Jefferson Morley | February 11, 2019
Autopsy of America’s Undeniable Failure in Afghanistan
In War on the Rocks, Jason Dempsey, an Afghan war veteran and adjunct senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, dissects how the United States lost the war that is has supposedly been winning for the last 17 years.
We blamed the Afghans.
These failures of the Afghan security forces have been attributed to the Afghans, and not those tasked with training the force. As Gen. John Campbell, the commander in Afghanistan prior to Nicholson, remarked to Afghan leadership as he was departing Afghanistan in early 2016, “You’ve got to want it more than we do.” Never considered, however, was that maybe the Afghans want peace as much, or even more, than visiting Americans, but that our chosen path to achieving peace is incompatible with Afghan culture and unachievable given internal political divisions and the state of the Afghan government.
We ignored local realities.
Imagine for a moment that the senior leadership of the Marriott Hotel chain took a team-building jaunt to remote, western Mongolia. And, having experienced the majesty of the steppes, the yurts, and the nomadic lifestyle, they decided at the end of their trip that the Mongolian countryside could really use a modern Marriott hotel. Of course, few of the roads in Mongolia are paved, it lacks modern infrastructure across most of the country, and there is no culture or economy that would support modern hotels, but Marriot works for us, so they should love it, too!
We drank the Kool Aid of American exceptionalism.
Belief in the superiority and transferability of American cultural and political norms is nothing new. Published in 1958, The Ugly American still resonates for its portrayal of the insensitivity of American diplomats abroad to local cultures. Not much changed between 1958 and 2001 when, as the United States was working through options to destroy al-Qaeda, Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage declared to the head of the Pakistani intelligence services that “History starts today.” Armitage was wrong.
Will we learn the lessons?
Yet if we are going to learn anything from America’s longest war it must begin with at least some introspection and accountability. The first step in doing so is realizing that even our most revered national institution, the military, does indeed have its limits. Furthermore, we must acknowledge that public engagement and political oversight is not only an essential element of a well-functioning democracy but a requirement for effective foreign policy.