It’s the question Americans can be heard asking over and over when Afghanistan happens to make the news. It’s a valid question. Three-quarters of a trillion dollars have been plowed into the country’s soil, watered with the blood and sweat of hundreds of thousands of America’s finest, only to watch the fruit of our labor wilt under the ominous shadow of the Hindu Kush. The endeavor has so far devoured 2,396 of America’s sons and daughters, and returned more than 20,000 of them to us maimed of mind, body or both.
And for what? A few well-paved roads and bridges, now pockmarked by IEDs? A much larger, better trained Afghan Security Force?
Entire regiments march around only on paper, though somehow they line up monthly to collect their paychecks and deposit them in the pockets of corrupt generals. Of those soldiers actually possessed of flesh and blood, 35 percent have decided they’d rather do something else and have gone back home. Literacy is still abysmally low: below 30 percent.
When he smugly announced the date, there was celebration from Kandahar to Herat. The enemy knew the exact date they could claim victory.Almost half the country again groans under the malevolent thumb of the Taliban. They waited us out, biding their time until the American people tired of hearing about that godforsaken wasteland on the nightly news. Then the American president announced that the war would stop, without actually ending. When he smugly announced the date, there was celebration from Kandahar to Herat. The enemy knew the exact date they could claim victory.
Oh, they don’t yet have run of the place. No, with what must be frustrating regularity, the homes of their commanders erupt in flame, suddenly and without warning. Those all-seeing eyes the Americans pilot from air conditioned boxes on the other side of the world still orbit constantly overhead, safely out of the range of even the most powerful RPK machine gun or Dragunov sniper rifle. They see all, but cannot themselves be seen. They are death itself to the warrior of jihad, but when they have passed by and taken their prey, the jihad remains.
There are precious few foot or vehicle patrols anymore, not outside of Kabul—those steel beasts filled with American flesh which they used to be so good at hunting. Those have migrated elsewhere. No matter. The Taliban foot soldiers continue to hunt during the fighting season. Now their quarry is their own countrymen; those still brave or stupid enough to wear the uniform of Kabul. If someday they are gone, the tribesmen will go on hunting each other, as they have always done. “Me against my brother, me and my brother against the tribe, me and my tribe against the world.”
Afghans never really felt any loyalty to the government anyway. A new president? Most tribesmen could care less, except that the corruption among those who claim to rule them is as ubiquitous as the talcum-fine dust that covers everything and everyone in their country. Bribes bring in more to Kabul’s potentates than taxes. Nobody is surprised, for it was always thus.
The blighted field that is Afghanistan would be easy to write off as a total loss. A Jeffersonian democracy is about as likely to occur here as a Mardi Gras parade. The fruit of our labors here produced a modicum of security for a time, but as usual, the wizards in Washington endeavored mightily to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, and at that, at least, they succeeded.
So was it worth it? Absolutely! Yes, yes, a thousand times yes!
The warrior is a special breed we call upon to weed the garden of liberty from time to time.One weeds a garden so that the sun can shine on the good vines, and those we love can be nourished. The work is tedious. It’s hot and hard and sweaty. But it gives the good fruit the freedom to grow unmolested.
But the weeds come back, don’t they? Before long, the rows must again be cleared of thistles. The rows never stay clean for long.
When vermin invade a home, it’s time to call the exterminators, a special breed of men we have charged with the dirty job of killing the rats and cockroaches, driving the snakes back into their holes. But with time, the pernicious bugs return, and the exterminator must be called once again.
The warrior is a special breed we call upon to weed the garden of liberty from time to time. Every generation hopes that once they’ve cleaned between the rows, the garden will flourish forever—at least so that their children will never have to make the same hot, dirty sacrifice.
But evil will always be lurking in the shadows. And we will always need a new generation of weed-pullers and exterminators to keep them there.
The fact that the weeds come back is never cause for despair. It’s never proof that the job wasn’t worth doing to begin with. On the contrary, the fact that we have men who will go out and beat back the thorns merits a lump of pride in Lady Liberty’s chest, a swell of tears in her eye. The fact that our warriors will soon have to do it again is not failure, it’s the price of success.
The 2,396 servicemen and women who died in Afghanistan each made a deposit to America’s account, the value of which eclipses the monetary cost many times over.
Because to paraphrase an old weed-puller from WWII, “Heroes turn traitor, warriors grow soft with age, but sacrifice … sacrifice is eternal.”
The vermin are crawling back out of their holes in Afghanistan. Soon it will be time to send in the exterminators once again. Thank God that cohort stands ready, waiting for the call.
Chuck Holton is a veteran Army ranger and NRATV correspondent.