“We didn’t know what we were doing”: Afghanistan as tragic repetition

“Everyone” knows that Daniel Ellsberg leaked the Pentagon Papers about Vietnam fifty years. What few people know is that the study that compiled those papers was an effort by the military/intelligence apparatus to understand why the US makes such bad, unaware, and self-destructive decisions in war.[1]

Those who do not learn the lessons of history are destined to repeat them.

One of the many ways that history repeats itself is that George W. Bush assembled a team led by Nixon administration alumni to prosecute two massive new wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.[2] And the US governments of Bush, Obama, and Trump all repeated many of the same patterns in Afghanistan as they did in Vietnam.

Again, there was a study behind closed doors, leaked to the press. Here’s an opening sentence from the (much less celbrated) coverage: “We were devoid of a fundamental understanding of Afghanistan — we didn’t know what we were doing,” Douglas Lute, a three-star Army general who served as the White House’s Afghan war czar during the Bush and Obama administrations, told government interviewers in 2015.[3]

The fact that the US participated in and enabled atrocities in Afghanistan, and that the precedent of past US wars meant that the most craven local leaders gravitated to the US-backed government does not undermine the fact that hundreds of thousands or even millions of Afghans made their peace with that same government, and built the stability they could find around it. Today is not so much the US government’s tragedy, as it is theirs.

As citizens of a country that has failed to restrain our own military-industrial complex from repeating its own destructive patterns across more than half a century, our first debt is to those it has killed and wounded, to those whose lives it has ended or wasted, and our second debt is to those who sought shelter under its wings. Refuge is the least we owe them.

On a larger level, if you look around the world you will see that the worst off countries are those who were colonized most recently (largely sub-Saharan Africa) and those the US military has invaded and occupied: Iraq, Afghanistan, Haiti. Vietnam, for all its continuing problems, has emerged far better than most. We have to stop doing this, because in the wake of our government’s most costly endeavors comes poverty and stagnation.

[1] Daniel Ellsberg, Secrets
[2] Errol Morris, The Unknown Known
[3] The Afghanistan Papers: A secret history of the war, Washington Post

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