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Monday, March 26, 2012

THE VIEW FROM NEW YORK

Costs of a policy of profligacy with foreign lives


NEW YORK — In the early hours of March 11, Sunday, a U.S. soldier went on a rampage in a village in Panjway, southwest of Kandahar, Afghanistan. He went from one mud house to another, shot, stabbed, and burned 16 villagers. Or so it has been reported.

No, I don't want to talk about whether Army Staff Sgt. Robert Bales, the "happy" and "gentle" 38-year-old father of two, committed a "war crime" or not. War crimes are the prerogative of those in charge: the policymakers who start and continue a war through a "surge" and such, and the armchair warmongers who fan them by talking portentously about national interests, "plans" in the region, and such.

Furthermore, since December 2001, "from the air and on the ground, Americans have been profligate with Afghan lives," as Tom Engelhardt, of the Nation Institute, has written. Why fuss about what one of the soldiers tasked to murder and destroy did?

Instead, I wish to consider the absurd disproportionality of it all.

Maintaining a U.S. soldier in Afghanistan for a year costs $1.2 million, reports the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments in its analysis of the fiscal 2011 U.S. defense budget.

The per capita GDP of the U.S. in 2010 was $47,200, and that of Afghanistan $500, says the World Bank. This means more than 25 Americans have to work for a full year to help one of their own engage in murder and destruction in a remote South Central Asian country.

By the same comparison, a total of 2,400 Afghans would have to work for a full year to enable one American soldier to trample upon their own country, just for a year.

The U.S. deploys 110,000 troops in Afghanistan.

President Barack Obama's fiscal 2011 defense budget includes a request for Overseas Contingency Operations — read wars — in Afghanistan totaling $110.3 billion, says the CSBA. The World Bank puts Afghanistan's GDP for 2010 at $17.2 billion. That means, yes, 30 million Afghans produce less than one-sixth of the money the U.S. spends on ravaging their country.

But the U.S. budget for the war in Afghanistan for fiscal 2011 did not include the additional $33 billion that Obama wanted to expand the U.S. forces in that country by 30,000 troops. Gen. David Petraeus asked for the "surge" with the pledge that with the added force he would end the war by early 2011. He did not keep his pledge. No matter: Obama appointed him director of the CIA. Ah, the CIA.

Obama's fiscal 2011 budget for the war in Afghanistan naturally did not include the CIA money. The sum and details of what the CIA expends are always secret.

Nor did the budget include the costs for the private security or military contractors that the Defense and State Departments employ with increasing abandon nowadays. These PSCs or PMCs are what were until not long ago called mercenaries. The most infamous among them is Blackwater, now renamed Xe.

Like the CIA expenditures, the total cost of these mercenaries for American taxpayers is anybody's guess. But the British PMC Aegis, for one, received $293 million in 2004 and $475 million in 2007, though these numbers were for its activities in Iraq.

You may wonder: What is Aegis' role? The answer: To "police" other PMCs.

Afghanistan is one of the poorest countries on the face of the Earth. You have seen photos of people in bedraggled clothes and their ramshackle abodes. According to U.N. country profiles, it is a young country. Those 14 years or younger account for 46 percent of the total population, and those 60 years or older, less than 4 percent, in 2010. In the same year the ratios for the U.S. were 20 percent and 18 percent.

That may make Afghanistan a country for the future, but there is a catch. Even as its fertility rate is 6.3, more than three times that of the U.S., which is 2.0, its infant mortality rate per 1,000 live births is high, at 147, versus 5.5 in the U.S. Partly as a result, its life expectancy at birth is 45.5 years, versus 80 in the U.S.

Education in Afghanistan may strike some Americans as abysmal. According to U.N. Human Development Indicators, the average number of years of schooling of adults 25 years or older in Afghanistan is 3.3, when the corresponding number in the U.S. is 12.4. Not that there are no bright spots in Afghanistan.

For a while during their nation's prolonged war against the hinterland, some Americans tried to justify it by pointing to its lack of "democracy" in general and its maltreatment of women in particular.

What these well-meaning Americans, if they indeed were, failed to note is this: Afghanistan is ahead of the U.S. at least in one respect: The share of seats held by women in national parliaments in Afghanistan was 27.7 percent in 2010; in the U.S. it was a mere 16.8 percent.

Afghanistan "has no economy, no infrastructure," U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin observed last year. He pushes for faster, larger troop withdrawals than Obama plans. One thing in that regard places the Afghan situation in a stark light.

You have read news stories about Afghans suffering from the harsh winter. The U.N. country profiles say that in 2008 the average Afghan consumed 15 kilograms of energy in oil equivalent. The comparative figure for Americans in the same year was 6,738 kilograms. Yes, 450 times greater.

If that discrepancy surprises you, you are in for a shock. In the "very difficult and austere environment" that is Afghanistan, where the winter is extremely cold and the summer extremely hot, U.S. troops live as they would in their homeland.

The upshot: The U.S. military spends $20 billion worth of fuel every year in Afghanistan. That's bigger than Afghanistan's GDP.

Obama, when a senator, opposed President George W. Bush's war against Iraq. But he has often called the war against Afghanistan "a war of necessity."

When the German paper Spiegel pointed out to Richard Haass that Obama lifted the characterization from one of his books, Haass laughed. ("This Is No Longer a War of Necessity," Spiegel, Sept. 28, 2009)

Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, was director of policy planning for the State Department under Bush. By the time Spiegel interviewed him in September 2009, he had discounted the importance of Afghanistan, switching his hawkish attention to Pakistan.

By then Obama had decided on the "surge."

Hiroaki Sato is a translator and essayist in New York. His biography of Yukio Mishima with Naoki Inose, "Persona," will appear in the fall.


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