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Afghanistan: Can we build bipartisan agreement out of bipartisan failure?

A military helicopter files over Kabul
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The endgame of this phase of Afghanistan’s internal conflict should not come as a surprise to anyone, although many current and former officials and military leaders are expressing astonishment. The Taliban offensive was predictable, as was the ineffectiveness of the Afghan military, which has islands of good leaders in a sea of corruption. 

What was also predictable, although nonetheless heart wrenching, are the scenes of panicked Afghan civilians fleeing cities — including Kabul — now under Taliban control and the reports of many of the country’s best and brightest seeking to leave Afghanistan altogether.

Americans have seen this movie before, as those of us drafted during the Vietnam War remember all too well. Although America’s wars in Vietnam and Afghanistan started for very different reasons, their conduct and outcomes are similar. In both cases, the U.S. engaged in combat with an elusive enemy in a country about which it knew little or nothing. The enemy in both Vietnam and Afghanistan had some popular support, had already successfully fended off a significant outside power, and had sanctuaries near or across foreign borders. In both countries, the U.S. tried to combine combat and nation building, which did not work in either case. As in Vietnam, the U.S.-backed government in Kabul was corrupt and ineffective in countering the enemy politically, particularly in the provinces away from the capital.

The death toll in Vietnam was greater, but America made a greater time commitment to Afghanistan than it did Vietnam. Yet after 20 years and some $2 trillion, the results are the same.

The U.S. military has evacuated the U.S. embassy in the country’s capital. This has produced some predictable finger pointing about who is to blame for this most recent failure.

The chutzpah award for finger pointing has to go to those architects of the Iraq invasion, which put Afghanistan on America’s back burner for many years, who assert what is happening in Afghanistan will strengthen global terrorism, a thought that did not seem to occur to them in 2003. But not far behind are those former officials and commentators who essentially urge what would essentially be an encore invasion of Afghanistan without explaining how doing more of the same will produce a different result at some point in the future.

There is nothing to be gained from finger pointing.

Afghanistan is clearly a bipartisan failure. Presidents of both parties made mistakes there, and majorities from both parties in Congress either supported those mistakes or enabled them.

Instead of pointing fingers, Washington needs to take steps to ensure the lessons of Afghanistan (and Vietnam) are learned and mistakes made there not repeated in the future.

Since Afghanistan, like Vietnam, was a bipartisan failure, there must be bipartisan action to prevent future failed American combat ventures. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s bipartisan Aug. 4 vote to repeal the decades-old authorization for the Iraq war represents a small step down this road. A more meaningful step would be for the president and Congressional leadership to agree on a bipartisan commission of non-governmental experts with political, regional, military, and development experience to examine America’s role, policies and actions (military, political and developmental) in Afghanistan since 2001. The purpose would be to draw lessons about what worked and what did not and to develop principles that would guide the Congress and the executive branch in deciding whether America should commit to combat and nation building in the future.

The Spanish philosopher George Santayana said, “those who do not remember the past are doomed to repeat it.” Clearly American policy makers and military leaders did not remember the experience of Vietnam as they planned and conducted U.S. engagement in Afghanistan; as a result, the experience was repeated in the only way it really matters — America did not win and neither did the Afghan people.

We owe it to future generations of American soldiers and taxpayers to study our experience in Afghanistan and identify lessons and principles that will help future policymakers and military leaders recall the past and learn from it, rather than being doomed to fail once again. The president and the Congress must act together in a bipartisan way to start this learning process — and soon.

Kenneth C. Brill is a retired career Foreign Service Officer who served as an ambassador in the Clinton and Bush Administrations and was the founding Director of the U.S. National Counterproliferation Center within the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.

Tags Afghanistan Afghanistan withdrawal Aftermath of the Vietnam War Evacuation of Saigon Kabul lessons learned Presidency of George W. Bush Taliban offensive United States invasion of Afghanistan War in Afghanistan

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