Don’t You Know There’s a War On?
By Michael Winship
A recent headline on the New York Daily News website was blunt: "In case you’ve forgotten," it read, "we’re at war."
The story was about the deaths of six Americans in Afghanistan in five separate attacks and one accidental explosion, all on the same day. The day before, coalition forces had mistakenly killed six Afghan civilians when an artillery strike missed its target; the day after, the Taliban would kill eleven Afghan policemen and a district governor.
It is the deadliest year of the war in Afghanistan, now the longest in American history. And although for most of us it’s out of sight, out of mind, each day, the numbers continue to slowly creep up. So far this year, 241 Americans have died, 60 of them in June, 39 in July, according to the website iCasualties.org.
On July 12, the independent watchdog Afghanistan Rights Monitor reported, "In terms of insecurity, 2010 has been the worst year since the demise of the Taliban regime." By the group’s calculations, 1074 civilians had died so far in 2010, although the much-discussed restrictions on rules of engagement have lowered the number of civilian deaths caused by international forces. The majority -- 61 percent -- died in insurgent attacks.
All of which is to say, whatever it is we’re trying to do in Afghanistan -- fighting the so-called global war on terrorism, waging a counterinsurgency, nation building -- it isn’t working. And in continuing to fight this conflict we are not only guaranteeing the continued destruction of that faraway land but our own country as well, lives and treasure pouring into futility abroad as double dip financial disaster threatens on the homefront.
For an American military already stretched to the cracking point, the human cost spreads beyond the immediate casualties of the battlefield. June was the worth month ever recorded for US Army suicides, the service reported last Thursday, with soldiers killing themselves at the rate of one per day, 32 confirmed or suspected in all. Twenty-two of them had been in combat; ten had been deployed two to four times. What’s more, by the spring of 2009, according to The Washington Post, "The percentage of the Army's most severely wounded troops who were suffering from PTSD [post traumatic stress disorder] or traumatic brain injury had climbed to about 50 percent, from 38 percent a year earlier."
The one bit of good news: "Senior commanders have reached a turning point," the Post reported on Sunday. "After nine years of war in Afghanistan and Iraq, they are beginning to recognize age-old legacies of the battlefield -- once known as shellshock or battle fatigue -- as combat wounds, not signs of weakness. [Army Vice Chief of Staff] Gen. Peter Chiarelli... has been especially outspoken. 'PTSD is not a figment of someone's imagination,' Chiarelli lectured an auditorium of skeptical sergeants last fall. 'It is a cruel physiological thing.'"
Yet many remain unconvinced and military medicine suffers from a chronic shortage of money and personnel -- neurologists especially -- to provide the care so desperately needed. Like so much else associated with this war, the solution remains out of reach.
Even among those who still publicly declare victory is within grasp there is uncertainty and doubt, their arguments a threadbare tapestry behind which it’s increasingly difficult to hide. Despite this week’s international conference in Kabul with Secretary of State Clinton in attendance, and despite the announcement that President Karzai has agreed to create local defense forces that will augment the police and military, little real progress is being made in creating any semblance of stability in Afghanistan. The ferocity of the insurgency continues to intensify, the size of their bombs grow larger and more deadly. Last week’s fatal attack on an Afghan police base in Kandahar was described by an experienced US Army Airborne captain as "definitely well-planned and coordinated much better than anything we’ve seen before." A preview of coming attractions as some 10,000 Afghan and coalition troops prepare to escalate fighting aimed at clearing out the Taliban’s Kandahar strongholds.
But even if we were to "win," what then? As Tom Engelhardt wrote last week on the website TomDispatch.com, "We would be in minimalist possession of the world’s fifth poorest country. We would be in minimal possession of the world’s second most corrupt country. We would be in minimal possession of the world’s foremost narco-state, the only country that essentially produces a drug monocrop, opium. In terms of the global war on terror, we would be in possession of a country that the director of the CIA now believes to hold 50 to 100 al-Qaeda operatives ('maybe less') -- for whom parts of the country might still be a ‘safe haven.’ And for this, and everything to come, we would be paying, at a minimum, $84 billion a year."
Meanwhile, McClatchy News reported Thursday on two Kabul glamour spots, the Fig Health Centre and the Kabul Health Club, where the expatriate community can relax with a hot stone massage or an Arctic berry facial: "One spa treatment at Fig would be a month's salary for most Afghans in a country with a 35 percent unemployment rate, a pervasive culture of state-sanctioned corruption and constant dangers posed by the war with the Taliban."
Abdul Farani, owner of the Kabul Health Club told McClatchy, "I believe in the value of a peaceful environment. We can rise to the levels of angels or sink to the level of devils and what's different is the environment."
In case you’ve forgotten, we’re at war.
Michael Winship is senior writer at Public Affairs Television in New York City.