Lost wars are supposed to provoke soul-searching. In America, they usually bring historical revisionism instead. When once-good wars go bad, Americans tend to conclude that there was never anything redeeming about them in the first place.
This impulse is already coloring the debate over Afghanistan. It won’t help the U.S. recover or learn from defeat.
Much of the flourishing “who lost Afghanistan?” debate features self-exculpation. Trump-era officials such as former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo blame President Joe Biden’s withdrawal for the collapse, eliding their own role in negotiating a weak peace deal with the Taliban. Biden has blamed the Afghan military for folding, not mentioning that a rapid U.S. pullout weakened and demoralized that force.
Yet arguments about Afghanistan also touch on a deeper American tradition. When the U.S. loses a war — or wins one only to lose the subsequent peace — the result is often a consensus that the war in question was corrupt and hopeless from the start.
In 1917, Woodrow Wilson led America into World War I in hopes of building a just, lasting peace. After he and his successors failed to do so, revisionist scholars and even public officials rewrote history, arguing that a dark coalition of financiers and arms manufacturers had duped America into joining a pointless struggle between self-interested European empires. By 1937, 70% of Americans thought that entering the conflict had been a mistake.
After the Vietnam War turned into a costly quagmire, the conventional wisdom became that there never really had been a communist threat to Southeast Asia. When America’s conflict in Iraq went awry, blame fell on a supposed cabal of neoconservatives intent on spreading democracy throughout the Middle East at the point of a gun.
Similar themes are prevalent today. Since 2019, the Washington Post has run articles arguing that the war in Afghanistan was a quixotic, failing exercise in nation-building, sustained only by a bipartisan pattern of lies. Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren has dusted off the post-World War I merchants-of-death thesis, alleging that supporters of the Afghan war were “bought and paid for by the defense industry.” Other critics contend that a corrupt foreign policy elite — “the blob” — shamelessly perpetuated a bloody failure.
There is indeed much to critique in how America has entered, fought and exited nearly all of its conflicts. Yet most of these arguments don’t stand up to serious scrutiny.
The U.S. entered World War I not to serve the interests of arms manufacturers and bankers, but because it was outraged at German attacks on neutral shipping and rightly feared German dominance of Europe. There was a serious communist threat to much of Southeast Asia in the early 1960s, even if the consequences of U.S. intervention were catastrophic. The Iraq War was a tragic but understandable response to post-9/11 fears of terrorism and weapons of mass destruction — threats that came together, or so the intelligence said, in Saddam Hussein’s regime.
In the same vein, the Afghanistan war was not simply two decades of falsehood and folly. The U.S. fought to destroy a terrorist organization that had inflicted devastating injury and then to prevent the regime that had sheltered that organization from returning to power. It sought to build a functioning Afghan state because there was no other way to sustainably accomplish these other goals.
There was no conspiracy of lies about American prospects in Afghanistan. Officials from both parties acknowledged that the war was not going well, even as they declined, until recently, to withdraw because they feared the consequences that are unfolding today.
This isn’t just historical nitpicking. Disillusion after World War I led to American paralysis in the prelude to World War II. The notion, as President Barack Obama put it, that Iraq was a “dumb war” cooked up by ideologues contributed to a premature withdrawal that squandered what stability had been achieved.
Being honest about one’s errors is essential to good strategy. But when Americans conclude that the last war was an exercise in dishonesty or futility, that belief typically deforms their next set of strategic decisions.
It also makes it harder to learn from failure. Twenty years of combat can yield a lot of sad wisdom — about the difficulty of remaking foreign societies, of course, but also about America’s ability, amply demonstrated in recent years, to keep severe pressure on terrorist organizations through relatively modest expenditures of lives and treasure.
There is a good debate to be had about the benefits of long-duration but relatively light-footprint interventions of the sort Washington had in Afghanistan after 2014. But if the debate begins with the premise that the war was simply a cynical misadventure, the blunt conclusion to be drawn is less useful: Don’t do that again.
Reasonable analysts can disagree about whether America should have withdrawn from Afghanistan. The price of the mission was undoubtedly far too high. What will make it even more costly is if the last casualty of a lost war turns out to be America’s ability to learn anything useful from its experience.
Hal Brands is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist, the Henry Kissinger Distinguished Professor at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies and a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. Most recently, he is the co-author of “The Lessons of Tragedy: Statecraft and World Order.”
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