Cesar Chelala
Cesar Chelala
A physician and writer

Ending the Afghanistan quagmire

It is impossible to win a war that you cannot define. That seems to have been the main lesson to be drawn from Afghanistan, where a so-called victory was unreachable. President Biden’s decision (“It’s time to end America’s longest war”) to bring back all American troops by September 11, 2021, was a courageous and right decision in what was by any measure a quagmire.

Writers can sometimes offer insights into a war situation that professional warriors cannot do. In 2001, American writer Philip Caputo offered a unique understanding of Afghan psychology. He had spent a month in Afghanistan with the mujaheddin as a reporter, during the Afghans’ decade-long war with the Soviets.

In the 1980s, Caputo was accompanying a platoon of mujahedeen who were escorting 1,000 refugees into Pakistan. They had to cross a mountain torrent on a very primitive bridge, consisting essentially of two logs laid side by side. In front of him was a terrified 10-year-old boy, separated from his family, his feet swollen from several days of barefoot marching.

When Caputo realized that the boy was afraid that he could fall into the rapids below and of his almost certain death, he carried him to the other side. With the help of his interpreter, he found the father and handed the boy to him. The father, rather than thanking him, slapped the boy in the face and poked the American writer in the chest, shouting angrily at him. Caputo was obviously shocked at this unexpected reaction.

He asked his interpreter about the man’s behavior, and the interpreter explained to him, “He is angry at the boy for not crossing on his own, and angry with you for helping him. Now, he says, his son will expect somebody to help him whenever he runs into difficulties.” Caputo concludes: “Well, that little boy probably learned. I don’t know what became of him, but in my imagination, I see our troops encountering him: now 31, inured to hardship and accustomed to combat, unafraid of death, with an army of men like him at   his side.”

In a few words, Caputo magisterially captured the strength of the Afghan soldier, able to fight with the most primitive weapons against the greatest empires on Earth. When these soldiers feel their land usurped by foreign forces, their strength is multiplied. And this is just one of the obstacles that have confronted U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan.

Matthew Hoh, a former Foreign Service officer and former Marine Corps captain who became the first U.S. official to resign in protest over the war in Afghanistan said, “Upon arriving in Afghanistan and serving in both the east and south (and particularly speaking with local Afghans) I found that the majority of those who were fighting us and the Afghan central government were fighting us because they felt occupied.”

The costs of the occupation are staggering. According to some estimates, the total spending in Afghanistan is now more than $2 trillion, not even counting the future costs of interest for the money borrowed to finance the war. Those additional costs could add trillions of dollars to the total tab.

To those costs should be added veterans’ medical and disability payments over the next 40 years, which could be over $1 trillion. Linda Bilmes, a senior lecturer in public finance at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, says, “The cost of caring for war veterans typically peaks 30 to 40 years or more after a conflict.”

Since the start of the war, more than 2,312 U.S. troops have been killed, in addition to thousands of allied forces. The toll on Afghans has been even greater, with 43,000 thousand Afghan civilians who died in the conflict, according to estimates from Brown University. Afghanistan has been called the graveyard of empires. The last war in the country proves the validity of that assertion.

Dr. César Chelala, the foreign correspondent for the Middle East Times International (Australia), is a co-winner of an Overseas Press Club of America award and two national journalism awards from Argentina.

About the Author
César Chelala is a physician and writer born in Argentina and living in the U.S. He wrote for leading newspapers all over the world and for the main medical journals, among them The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, The Japan Times, The China Daily, The Moscow Times, The International Herald Tribune, Le Monde Diplomatique, Harvard International Review, The Journal of the American Medical Association, The Lancet, Annals of Internal Medicine, and The British Medical Journal. He is a co-winner of an Overseas Press Club of America award and two national journalism awards from Argentina.
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