Spending millions to kill each terrorist

Is there any way to look at the war in Afghanistan as anything but a mounting failure? I don't think so. The "metrics," as former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld would say, aren't looking good.

This week, as the ninth anniversary of the start of the Afghanistan war was observed, we learned that the death of each Taliban fighter we battle costs at least $50 million. That's a conservative estimate. It could actually be $100 million. This figure came not from the Pentagon, which goes to great lengths to conceal such accounting, but from an enterprising reporter named Matthew Nasuti, who works for Afghanistan Press.Consider the source, you say. OK, but aside from the fact that Mr. Nasuti worked "at a senior level" within the U.S. Air Force, math is math. Numbers don't tell the whole truth about anything, but they tell a lot.

The best estimate of Taliban killed annually by coalition forces is roughly 2,000.The direct cost to the Pentagon of waging war in Afghanistan for 2010 is about $100 billion. Indirect costs are approximately another $100 billion.

"One has to simply divide one number into the other," says Mr. Nasuti. "That calculation reveals that $100 million is being spent to kill each Taliban soldier."

He cut the estimate in half by doubling the number of slain fighters to 4,000, even though that is highly unlikely. So, under the lower estimate, the cost to the American taxpayer to kill 20 individual Taliban members is a breathtaking $1 billion.

Using Mr. Nasuti's calculations, Killing the estimated 35,000 Taliban fighting the occupation would cost $1.75 trillion. We've been at it over there for nine years, and our generals say a military victory is not in the cards. But we have to stay until the job is done.

What job? Are we to magically transform that land and its people into a facsimile of American democracy? Only a child, a simpleton or a foreign policy intellectual could possibly believe that.

What about the emancipation of Afghan women? That's a fantasy. The ethic of the tribal culture in that part of the world is rooted in the roles the opposite sexes are assigned. And ethics are the rules of survival for any coherent group. On that, they will not yield.

Our massive, expensively equipped armed forces, flush with technology that boggles the mind, are wholly inadequate to the task of fighting wars like this. We can kill people from the sky with the Hellfire missiles launched from pilotless drones until the cows come home, but such tactics won't win this kind of war. The generals have already told us as much.

Nearly 20 years ago, famed Israeli military historian Martin Van Crevald told us that armed conflict has morphed from the Clauzewitzian model of rational war between nation states as "an extension of politics" into something altogether different.

In his book "The Transformation of War," Professor Van Crevald analyzed the new forms of warfare that have erupted around the globe since World War Two. Guerilla armies, bandits and terrorists have developed tactics that have brought an end to conventional war as we have known it for more than two centuries.

Vietnam, Algeria, the Balkans, Iraq, Afghanistan and other conflicts have ushered in major change in the ways wars are fought.

"My basic postulate," he writes, "is that, already today [this was in 1991] the most powerful modern armed forces are largely irrelevant to modern war - indeed that their relevance stands in inverse proportion to their modernity."

We are seeing that play out in the land that has time and again evicted its conquerors.

We are Gulliver, and the Lilliputians have tied us down. The trick will be to recognize this, somehow loosen the bonds and leave their habitat. Have we leaders wise enough to do that? Not yet.

Ron Smith can be heard weekdays, 9 a.m. to noon, on 1090 WBAL-AM and WBAL.com. His column appears Fridays in The Baltimore Sun. His e-mail is rsmith@wbal.com.

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