by Michael Roberts
2014 was supposed to be the year that American troops left Iraq,
having completed their task of establishing a pro-West democratic
government there. It was also the year that British troops left
Afghanistan, having completed their task of ‘pacifying’ the notoriously
wild Helmand province, leaving the Afghan army to control the region on
behalf of the pro-West democratic government based in Kabul.
The reality, of course, is a sorry joke. Both armies, far from
leaving the war arena, are now engaged in ‘supporting’ air strikes and a
Kurdish army in a battle against a new Hydra head in the shape of ISIS
in Syria and Iraq, while Taliban continues its horrendous battle against
American and Pakistan forces (and their drones) in the hills of
Afghanistan and against the people in its towns. The wars are far from over and these attempts to impose imperialist
control over a multitude of forces are failing, just as the Roman armies
failed to subdue the Germanic and other tribes along its northern
reaches back some 2000 years ago onwards. The cost to the Roman state
was ruinous and eventually too much to cope with.
The cost to the US and its allies in the ‘coalition of the willing’
is also huge, if still possible to absorb. According to the latest
estimates, the Afghan conflict has cost $1trn so far since 2002. That’s
only about 0.6% of US GDP a year – but not something to ignore, given
the low growth in the economy since 2008 and the alternative ways that
money could have been spent on to preserve public services or boost the
productive sectors of the economy.
According to John Sopko, the US government’s special
inspector-general for Afghanistan, the amount the US has spent on
reconstruction in Afghanistan when adjusted for inflation is more than
the cost of the Marshall Plan to rebuild western Europe after 1945 – and
for no result. The waste has been immense too. $500m was spent on 16
transport planes for the Afghan Air Force. The fleet was stored in Kabul
for year and the planes were turned into $32,000 worth of scrap metal.
Another $34m was spent on a base in south-western Afghanistan. It came
equipped with a 64,000 sq ft operations centre and briefing theatre, and
has never been used. $3m on eight patrol boats for Afghan police, still
in Virginia storage after four years; $5.4m incinerators, installed
incorrectly, never used; $3.6m on TV broadcast trucks for live sporting
events, unused in Kabul storage – and so on.
To this bill must be added the Iraq war, which has cost $1.7tn,
according to the Costs of War Project by the Watson Institute for
International Studies at Brown University. And there will be an
additional $490bn in benefits owed to war veterans, expenses that could
grow to more than $6trn over the next four decades, counting interest.
According to Ryan Edwards at City University of New York, the US has
already paid interest of $260bn on that war debt.
The war in Iraq has killed at least 134,000 Iraqi civilians and may
have contributed to the deaths of as many as four times that number.
When security forces, insurgents, journalists and humanitarian workers
were included, the war’s death toll rose to an estimated 189,000, the
Watson study said. Then there are medical costs already incurred for
soldiers who have left the military. Linda Bilmes, a Harvard economist
who has done extensive research on the war costs, estimates that medical
spending on veterans from both Iraq and Afghanistan has so far reached
$134bn. Military healthcare premiums paid by serving military members
have been kept low, prompting a surge in healthcare spending by the
Pentagon, while salaries have risen above inflation. Since 2001, the
defence department’s base budget has increased by $1.3trn more than its
own pre-9/11 forecasts.
And the spending is not over.
The Pentagon has indicated it wants
further funding of $120bn for 2016-19 for operations in Afghanistan. US
troops numbering 10,000 are to stay in Afghanistan for at least the next
two years at an estimated $7bn a year. Prof Bilmes forecasts future
medical and disability costs for veterans from both Iraq and Afghanistan
will reach $836bn over the coming decades. The two wars have also added
to the Pentagon’s fast-growing pension bill: the military pension
system has an unfunded liability of $1.27trn, which is expected to rise
to $2.72trn by 2034.
This disaster, both in human terms and in money, is repeated on a
smaller scale with the British military intervention. British troops are
home from a campaign that lasted 13 years, including Iraq in the
middle. PM David Cameron announced in December 2013 that the troops
could come home because their ‘mission had been accomplished’. A new book by Frank Ledwidge (Investment in Blood: The True Cost of Britain’s Afghan War) tallies the personal and financial cost of Britain’s Helmand campaign, pointing out that Britain’s failure has
“obliterated any consideration of dead Afghans and folded the British
war dead into a single mass of noble hero-martyrs stretching from 1914
to now” with the display of plastic red poppies at the Tower of London. See my previous post on Ledwidge’s work at
Ledwidge estimates British troops alone were directly responsible for
the deaths of at least five hundred Afghan civilians and the injury of
thousands more. Tens of thousands fled their homes. ‘Of all the thousands of civilians and combatants,’ Ledwidge writes, ‘not
a single al-Qaida operative or “international terrorist’” who could
conceivably have threatened the United Kingdom is recorded as having
been killed by Nato forces in Helmand.’ Since 2001, 453 British
forces personnel have been killed in Afghanistan and more than 2600
wounded; 247 British soldiers have had limbs amputated. Unknown numbers
have psychological injuries.
The British operation in Helmand alone cost £40bn, or £2000 for each
taxpaying British household! Britain built a base in Helmand, Camp
Bastion, bigger than any it had constructed since the end of the Second
World War. It has now handed Camp Bastion over to the Afghan military
which is now struggling to prevent it being overrun by attackers.
Everything the military did depended on the petrol, diesel and kerosene
trucked in from Central Asia or Pakistan; one US estimate calculated
that the price of fuel increased by 14,000% in its journey from the
refinery to the Afghan front line. In firefights, British troops used
Javelin missiles costing £70,000 each to destroy houses made of mud. In
December 2013, when they were packing up to leave, they had so much
unused ammunition to destroy that they came close to running out of
explosives to blow it up with.
Ledwidge adds in the cost of buying four huge American transport
planes to shore up the air bridge between Afghanistan and the UK
(£800m), 14 new helicopters (£1bn), a delay in previously planned cuts
in the size of the army (£3bn) and the cost of returning and restoring
war-battered units (£2bn). And £2.1bn spent on ‘aid and development’,
most of which was stolen or wasted. Grotesque sums were spent on
providing security and creature comforts to foreign consultants: an
annual cost of around £0.5m per head!
Ledwidge estimates the cost of the British military’s bloodshed and
psychological trauma – the amount spent on the ongoing treatment of
damaged veterans, compensation under the recently introduced Armed
Forces Compensation Scheme (AFCS), and an actuarial estimate of the
financial value of human life – at £3.8bn. An Afghan who sought
compensation from the British in Helmand after losing his sight as a
result of a military operation might expect a payment of £4500. A
British soldier suffering the same injury would be entitled to £570,000.
The whole British campaign in Helmand was a failure: ‘The Afghan
army in Helmand was non-existent. The local Afghan police were, on the
whole, criminal. The Helmand director of education was illiterate. The
British were never fighting waves of Taliban coming over the border from
Pakistan: they were overwhelmingly fighting local men led by local
barons who felt shut out by the British and their friends in
‘government’ and sought an alternative patron. The Taliban provided
money, via their sponsors in the Gulf, and a ready-made,
Pashtun-friendly ideological framework the barons could franchise. Since
the British were hated even before they arrived, recruitment of foot
soldiers was easy.” (An Intimate War: An Oral History of the Helmand Conflict 1978-2012 by Mike Martin).
So after 13 years of war in far-flung places, American and British
imperialism have nothing to show for it, while hundreds of thousands of
Iraqis, Afghans and Pakistanis have been killed, injured, tortured and
made homeless. And American and British taxpayers have seen their public
services cut and their taxes go to fund extravagant, wasteful and
hopelessly failed wars to preserve corrupt, unpopular elites in Iraq,
Saudi Arabia, and the Gulf states and to sustain the interests of the
multinational energy companies.
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