The profound lessons of Afghanistan

The profound lessons of Afghanistan

The profound lessons of Afghanistan
U.S. soldiers fire a howitzer artillery piece at Seprwan Ghar forward fire base in Panjwai district, Kandahar province, Afghanistan, June 12, 2011. (Reuters)
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In 2006, I wrote a book that changed my life. In “Ethical Realism,” Anatol Lieven and I — both card-carrying members of the Washington foreign policy establishment — bit the hand that fed us. Controversially castigating an out-of-touch elite, where both the left (liberal interventionists) and the right (neo-conservatives) were addicted to the same ruinous nation-building doctrine, we foresaw calamity in both Afghanistan and Iraq.
We began the book with Rudyard Kipling’s great poem “Recessional,” gloomily focused on the unalterable fact that human history sweeps away the mightiest of empires, if they fail to face the world with humility and an understanding of limits. As the poet laureate put it: “Far-called our navies melt away/On dune and headland sinks the fire/Lo, all our pomp of yesterday/Is one with Nineveh and Tyre/Judge of Nations, spare us yet/Lest we forget-lest we forget!”
Of course, the American empire did forget, and all that we predicted has come to pass. Yet, amid the heartrending chaos of the past few days, I cannot feel any vindication in being analytically right — only sick to my stomach at the chaos and suffering I see coming out of Kabul. After an estimated $2.5 trillion, 2,500 American deaths (and many more Afghans), and two decades of nation-building folly, the disaster we saw so clearly 15 years ago has come to pass. What can be learned by this strategic calamity? Indeed, given the profound suffering involved, what must be learned?
First, Afghanistan is not a discrete historical event. It must be viewed through the wider lens of looking at US nation-building failures in Somalia, Haiti, Iraq, Libya and Kabul. In Somalia, the US cut and ran after taking only the most minor of casualties, given the lack of strategic importance of the country for Washington. Of course, this begs the question of why there was an intervention in the first place. The US did absolutely nothing to prevent Mogadishu’s slide into chaos, civil war and becoming a breeding ground for terror.
After intervening in Haiti a dozen times over the past century, it remains a voodoo-riven, kleptocratic basket case, with US efforts not helping it one jot. As Barack Obama has honestly put it, the Libyan intervention was the worst mistake he ever made, making a failed state of Tripoli, one replete with civil war, Daesh regrouping in the south of the country, and a brewing refugee crisis on Europe’s doorstep. And does anyone need to say any more about Iraq? No, Afghanistan is only the cherry on the sundae of a calamitous US belief that nation-building — socially re-engineering foreign cultures — would prove easy and doable. Given the horrendous historical record, the philosophical arrogance is breathtaking.
Second, even if nation-building could be managed, one cannot remake societies of which one knows almost nothing. One of the great thrills of my life was being asked to write the forward to T. E. Lawrence’s magisterial “27 Articles,” with the highlight of the book being the notion that the best way for Western powers to work with other peoples is “the unremitting study of them.” To put it mildly, local knowledge of both Afghanistan and Iraq was not remotely valued in US efforts to remake both societies. This wilful cultural ignorance is perhaps the major reason for US failure.
There is no “nation” in Afghanistan to build; rather, Afghanistan is largely a geographical expression, an area where Pashtun, Tajik, Uzbek and Hazara tribal loyalties count for far more. This has been the case back through the time of Kipling and the British empire to that of Alexander the Great. A more confederal governmental approach, as Lawrence of Arabia would have appreciated, would have fit these specific facts on the ground. But, instead, the US went along its arrogant, ignorant way, installing a centralized system that did not fit these specific Afghan political realities. Is it any wonder such an artificial construct fell apart so quickly once US military power was removed? Certainly, some knowledge of the country’s specific history and culture was called for.

Afghanistan must be viewed through the wider lens of looking at US nation-building failures in Somalia, Haiti, Iraq and Libya.

John C. Hulsman

Finally, there has been at work a wrong-headed failure to accept reality, what I refer to in my latest book, “To Dare More Boldly,” as the losing gambler’s syndrome. Dad goes to Las Vegas and loses the kid’s college fund playing roulette. Rather than confess the disaster to Mom, he keeps on playing and, of course, keeps on losing. The reason for all this failure — the horrible odds — is never addressed. The losing gambler’s syndrome, a great analytical trap, kept the US in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan far longer than it should ever have stayed, as these limited calamities morphed into “forever wars.”
As both the sacrifices and the failures mounted, paradoxically it became ever harder to leave. The wars became less about winning than making good on already terrible human, financial and strategic losses. And the US stayed on, and on, and on, with no prospect of victory in sight.
It is now time for a house-cleaning of much of the US foreign policy elite; given its doleful record, it must be held accountable for two decades of calamitous failure. If we are to truly honor the dead, the profound lessons of Afghanistan must be learned, and learned now.

  • John C. Hulsman is the president and managing partner of John C. Hulsman Enterprises, a prominent global political risk consulting firm. He is also a senior columnist for City AM, the newspaper of the City of London. He can be contacted via
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