- By Thomas E. RicksThomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military for the Washington Post from 2000 through 2008.
By "A Guy in Afghanistan"
Best Defense guest columnist
The United States has invested a great deal of blood and treasure in Afghanistan. Thus far, senior leadership (both civilian and military) would have us believe that we are receiving a valuable return on our investment, in the form of a stable and democratic government. Some exaggeration of the positive aspects is to be expected, of course, but when the ground truth blatantly belies the narrative, shouldn’t we start questioning it?
The story of Helmand is a microcosm of America’s Afghan counterinsurgency experience. Massive expenditures have piled up, as well as many lives lost. Supposedly, security and democracy have now taken root in the former Taliban heartland. However, from my time there last year, that’s not what I saw. I saw large swaths of Taliban-controlled areas where ISAF and ANSF forces simply did not go. It wasn’t for any lack of strategic importance; it was because ANSF had tried to secure these areas and failed.
The documentary This is What Winning Looks Like shows what most coalition forces in Helmand, and Afghanistan more broadly, experience:
- An incredibly corrupt and extremely unpopular national government,
- A largely ineffective Afghan security force,
- An economy artificially propped up purely through the largesse of aid programs.
These problems aren’t going to be resolved by the end of 2014, or 2017, or whatever deadline we place upon them. Afghans recognize this; a common saying is "you have the watches, but we have the time." Why are we throwing good money and lives after bad when there is no foreseeable way to salvage any positive return on our investment?