Afghanistan and the lessons that history does not offer
Kabul is Saigon 1975. No, the Taliban are like the Khmer Rouge and we are in Phnom Penh (still 1975). No, it’s Iran 1979 all over again. Biden is the new Jimmy Carter. No, he is the new Lyndon Johnson or the new Richard Nixon or the new Gerald Ford. Afghanistan is the “graveyard of empires”: 2021 is the new 1989 (when the Soviets withdrew from the country) which itself was just the new 1919 (when the British did) if not 1842.
In today’s commentaries on this last U.S. and NATO debacle in Afghanistan, historical comparisons abound. Looking for analogies means looking for the alleged, unequivocal lessons history can provide, the predictions its crystal ball can dispense and the ensuing prescriptions it offers to policymakers.
Thinking historically means “thinking in time,” historian Ernest May and political scientist Richard Neustadt wrote in an important book 35 years ago. Or — to use an often-abused Churchillian mantra — “those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” Hence the natural inclination to think analogically, to look for repetitions, cycles, precedents. Hence, therefore, the propensity to adopt a functional and instrumental attitude towards the study of the past: to look for a history à-la-carte capable of offering a practical toolbox, where we can instantly find the appropriate analogy needed to decrypt the often unintelligible present and avoid repeating the same mistakes in the future.
In part, this is inevitable: the experience of the past offers indeed one of the few compasses we have to inform our analyses and choices. In part, it’s a normal feature of the daily theater in which politicians, journalists and pundits often indulge, history and its supposedly unequivocal lessons granting the ultimate validation to a given stance or interpretation. In part, finally, it’s we historians who often beat the drums of an allegedly applicable history, perhaps in the attempt to pitch its importance to university administrators intent on cutting funds to our departments, parents increasingly reluctant to see their kids studying “useless” stuff in college, and publishers always on the hunt for the winning instant book. If we produce applied knowledge, the argument goes, we must be important — as important as economists or political scientists, to mention some of our disciplinary mates and competitors.
And yet, as the cacophony of different, and at times antithetical, historical analogies currently invoked over Afghanistan clearly proves, thinking analogically can be highly problematic and even dangerous.
It can produce a very a-historical view of the past. Diachronic comparisons are intrinsically tricky, as it is a cyclical view of the historical process. The time in between the events we compare — indeed the very history — tends to disappear. Every dictator, from Milosevic to Saddam Hussein to Gadhafi, can then become the new Hitler, to mention the quintessential analogy that dominated post-World War II U.S. foreign policy discourse, that of appeasement and the 1938 Munich conference (the lesson of history, here, being that you don’t negotiate with dictators, because they are by definition unappeasable).
And if history moves by cycles, then it doesn’t move at all — just as in a Monopoly game, we are periodically sent back to the start.
Appealing as it is, the idea that by means of comparisons and cyclicity we can identify useful and applicable antecedents goes against the very nature of the study of history — which is not to simplify the past or “essentialize” its agents. Nor is it to pick and choose those past events we deem valuable today (and that often become worthless tomorrow). It is, instead, to recognize the inner opaqueness, and at times even messiness, of the historical process for how it unfolds over time; to study the process of change — at the same time non-linear and non-cyclical — that has led to the present; to understand how this change has shaped and shapes the context(s) in which we now are, and how they affect the behavior (and the options) of the actors that operate within such context(s).
Studying history is, in the end, a call for humility, empathy and understanding.
Humility because history teaches us the immense complexity of the past and the inevitable partiality of any explanation of it. Empathy, because awareness of this complexity helps us, at least in part, to get a better understanding of the reasons even of those actors we disagree with or find most obnoxious. Understanding, because through the study of history, by learning that there are no easy explanations for the past, we recognize that there are no simple and clear-cut political solutions for the present.
Studying history is in many ways an antidote to the many fallacies — epistemological and political — of the applied-history model. Even more, it’s an antidote to the monumental hubris that two decades ago led some politicians and pundits to invoke the allegedly applicable and reproducible lessons of Japan and Germany 1945 in order to justify their policies in 21st Century Afghanistan and Iraq.
Mario Del Pero is professor of international history and history of U.S. foreign relations at SciencesPo-Paris