The Lost War

It is September of 2021 and the United States has completed a final withdrawal from Afghanistan after spending almost twenty years attempting to create a new Afghani national government. The conflict had cost the lives of more than 3,500 soldiers from 30 different coalition countries, more than 66,000 members of Afghan military and police units, and more than a hundred thousand Afghani civilians. All of this ended approximately as it had begun, with the Islamic movement called the Taliban firmly in control of the government and a variety of smaller, more radical Islamist groups, among them ISIS and Al-Queda, actively operating in the country. 

Those results are disappointing at the very least. Those who had favored the war have had difficulties identifying any positive developments that resulted from this lengthy tragedy and its two trillion dollar price tag. And there are still political and military leaders who refuse to accept the end, who argue that the United States should have continued its involvement, its military presence in Afghanistan, for an undetermined future period. Many have eagerly assigned blame to the leadership of President Biden, whose administration engineered the withdrawal, or to President Trump, whose representatives negotiated the end to the war. But the reality on the ground is that for the full two decades, from the beginning in 2002, the Taliban had gradually been rebuilding its domination over rural areas, increasing its membership and forming alliances with regional warlords, the traditional Afghani rural leaders. Even before the coalition military forces began to pull out and the Taliban began retaking regional capital cities it was obvious that the coalition-supported national government did not have effective control over most of the country. This end may have come faster than expected, but it was inevitable.

General Mark Milley, the Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, noted that “In Afghanistan, our mission— our military mission— has come to an end… There are many tactical, operational, and strategic lessons to be learned.” There is one problem: The larger lessons are the same ones that we should have learned from our involvement in Vietnam, which should have been reinforced by our knowledge of Russia’s previous attempts to build their own version of an Afghani national government. We should have been especially familiar with Russia’s failure because we were in part responsible for it; we sent massive amounts of cash and weapons to various groups, the mujahideen and the warlords, those who were opposing the Russian presence and the Russian-supported Afghani government. 

There have been many efforts to compare our withdrawal from Afghanistan with the 1973 withdrawal from Vietnam. Both events were at times chaotic, although the latter was quite a bit more so than the former. Both situations were considered an embarrassment to the United States, which prefers to characterize itself as the most powerful military power in the world, a force that is virtually invincible. In both cases, we were wrong. Both conflicts were similar in many other ways. Vietnam and Afghanistan were non-war wars that bypassed the constitutional process in which Congress must officially declare war. Both were based on lies. Vietnam was authorized by congressional passage of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution of 1964, an act based on a largely fabricated story of North Vietnamese attacks on the U.S.S. Maddox, and was sustained by the mythological domino theory of Communist expansion. The Afghanistan war was inspired by the Al-Queda attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001, but the arguments for U.S. invasion ignored the fact that the Taliban had officially condemned those attacks and had promised to turn over the Al-Queda leadership to a third-party authority for prosecution. In both Vietnam and Afghanistan, the expansion of military and political involvement was unnecessary, of questionable value in both moral and practical terms, and we will probably never know the true motives that led to the invasions and intensification.

The primary error of Afghanistan, however, is not that it was based on false public information or on unacknowledged motives. It was that it ignored the clear lessons of Vietnam. Following last month’s Kabul withdrawal, a number of commentators have said, in essence, “at the beginning, nobody could have known that the invasion of Afghanistan would end like this.” That is a false and self-serving message. The fact is that in October of 2001, as soon as the Bush Administration began its verbal demonization of the Taliban and its targeted bombing of sites in Afghanistan, as soon as it suggested an invasion, it was warned against any such action by a variety of foreign affairs and retired military experts. There were also large anti-war protests throughout the world. Those of us in the anti-war movement knew that the war was a mistake, essentially another Vietnam, and immoral as well. The cautionary examples of the Vietnam war and Russia’s Afghanistan disaster, not to mention the British fiasco of 1842, were all mentioned. It’s clear that the administration of President George W. Bush was adequately warned. Those arguments were ignored.

A large part of the problem came from the continuing myth of U.S. military superiority. According to this construct, the failures of other countries were irrelevant. Also, in most conservative circles the example of Vietnam had long ago been dismissed using a creative revision of history that claimed that the loss in Vietnam occurred only because the politicians in Washington refused to allow the U.S. military to use its full powers, a variant of the MacArthur hypotheses regarding the (also undeclared) war in Korea.. In their alternative mythology, the war in Vietnam should have been won—again the supposed invincibility of the U.S. military—and therefore there was no reason why the United States couldn’t succeed where the Russians had failed. We can only hope that the end of the conflict in Afghanistan will provide a longer-lasting lesson of U.S. fallibility.

Perhaps we need to revisit the reality-based analyses that were frequently made after Vietnam and before Afghanistan. For one, it is a mistake to think that any country, however powerful, can long impose its will on another, especially on countries with large amounts of difficult landforms that limit traditional military efforts to capture and hold terrain. In both Vietnam and Afghanistan the U.S. forces found it necessary to repeatedly clear locations that they had previously successfully captured, displacing an enemy that melted into the surrounding terrain and returned after they left. Worse, in both Vietnam and Afghanistan the U.S. forces were supporting deeply unpopular and notoriously corrupt national governments, and they pursued counterproductive strategies intended to depopulate and destroy rural hamlets, but which had the effect of creating opposition. The Viet Cong and the Taliban were not widely accepted either, but they were viewed by most residents of those countries as local participants rather than as puppets of foreign interlopers. Indigenous guerrilla forces will always have a significant advantage over traditional military units, especially if the latter are largely foreign.

These factors made it impossible, in effect, for the U.S. to “win” in either conflict. To reinforce the lesson we could add yet another historical note that the British failure in Afghanistan in 1842 was not the first time that their vaunted colonial forces had lost while trying to overcome all of the above difficulties. Beginning in 1776 they had failed to support their own unpopular “foreign” colonial system against a popular enemy that was home-grown in north America and that repeatedly melted away into the surrounding population, only to return later. They lost that war, too, despite having a strong advantage in military power.

It is time to face the fact that the United States cannot continue to act as the world’s police force and that it can no longer act like a colonial power. We currently have more than 750 bases in 80 countries, with troops deployed in perhaps twice as many, and a military budget that is larger than that of the next ten countries combined. Perhaps it is time for the United States to finally listen to the lessons of Vietnam and Afghanistan, recognize what it cannot accomplish, and reduce its military presence around the world. And maybe, just maybe, we could use some of the money we save to help support the millions of refugees that were created by the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and Syria.

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