Columnist Richard Fein: Presidential decisions for Gazette readers

  • U.S. Army soldiers from the South Carolina National Guard and the Alpha troop 3-71 Cavalry Squadron patrol near the town of Baraki Barak, Logar province, Afghanistan, on Nov. 23, 2009. AP

Published: 1/27/2020 8:35:16 AM
Modified: 1/27/2020 8:35:00 AM

This column will assume three things even if they are counterfactual: The current resident of the White Hose will not run for re-election. The incoming president reads the Gazette daily. The new president is, in fact, you.

The first item on your morning agenda is Afghanistan. You will be presented with a briefing paper about the main facts and possible options as understood by those presenting it.

Madam/Mr. President, congratulations on being the first Gazette reader to be elected president since Calvin Coolidge. This is the briefing you requested prior to making decisions about America’s policy in Afghanistan.

You were specifically interested in these questions: Should the U.S. end its military operations entirely or leave some level of troops in Afghanistan to fight the Taliban? Do the costs in American lives and treasure if we stay in Afghanistan outweigh what will be lost if we leave? Should your stay/leave decision be based in any way on potential progress in diplomatic talks with the Taliban?

Here is some historical background: The Taliban allowed Afghanistan to be a haven for Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda, the terrorists who attacked the U.S. on 9/11.Their social policies included the near-total exclusion of women from public life (including employment and education), the systematic destruction of non-Islamic cultural/religious relics, and the implementation of harsh criminal punishments. They funded their activities in large part through a thriving opium trade.

The American military launched a military operation in Afghanistan in 2001. The Taliban were driven from the capitol, Kabul, but still remain a resilient force in about half of Afghanistan. More than 2,400 Americans have been killed and some 20,000 injured. The war has cost the United States a total of $975 billion so far. On top of that, medical care and disability payments for veterans will cost an estimated $1 trillion over the next 40 years.

Presidents Bush and Obama consistently misled or lied to the American public about the war’s progress according to documents obtained by the Washington Post.

The Afghan army relies on America’s advice and close support to be effective at all. In addition, the U.S. has cooperated with some unsavory warlords to fight the Taliban.

A collateral objective of the war was to reduce the massive flow of opium coming out of Afghanistan. After expending $ 9 billion, your predecessors concluded that the effort had failed.

Madam/Mr. President, that was background. Today, many political leaders and citizens wish to leave Afghanistan entirely. They believe that the U.S. has achieved as much as it can in terms of its own national interests. Afganistan is simply not worth the continued spilling of American blood and expenditure of billions of dollars.

Those who favor leaving at least some American troops in Afganistan counter by saying that combat fatalities during your predecessor’s administration were relatively light, with under 100 American military service personnel killed. That is fewer than the number killed in training accidents.

They also say that past financial expenditures cannot be recovered. In accounting terms, they are a “sunk cost.” For them the $52 billion that is now being expended annually is the more relevant cost to consider. This is 1.2% of the $4.45 trillion federal annual budget, a tolerable amount under the circumstances in their view. 

There is some agreement on both sides of the issue that there have been at least two benefits for Afghans resulting from America’s presence there. When the Taliban was ousted in 2001, there were 900,000 Afghan children in school, all of them boys. Now about 8 million Afghan children are in school, a third of them girls.

In addition, a relatively democratic government has been established. There have been four presidential elections since the Taliban were ousted. Approximately 9.6 million people (one-third being women) are registered to vote. In the most recent election, 85 people were killed by the Taliban. Even so, millions of Afghans risked their lives to vote.

Many people believe that there has been a benefit to the U.S. as well: There have been no mass casualty terrorist attacks on U.S. soil since 9/11. The fact that American troops have disrupted efforts by Al Qaeda to re-establish a safe haven in Afghanistan may account for that.

In sum: To the extent that American troops remain in Afghanistan, both financial costs and military combat casualties will continue. We will continue working with an ineffectual Afghan government and army, not to mention warlords.

On the other hand, if the U.S. withdraws completely the Taliban will likely return to that part of Afghanistan it doesn’t currently control. The gains of the past 18 years in education, women’s rights, democracy and anti-terrorism will be lost.

Presidential decisions are not simple. No matter what the decision there are real consequences and not all of them can be foreseen. If you were president, what would you decide to do in Afghanistan and on what basis would you decide it?

Richard Fein writes about national and international issues. He holds master’s degrees in political science and economics. Nine of Richard’s books on employment topics have been published. Richard can be reached at columnist

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