Shadow Government

Note to Huntsman and the GOP: We haven’t given our all to Afghanistan

Republican presidential candidate Jon Huntsman said in two consecutive debates now that "We’ve given our all" to Afghanistan, which is why he believes it is time for U.S. troops to come home regardless of the consequences. Huntsman, and those who applauded him at the debate on Thursday night, is wildly off the mark. We have ...

Win McNamee/Getty Images
Win McNamee/Getty Images

Republican presidential candidate Jon Huntsman said in two consecutive debates now that "We’ve given our all" to Afghanistan, which is why he believes it is time for U.S. troops to come home regardless of the consequences. Huntsman, and those who applauded him at the debate on Thursday night, is wildly off the mark. We have never even come close to giving our all.

Afghanistan is the second-cheapest major war in U.S. history as a percentage of GDP, according to the Congressional Research Service.

For the first five years of the mission, Afghanistan received less aid on a per-capita, per-year basis than any other major reconstruction and stabilization mission since the end of the Cold War, according to a series of RAND studies and my own research.

The international community also deployed fewer troops-per-capita than for any major stabilization or peace building mission in the same time frame.

Because so few troops served there and because the fighting was very low-level until recently, this is also one of the least lethal wars in our history. I honor the memory of every soldier, sailor, airman, and Marine killed or wounded in this war, including several friends of mine. But we should not cheapen the memory of those lost in past wars by exaggerating our current conflict. As of Friday, 1,394 U.S. military personnel have been killed in action in Afghanistan, the smallest number of any major U.S. war in history.

Afghanistan was never perceived to be, or treated as the priority of U.S. efforts. When the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff testifies to the U.S. Congress that "In Afghanistan, we do what we can. In Iraq, we do what we must," as Admiral Mullen famously did in 2007, you cannot possibly claim that we were "giving our all" to Afghanistan.

Huntsman is riffing off the sense that the war in Afghanistan has simply lasted a very long time, which surely must mean that we’ve been trying really hard, and if we haven’t succeeded by now, we probably never will. He is wrong on his facts and his analysis. The Taliban insurgency began in 2005, so the war is only six years old. Even if you consider the war to be 10 years old, it is still shorter than the U.S. interventions in the Philippines (1898 – 1913), Haiti (1915 – 1934), the full stretch of Vietnam (1954 – 1973), and what the U.S. Army calls the Indian Wars (1865 – 1898). This is not the United States’ "longest war," contrary to the media’s mythmaking. Nor, as demonstrated above, have we been trying very hard for ten years or even five years.

Our concerted effort to actually wage a counterinsurgency campaign in Afghanistan began slowly in 2007 and picked up steam in 2009. The problem is not that we have been trying so hard for so long but failed, but that for so long we failed to try very hard at all. Huntsman should really give the United States a chance to succeed before declaring failure.

Paul D. Miller is the associate director of the Clements Center for National Security at the University of Texas at Austin. He previously served as director for Afghanistan and Pakistan on the National Security Council staff for Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama. @pauldmiller2

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