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Back in 2014 the Pentagon authorized a secret review of the war in Afghanistan. Interviewing scores of policy-makers starting with the inception of the war in the fall of 2001, the hope was to find lessons learned that might be useful in any future engagement.

Afghanistan Papers

The Washington Post engaged in years of Freedom of Information Act litigation to get access to the records. The result is a six-part series now being presented. It provides a stunning review of the doubts and misgivings of many of the people who were responsible for prosecuting what has become the longest war in American history.

Here are the central themes of the six-part report:

  1. While a succession of leaders from George W. Bush to Obama to Trump, and their leading cabinet officials consistently maintained that we were making progress in the war, we were not, and they knew it.
  2. Strategies to win the war differed as between Bush and Obama, but both failed.
  3. Bush, Obama and Trump all affirmed that we would not be engaged in “nation-building” in Afghanistan, but all did, and all failed.
  4. Afghanistan was corrupt before the US got there, and massive flows of US aid fed the corruption.
  5. Afghani security forces, despite intensive training and munificent aid, remained incompetent and corrupt.
  6. American efforts to control the cultivation of opium and the trade in heroin have been consistent failures.

So what, indeed, are the lessons learned? The policy-makers who were interviewed were in search of practical wisdom about how we could actually succeed in some future invasion of a Third World country. For example, we ought to have a deep understanding of the country we invade, and we ought to have agreement on a strategy that is pursued over a long enough time to bear fruit, and we ought to have enough of the right kinds of resources for long enough to have the desired effect, but we shouldn’t just throw money at it.

We usually have lacked the necessary deep understanding of the countries we’re invading, and we have usually lacked the staying power to really transform the country whose behavior we find deplorable.

Such pragmatic lessons miss the main point. Since World War II the US has tried to work its will in large and small military interventions all over the world. The biggest were the Korean and Vietnam wars. The latter was the last war fought under conscription. These two wars together produced far more casualties than all the other military interventions put together. Since the end of the Vietnam War in 1975, military interventions have been much smaller, with all-volunteer forces.

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But regardless of the size of the force, the lesson that leaps out at us is that it is difficult or impossible for us to succeed. We usually have lacked the necessary deep understanding of the countries we’re invading, and we have usually lacked the staying power to really transform the country whose behavior we find deplorable.

The main reason for the first shortfall is that we Americans are remarkably uninterested in learning about other societies and cultures—or in learning their languages. Europeans have to know several languages just to get along in Europe every day. Many Americans are suspicious and hostile if they hear someone speaking Spanish. We are still, after 70 years of leading the world, a culturally isolationist country.

The main reason for the second shortfall (lack of staying power) is that we are a democracy—or what passes for one. If we don’t see success in a foreign adventure by the next election we look for someone to blame, and vote for the opposition who promise to bring the troops home.

Should we then just decide to foreswear interventions abroad? That’s what Donald Trump said in 2016: No more endless wars! America First!

The problem with this, as I argued in a recent essay, is that “a world of independent states will be shaped by power. If the US does not choose to exercise its power to shape a world that we want to live in, others (China? Russia?) will do it, and we won’t like the results. Donald Trump doesn’t care. We should.”

But how to exercise that power? Just sending in the troops seems doomed to failure. But there is a wide range of what is called “soft power” available to us, including the influence of nongovernmental organizations as well as official aid. The Chinese have figured this out. It’s not clear that the Russians have.

A traditional prayer gets the lesson about right: God grant us the courage to change what can be changed, the patience to accept what cannot be changed, and the wisdom to know the difference. All three were lacking in Afghanistan. We sorely need that courage, patience and wisdom now.

impeachment unavoidable

John Peeler