This piece originally appeared at TomDispatch. Go here to listen to the author discuss why withdrawal from Afghanistan hasn’t been on the American agenda.
With the arrival of General David Petraeus as Afghan War commander, there has been ever more talk about the meaning of "success" in Afghanistan. At the end of July, USA Today ran an article titled, "In Afghanistan, Success Measured a Step at a Time." Days later, Stephen Biddle, a senior fellow for defense policy at the Council on Foreign Relations, held a conference call with the media to speak about "Defining Success in Afghanistan." A mid-August editorial in the Washington Post was titled "Making the Case for Success in Afghanistan." And earlier this month, an Associated Press article appeared under the headline, "Petraeus Talks Up Success in Afghan War."
Unlike victory, success turns out to be a slippery term. As the United States approaches the tenth anniversary of the invasion of Afghanistan, pundits have been chewing over just what "success" in Afghanistan might mean for Washington. What success might mean for ordinary Afghans hasn’t, however, been a major topic of conversation, even though US officials have regularly promised them far better lives and trumpeted American efforts to reconstruct that war-torn land.
Between 2001 and 2009, according to the Afghan government, the country has received $36 billion in grants and loans from donor nations, with the United States disbursing some $23 billion of it. US taxpayers have anted up another $338 billion to fund the war and occupation. Yet from poverty indexes to risk-of-rape assessments, from childhood mortality figures to drug-use stats, just about every available measure of Afghan wellbeing paints a grim picture of a country in a persistent state of humanitarian crisis, often involving reconstruction and military failures on an epic scale. Pick a measurement affecting ordinary Afghans and the record since November 2001 when Kabul fell to Allied forces is likely to show stagnation or setbacks and, almost invariably, suffering.
Almost a decade after the US invasion, life for Afghan civilians is not a subject Americans care much about and so, not surprisingly, it plays little role in Washington’s discussions of "success." Have a significant number of Afghans found the years of occupation and war "successful"? Has there been a payoff in everyday life for the indignities of the American years—the cars stopped or sometimes shot up at road checkpoints, the American patrols trooping through fields and searching homes, the terrifying night raids, the imprisonments without trial or the way so many Afghans continue to be treated like foreigners, if not criminal suspects, in their own country?
For years, American leaders have hailed the way Afghans are supposedly benefiting from the US role in their country. But are they?
The promises began early. In April 2002, for instance, speaking at the Virginia Military Institute, President George W. Bush proclaimed that in Afghanistan "peace will be achieved through an education system for boys and girls which works." He added, "We’re working hard in Afghanistan: We’re clearing mine fields. We’re rebuilding roads. We’re improving medical care. And we will work to help Afghanistan to develop an economy that can feed its people without feeding the world’s demand for drugs."