Ending our forever war in Afghanistan — now that's worth a parade

Ending our forever war in Afghanistan — now that's worth a parade
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Lawmakers are raising questions this week about President Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpGiuliani says he is unaware of reported federal investigation Louisiana's Democratic governor forced into runoff Lawmakers focus their ire on NBA, not China MORE’s alleged desire to hold a military parade in the streets of Washington, D.C.

There are indeed many good questions to be asked about the merits of a parade. How much will training for the parade distract from training for war? Will heavy tanks rip up the roads? When people see the parade, will they think of the French Foreign Legion slowly marching down the Champs-Élysées (as Trump reportedly hopes) or of Soviet tanks rolling across Red Square? Are the troops being used as presidential accessories? And how much will it all cost? Adjusting the costs of the 1991 victory parade after Operation Desert Storm for inflation suggests upwards of $20 million.

So lawmakers are rightly angry that the military might be used inefficiently here. But where is the anger over our far more costly misadventures overseas?

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Consider Afghanistan. On Tuesday, a senior Pentagon official told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that the war there will cost $45 billion dollars this year. That’s more than two thousand war dollars for each parade dollar — and unlike Afghanistan, the troops participating in the parade won’t have to leave their families for months on end, risk their lives under enemy fire, or even eat any of the hated veggie burger MREs. The war in Afghanistan deserves more scrutiny than the parade, and on balance it’s a worse investment.

First, what is Afghanistan’s strategic value? Or, as Tennessee senator Albert Gore, Sr. once asked in a hearing on Vietnam, “What do we win if we win?” Not much. Afghanistan has a GDP of about $19.4 billion, or about three-fifths the size of America’s smallest state economy (Vermont). Afghanistan’s allegedly rich mineral assets remain unexploited, as war and corruption make a poor investment climate. Afghanistan has trouble generating military power, too: It can’t whip the Taliban.

All that means that Afghanistan is not a geopolitical powerhouse that will be of great value to those that control it. The high cost of fighting there is a testament to that. More than half of this year’s $45 billion cost will go to logistics, because it is hard to get to and from Afghanistan.

That matters for two reasons. One, it’s also hard for Afghanistan to get here: Even an eager terrorist would have to get through American border security, and the security of many countries in between. Those security measures, if insufficient, could be beefed up — a smaller investment than war, yet one more likely to yield results.

Two, part of the price of sending goods to Afghanistan is tied to sending those goods through other powerful countries in the area — Pakistan and (formerly) Russia. These are serious countries that have a bigger stake in outcomes in Afghanistan than we do. Our presence has taken the burden of securing Afghanistan off of their shoulders and placed it on those of our troops. China, likely to be America’s biggest strategic competitor in the coming decades, benefits too. That was made quite clear Wednesday, when the Pentagon announced it had conducted a record-breaking aerial bombardment of training facilities linked to the Taliban and the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) in Badakhshan Province.

Badakhshan Province is home to Afghanistan’s small border with China, and the East Turkestan in ETIM’s name is in China’s Xinjiang province. Russia, China, Pakistan — as MIT Security Studies Program director Barry Posen observed, our role in Afghanistan is “solving security problems for those states that are eager to create problems for us.”

Of course, terrorism is the concern that brought us to Afghanistan. But Al Qaeda largely left Afghanistan in 2002; it is the Taliban and the local ISIS branch that split off from it that we’ve been fighting. These groups have been eager to conduct terrorism — but against local governments, not against the United States. The main challenge is deterring them from hosting groups like Al Qaeda that are eager to attack America.

UCLA scholar Robert Trager has argued that groups like the Taliban that are very focused on local concerns can be deterred by threatening those local goals. In other words, we make clear to the Taliban that we’ll help the Afghan government more if the Taliban’s guests attack America — otherwise, we largely leave fighting over Afghanistan to Afghans. Conversely, Trager notes, targeting local groups together with those that attack us gives them incentives to cooperate. Declaring that America is all in on defeating the Taliban regardless of whether the Taliban helps Al Qaeda weakens the case for the Taliban to not help Al Qaeda.

There’s little strategic need for our presence in Afghanistan. That makes the cost of it hard to justify. If we aren’t advancing vital U.S. interests by fighting there, why should we turn a blind eye to the flaws of our partners in the Afghan government? Afghan Vice President Abdul Rashid Dostum, for example, rose to power by collaborating with Afghanistan’s Soviet occupiers, then turned warlord when the Soviets left, switching sides again and again in Afghanistan’s turbulent politics.

Last year, his men kidnapped a political rival at a public event; the victim alleged he was held for 10 days, tortured, and sexually assaulted. The Afghan military and police have become infamous for kidnapping and raping young boys; American soldiers who have intervened to protect the boys have been relieved of command, forced out of the military, and even killed by Afghan troops. And of the 176 countries ranked by corruption watchdog Transparency International, Afghanistan comes in 169th place — unsurprising when a $19 billion economy hosts a $45 billion war.

Costly, unnecessary, morally dubious — why not draw down our presence in Afghanistan? Maybe our troops, on returning home, could march in Trump’s parade. The price is nothing next to the billions we’d save — and bringing one endless war to an end would be priceless.

John Allen Gay is executive director of the John Quincy Adams Society, a national network of student groups centered on a vision of foreign policy restraint. He is a former managing editor of the National Interest and is coauthor, with Geoffrey Kemp, of “War with Iran: Political, Military, and Economic Consequences.