Summary: What have we learned from our experiences in Afghanistan? My guess: not much. Certainly not the vital lessons we need to learn in order to prosper in the 21st century. This is thousand words raising questions. In the comments post your thoughts, and pointers to works by others grappling with these issues.
Every society experiences defeat in its own way. But the varieties of response within vanquished nations — whether psychological, cultural, or political — conform to a recognizable set of patterns or archetypes that recut across time and national boundaries. A state of unreality — of dreamland — is invariably the first of these.
From the Introduction to Wolfgang Schievelbusch’s masterwork: The Culture of Defeat – On National Trauma, Mourning, and Recovery (2003)
The closing of Abu Muqawama (run by Andrew Exum) and The Oil Drum were greeted with tears by their fans, Probably undeserved tears. Both played large roles in major issues during the past decade, but perhaps not useful contributions.
Abu Muqawama focused on providing expert, fact-rich, but horrifically wrong advice during our “small wars” (small but expensive wars). The Oil Drum provided fact-rich discussions with wrong conclusions about “energy and our future”. Both were nodes for concerned, educated, knowledgeable professionals and laymen. It’s disturbing that these cohorts of our best and brightest could not the errors in their analysis — or question them after years of failed forecasts.
For ten years I’ve written about America’s broken Observation-Orientation-Decision-Action loop. Here we have two tangible examples. This post looks at Abu Muqawama.
The Afghanistan War
Anrew Exum was a paid propagandist at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS). CNAS is one of the leading pro-war think-tanks, started in 2007 with lavish funding (now their roster of corporate donors). In August 2009 he ran a debate about “why we fight” in Afghanistan. The pro-war submissions were bizarrely weak. The anti-war submissions and comments (e.g, Bernard Finel, Col. Gian Gentile) were more strongly reasoned and factually supported. In broader terms, most of the comments were anti-war. Probably not how Exum intended this to run. But at the end he wrote a predictable pro-war screed, with more of our hawks patentable bad advice.
Take a stroll on memory lane, see for yourself the confidence of the hawk’s advice.
- Exum’s Introduction – Including my note.
- The first salvo – Weak start for the hawks
- Bernard Finel fires the second salvo
- Day Three
- Day Four
- Day Five
- Day Six
- Day Seven
- Exum’s concluding thoughts
Not to worry — the war has had a happy ending for our war-mongers. Despite it being an obvious failure in Summer 2009, four years later the war still continues, producing its annual harvest of American and allied and Afghanistan dead (although it’s slowly running down). Rivers of blood, vast sums of money desperately needed at home — all wasted in a mad vain adventure under the advise of highly credentialed, brilliant people. And most of them have profited from the career boost given to them by the war.
Yes, it was obvious in 2009 that the War was futile
“Leaving Afghanistan: Not With a Bang, But a Whimper“, Stephen M. Walt, Foreign Policy, 28 October 2013 — Excerpt:
I don’t know if the United States and NATO could have achieved a meaningful victory in Afghanistan had the Bush administration not embarked on its foolish misadventure in Iraq. But it was clear by 2009 that doubling down in Afghanistan wasn’t going to produce an effective or fully legitimate Afghan government and wasn’t going to produce a strategically more favorable outcome from the perspective of U.S. interests. But President Obama decided to “surge” there anyway, mostly because he wanted to look tough on national security and feared the domestic backlash if he cut our losses and withdrew.
Now, some five years later, NATO and the U.S. are preparing to (mostly) leave.
Wars’ ends, especially failed wars, should bring forth questions. It’s not just good sense, but something we owe to those who personally paid for the war. The must-read on this subject is Wolfgang Schievelbusch’s masterwork: The Culture of Defeat – On National Trauma, Mourning, and Recovery (2003). Here’s my list of questions, with no attempt at comprehensive answers (long books will be written about these matters).
(a) Effect on Afghanistan?
Bad, perhaps terrible. Although we cannot reliably assess this until Afghanistan sorts itself out after we leave. Also, let’s not forget our other war — in Iraq, which ran for a shorter time but appears to have more seriously destabilized them. The fighting continues, racking up body counts far beyond anything Saddam would have done.
It’s not just that both wars failed to produce benefits to American (although many individuals and corporations profited). Look at what we have done to the nations we intended to help. Both once had secular governments. Thanks to our help women in both live under some form of Islamic law, far more restrictive — even punitive — than that of the governments we helped overthrow.
(b) How did this happen?
This cannot just be repeated mistakes. My guess: decades from now historians will look back at us, easily seeing some structural flaw in our society. Our thinking, our organization, perhaps our values. They will wonder why this flaw was not apparent to us.
That question, at least, we can answer. The problem is not apparent to us because we do not look. Blinded by our exceptional awesomeness, we toss mistakes down the memory hole. Forgotten! Now let’s contemplate our wonderfulness, so shiny we need to don sunglasses before looking in the mirror.
(c) Portents for the future?
First, we do not appear to learn from our experiences. Failure to learn does not end well for individuals or nations. To give one of many examples, the people whose advise proved disastrous are still considered experts, not pariahs (paging Prof van Crevald. Please come to the Bridge). Those whose advice was correct but ignored remain obscure. Just like after Vietnam. Painful memories driver reform. This amnesia I see in so many of our public policy debates is a national disability, and perhaps a symptom of a deeper and more serious problem.
Second, and I cannot formulate this coherently, I believe reform must start with a clearer vision of ourselves and the world. Our concerned citizens organize into mutual admiration societies in which internal criticism is verboten. Peak oil, global warming, our holy wars, the evil liberals/conservatives — that’s how much of today’s dialog occurs. In my experience, to little effect. We must learn to work better together.
For More Information
Archives of posts about:
- Abu Muqawama
- our wars in Iraq, Af-Pak & elsewhere
- the Center for a New American Security
- Experts who were right
A few special posts about our long war in Afghanistan, from the mid-war years:
- Why are we are fighting in Afghanistan?, 9 April 2008 — A debate with Joshua Foust.
- The good news about COIN in Afghanistan is really bad news, 20 August 2008
- The Big Lie at work in Afghanistan – an open discussion, 23 June 2009
- Exum & conpany recommending new ways to lose: at the all-star CNAS Conference in June 2009
- The trinity of modern warfare at work in Afghanistan, 13 July 2009
- We are warned about Afghanistan, but choose not to listen (part 2), 19 July 2009
- Foust describes the case for our war in Afghanistan, 28 August 2009
- Another attempt to justify our Af-Pak war, and show the path to victory, 31 August 2009
- The advocates for the Af-pak war demonstrate their bankruptcy. Will the American public notice?, 1 September 2009
- Every day the war’s advocates find new reasons we should fight in Afghanistan!, 7 September 2009
- How many troops would it take to win in Afghanistan?, 15 September 2009 — Lots.
- A new reason to kill thousands of people? Stay tuned for the answer!, 24 September 2009
- We destroy a secular regime in Afghanistan (& its women’s rights), then we wage war on the new regime to restore women’s rights. Welcome to the American Empire., 20 November 2009