The Afghan War is officially winding down. American casualties, generally from towns and suburbs you’ve never heard of unless you were born there, are still coming in. Though far fewer American troops are in the field with Afghan forces, devastating “insider attacks” in which a soldier or policeman turns his gun on his American allies, trainers, or mentors still periodically occur. Civilian casualties continue to rise. “Surgically precise” U.S. air and drone strikes still mysteriously kill Afghan civilians. And as U.S. combat troops withdraw, Afghan-on-Afghan fighting is actually increasing, with the U.S.-trained army taking almost Vietnam-level, possibly unsustainable casualties (100 or more dead a week), while the police are similarly hit hard.
Meanwhile, as TomDispatch regular Ann Jones points out, our second longest war has already played Houdini, doing a remarkable disappearing job in “the homeland.” Almost 12 years after it began, no one here, it seems, is considering how to assess American “success” on that distant battlefield. But were we to do so, what possible gauge might we use? Here’s a suggestion: how about opium production? In 1979, the year America’s first Afghan war (against the Soviets) began, that country was producing just 250 tons of opium; by the early years of the post-9/11 American occupation of the country, that figure had hit 3,400 tons. Between 2006 and the present, it’s ranged from a 2007 high of 8,200 tons to a low of just under 5,000 tons. Officials of Russia’s Federal Drug Control Service now claim that 40,000 tons of illicit opiates have been stockpiled in Afghanistan, mostly to be marketed abroad. As of 2012, it was the world’s leading supplier of opium, with 74% of the global market, a figure that was expected to hit 90% as U.S. combat troops leave (and foreign aid flees). In other words, success in an endless war in that country has meant creating the world’s first true narco-state. It’s a record to consider. Not for nothing, it seems, were all those billons of dollars expended, not without accomplishments do we leave (if we are actually leaving).
Today, Ann Jones, who spent years in Afghanistan working with Afghan women and wrote a striking book, Kabul in Winter, based on her experiences, considers the Afghan end game and what to make of it. In 2010-2011, she put on her combat boots and headed back to that country,embedding with U.S. troops. Then, having previously focused on the toll the war had taken on Afghan civilians, she decided to see for herself, up close and personal, what that war’s cost was for American soldiers. The result, I believe, is a signal achievement and one of the best pieces of reportage from that war. She followed American war-wounded from a trauma hospital at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan to medical facilities in Germany, then on to Walter Reed Hospital, and — for those who made it — finally back to their homes. The result is the first original offering from this website’s publishing arm, Dispatch Books: They Were Soldiers: How the Wounded Return From America’s Wars — the Untold Story. Believe me, it’s groundbreaking, it’s breathtaking, and I’m proud that, in conjunction with Haymarket Books, we will be publishing it this November 7th.
Nothing like her account exists. Of it, Jonathan Schell, no stranger to the costs of war, wrote: “For a decade, the independent journalist Ann Jones has, through her firsthand reporting of war and life on the ground in Afghanistan, given us more of the reality of that conflict than any dozen of her well-connected colleagues in the established media, attuned as they have been to the cant and spin pouring out of official mouths. Now, she has turned her shrewd, wise, compassionate, reality-bound eye to some of the bitterest facts of all: the almost unimaginable suffering of the American soldiers wounded and otherwise impaired in the conflict. The result is a harrowing and compelling tale that is hard to bear but must be borne if we are to understand the rolling disaster this country unleashed in Afghanistan more than a decade ago.”