The War in Afghanistan is the longest in US history, at 110 months, and the most expensive, at $1 million per soldier and over $100 billion annually. There have been over 2,200 US and coalition casualties, and tens of thousands of Afghan civilian deaths. Additionally, nearly 600 US troops are wounded every month.
Given these extraordinary human and economic costs—at a time when there is great economic pain at home and 60 percent of Americans think the war is not worth fighting—there was much anticipation of the "December Review" President Obama promised one year ago when he announced a 30,000-troop increase in Afghanistan.
But last month the administration began to downplay the review’s significance, saying it would only look at the strategy’s progress rather than consider policy alternatives. And there was no shortage of leaks revealing that the report would show progress is being made.
So when an unclassified version of the review was finally released, it came as little surprise that it concluded that "the strategy is showing progress."
Unfortunately, one needs to look elsewhere for a more candid assessment.
Take, for example, political and economic development, which are key to the US counterinsurgency (COIN) strategy. After assuming command in Afghanistan this summer, General David Petraeus wrote in a letter addressed to "The Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, Marines, and Civilians of NATO ISAF and US Forces-Afghanistan": "The decisive terrain is the human terrain.… Money is ammunition; don’t put it in the wrong hands.… Pay close attention to the impact of our spending and understand who benefits from it. And remember, we are who we fund. How we spend is often more important than how much we spend."
But the unclassified review gives these development efforts short shrift, touting an "integrated civilian-military approach" without providing examples, and offering the unsubstantiated claim that "we have supported and focused investments in infrastructure that will give the Afghan government and people the tools to build and sustain a future of stability."
How are we really meeting the challenges General Petraeus himself laid out in his letter to the troops? How are we spending in Afghanistan? Whom are we funding? How are we using "ammunition" to win "the decisive human terrain"?
I spoke with Michael Shank, senior policy adviser for Congressman Michael Honda, chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus’s Afghanistan Taskforce, about these issues. Shank came to DC after ten years of development work in South and Southeast Asia and the Middle East, mostly in conflict zones. He has traveled and worked extensively throughout Afghanistan and Pakistan. A doctoral candidate at George Mason University’s Institute for Conflict Analysis and Resolution, Shank is also an original co-author of the Afghanistan Study Group report.