February 27, 2009

Afghanistan: If we’re going to repeat history anyway, why bother learning it?

By: David Donadio

In the words of one of my colleagues, Henry Kissinger’s proposed strategy for Afghanistan is “clever but wrong.”

One can disagree with Kissinger’s analysis while still acknowledging his most important assertion: “No foreign conqueror has ever succeeded in occupying Afghanistan. Even attempts to establish centralized Afghan control have rarely succeeded and then not for long.”

As Kissinger himself puts it, “the fundamental issue is not so much how the war will be conducted but how it will be ended.” My colleague Gilles Dorronsoro offers a measured and realistic strategy in this U.S. News piece, arguing that U.S. planners are confusing the military map in Afghanistan with the more important political one.

As we prepare to reinforce the ring road to Herat, and send additional troops into Helmand and Kandahar — provinces we might clear but could never hold — the sad irony is that we’ve seen it all before. The Soviets were defeated in Afghanistan within our lifetimes. It’s not as though we need to dust off a forgotten history to see where their strategies failed them. We can ask the practitioners. But maybe Santayana had it backwards: as long as we’re going to repeat history, why bother learning it?