And if you find something egregiously wrong with almost all of that statement, you are, without doubt, quite right.
Except for the implication that a cavalry might remount. Back in the earliest stages of our current fight against the Taliban, soldiers on horseback proved stunningly effective. So for now, keep in mind the unexpected potency, let's say, of apparently unorthodox military tactics.
On that note: How about a magic carpet ride? Anyone? Everyone?
Great. But hold your horses.
So Many Options, So Little Time
If time really equals money, that is. For of late, the increasingly stoked debate regarding how many more troops we should send to Afghanistan has veered sharply into the sphere of relative economic practicality.
Yet this was not initially the case. When the discussion really began to heat up just over a month ago—right around the time General McChrystal's report to Obama was leaked—it centered primarily on the war's winability, so to speak, and rationale. In a lengthy treatment of the situation that appeared in mid-October, Dexter Filkins, echoing McChrystal himself, painted a grim portrait of the status quo, describing "an Afghanistan on the brink of collapse and an America at the edge of defeat," and conveying that the possibilities at this juncture are twain: "escalate or fail." The type of escalation called for, however—adding 40,000 more troops to the 65,000 already there—would almost certainly make the situation "last many more years, cost hundreds of billions of dollars and entail the deaths of many more American men and women."
Over the following week the Afghanistan discussion began to spiral into fraught complexity: The Economist detailed the difficulties of deciding between counter-insurgency and counter-terrorist approaches; Le Monde and The New York Times both reported that NATO defense ministers had accepted McChrystal's strategic review, but that hard negotiations would progress only after Obama's announcement; and Nicholas Kristof noted that the 21,000 troops sent earlier this year didn't help much, that there are probably more Al Qaeda fighters in Pakistan and Yemen than in Afghanistan, and that our "heavier military footprint" would almost invariably embolden the Taliban.
Reports over the next couple of weeks further complicated and broadened the parameters of the discussion.
we learned that "for the cost of a single additional soldier stationed in Afghanistan for one year, we could build roughly 20 schools there." This is significant, for one of the greatest bulwarks to training Afghan forces, rooting out corruption and instilling stability is, in fact, illiteracy. Then we heard that Obama was considering as many as four different options, and that he was uncertain that Afghanistan and Pakistan would assist in heightened efforts. Soon thereafter, Karl W. Eikenberry, the US ambassador to Afghanistan, conveyed deep concerns about sending any more troops at all.
Most recently David Kilcullen, a counter-insurgency expert, called the delayed decision "messy," likened it to the Suez Crisis of the 1950s, and provided a single binary option: "Do it" or get out. Meanwhile, NATO commanders are abandoning remote outposts to concentrate forces in more populated locations, a strategy boldly championed by McChrystal that will likely continue even with the arrival of more troops, yet one that has already resulted in Taliban-empowering propaganda.
With revised options have come revised dollar amounts. From The Times: "The latest internal government estimates place the cost of adding 40,000 American troops and sharply expanding the Afghan security forces... at $40 billion to $54 billion a year." Configured more alarmingly, this would translate into $1 million per soldier per year and a possible total military budget of $734 billion.
$734 billion! $1 million per soldier!
Lofty, perhaps? Perhaps even absurd?
Then how about something absurdly aloft?
A Trojan Horse For Our Times
It's not easy to imagine the opposite of something that consists of many different elements, especially if the certain something is as politically delicate and strategically multifaceted as, say, war. Yet given the current situation in Afghanistan, and given that our strategy of choice at the moment—regardless of whether we send more troops, and regardless of whether we begin concentrating our efforts in more populous areas—isn't significantly different from the Soviet Union's failed game plan several decades ago, it might be instructive to devise a scheme that would diametrically oppose it.
That said, let's say that the sending more troops—be they 10,000 more or that number multiplied by four—to the battlefields for an indefinite number of years will definitely, invariably imperil everyone involved, soldiers and civilians alike. And that said, let's say that some of the greatest obstacles in our campaign, such as the persistence of governmental corruption and the pervasive influence of the Taliban, rely rather heavily on the existence—the very physical presence, that is—of a population.
So how about removing the population?
Formidable, sure. Problematic, probably.
But unimaginable? Not really. So since we've already imagined it, let's have a look at some approximate numbers (emphasis on approximate):
–The population of Afghanistan is around 33 million.
–There are dozens of different airports throughout the country, one of which, Kandahar Airfield, has become (for quite obvious reasons) one of the busiest in the world, sometimes handling up to 5,000 flights per week.
–Large aircraft, such as the Boeing 747, can carry up to 500 passengers, and certain freighter aircraft could potentially carry a great many more. Additionally, the Russian-produced Mil-26, the heftiest helicopter ever built, could also carry up to 500 passengers—and quite importantly, it wouldn't require an airstrip.
–Lowballing passenger payloads at 500, it would require 66,000 flights to carry away 33 million people.
–Around 87,000 flights crisscross US skies on any given day, and Afghanistan's airspace is obviously quite accustomed to heavy traffic, so 66,000 flights would be, in this mildly unreasonable context, rather reasonable—a matter of perhaps days or weeks, especially if many other nations pitched in some aircraft and if nearby countries, namely Russia, would allow clear routes.
Airlifting an entire population is physically feasible, crazy! But wouldn't the costs be daunting? Well, considering we are ready to spend $1 million per year to maintain the existence of each soldier there, we're already in the realm of large expenses. And as it turns out, this plan would actually be quite cheap. Consider:
–Even if each flight travels up to ten hours, and even if fuel costs and passenger-freight payloads are highballed at $3.50/gal and 140,000 lbs., respectively, each flight would cost around $74,000.
–Estimated operational costs: 66,000 x 74,000 = 4,884,000,000 = about 5 billion.
–Remember your units!
–$5 billion. That would be the one-way (away) ticket.
–Two way: $9,768,000,000 = about $10 billion.
–To put this in context, the one-way option would cost each American about $16.
–The two-way option, $32.
–Since each American has already spent about $1,000 dollars on the Afghanistan campaign, to little if any avail, and around $2,300 on Iraq, so even $50 or $100 from each of us, since there'd be those pesky incoming flights to pay for, ranks as rather frugal—even in 'this economy.'
We could carry off all the civilians of Afghanistan for the cost of dinner and a movie! What a spectacle! What drama! And what a tasty documentary such theatrics would make!
Nay? Nay. Neigh!
One might call this operation indelicate, inconsiderate, disrespectful. But could we rightly consider our current strategy a paragon of delicacy and respect?
Think about it, we could carry away the innocents among the civilian population and clean up the messy characters and other sullied matters left behind. We could root out the terrorists and vanquish the Taliban. With no people to be corruptly governed, governmental corruption would default on itself and disappear. Mine fields could be safely detonated and the drug trade could be cleared away. Weapons caches and armed outposts could be leveled or sealed off.
And roads, wells, homes and schools could take their place.
Then the Afghan people could truly have their lives back.
Yet what of those magic carpet rides? Well, Operation Come Fly With Me sounds pretty magical, right?
Or for greater fanfare: Operation Come Fly With Us.
And as for that remounted cavalry, those soldiers on horseback, they could be the aforementioned Trojan Horse for our times. A final round of flights to deploy equestrian troops and their steeds. Their conquests were heroic at the outset. Their efforts at the finale could be heroic as well.
And what could be more American than airplanes full of cowboys? Let's call the regiment The Marlboro Men, and let's call it a day.
Imagine the shock! Imagine the awe!
Or just imagine if we or the Afghan people had a say.