitting symbol — perhaps a perfect one — of America in 2019: exhausted, divided, reckless, unable to achieve anything of value, unwilling to abandon the frenetic pursuit of success despite being incapable of agreeing on what would even constitute "success" as such. A country like ours cannot win a long and difficult war, much less head an empire.