“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

Noam Chomsky in his office, 1967

Liberal Imperialism, a classic definition

“Three years have passed since American intervention in a civil war in Vietnam was converted into a colonial war of the classic type. This was the decision of a liberal American administration. Like the earlier steps to enforce our will in Vietnam, it was taken with the support of leading political figures, intellectuals, and academic experts, many of whom now oppose the war because they do not believe that American repression can succeed in Vietnam and therefore urge, on pragmatic grounds, that we “take our stand” where the prospects are more hopeful. If the resistance in Vietnam were to collapse, if the situation were to revert to that of Thailand or Guatemala or Greece, where the forces of order, with our approval and assistance, are exercising a fair degree of control, then this opposition to the Vietnam war would also cease; in the words of one such spokesman, we might then ‘all be saluting the wisdom and statesmanship of the American government.’ If we are forced to liquidate this enterprise … the liberal ideologists will continue to urge that we organize and control as extensive a dominion as is feasible in what they take to be ‘our national interest’ and in the interest of the elements in other societies that we designate as fit to rule.

Noam Chomsky, Introduction to American Power and the New Mandarins, 1969.

The term liberal imperialism makes two distinctions: liberal imperialists are not radicals and are not always hawks. They accept exercising national power over other societies, whereas radical critics of war are simply against that goal, and the military mean of exercising it. Liberal imperialists make themselves against this or that war, precisely and only when the costs are too great, which boils down to when the resistance, abroad and at home, is too great. At the height of the Vietnam War, radical critic Noam Chomsky wrote a devastating moral challenge to the American public acceptance of their country’s power over others. He laments that his opposition to the war “ten or fifteen years too late” once American boots began to be on the ground in 1965, and not when the US military support began. He observes that “The war is simply an obscenity, a depraved act by weak and miserable men, including all of us, who have allowed it to go on and on with endless fury and destruction—all of us who would have remained silent had stability and order been secured.”