Page 1 of 2 Afghanistan by the numbers
By Tom Engelhardt
Here may be the single strangest fact of our American world: that at least
three administrations - Ronald Reagan's, George W Bush's and now Barack Obama's
- drew the United States "defense" perimeter at the Hindu Kush; that is, in the
rugged, mountainous lands of Afghanistan.
Put another way, while Americans argue feverishly and angrily over what kind of
money, if any, to put into health care, or decaying infrastructure, or other
key places of need, until recently just about no one in the mainstream raised a
peep about the fact that, for nearly eight years (not to say much of the last
three decades), we've been pouring billions of dollars, American military
know-how, and American lives into a black hole in Afghanistan that is, at least
in significant part, of our own creation.
Imagine for a moment, as you read this post, what might have
happened if Americans had decided to sink the same sort of money - US$228
billion and rising fast - the same "civilian surges", the same planning,
thought and effort (but not the same staggering ineffectiveness) into
reclaiming New Orleans or Detroit, or into planning an American future here at
home. Imagine, for a moment, when you read about the multi-millions going into
further construction at Bagram Air Base, or to the mercenary company that
provides "Lord of the Flies" hire-a-gun guards for American diplomats in
massive super-embassies, or about the half-a-billion dollars sunk into a
corrupt and fraudulent Afghan election, what a similar investment in our own
country might have meant.
Ask yourself: Wouldn't the US have been safer and more secure if all the money,
effort, and planning had gone towards "nation-building" in America? Or do you
really think we're safer now, with an official unemployment rate of 9.7%, an
underemployment rate of 16.8%, and a record 25.5% teen unemployment rate, with
soaring health-care costs, with vast infrastructural weaknesses and failures,
and in debt up to our eyeballs, while tens of thousands of troops and massive
infusions of cash are mustered ostensibly to fight a terrorist outfit that may
number in the low hundreds or at most thousands, that, by all accounts, isn't
now even based in Afghanistan, and that has shown itself perfectly capable of
settling into broken states like Somalia or well functioning cities like
Sometime later this month, the Barack Obama administration will present
Congress with "metrics" for ... well, since this isn't the George W Bush era,
we can't say "victory". In the style of special envoy to the region Richard
Holbrooke, let's call it "success". Holbrooke recently offered this definition
of that word, evidently based on the standards the Supreme Court used to define
pornography: "We'll know it when we see it."
According to Karen DeYoung of the Washington Post, the Obama administration is
reportedly rushing to "pre-empt Congress with its own metrics". It's producing
a document called a Strategic Implementation Plan, which, DeYoung writes, "will
include separate 'indicators' of progress under nine broad 'objectives' to be
measured quarterly ... Some of the about 50 indicators will apply to US
performance, but most will measure Afghan and Pakistani efforts." These are to
include supposedly measurable categories like numbers of newly trained Afghan
army recruits and the timeliness of the delivery of promised US resources.
The administration is evidently now "tweaking" its metrics. But let's admit it:
metrics in war almost invariably turn out to occupy treacherous terrain. Think
of it as quagmire territory, in part because numbers, however accurate (and
they often aren't), can lie - or rather, can tell the story you would like them
The Vietnam War was a classic metrics war. Sometimes it seemed that Americans
in Vietnam did nothing but invent new ways of measuring success. There were,
for instance, the 18 indices of the Hamlet Evaluation System, each meant to
calibrate the "progress" of "pacification" in South Vietnam's 2,300 villages
and almost 13,000 hamlets, focusing largely on "rural security" and
Then there were the many indices of the Measurement of Progress system, its
monthly reports, produced in slide form, including "strength trends of the
opposing forces, efforts of friendly forces in sorties ... enemy base areas
neutralized", and so on. For visiting congressional delegations, the commander
of US forces, General William Westmoreland, had his "attrition charts",
multicolored bar graphs illustrating various "trends" in death and destruction.
Commanders in the field had their own sophisticated ways to codify "kill
ratios", while on the ground, where the actual counting had to be done in
dangerous circumstances, all of this translated far more crudely into the MGR,
or, as the grunts sometimes said, the "Mere Gook Rule" - "If it's dead and it's
Vietnamese, it's VC [Vietcong]." In other words, when pressure came down for
the "body count", any body would do.
The problem was that none of the official metrics managed to measure what
mattered most in Vietnam. History may not simply repeat itself, but there's
good reason to look askance at whatever set of metrics the Obama administration
manages to devise. After all, as in the Vietnam years, Obama's people, too,
will be mustering numbers in search of "success"; they, too, will be measuring
"progress". And those numbers - like the Vietnam-era body counts - will have to
come up from below (with all the attendant pressures). By the time they reach
Washington, they are likely to have the best possible patina on them.
With the delivery of those new metrics to Congress seemingly imminent, I
thought I might offer my own set of Afghan metrics for the worst year of the
present war. Think of this as basic math for Americans.
Annual funding for US combat operations in Afghanistan, 2002: $20.8 billion.
Annual funding for US combat operations in Afghanistan, 2009: $60.2 billion.
Total funds for US combat operations in Afghanistan, 2002-2009: $228.2 billion.
War-fighting funds requested by the Obama administration for 2010: $68 billion
(a figure which will, for the first time since 2003, exceed funds requested for
Funds recently requested by US ambassador Karl Eikenberry for non-military
spending in Afghanistan, 2010: $2.5 billion.
Funds spent since 2001 on Afghan "reconstruction": $38 billion ("more than half
of it on training and equipping Afghan security forces").
Percentage of US funding in Afghanistan that has gone for military purposes:
Estimated US funds needed to support and upgrade Afghan forces for the next
decade: $4 billion a year ("with a like sum for development") according to
former assistant secretary of defense Bing West. (According to the Brookings
Institution's Michael O'Hanlon, "It's a reasonable guess that for 20 years, we
essentially will have to fund half the Afghan budget.")
Afghan gross national product: $23 billion (the size of Boise, Idaho's, writes
columnist George Will) - about $3 billion of it from opium production.
Annual budget of the Afghan government: $600 million.
Maintenance cost for the force of 450,000 Afghan soldiers and police US
generals dream of creating: approximately 500% of the Afghan budget.
Amount spent on police "mentoring and training" since 2001: $10 billion.
Percentage of the more than 400 Afghan National Police units "still incapable
of running their operations independently": 75% (2008 figures).
Cost of the latest upgrade of Bagram Air Base (an old Soviet base that has
become the largest American base in Afghanistan): $220 million.
Cost of a single recent Pentagon contract to DynCorp International Inc and
Fluor Corporation "to build and support US military bases throughout
Afghanistan": up to $15 billion.
War-fighting Number of American troops killed in Afghanistan, 2001: 12.
Number of American troops killed in Afghanistan, 2009 (through September 7):
Total number of coalition (NATO and American) deaths in 2009 thus far: 311,
making this the deadliest year for those forces since the war began.
Number of Lithuanian troops killed in Afghanistan: 1
Two worst months of the Afghan War in terms of coalition deaths: July (71) and
August (74) 2009.
US troop levels in Afghanistan, 2002: 5,200.
Expected US troop levels in Afghanistan, December 2009: 68,000.
Percentage rise in Taliban attacks on coalition forces using improvised
explosive devices (IEDs) in 2009 (compared to the same period in 2008): 114%.
Rise in coalition deaths from IED attacks in July 2009 (compared to July 2008):
Percentage increase in overall Taliban attacks in the first five months of 2009
(compared to the same period in 2008): 59%.
Number of US regional command centers in Afghanistan: 4 (at Kandahar, Herat,
Mazar-i-Sharif, and Bagram).
Number of US prisons and holding centers: approximately 36 "overcrowded and
often violent sites" with 15,000 detainees.
Number of US bases: at least 74 in northern Afghanistan alone, with more being
built. (The total number of US bases in Afghanistan seems not to be available.)
Estimated cost per troop of maintaining US forces in Afghanistan when compared
to Iraq: 30% higher.
Number of gallons of fuel per day used by the US Marines in Afghanistan:
Cost of a single gallon of gas delivered to the Afghan war zone on long,
cumbersome, and dangerously embattled supply lines: Up to $100.
Number of gallons of fuel used to keep marine tents cool in the Afghan summer
and warm in winter: 448,000 gallons.
Number of troops from Georgia (not the US state, but the country) being
prepared by US Marine trainers to be dispatched to Afghanistan to fight in
spring 2010: 750.
Number of Colombian commandos to be sent to Afghanistan: Unknown, but Colombian
commandos, trained by US Special Forces and financed by the US government, are
reportedly to be dispatched there to fight alongside US troops. (Note that both
Georgia and Colombia are dependent on US aid and support. Note also that
neither the Georgians nor the Colombians would assumedly be bound by the sort
of restrictive fighting rules that limit the actions of some NATO forces in
Percentage of American spy planes and unmanned aerial vehicles now devoted to
Afghanistan: 66% (33% are in Iraq).
Number of American bombs dropped in Afghanistan in the first six months of
2009: 2,011 (a fall of 24% from the previous year, thanks evidently to a
directive from US commanding general in Afghanistan, Stanley A McChrystal,
limiting air attacks when civilians might be present).
Number of Afghan civilian deaths recorded by the UN January-July 2009: 1,013, a
rise of 24% from the same period in 2008. (Unfortunately, Afghan deaths are
generally covered sparingly, on an incident by incident basis, as in the deaths
of an Afghan family traveling to a wedding party in August, assumedly due to a
Taliban-planted IED, or the recent controversial US bombing of two stolen oil
tankers in Kunduz province in which many civilians seem to have died. Anything
like the total number of Afghans killed in these years remains unknown, but
what numbers we have are undoubtedly undercounts.)
Number of additional troops McChrystal is expected to recommend that Obama send
to Afghanistan in the coming months: 21,000 to 45,000, according to the
McClatchy Newspapers; 10,000 to 15,000 ("described as a high-risk option"),
25,000 ("a medium-risk option"), 45,000 ("a low-risk option"), according to the
New York Times; fewer than 10,000, according to the Associated Press.
Number of support troops Defense Department officials are planning to replace
with "trigger-pullers" (combat troops) in the coming months, effectively an
escalation in place: 6,000-14,000. ("The changes will not offset the potential
need for additional troops in the future, but could reduce the size of any
request ... officials said.")
Number of additional NATO forces General McChrystal will reportedly ask for:
Optimal number of additional Afghan National Army (ANA) troops to be trained by
2012, according to reports on General McChrystal's draft plan: 162,000.
(According to Naval Postgraduate School professor Thomas H Johnson and retired
Foreign Service officer M. Chris Mason,"[T]he US military touts 91,000 ANA
soldiers as 'trained and equipped', knowing full well that barely 39,000 are
still in the ranks and present for duty.")