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Why Are We in Afghanistan?

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Posted on Dec 25, 2013
The U.S. Army (CC BY 2.0)

American and British soldiers in the Sangin District area of Helmand Province.

By Stanley Kutler

Fifty years not-so-long ago, under the umbrella of the Cold War, we were embroiled in the quicksand—“quagmire” was the term of choice—of Vietnam. By 1965, with upward of half a million troops “in-country,” skeptics and critics began to seriously question the war. The U.S. government, however, countered with the “domino theory,” contending that unless stopped in Vietnam, hordes of Chinese-led communists would overrun Southeast Asia, leapfrog to Japan, the Philippines, and eventually Hawaii and the beaches of La Jolla. But no dominoes fell.

The government’s response nevertheless proved effective, and such arguments are used today, foisted on a passive, apathetic public, and serviced by a compliant media. The rationale is as bankrupt as 50 years ago.

Historical analogies are treacherous, yet the past can inform subsequent events. In Vietnam, we had Nguyen Ngo Diem—“the George Washington of Southeast Asia”—and his family as our allies, but more often than not resistant to our will. Afghanistan’s Hamid Karzai, for peculiar reasons of his own, likes to appear as an ingrate, adept at ignoring our advice, and undoubtedly corrupt. Most of all, both interventions have had little to do with our national interests.

At the end of the Vietnam adventure, we tried briefly to exact some meaning, some lessons in the hope that we would not repeat the same mistakes. First and foremost, we had to understand and accept the limits of American power. In vain. Vietnam has been ignored other than with public displays for recognition of veterans and of those permanently impaired by the war. The Vietnam Wall signifies our human sacrifices, not the loss of national sensibility. A sizable number of veterans not surprisingly recall battles as glorious adventures; indeed, to question the war or suggest that we lost in terms of stated goals is to verge on the unpatriotic. 

Presidents and policymakers, our military, our advocates of a “long war” and Congress have persuaded the nation to support and/or ignore our presence in Afghanistan. Our empire now has traveled the well-worn, blowback-laden road once trod by Alexander the Great, the British Empire and, in our own time, Soviet Russia. History can be a way of learning, as William Appleman Williams once wrote; what we learn most about history is to forget it. 


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In a New York Times op-ed column last month, Gen. John R. Allen and Brookings Institution Director of Research Michael E. O’Hanlon unequivocally advocate our continued presence in Afghanistan. Allen is the former NATO and American forces commander in Afghanistan—a coalition of some 50 nations, the authors tell us in apparent seriousness, a measure as laughable as the “Coalition of the Willing” during the Iraq War, and the now-misleading official title, “NATO-led International Security Assistance Force.” O’Hanlon uncompromisingly supported the Iraq intervention, long after the ostensible reason for the war had been exposed as a fraud.

The authors steadfastly defend the Afghanistan adventure and call for a continued American presence. They conclude that the United States can ride out its current difficulties with Karzai’s pique “because of enduring American strategic interests . . . as well as our huge sacrifice. . . .” The current fight, they say, is not about Karzai, but rather “the American and Afghan peoples.”

Allen and O’Hanlon use the language of our warrior class, which too often has led us astray. They refuse to acknowledge any limitations of American power; they are part of a larger group that has failed to recognize this fact for the past half-century. Merely to invoke “enduring strategic interests” only raises the question—what interests? And our “huge sacrifice” is a reason? That is like the gambler who after unsustainable losses continues to play. They typically maintain that the American “combat mission” will expire in another year, but “Afghanistan’s future” requires that we maintain a presence. As if our fully armed “trainers” will not be involved in “combat.”

We must “keep a vigilant eye” on the extremist groups in northwest Pakistan, Allen and O’Hanlon write. If this is in fact the American security interest, then why are we not more involved in Yemen,—which, after all, has extremist groups? Or Dagestan, that part of the Russian Federation that supplied the Boston Marathon bombers? Or Chechnya, which has a large number of “extremist groups”? Just ask Vladimir Putin.

We can ill afford the casualties and treasure resulting from mistakes based on the premise of John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address, that “we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty.” But instead of high-flown rhetoric, our political figures seem unable to utter the truth of our limitations. Would that Obama repeat in 2008 what he said in 2002: He did not oppose war, only “dumb” ones? Our diminished capacities and resources make such endeavors problematic. Then, too, we might do something other than ignore present realities and forget the past.

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