WASHINGTON -- In the confused 12 years since we invaded Afghanistan, our military's description of our fighting style has ranged from counterinsurgency to counterterrorism, to ending with the favored "war on terrorism."
We leveled villages, killed innocent families, and struck a number of al-Qaida and Taliban with drones -- and just as many non-al-Qaida and non-Taliban. But it was all OK, because it was in the name of wiping out terrorism.
Now, as the Afghan "war" slowly and imperfectly winds down, there are new truths being told about it by intellectual sightseers to the war and announced by our military. The news is not good and the story is not pretty.
At the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Anthony Cordesman, arguably the country's foremost and fairest military analyst, has written another stunning paper on Afghanistan. He has one world-shaking point that forbears too much challenge.
Since 9/11, he writes, "much of the U.S. debate ignores the fact that the U.S. has not actually fought a 'war on terrorism' over the last decade. Its conflicts have instead been exercises in armed nation-building where stability operations were the core of U.S. occupation ...
"An analysis of the trends in the Iraq and Afghan conflicts," he goes on, "shows that the U.S. has not been fighting a war on terrorism since Bin Laden and al-Qaida Central were driven into Pakistan in December 2001. The U.S. invaded Afghanistan and Iraq and then made stability operations and armed nation-building its key goals. It was U.S. mishandling of these exercises in armed nation-building that led to major counterinsurgency campaigns which -- at least in the case of Afghanistan -- the U.S. reacted to by labeling as a struggle against 'terrorism.'"
Moreover, Cordesman further avers, the Department of Defense has never provided a "meaningful estimate" of the total cost of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq; that by never coming up with any metrics that show the cost-benefits of its activities, it has never distinguished terrorism from insurgency, counterinsurgency, instability and civil war.
Terrorism is the use of terror against innocent victims in an attempt to force them into compliance with the enemy's intentions, but insurgency is simply any conflict waged against a powerful center. Counterinsurgency is the center's fight against the insurgency, and counterterrorism is the war directly leveled at terrorism.
This last would have been the case had President George H.W. Bush and Secretary of State Jim Baker's plans after 9/11 been adopted. They wanted no invasion of countries, but rather a precise plan to destroy individual terrorists by working through the militaries and intelligence units of friendly countries, plus Interpol, and pinpointing the guilty terrorist parties.
Instead, what Washington really got into was the one thing we know little how to do (nor does anyone else). This was "nation-building." The fact that we had failed in many countries -- Vietnam, Cambodia, Somalia, Haiti, Lebanon -- never seemed to cause anyone in Washington to lose sleep; and yet we were simply repeating the nation-building fiasco once again, instead of hitting directly at the terrorists themselves.
The waste caused by huge building projects involved with nation-building overseas is not often absorbed by the American people, who are getting less and less news on what America is doing in Afghanistan and Iraq -- and will get far less of when the wars are truly, completely "over."
News just recently came out, for instance, of the U.S. military having built a 64,000-square-foot headquarters in southwestern Afghanistan near Kandahar. It cost $34 million and is bigger than a football stadium. The only problem is that American troops are evacuating that region, and so the mammoth building will probably not be used at all.
In Baghdad, the humongous American Embassy building is of the same wasteful genre. Since American troops withdrew from Iraq without any status-of-forces agreement to keep them there, that building will probably go to waste, too.
Careful analysts, such as Harvard professor Linda Bilmes, are saying that these two American wars in the Near East/Central Asia will cost taxpayers probably $6 trillion, including medical care for wounded veterans. The lowest estimate is $4 trillion. The conflicts have added $2 trillion to America's debt, representing roughly 20 percent of the debt incurred between 2001 and 2012.
And now -- now! -- President Obama is giving "serious consideration" to speeding up the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan and to a "zero option" that would keep no American troops there at all after 2014. If this happens, then it will all have ended in angry failure.
The president has seen his relationship, if indeed there is one, with President Hamid Karzai unraveling because of the Afghan leader's bizarre and demanding behavior.
But one wonders: If Vietnam did not teach our military and political leaders to stay out of others' wars, what will? We can ill afford any more of this ruthless wastefulness, so let us sit down and finally take stock.