The heart-wrenching evacuation we’re witnessing in Kabul is no Dunkirk — a strategic retreat to allow time to regroup and fight another day – but rather our Saigon nightmare replayed: a frantic, chaotic scramble for the exit after yet another war gone wrong.
Already an army of armchair generals is telling us we could have won this latest war if we had just done this or that differently. Maybe, but where were all these experts when we needed them? Aren’t these the same advocates who got us into this “graveyard of empires” in the first place?
Our attention is understandably concentrated now on the gripping struggle to liberate Americans, Afghans who worked for us, their families, and others at risk. But once the last rescue flight takes off, we need to study our failure if we want to avoid repeating it. How did this happen? Again?
The great strategist Carl von Clausewitz taught us that the first principle of war is to determine your purpose. What was ours in Afghanistan? President Joe Biden says it was narrow self-interest: to get Osama Bin Laden, degrade his al-Qaida organization and get the hell out. But if so, why have many other authorities maintained otherwise, and why did we stay another decade after our Seal team killed Bin Laden (in Pakistan!) in a peerless feat of arms?
“Mission creep” is the short if unsatisfying answer. Somewhere along the way we determined that to ensure Afghanistan would not again become a sanctuary from which terrorists could attack us we’d need to leave behind a viable state, one that could and would secure its own borders. And so, we slipped back into the business of nation-building.
In for a dime, in for a dollar. Or several trillion dollars. We devoted a great deal of blood and treasure to this pursuit, which morphed into a two-decade campaign to create a democracy based on Western values developed over centuries. Afghans came to believe that was the deal: They’d help us defeat the Taliban, who’d harbored Bin Laden, and we’d help them build a society where girls could go to school, elections were fair, the press free and the government competent, not corrupt.
Our intentions were good, and hundreds of thousands of Americans – soldiers, diplomats, aid workers – worked honorably in this cause, often in harm’s way. Even as we salute all who served, military and civilian, we must admit that the effort failed and question whether our nation was right to send them on what proved to be a mission impossible.
Biden contends that we succeeded because we killed Bin Laden, but that ignores the reality that the goal became more than that. We committed to leaving behind a secure, stable country, but that’s not happening. Al-Qaida remains a threat to us, as do spinoff terrorist organizations. Afghans have seen their hopes for a better life dashed. Allies increasingly distrust American resolve, judgment, and competence. It may not be an exact replica of our Vietnam fiasco, but it’s way too close for comfort.
It’s not clear, even now, that there’s any national consensus about the Vietnam War. Will we learn something this time? The early signs are not encouraging. We have an abundance of finger pointing, Monday morning quarterbacking, and rank partisanship, but no agreement – little discussion even — on how to avoid such debacles in the future.
We might try returning to basics. War should be a last resort, not our default action. Our Founding Fathers gave Congress the exclusive right to declare war, believing that the power would rarely be used. We have not declared war since Japan attacked us at Pearl Harbor 80 years ago, and we have not clearly won a war since Japan surrendered aboard the battleship Missouri in August of 1945.
Our many misadventures since World War II should convince us that military force is a blunt instrument that often cannot solve — may even worsen — political conflicts. Other tools of statecraft – economic incentives, foreign aid, diplomacy, public diplomacy, covert operations, alliances – are available and will often be more effective in solving or containing such disputes.
In an earlier era, Gen. Colin Powell warned of what he called the Pottery Barn Rule: If you break it, you own it. The nightmare in Afghanistan proves the equation. Once we intervened in force, we owned the problem of Afghan security. It fell to us to try to build a viable state. The job was beyond us.
Before we launch another foreign war, we should ask what comes after the fighting stops. If we don’t have a good answer, if we don’t want to take on the challenge of building or rebuilding states, then we should seek solutions other than war. We can protect our interests by using instruments other than military force. Or we can keep doing the same old, same old, but expect different results. That latter choice, as the saying goes, is the definition of insanity.
Dick Virden retired from the State Department Senior Foreign Service in 2004. He studied and taught national security strategy at the National War College.
WANT TO ADD YOUR VOICE?
If you’re interested in joining the discussion, add your voice to the Comment section below — or consider writing a letter or a longer-form Community Voices commentary. (For more information about Community Voices, see our Submission Guidelines.)