A Spectacular Failure of Imagination

What is the human and financial cost? What are the benefits? How and when does it end? The original sin of the Afghan war — one that would never be expiated — was the failure of American political institutions to meet these most basic standards of scrutiny.” Fintan O’Toole, New York Review

The lack of interest in The Afghanistan Papers: A Secret History of the War, a recent book by journalist Craig Whitlock, on the part of the corporate media leads me to conclude that American policy makers and politicians are determined to learn nothing from our disastrous two decade long undeclared war in Afghanistan. We will not attempt to learn any lessons from the debacle, nor will anyone be held accountable for lying to the public and Congress.

We waged war on a country that had not attacked us and was not directly involved in the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The lives lost on both sides, and the enormous sums of money wasted, will not be held up to scrutiny. We will blame the Afghans for the collapse of the country. “A well-functioning republic makes decisions — especially those as serious as starting a war — by an open process of rational deliberation.” So wrote Fintan O’Toole in a recent article in the New York Review. As I recall, the extent of the deliberation was George W. Bush’s assertion, delivered with the steely conviction of a Wild West gunslinger, that the world either stood with the United States or against it. I thought this was dumb then, and my mind hasn’t changed. I was too young to face the draft for the Vietnam War, but I remember the anti-war sentiment and the decision by some young men to flee the country; I remember watching the nightly news, just as I remember when the Pentagon Papers were published, which, like the Afghanistan Papers, was a detailed history of official lies about the progress of the war.

Whenever I hear politicians like Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia wail and whine about budget deficits and the danger of creating an entitlement society, my blood boils because never did Manchin or many, if any, of his colleagues hesitate to vote year after year to fund our misbegotten war in Afghanistan. They ponied up the people’s money without a peep for twenty years.

In the geopolitical scheme of things, China will emerge as the winner in Afghanistan without firing a single rocket or expending a single yuan. You’d think such a colossal failure of policy, one followed by three presidents, would justify some accountability, a reckoning for the Pentagon and the State Department and the CIA. But that’s not how we roll in America. We always claim victory and never acknowledge defeat, even as we stand among the smoking ruins of an overrun battleground. Hubris and stupidity walk hand in hand across the graveyard where all the headstones lean forward or back or to one side.

On two occasions eleven years apart, the US declared an end to combat operations in Afghanistan. The first declaration was premature, the second was long overdue. The public paid almost no attention to either of these milestones. “It is an iron law,” to quote O’Toole again, “that what cannot be concluded will be abandoned.” When it comes to Afghanistan, America’s process of thought and debate was degraded and corrupted. We couldn’t win but nor could we leave.

The ranks of the American military establishment and the government are filled with intelligent people, some educated at our finest institutions of higher learning, Harvard, Yale, West Point, the Naval Academy, and yet these same people are often the principal architects of disaster. The thinking that failed so spectacularly in Afghanistan is the same thinking that has made America so dangerously unequal that it threatens the remnants of our democratic republic.