Dan Gardner is the New York Times best-selling author of Risk, Future Babble, Superforecasting (co-authored with Philip E. Tetlock), and How Big Things Get Done (co-authored with Bent Flyvbjerg). His books have been published in 26 countries and 20 languages. Prior to becoming an author, Gardner was an award-winning investigative journalist. More >

Why Exactly Are We Still In Afghanistan?

With the recent NATO summit in Lisbon, the media have been filled with stories about Afghanistan. Stories about tactics, training, troop levels and timelines. Stories about governance and corruption. Stories about the hard slog of fighting a war that has gone on longer than both world wars and almost as long as the failed Soviet effort to do what NATO is failing to do now. But in all those words, there was almost nothing in response to the only question that matters: Why are we there? I find this puzzling. "NATO and Afghanistan agreed Saturday to the goal of a phased transfer of security responsibility to the Afghan government by the end of 2014," read a typical report in the New York Times, "but NATO officials acknowledged that allied forces would remain in Afghanistan." Note the word "goal." What is described here is not a "goal," in any ultimate sense. It is a plan of operation. It tells us nothing about why we are there. Yes, the mission began as a response to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and no reasonable person would deny that the demolition of training camps for trans-national terrorists is a worthy goal. But that was accomplished long ago. And, even if NATO were to leave Afghanistan, any reconstruction of terrorist infrastructure could be swiftly pounded back into the sand, along with any government that permitted it -- which is why it is very unlikely that any future government of Afghanistan would do so. And yes, human rights and development have both flourished as a result of the Taliban's ouster, while both would wither if the Taliban returned to power. Full credit to NATO. But is this really the elusive goal of the war in Afghanistan? Consider the cost. A 2008 report of the Parliamentary Budget Office estimated that Canada's bill for the Afghan war up to that year was between $7.66 billion and $10.47 billion, while an independent study conducted in 2008 estimated the total cost, including long-term veterans' benefits, would be more than $22 billion. In the United States, the Congressional Research Service recently concluded that American spending on the war in Afghanistan is now a breathtaking $5.7 billion per month. The total American bill, up to 2011, is $455 billion. These are immense numbers. To put them in perspective, consider that $455 billion is almost four times more than the annual amount of development assistance given by all the rich countries of the world to all the poor countries. Or for a more prosaic illustration, imagine $60 million. By one estimate, that's the annual cost of providing micronutrients such as vitamin A and zinc to 80 per cent of the 140 million undernourished children in the world, which would greatly reduce child mortality and boost adult health around the world. It's also the cost of three Apache helicopters. If the promotion of human rights and development is the reason we're in Afghanistan, we should leave immediately: We could accomplish vastly more elsewhere, at a fraction of the cost. And remember, a fraction of the cost is all we can afford. Almost every country in NATO is staggering under the weight of deficits and debts and bailouts. The U.S. is in especially bad shape. In effect, it is paying for the war in Afghanistan with money it borrows from China -- a textbook illustration of the term "imperial overstretch." I also find it hard to accept the suggestion that the war in Afghanistan is a strategic imperative. To be blunt, Afghanistan is a barren provincial backwater. Throughout history and into the present, its only strategic value was as a highway to someplace else, and so Great Powers invaded Afghanistan not to control it but to make use of the highway, or to stop rivals from doing so. There is no such "Great Game" afoot today. Hence, no strategic imperative. Oh, but there is, Andrew Coyne wrote recently in Maclean's. It's Pakistan. Pakistan has nukes. A huge population. And rickety government. "Right now it is Pakistan that is destabilizing Afghanistan. But let Afghanistan fall, and it will be the reverse." What Coyne didn't mention is that the direction of destabilization has historically flowed from Pakistan to Afghanistan. With one exception. It's happening now. And it will continue as long as NATO is fighting a war in Afghanistan. War always produces mistakes, terror, humiliation, and the killing of innocents. It's inevitable. We know our soldiers want to help Afghans, not hurt them, and we certainly know they are not "Crusaders" out to kill Muslim civilians and subjugate Islam. But devout Muslims in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and elsewhere don't necessarily share our perceptions. They see suspiciously Christian soldiers from foreign lands. And every time those soldiers terrify, humiliate and kill Muslim civilians, it gets a little easier to believe Islamist radicals who say the soldiers are Crusaders making war on Islam. And the Islamists get a little stronger. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the lawless borderlands of Pakistan. It's a major base of Taliban operations and so military necessity compels the U.S. to attack in the region. A ground force can't enter for fear of destabilizing the Pakistani government. So the U.S. has drastically increased the number of aerial drone attacks. Lots of Taliban have been killed. But so have lots of civilians. With predictable consequences. Remember the attempted bombing of Times Square this year? The culprit was Faisal Shahzad, a Pakistani-American who got involved with Pakistani terrorists after becoming convinced Islam was under attack by Christian armies. He specifically cited the drone strikes in Pakistan as his motivation for bombing Times Square. I'd like to support the war. I admire our soldiers. And I'm happy to see the facile myth of "peacekeeping" in the dust-bin. But try as I might, all I can see is an expensive, pointless and endless conflict. And NATO isn't helping me see anything else.