What America Needs to Learn from the Afghanistan Papers

Amitai Etzioni

Arguably the most shocking takeaway from the Afghanistan Papers, which were recently published by The Washington Post, cannot be found in the volumes written in 2014—because it concerns events that occurred after the papers were written. Namely, that despite the very strong, well-documented, detailed account—by the military—that the U.S. intervention in Afghanistan was failing, no basic change in strategy followed. In the years following 2014, there were some changes in troop levels. Still, the United States continued to claim it could win the war against the Taliban or at least force the terror group to come to the negotiating table under favorable terms; for example, if the military continued the same failing raids, the same failing effort to build up the Afghan military so it could take over, and the same failing nation-building, then such negotiations could begin.

America needs a new study on how it can disengage from bad national security investments. It seems that whenever the United States becomes involved in a military operation, it defines operational success in terms of win or lose. Hence, when the U.S. military is unable to defeat a foe, then it is left only with the option of declaring defeat, disclosing all the casualties it endured and caused, and the billions invested, were wasted. Because this is politically damaging to the United States, administration after administration has chosen to kick the can of defeat down the road while continuing to cover up failure with declarations of success.

This is a prime example of a rare success story: In 1991, the United States pushed the Iraqi forces out of Kuwait, an intervention that served as a major contribution to international order, enforcing the Westphalian norm that no nation should use its armed forces to intervene in another nation. The United States resisted the temptation to march into Baghdad and to engage in regime change. How was this achieved and how can the United States replicate these conditions in the future if it must fight again?

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