“between direct ground troop assaults (up to and including the assassination of Osama bin Laden), targeted drone strikes, and a greatly expanded system of intelligence sharing both among US intelligence agencies (like the CIA and FBI, which famously failed to share intelligence before 9/11) and with foreign intelligence agencies, al-Qaeda’s operational capabilities have been badly degraded, especially when it comes to attacking the US.
This is not merely because of successes in the US-led war on terror. ISIS, a group that emerged as a direct result of the war, became a more effective recruiter of young aspiring militants than al-Qaeda, especially in 2014 and 2015. But it seems fair to credit at least a good share of the group’s weakening to US actions.”
“Let’s suppose for the sake of argument, though, that al-Qaeda was capable of more attacks on the scale of 9/11, and that absent the war on terror, the US would have lost 3,000 people (the approximate death toll on 9/11) annually due to al-Qaeda strikes. That amounts to some 60,000 lives saved to date. Whoa, if true.
But even with that degraded capability, global deaths from al-Qaeda, ISIS, and Taliban attacks have not fallen since 9/11. While al-Qaeda’s ability to attack America has been badly degraded, its operations in countries like Yemen, Syria, and Libya are still significant and deadly. ISIS’s attacks, and those of the pre-conquest Taliban in Afghanistan, were even deadlier.”
“The Costs of War Project estimates that between 897,000 and 929,000 people have been killed in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and other post-9/11 war zones. These are conservative figures; they exclude, for instance, civilian deaths in countries like the Philippines and Kenya that have seen drone or special ops engagements but for which reliable civilian death figures are not available. It uses only confirmed deaths that are directly due to the wars, rather than estimated deaths using mortality surveys”
“Crawford and Lutz estimate that 15,262 American military members, Defense Department civilians, and contractors have died in these conflicts — a much lower toll.”
“The most comprehensive attempt I’ve seen of a cost-benefit analysis of counterterrorism policies is in the book Terror, Security, and Money: Balancing the Risks, Benefits, and Costs of Homeland Security, a 2011 book by political scientist John Mueller and engineering professor Mark G. Stewart.
They estimate the cost of a 9/11-scale attack at roughly $200 billion, both in economic costs in rebuilding, health care for survivors, and reduced business activity in the wake of the attack, and, more important, in the lives of those lost. To calculate the latter, they use a measure known as the value of a statistical life. The idea is to use, for instance, the extra wages that workers in especially dangerous jobs demand to be paid to estimate how much the typical person is willing to pay to extend their life.
In Mueller and Stewart’s book, they put the value of a statistical life in the US at $6.5 million (that’s actually lower than the $7 million a recent review of studies found). Using that, the gross cost of the war on terror falls to “only” about $13.9 trillion.
That implies that for the war on terror to have been worth it, it had to have prevented more than 69 9/11-scale attacks over the past two decades, or about 3.5 attacks every single year.
More plausibly, the war on terror could be justified through, say, the far greater number of lives saved through aid to the Afghan health system.
Here, too, though, the necessary number of lives saved needs to be enormous to justify the costs. At a total cost of $13.9 trillion and a value of $6.5 million per life saved, the entire effort would have had to save at least 2.1 million lives to have been worthwhile.
There’s simply no evidence suggesting that the war on terror, or the public health programs launched as part of it, saved that many lives on net. The only estimate I’ve seen in that territory is the Brookings Institution’s Michael O’Hanlon telling his colleague Jonathan Rauch that he “guesstimates that U.S. activities [in Afghanistan] saved a million or more lives.””
“It is also important to think of the opportunity cost of the war. Coincident with the war’s launch was the initiation of PEPFAR, the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief. That program, then and now, buys and distributes massive quantities of antiretroviral drugs to treat HIV and AIDS in developing countries, and promotes condom distribution and other prevention measures.
One influential study of PEPFAR’s impact found that in its first four years, in 12 specific focus countries, the program reduced the death rate from HIV by 10.5 percent, resulting in 1.2 million lives saved, at a cost of $2,450 per death averted. It is truly one of George W. Bush’s great achievements.
That implies that the US, by expanding funding for HIV treatment and in other cost-effective areas like malaria prevention, could save 2 million lives at a cost of more like $5 billion, or less than one-thousandth the cost of the war on terror.
When you step back and think about the cost of the war on terror and all the possible benefits that could have come from it, you would be hard-pressed to arrive at a place where the benefits outstrip the costs. Indeed, the former never comes remotely close to the latter. The war on terror was as wasteful, and morally horrific, on the balance sheet as it was in the collective memory.”
“The evidence increasingly indicates that a U.S. drone strike that took place outside Kabul as America withdrew from Afghanistan killed not a terrorist but an aid worker, along with nine other civilians, including several children.
On August 29, the U.S. military launched a strike on what Central Command said was a vehicle transporting explosives on behalf of the Islamic State. According to the Pentagon, the target posed an “imminent” threat to the Kabul Airport. This was just days after suicide bombers killed at least 170 Afghans and 13 U.S. troops, and tensions were high.
A military spokesperson said there were “significant secondary explosions” as a result of the drone hit. Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, called it a “righteous strike” that foiled a potential attack.
In reality, that strike hit a car that had been driven by humanitarian aid worker Zamari Ahmadi. Ahmadi was killed, along with two other adults and seven children. And follow-up media investigations are casting serious doubt on the military’s account.
Credit both The New York Times and The Washington Post for reconstructing what actually happened. The Times has assembled an account of Ahmadi’s final day, with the help of security surveillance footage, to show that what military intelligence may have assumed as suspicious behavior was Ahmadi’s typical work. He worked for Nutrition and Education International, a California-based charity, and the sedan belonged to the organization. He is seen on camera loading the back of his white sedan with not explosives, but containers of water. The president of his group has denied that Ahmadi had any connections with the Islamic State.
Even more damning is what both the Post and the Times heard from experts analyzing the wreckage of the drone strike. Ahmadi’s car was hit by a Hellfire missile with a 20-pound payload. The damage to the car and the courtyard where he was parked matched the amount of destruction associated with the missile, but the evidence that there were explosives in the car is sorely lacking. According to eyewitnesses, the “significant secondary explosions” did not take place.”
“The drone strike seemed to have been carried out with about as much evidence that it would require for a police officer in the United States to get a search warrant.”
“The military was tracking communications it believed were from Islamic State terrorists. And the day after Ahmadi was killed, the Times reports, Islamic State terrorists did launch a rocket attack toward the airport from a neighborhood Ahmadi had traveled through the previous day. The vehicle they launched the attack from was a white Toyota, a sedan that looked a lot like Ahmadi’s. Did they get the cars mixed up during surveillance?”
“We have no idea how frequently these types of seemingly mistaken strikes happen, partly because the military has been deliberately secretive and partly because what information we’ve gotten has not been trustworthy. Outside observers estimate that between 300 and 900 civilians killed by drone strikes in Afghanistan during the two decades Americans were there. There have been dozens, possibly even hundreds, of strikes like this.”
“When I came back to Afghanistan [in 2011], it was a very, very different paradigm. The IED techniques had migrated from Iraq. You couldn’t drive anywhere. When I was [in Afghanistan in 2001], we were on horseback or we’re on foot or we’re in light-skinned vehicles. Now, you couldn’t get from A to B without being in an armored vehicle or flying a helicopter.
But the biggest problem—the big point where I said, things aren’t going as well as I had hoped for — was dealing with these district governors, whom I dealt with frequently. They didn’t have a long view. They were not invested in the central government. There were a lot of reasons for that. Every day was a new day to them and it was a fight for survival. They had no incentive to build these relationships that we designed for them.
For example, we were paying nine and a half dollars per gallon to ship gas from Karachi to outlying districts. And when I approached the district governor—’Hey, you need to learn how to use your own bureaucratic requisition systems’—he said, ‘Why should I do that when you’re doing it for me?’ And he was dead serious. And of course, he died a couple of months later, as probably 60 percent of the guys who I worked with did on the Afghan side.”
“We made a lot of efforts to pacify villages that were more hostile to us. And we succeeded in some cases by putting an Afghan National Police checkpoint in a village that didn’t have one to help deter the Taliban from launching rockets at the base. [In one instance] we convinced a village elder, who was a Ghilzai Pashtun, to support us, which was a big deal because many of the people to whom he had tribal ties were Taliban supporters.
But he was assassinated. Then his brother stood up and took his place and said, ‘We’ll stand with the government, the Americans.’ And he was assassinated. By that point, the Taliban had essentially regained control of the village. I spoke to one gentleman on the side of the road one day, and he was subsequently beheaded for talking to me and made an example of.
I saw through that that some of these things were almost Pyrrhic victories because we were doing the things that, [per] the counterinsurgency manual, doctrinally, we were doing the right things. And we were succeeding in some cases. But at the end of the day, the sacrifice and the loss of trust in the villages was starting to hamper our effectiveness in getting people to want to work with us, to follow our goals and objectives, to cooperate with us and to resist the Taliban and ultimately for us to succeed. I think they were going to have to resist them on their own. We couldn’t maintain a permanent presence of U.S. forces indefinitely to keep them safe or to deter the Taliban.”
“The latest domino to fall to the Taliban was the northern commercial hub of Mazar-e-Sharif. It was becoming clear that Kabul was next. Seasoned military officers expressed disbelief that the Afghan forces appeared ready to give up their capital city without a fight.
“Email was blowing up left and right [with people saying] ‘Wow, this is actually happening right now,’” a defense official said. “This thing just fell apart over the weekend.”
Pentagon officials were realizing far too late that the Taliban had waged an effective influence campaign in addition to the physical one, taking advantage of tribal dynamics to build ties with village elders and others who played key roles in the group’s mostly bloodless march across the country.
At the same time, the U.S. military had fewer than 2,500 troops left — not enough to understand just how fast the Afghan national army’s morale and cohesion was crumbling.”
“Biden’s cabinet members and their deputies had held some three-dozen “scenario planning” meetings following the president’s April announcement that U.S. troops would be out of Afghanistan by Sept. 11.
They covered everything from how to secure the U.S. Embassy and handle Afghan refugees to how to best position the U.S. military in the region in case things spun out of control. Many more sessions were held at the Pentagon, U.S. Central Command in Tampa, the State Department, and other agencies.
But it still wasn’t enough to prepare for the utter collapse, in a matter of days, of America’s two-decade, $2 trillion effort designed to prop up the Afghan government. Biden had insisted the Afghan military would fight; it largely hadn’t. Blinken had scoffed at the notion that Kabul would fall over a weekend; and yet it did. The “Saigon moment” Biden feared had arrived.”
“Military planners sounding the alarm about Afghanistan’s imminent collapse failed to predict the speed with which the Taliban would overrun the country, leaving the Biden administration scrambling to evacuate thousands of American citizens, embassy staffers and vulnerable Afghans from Kabul’s international airport.
Though officials warned repeatedly over the past few weeks that the Afghan government could fall far sooner than previous estimates — weeks or months after the last American troops depart the country — they overestimated the capability and will of the Afghan security forces to fight back as the Taliban seized city after city in recent days, defense officials, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive planning, told POLITICO.
In fact, DoD officials briefed lawmakers last month on the intelligence assessment that the combination of Afghan special commandos, air force and local militias could hold off the Taliban long enough for a political settlement, according to a senior Democratic aide with knowledge of the briefings.”
“As Afghanistan’s rural districts, and then its cities, fell in quick succession to the Taliban, official U.S. talking points settled on a common refrain: Afghanistan’s security forces had all the people and equipment they needed to battle the Taliban, and all that was missing was leadership. President Joe Biden has been saying this since mid-July.”
“”They have modern equipment. They have organizational structure. They have the benefit of the training that we have provided them over 20 years. They have the material, the physical, the tangible advantages; it’s time now to use those advantages … as I’ve said from the beginning, we want to see the will and the political leadership, the military leadership that’s required in the field.”
The following day, the United States began evacuating its embassy in Kabul in preparation for the fall of the country’s last and most important city.”
“So where was the Afghan leadership that U.S. officials kept saying was the key to stemming the Taliban’s advance? The answer is that it didn’t exist. For years, commanders of the Afghan National Army and National Police — the elements most critical to securing the country — failed to lead, often stealing the salaries and fuel that their forces needed to be effective, and more recently failing to even provide their forces with edible food.
What’s more, the United States government has known — and publicly stated—this fact for years. In an official 2008 assessment of the war, the Pentagon stated that Afghanistan’s government “is hampered by … a lack of sufficient leadership and human capital.” Fast forward to 2020, when the DOD’s most recent assessment acknowledged that “improving the quality of leadership at all echelons remains the most challenging issue” for the country’s security forces.”
“the U.S. military’s preferred approach to advising foreign militaries centers on rapport, coaching and mentorship. While this focus on developing specific people has produced some impressive individual leaders — such as General Sami Sadat, whom former Afghan President Ashraf Ghani put in charge of the defense of Kabul before fleeing the country — it failed to reliably produce the quantity of high-quality leaders that the Afghan army and police needed to defend the country.
To do that, the United States and its partners would have had to recognize that the absence of leadership in the Afghan security forces was a symptom. The root cause was the lack of sufficient and effective institutions, especially those required for education, training, and the recruitment and management of human capital. Had we invested in these institutions, the army and police would have had the ability to accrue, develop, and retain good leaders. Unfortunately, as DOD’s own budgeting documents and internal assessments of the war revealed, efforts to develop these institutions were under-prioritized and under-resourced relative to investments in tangible items like helicopters and armored vehicles.”
“rockets struck Ayn al-Asad air base, a military facility in Iraq that hosts American troops. U.S. Army Colonel Wayne Marotto, a spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq, tweeted that the attack did not result in casualties. No group immediately claimed responsibility for the action.
Even without human loss, Monday’s hostilities highlight the risks associated with a continued U.S. troop presence and ongoing military engagement in the Middle East. The attack came just one week after President Joe Biden’s June 27 airstrikes on facilities used by Iran-backed militias in Iraq and Syria, which prompted rocket attacks against U.S. troops in Syria the very next day. There have been many tit-for-tat exchanges between the U.S. and Iran-linked parties since former President Donald Trump ordered the assassination of Iranian General Qasem Soleimani in January 2020. Though it’s unclear who ordered the Monday attack, it is clear that U.S. strikes and troops have failed to deter further antagonism from hostile parties in the region.
While Biden has made the Afghanistan troop withdrawal a centerpiece of his presidential agenda, his plans for the U.S. presence in Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East are far vaguer. Following the Soleimani assassination on Iraqi soil, the Iraqi Parliament passed a resolution to expel U.S. troops from the country. No timetable for that withdrawal has emerged during bilateral negotiations, however, leaving the fate of the roughly 3,500 remaining U.S. troops in Iraq unsettled. Roughly 900 are still in Syria and their future is similarly murky.”
“It would be a mistake to get caught up in the collapse of provincial capitals because what has happened this week is just the continuation of what we’ve seen over the last three months.
Starting about three months ago, in late May and then June, picking up speed in July, the Taliban launched an offensive campaign that has swept across the country in a way that has been unprecedented since the US intervened in late 2001.”
“it’s not accurate to say the Taliban now controls all of the districts they’ve captured, because in many places they haven’t set up a shadow government. They haven’t left a garrison of their fighters to control the area. In some places, they cause the Afghan troops or police to run away, to surrender, to retreat, to simply go home.
In the end, what we can say is not how much the Taliban controls, but how much the Afghan government has lost.”
“the government has either been kicked out of or abandoned more than 200 of the 400 districts in the country. That’s happened in just the last three months.”
“For the longest time, the Afghan government has pointed to this district center map as a means of demonstrating their authority, when in reality, their only presence or assertion of authority might be a district center where they have a couple buildings that are protected by a small military or police force, or sometimes just a militia that’s outfitted and paid by the government. And that’s it. That is the only government that exists in that entire district, for miles around in any direction.”
“So when we ask, “How did we get here?” — where all of a sudden in one week, nine out of 34 provincial capitals fall to the Taliban, or seem like they’re on the verge of falling — the answer is, well, half of the country slipped out of the government’s control in the last three months, and it no longer had a buffer protecting those provincial capitals, which were these village outposts and district centers standing in the way.”
“The New York Times ran a piece and got someone to go on the record with something I’ve been told over the last couple of weeks. One Afghan government official told them some of these districts fell when 10 Taliban fighters showed up. A lot of this was just the collapse of government authority, and if it could collapse in the face of 10 Taliban fighters, we have to be honest: It was barely there to begin with.”
“It’s still too fluid to say they’re consolidating anything. What we can say is that they’re amassing huge numbers of their fighters to try and encircle or surround some of these cities. They’re doing it in multiple regions of the country: in the north, in the southwest. In some places, the government is pushing them back more effectively than others.”
“What they seem to be doing seems to be something they planned on for quite some time, which is to cut off the government’s ability to resupply other areas of the country, to cut off the government’s ability to move from point A to point B on the country’s roads, and to surround and choke off the country’s cities — not to fight their way through each and every city of the country, but to pressure the government to collapse.”
“Some people will say it’s because of the US withdrawal. And if that is true, it’s based on the psychological impact of that withdrawal, not the military effect that it had. The US had several thousand troops to help cover an area of the size of Texas. The US troops were not what was holding the Taliban back in 200 districts around the country. The US troops weren’t even out there at any of those villages.
Now, since the US-Taliban agreement was signed early last year, the US really scaled back its airstrikes against the Taliban, though they’ve picked them back up as the Taliban has gone on their offensive in the last three months. But for most of 2020, and the early months of this year, the US really wasn’t bombing the Taliban. That gave them a major reprieve from what had been a really intensive bombing campaign in 2018 and in 2019.”
“It’s too early to see the outcome. What is clear is that if the Afghan government is able to mount a strong defense of cities, if it is able to take back some of these border crossing points and maybe other strategic stretches of the country’s major roads and highways, if the Afghan government can put a stop to the Taliban’s advance and can stand firm — then it might be able to fight its way back to a stalemate, a military situation where there’s no clear winner, at least in the foreseeable future.”
“since the Obama administration, there was an acknowledgment among senior policymakers that the war was already unwinnable.”
“What we’ve seen in recent years was a situation that was clearly slipping out of the Afghan government’s control. And for much of that time, the US solution was to ramp up airstrikes to help keep the scales leveled out. But with the US’s thumb on the scale, that meant the years went by and nobody really wanted to acknowledge how much they had tilted out of the government’s favor.”
“Even in Biden’s remarks in mid-April, there was the suggestion that this withdrawal decision was made based on how hopeless the situation seemed. It was not the withdrawal that created an unwinnable situation. The withdrawal decision was made because in Biden’s assessment, the situation already was unwinnable.”
“Joe Biden is starting to do what every administration talks about but never manages to really do: Get U.S. forces out of the Middle East. His administration has removed Patriot missiles from the region, curtailed B-52 shows of force against Iran, and is preparing to bring home U.S. aircraft carriers after decades of dangerous Gulf deployments. In addition, of course, Biden is ending what he himself called the “forever war” in Afghanistan.
But if the goal is to reduce military involvement in the Middle East, then it should be alarming that the Biden administration has bombed Iran-backed militias in Iraq and Syria more times in the last three months than the Trump administration did in all of 2020. If the current exchange rate continued, we would expect a total of nearly 50 attacks on U.S. bases by militias with ties to Tehran, a handful of U.S. deaths, and half a dozen U.S. retaliatory strikes by the end of the year. On Monday and Tuesday, the United States hit back for the second and third times since Biden took office, striking militia targets in Iraq and Syria in response to increased drone and rocket attacks on U.S. troops in those two countries.”
” The dilemma for the White House is that it sees maintaining a small, focused counter-terrorism mission in Iraq and Syria as a worthwhile alternative to a full withdrawal, which would benefit adversaries like the Islamic State and Iranian hardliners. But Iran-backed groups will not stop attacking those outposts. Now, it seems the administration is caught in a vicious cycle of using small, pinprick strikes in an effort to deter the militias while avoiding escalation, but these half-measures achieve neither intended outcome. The Biden team needs to end the tit-for-tat cycle by hitting back smarter, harder and less openly.”
“The Biden team has been periodically hitting back at a time and place of its choosing, wisely separating provocation from retaliation in time. But the strikes have not been inventive or bold enough to affect the calculations of the militia leaders, instead hitting targets that just don’t matter. The administration seems fixated on sending clear and unambiguous deterrent messages that are anything but clear and unambiguous to Iran and her militias. This is because U.S. strikes are deliberately limited in order to avoid escalation — but this means they are too weak to deter. Each U.S. strike has been calibrated to roughly mirror the prior militia strike in destructiveness, but when 11 of every 12 militia attacks go unanswered, the cost exchange is still heavily in the group’s favor.”
“to reduce the risk of escalation, do not announce U.S. involvement. The U.S. was criticized by Iraq’s government for the recent strike inside Iraq, yet Iran and the militias it backs in Iraq were not criticized for their rocket and drone strikes because they do not openly claim such attacks. Israel has, for years, not claimed many of its deterrent strikes, which has given its enemies some leeway to ignore, prevaricate over or delay retaliation. Although unclaimed strikes will raise valid concerns about oversight and transparency, the U.S. government has procedures not only for undertaking strikes using Title 50 intelligence community and covert action authorities, but also for informing Congress of these actions in closed session.”
“Iran must understand that there is a cost to giving advanced drones to their militia proxies. Send messages to Iran’s security establishment — separately from the nuclear talks happening in Vienna — that the U.S. will match Iranian covert action with its own.”
“Outside of buttressing a U.S. Marine detail to protect the U.S. Embassy, the Biden administration is wary, if not outright opposed, to Haiti’s request for a U.S. troop deployment. While the prospect of thousands of Haitians fleeing to the United States can’t be ruled out if the situation further deteriorates, President Joe Biden is right to reject the Haitian government’s request. The last thing Washington needs is yet another ill-advised, reactive military intervention in a de facto failed state—particularly at a time when the White House appears intent on extricating U.S. forces from wars that have cost too much, have gone on for too long, and have had next to no return.
Even before Moïse’s late-night assassination, Haiti was in the midst of extreme political and economic turmoil. The nation of 12 million people has been without a functioning parliament for a year and a half. Due to the absence of a legislature, the entire government has operated by decree. Approximately 30 gangs control a large area of Port-au-Prince; thousands of Haitians have fled their neighborhoods from intergang violence. René Sylvestre, the head of Haiti’s Supreme Court, passed away from COVID-19, a virus that is ravaging the broader population.
Moïse’s killing has taken this dire situation and turned it into a catastrophe. Today, there are three separate Haitian politicians claiming to be Moïse’s successor, a political contest for power bearing the markings of a serious confrontation. One of Haiti’s powerful gang bosses is readying his own troops for action, claiming the assassination was a large foreign-orchestrated conspiracy against the Haitian population. The police, corrupt and riven by schisms, aren’t exactly in a position to quell any violence that may erupt.
The U.S. military, however, isn’t in a position to do so either. In fact, it’s questionable whether foreign troops in any capacity would have the resources, patience, and fortitude to save Haitians from the depravity of their own politicians. There was a time not so long ago when United Nations peacekeepers were authorized to return democracy to the island during yet another fractious period in its history—the forced exile of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. That U.N.-authorized peacekeeping mission would last for more than 15 years, and the result was anything but the peace, democracy, and stability Washington and its partners on the Security Council hoped to accomplish. Instead, Haiti’s problems arguably multiplied. The mission was not only implicated in human rights abuses, but brought a deadly cholera epidemic to the country which killed upward of 10,000 people.
The U.S. military has some experience in Haiti as well. In 1994, 25,000 U.S. troops were sent to the island in a mission code-named Operation Uphold Democracy, a deployment designed to restore the democratically elected government to power after being ousted in a military coup three years earlier. While the mission succeeded in ridding the military junta from the capital and negotiating the exile of the coup’s architect (Lt. Gen. Raoul Cédras), one can hardly call it a long-term success given Haiti’s current circumstances.”
“To task U.S. troops with political missions is to saddle them with responsibilities they can’t reasonably be expected to meet, all the while providing the host government with the cover to continue business as usual. Whether in Afghanistan, Iraq, or Haiti, deployments like these create more problems than they solve, shift the ultimate responsibility for fixing them onto the backs of U.S. soldiers, and can easily expand from months to years.”