Just over two months before the military mission in Kabul – along with broader American delusions – collapsed, the Center for International Policy released a report on America’s failed and futile Afghanistan adventure. It was a war that took four lives and five limbs from soldiers I commanded. Two bled to death, one died at a base hospital, another – shot through the jaw – later overdosed, and one more lives as a triple amputee. The oldest was 28 – on his third tour – the youngest couldn’t legally buy a beer when we deployed; not one earned more than $40,000 a year for his trouble. All bravely spun their wheels on a mission that couldn’t be accomplished, in a war that shouldn’t have continued.
The report’s title told the tale and pronounced its purpose: "Ever Shifting Goal Posts: Lessons from 20 Years of Security Assistance in Afghanistan." Reading that, I nearly puked before even retrieving its pages from the printer. Maybe a better soldier wouldn’t wonder what it was all for, why Americans were asked to hopelessly kill and die for two decades – and whether anyone would read its retrospective.
The report didn’t just poke holes in a failed mission, but emphasized the importance of remembering and learning from failure in order to evade future fiascoes.
A few pages in – and more so now, in the wake of the Taliban takeover – I had this nightmare thought: what if ending America’s longest war ends up an anomaly, and Afghan-like wars churn on – if more abstractly – from Africa’s Sahel to its Horn, from Syria to Iraq? And those are only the high-end highlights. The madness meanders from Mali to Mozambique, and boomerangs back as militarized police (disproportionately veterans) make hyper-surveilled war zones of America’s streets, whereby Baltimore becomes Baghdad, and Kansas City smacks of Kandahar – at least to an alum of both.
The uncomfortable and oft-unspoken truth is that even if every trooper marches out of Afghanistan, America’s military still bombs 5-10 countries, fights in 10-12, "advises and assists" combatant forces in about 20, and has bases in some 80 nations. And those are low estimates. Moreover, the military-industrial complex is still wildly powerful, raking in record yields bought with American blood. After all, the Afghanistan Study Group, charged by Congress to advise on war strategy, was plain packed with past and present employees of war-profiteering outfits. Not surprisingly, they recommended Washington continue the war.
To his credit, President Biden seems to have avoided their trap, at least in Afghanistan – and, perhaps predictably, has consequently been lambasted by the political and punditry establishment. Still, even after the last (uniformed) U.S. service member stepped onto a cargo plane at Kabul’s Airport, the system that schemes, sells, and profits from these wars, and then appoints their arsonist architects to advise commanders-in-chief, well – that remains firmly in place. It’s an entrenched power structure designed for war, that breeds inertia, and will make it difficult to end our other muddled military missions.
After the Vietnam War – which nearly broke the US military – both Pentagon and political policymakers deliberately decided to forget that tragedy. The generals preferred to focus almost exclusively on the type of wars they knew – conventional conflicts with Soviet and Chinese forces – just as the 2018 National Defense Strategy shifted priorities from counter-terrorism to “Great Power Competition.” Even so, instead of rethinking it’s militarized posture, Washington remained the garrison capital of a garrison state – on hair-trigger alert for unwinnable potentially nuclear wars.
While it waged no campaigns of Vietnam-level ambition until Afghanistan, the military never quit fighting – only scale and methods (temporarily) changed. In the 15 years after Saigon’s fall, America bombed or fought in: Cambodia, Iran, El Salvador, Libya, Lebanon, Grenada, Panama, and Iraq. So too today – after Afghanistan, US troops will remain in harm’s way from West Africa to Central Asia.
Ultimately, the choice between conventional or counterinsurgency wars is a false one. The real takeaway from both Vietnam and Afghanistan, is that invasions and occupations rarely work, aren’t ethical, and shouldn’t be attempted in the first place.
When it comes to ending America’s sundry wars, don’t expect salvation to flow from the top. Bureaucracies like the Pentagon – and its political and war industry-backers – are as slow to turn as hulking ocean liners. U-turns seem so difficult that the "company men” helming these institutions rarely even try. The war-policymaking machine evokes the Titanic – Washington’s well-dressed elites and crisply uniformed generals reveling straight into the next intervention iceberg.
That said, the next war is not (or at least should not be) inevitable. Still, only a collective commitment to learn, and a refusal to forget America’s Afghanistans, can escape the fate of future folly.
Danny Sjursen is a retired U.S. Army officer, the director of the Eisenhower Media Network (EMN), a senior fellow at the Center for International Policy (CIP), contributing editor at Antiwar.com, and co-hosts the podcast “Fortress on a Hill.” His work has appeared in the NY Times, LA Times, The Nation, The Hill, Salon, The American Conservative, and Mother Jones, among other publications. He served combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan and taught history at West Point. He is the author of three books, Ghostriders of Baghdad: Soldiers, Civilians, and the Myth of the Surge, Patriotic Dissent: America in the Age of Endless War, and most recently A True History of the United States. Follow him on Twitter @SkepticalVet.
Copyright 2021 Danny Sjursen