The oldest of the U.S. service members to lose their lives to an ISIS-K bomb at the Kabul airport was 10 years old when the United States occupied Afghanistan. For most of them “we have always been at war in Afghanistan” wasn’t some pun on the doublespeak of 1984, it was simply the world as they knew it. They missed seeing the end of that war by less than two weeks, and the rawness of that tragedy is just a shadow of the real cost—emotional, physical, mental, fiscal, diplomatic, environmental, cultural—of America’s 20-year dalliance in a nation we refused to understand.
Now it’s over. Or, as over as wars ever get. The cost will linger, of course. It will linger in the resentment and loss of thousands of families in America, hundreds of families in allied nations, and hundreds of thousands of families in the region for whom that cost is endless. Its existence will still be written in the flesh of more than 20,000 veterans. It will have consequences that appear in international headlines of ongoing conflict. Whether any of those costs is at least a minor reduction of the United States’ desire to shop for a place they can do it all again … that’s not clear at all.
The real cost of this war will be generations getting tallied. The real end to its effects will be over when the sun expands to consume the Earth in a few billion years. The world is still echoing with actions taken in the courts of Nineveh and the plains at Marathon. The ripples from Kabul and Kandahar will be no more willing to fade.
But now it’s over. In a sense. And one thing that’s not going to happen is pretty much everything that’s being screamed about on television.
The first thing that’s not going to happen is the Taliban is not going to become an overnight regional superpower boosted up by a raft of U.S. weapons systems. Specifically, those now scrambling to keep control in Afghanistan were not gifted with $83 billion of U.S. gear left behind in haste (or $85 billion, as TFG insisted in his latest missive from Sea-of-the-Lake).
As The Washington Post makes clear, the number that’s being passed around in right-wing media is actually the total cost of “all spending on the Afghanistan Security Forces Fund” from 2001 to date. That includes the cost of operations, the money paid directly to Afghan forces, the cost of transported material, and the cost of maintaining bases. That’s everything that was spent trying to turn the Afghan military into an effective force.
So, yes, it was $82.9 billion dollars that in the end turned out to be an absolute waste—except as an example of how not to do things. What it was not, however, was equipment. The total tab for all equipment sent to Afghan forces over a period of 20 years was closer to $24 billion.
That’s still a huge number—bigger than, among other things, the budget for NASA. It’s almost seven times what the U.S. spends on all national parks and monuments in a year. It’s a whole lot of hot meals, or clean water, or about 500 miles of federal four-lane highway. It’s a lot.
But while that’s certainly enough to buy a good deal of military hardware, it was also spread out over 20 years. A lot of it was simply vehicles, including a fairly amazing 43,000 Ford Ranger pickup trucks and 22,000 Humvees, many of which are currently resting in the dust. Of the real military hardware, the Taliban has—assuming they can lay their hands on them and haven’t already killed a vital member—the crew necessary to fly a single Black Hawk helicopter.
Of the 73 aircraft that the U.S. left behind at Hamid Karzai International Airport, exactly zero will ever take to the air again. That’s because while they weren’t flown out, they were deprived of vital parts and treated to some deliberate sabotage to keep them from operating. It’s possible that at some point, the Taliban might find someone willing to sell them the necessary parts to restore one or more of these crafts and ship in someone with the necessary knowledge to make the repairs, and provide enough training to get someone proficient enough to operate one of these craft. It’s possible. It’s highly unlikely. It’s also mostly pointless.
After all, the Taliban now has something less than the military resources that were available to the Afghan defense forces in July. The same Afghan defense forces that fell to the Taliban. Every single day, every single device that breaks down is less likely to find either spare parts. Every plane needs not just a pilot, but a mechanic. Every helicopter with one missing part is a large paperweight. Every operating helicopter without a trained pilot is a crater. There are a lot of potential consequences to worry about when it comes to the aftermath of the war just ended, but the Taliban riding out of Afghanistan as a high-tech military provisioned with American equipment is not one of them.
But be on the lookout for the $83 billion figure. Or more likely, $85 billion now that TFG has pulled that number from his … let’s say “hat.” Because the goal of the people that started, nurtured, and cheered on this catastrophe are still determined to make it seem like the worst thing about wars, is allowing them to end.