All the recrimination-filled reporting and commentary about how fast Afghanistan fell to the Taliban after President Biden made the courageous decision to finish withdrawing our troops misses a much more important story.
This story concerns why Americans can't have nice things anymore while our main economic competitor China does — and is investing in a lucrative and influential future.
It's the story of jettisoning the sensible Powell Doctrine of asking whether war is quickly winnable before rushing into military action in favor of chronic combat. Endless war creates enormous fortunes for investors in the military-industrial complex, enabled by jingoistic political cowardice in Washington.
For two decades our elected leaders foolishly spent our money trying to impose democracy at the point of a rifle in a country with no democratic culture or tradition.
To date, U.S. taxpayers have spent about $2.3 trillion on an undeclared war that cost 2,448 American troops their lives avenging about the same number of lives lost on Sept. 11, 2001. More than 100,000 Afghans died in the 20-year war.
This butcher bill comes to more than $6,000 for each American man, woman and child. Our elected leaders borrowed all that money because of federal tax cuts in 2001, 2003, 2004, 2006, 2009, 2010, 2012 and 2017.
Cutting taxes in a time of war is as dumb an idea as ever infected American politics.
America would be far better off today had Congress built a giant bonfire with all those greenbacks. Seriously.
That's because the costs of this foolish enterprise will continue until the last eligible dependent of an Afghan combat veteran dies sometime near the dawn of the 23rd century.
Last Civil War check
It wasn't until last year when Irene Triplett died and her $73.13 monthly check stopped that American taxpayers paid out the last pension from the Civil War, which ended in 1865.
The total ultimate Afghan war bill? More than $6.4 trillion, according to the Cost of War Project at Brown University. That's more than $100,000 for the iconic family of four.
There's a good chance that estimate will prove low because our government instilled hatred of America and democracy among many of the 35 million Afghans. Once the Taliban complete their bloodbath — executing American collaborators, mutilating women who dared work outside the home and arresting other infidels — they likely will hunt for ways to exact revenge on us. After all, we'd do the same — in fact, we already have.
And our participation occurred without a congressional declaration of war, as required by our Constitution.
While our elected officials squandered money on an undeclared war that drained our economy, the dictatorial regime in Beijing bought China a bright future.
No better life
China spends more than 5.5% of its economy on infrastructure. America spent about 3.1% of the economy on steel and concrete infrastructure way back in 1980, before more than half of today's Americans were born. In recent years, American infrastructure investment has been slashed by half to a record low.
None of this Afghan war spending bought us a better life. None of it was an investment in the public furniture, which is the commonwealth foundation on which private wealth is built.
That money didn't maintain or build new roads, dams, bridges, rail lines or public buildings that could last centuries if adequately designed and constructed. It didn't buy textbooks or strengthen our third-rate grid in this electricity-dependent Digital Age.
It bought bullets and bombs that become useless once they go off. And most of those killing devices were wasted because they failed to kill their targets and, worse, often killed innocents, including women and children.
China, in contrast, didn't spend its money on wars. Indeed, China hasn't been in a war in this century, though it brutally oppresses those within its grasp who challenge its totalitarian control.
Instead, China invested in public furniture that makes commerce more efficient, shrinks its carbon footprint, reduces rural poverty and expands influence beyond its borders. Those investments create jobs galore and, in turn, wealth.
"Infrastructure investment in China has increased significantly in recent decades and has been a significant driver of economic growth and improved standards of living," according to the Reserve Bank of Australia.
The can-do spirit has been throttled in America by petty politicians like the anti-taxers who insist we cannot afford to invest in the public's welfare. Be it making college tuition-free, or nearly so, or taking care of our existing infrastructure, they stand for tax cuts for the rich and the big companies that their patrons own. At the same time, they oppose building new and refuse to recognize that electricity, cell phones and the internet are core necessities of life in the Digital Age.
The can-do spirit, however, is not gone from this earth. It's just moved to China, which in 43 hours tore down and replaced a multi-lane highway bridge in Beijing, as this fantastic brief video shows.
Think about how long it takes to get anything done in America these days.
In just 10 years, starting in 2008, China built nearly 16,000 miles of high-speed rail. That more than doubled total global high-speed rail lines.
How many miles of high-speed rail carry passengers in America? None.
This smart CNBC program explains why America has no high-speed rail, and how we also lost many urban rail transit systems.
Investing in the future
China isn't afraid of debt either. Its infrastructure investments, private and public, are essentially 90% debt-financed. From 2000 to 2014, China invested the equivalent of $29.1 trillion U.S. in infrastructure while issuing $26.1 trillion of debt, researchers at Oxford University calculated.
Our Congress is in a lather about just $1 trillion for traditional infrastructure.
To a person, the Republicans won't consider a separate bill that defines infrastructure in human terms with money for housing, expanded education, cash to lift children out of poverty, climate change mitigation, rural internet access and investments in science.
From my many visits to China in this century, it's evident that the regime there builds smooth roads on very deep beds of rock, assuring potholes will be rare. America, by contrast, produces inferior roads.
The long-lasting Chinese highways with wide lanes put to shame the German Autobahn, which puts to shame our cheapskate interstate highway system.
America thinks in terms of 90-day corporate financial reports and two-year election cycles. China's leaders think in terms of decades and centuries.
America has literally gone backward in some areas since 1863.
During the Civil War, the president of the New York Central worked in Manhattan but lived in Batavia, midway between Rochester and Buffalo in western New York. Dean Richmond took his private rail car down to arrive at work Monday morning and returned home late Friday supper.
The trips he took in 1863 took 90 minutes less than they do today.
If we built the kind of trains that China already has, then Batavia to Manhattan could take less than two hours, not eight.
Serious investment in infrastructure could yield elevated mag-lev trains like the one connecting the Shanghai airport to the edge of that city. The repulsive force of magnets lifts rail passenger cars millimeters above the tracks so trains can run at a friction-free 300 mph.
Put such trains in vacuum tubes and you could go from L.A. to Manhattan in less time than it takes to reach JFK from Manhattan or LAX from Beverly Hills — all while using a tiny fraction of the energy a jetliner uses per passenger today to connect those megacities.
But instead of working toward such goals, we squabble over the scraps left over after wasting blood and treasure in a war that had no purpose except to catch those behind the awful attack on us almost two decades ago.
We had good reason to invade Afghanistan after Osama bin Laden's fanatical followers crashed jetliners into both World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon, while a fourth plane heading to D.C. was bravely brought down in the Pennsylvania countryside by passengers who fought terrorists.
The Real Vietnam comparison
The 2001 invasion should have followed the Powell Doctrine, named for Colin Powell, the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and later secretary of state. He said a lesson of Vietnam was that America should use military force only when national security demanded it, and even then only after building overwhelming global support and then applying overwhelmingly military force.
Instead of applying that doctrine to find and kill bin Laden and his confederates, the inexperienced George W. Bush agreed with conservative fanatics who said we could buy our way into capturing our enemies.
Air Force cargo planes stuffed with American dollars flew to the Middle East during the Afghan and Iraq wars. We gave literally tons of greenbacks to warlords who promised to catch bin Laden and his pals. They lied.
They took our money and hid the mastermind of 9/11. Bush declared in 2004 that he was "not concerned" about finding bin Laden.
Not until Barack Obama became president was our military told to find and capture him, as they did on May 2, 2011.
But Obama, like Trump, lacked the political nerve to do what Biden did — stop investing in a bad decision to keep troops in Afghanistan.
Be glad we pulled out troops this month because Biden said "enough." Don't be surprised that the Taliban are in control of that country. They were always going to come out on top, be it this month, 10 years ago or 100 years from now.
And be glad the ultimate total cost of this folly is only about $100,000 per family because it could have gone on forever, the costs piling higher and higher every day because of the political cowardice of Bush, Obama and Donald Trump.
And, now, please think about all the good things we could be investing in to make our lives better had we elected politicians who read and understand:
- Our first president's farewell warning about foreign entanglements;
- Our 34th president Dwight Eisenhower's farewell warning about the dangers of our military-industrial complex.
Of course in a democracy, we choose our own leaders so we know ultimately who to blame for why we can't afford nice things and are falling behind China: Ourselves.