This photo of Afghan warlords was taken shortly after the Soviet troop withdrawal in 1989. (Photo: Heidi Bradner / AP)
Just when you've finally gotten your mind around the enormous $700 billion financial bailout - even if none of us are really sure where all that money's going - there comes an even greater, breathtaking price tag.
The amount is $904 billion - that's how much we've spent on American military operations, including Iraq and Afghanistan, since the 9/11 attacks; 50 percent more than what was spent in Vietnam, reports the non-partisan Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessment. Their study does not include the inestimable toll in human life.
Of that money, nearly 200 billion has gone to Afghanistan, where 31,000 American troops are nearly 60 percent of the NATO peacekeeping force. When he becomes president, as promised during his campaign, Barack Obama will oversee the deployment of at least another 20,000 troops there.
This has been the deadliest year for American forces in Afghanistan since the war began. Our military faces a resurgent Taliban and al-Qaeda, better trained, better armed and supported from sanctuaries in Pakistan. But in an op-ed piece in last Sunday's Washington Post, Sarah Chayes - the former National Public Radio reporter who has lived in Kandahar province since shortly after 9/11 - argued that America's and Afghanistan's biggest problem comes from within - our continuing support of a corrupt and abusive Afghan government that's driving its people back into the arms of the fundamentalists.
Chayes, who organized a co-op of Afghan men and women making skin care products from herbs and botanicals as an alternative to the opium poppy trade, wrote, "I hear from Westerners that corruption is intrinsic to Afghan culture, that we should not hold Afghans up to our standards. I hear that Afghanistan is a tribal place, that it has never been, and can't be, governed. But that's not what I hear from Afghans."
Chayes followed up that article with an interview conducted by my colleague Bill Moyers on the latest edition of Bill Moyers Journal on PBS. She told him that the United States and its NATO allies have had to convince themselves and public opinion in each of their countries that, "this is a democratically elected representative government [in] Afghanistan in order to justify the sacrifices in money and troops. But the Afghans see it differently."
What they see instead, she said, is a restoration to power under President Hamid Karzai of the gunslinging, crooked warlords who were repudiated when the Taliban first started taking over vast parts of the country a few years after the Soviet withdrawal in 1989. The "appalling behavior" of officials in the current government, including rampant bribery, extortion and violence, is a serious factor in the Taliban resurgence - it's estimated that they now have a "permanent presence" in 72 percent of the country, according to one think tank, the International Council on Security and Development.
Chayes said, "There are people who don't like the Taliban but may kind of knuckle under to them because, on the one hand, the government isn't doing anything better for them. And the Taliban are going to kill them if they don't visibly divide themselves away from the government."
An Afghan woman in her cooperative compared it to "a man trying to stand on two watermelons. The Taliban shake us down at night, and the government shakes us down in the daytime."
The Taliban are aided and abetted by Pakistan, Chayes continued: "It has been obvious to me that the Pakistani military intelligence agency [ISI] has been basically creating, orchestrating, this so-called Taliban resurgence since the end of 2001. So why are we paying Pakistan $1 billion a year?
"... We need to realign our policy ... What you have in Pakistan is a fledgling civilian government that's kind of fighting for its life. And it's not in a position to be able to challenge this military intelligence agency very powerfully. We need to get with that government and figure out and scheme with it how do we reign in this state within the state that is the military intelligence agency, which has been manipulating and instrumentalizing religious extremism for the past 20, 30 years ... in a very myopic way, to forward its regional agenda both in Kashmir and in Afghanistan?"
Additional American troops are important now, Chayes said, and suggested that NATO allies who face opposition at home to sending additional combat forces could instead send a corps of experienced officials - from retired mayors to agriculture experts - who could rigorously mentor Afghan public officials and potentially reform their ways. Reconstructing infrastructure is important, she said, "But you don't get infrastructure if you're passing it through corrupt channels."
So if nothing changes, Bill Moyers asked, should American men and women continue to give their lives in support of a government overrun by Afghanistan's criminal class? Chayes rephrased the question: "If we are not willing to even begin to challenge President Karzai ... then why are we sending people to die?"
In his tour of Iraq and Afghanistan this past week, President Bush told Karzai that he could count on us no matter who's in the White House: "It's in our interest that Afghanistan's democracy flourish."
To which Sarah Chayes' friends in Kandahar would reply, "What democracy?"
Michael Winship is senior writer of the weekly public affairs program Bill Moyers Journal, which airs Friday night on PBS. Check local airtimes or comment at The Moyers Blog at www.pbs.org/moyers.