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The forgotten war and its deadly costs

By Brendon O'Connor - posted Friday, 1 May 2020

The world is understandably currently convulsed by the death toll caused by COVID-19. One of the most disturbing and journalistically compelling elements of the coronavirus outbreak has been the sense that Donald Trump reacted too slowly and erratically and as a result many lives have been lost. When unnecessary deaths occur, this is rightly a big and important story in the media.

As I write around 212,000 people have died from COVID-19. This is a shocking number and it will unfortunately go up. This current crisis is worth comparing with the number of people that died largely unnecessarily in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq this century. The death toll in Afghanistan since 2001 from war has been around 150,000 people and nearly 300,000 people have died in Iraq since 2003. Too little has been learned from these tragedies particularly from America's longest ever official war in Afghanistan.

In late 2019 the Washington Post published a jaw dropping classified report on the US government's missteps in Afghanistan that needs to be more widely discussed. The report gained via the Freedom of Information Act included a series of interviews of the key military and civilian actors in Afghanistan. These interviews which explored what had gone wrong were conducted by the office of Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction. The report was quickly dubbed the Afghanistan Papers, a very deliberate reference to the highly influential and widely read Pentagon Papers.


In 1971 when the Pentagon Papers were first published in the New York Times they sent a shock wave across American society because they showed that the public had been repeatedly lied to about American progress in the Vietnam War. The Watergate burglars even went as far as breaking into the psychiatrist's offices of the chief leaker of the Pentagon Papers, Daniel Ellsberg, to try to find his mental health records to release them to the media to discredit him. When the Afghanistan Papers were published last year the response from the Trump Administration and the American public was a whimper in comparison to the outrage and embarrassment that the Pentagon Papers caused.

In both the Pentagon and Afghanistan Papers it was revealed that the public had been repeatedly misled about the supposed successes in wars that were in fact extremely costly and, in many ways, counterproductive. These leaked official reports both documented overwhelmingly, through the words of those carrying out American foreign policy, that military solutions in Vietnam and Afghanistan were abject failures. The Pentagon Papers were crucial source materials that helped sustain the anti-Vietnam War movements domestically and internationally. The Afghanistan Papers similarly provided ample evidence to be outraged at the overconfidence of the US Defense Department's and in turn American presidents' ability to solve complex issues via military solutions. President Trump and his administration seem to have learnt too little from this report or the many other weighty reports on US military interventions in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya written over the last two decades as Trump still treats the US military as his most revered problem-solving tool and has been easily persuaded to spend heavily on new military hardware including new "tactical" nuclear weapons. Trump claimed in his 2020 State of the Union address that: "To safeguard American liberty, we have invested a record-breaking $2.2 trillion in the United States military. We have purchased the finest planes, missiles, rockets, ships and every other form of military equipment". Trump's emphasis on militarism rather than human security is nothing new but in the wake of Bush Jnr's and Obama's failures in Iraq and Afghanistan the continued emphasis on military spending and sabre-rattling instead of diplomacy and soft power has been tragic.

What are the lessons to be learnt from the war in Afghanistan? The most important is that changing other societies by invading them is near impossible unless you are willing to kill enormous numbers of their troops and civilians. Anyone who holds World War Two up as a success story of regime change has to acknowledge that 50 million people were killed in the process of bringing Germany, Italy and Japan to embrace defeat.

In Afghanistan, America was overconfident that it could defy the historical record that Afghanistan was the "graveyard of Empires". Expressing an all too common American exceptionalist outlook in 2009, US General David McKiernan, the then chief US commander in Afghanistan, declared that the failed history of the British and of the Soviet Union in Afghanistan should not be seen as a predictor of America's future in the country. "There's always an inclination to relate what we're doing now with previous nations," he said in a press conference, and then added, "I think that's a very unhealthy comparison". Similarly, Donald Rumsfeld mocked comparisons between the "quagmire" the American military found itself caught up in, in Vietnam, and the situation in Afghanistan. In both cases the critics have been proven right over time: Afghanistan too was a quagmire that proved how hoary claims of American exceptionalism are when it comes to transforming other societies via the barrel of a gun.

The lessons from Afghanistan need to be digested in the months and years ahead because the response to COVID-19 in America could lead to increasing nationalism and militarism. Hopefully this is not the case and this crisis leads to a renewed regard for scientific experts, an emphasis on human security and a new era of multilateral political cooperation. However, unfortunately in a world of tightly controlled borders and suspicion of foreigners as disease carriers, there will be many American politicians that continue to use xenophobia and fear to gain votes. The New York Times reported this weekend that members of the Trump administration were deliberately using the term "Wuhan virus" to stoke anti-Chinese sentiment within the US. Such hawks are likely to see America's military superiority as America's greatest strength in a more uncertain world. Given this, the US military's failure in Afghanistan and the re-emergence of the Taliban as a governing force needs to be as widely discussed as the US failure in Vietnam was.

The wars in both Afghanistan and Iraq showed that you do not change societies or get the types of foreign governments you want just because you have a far stronger military than anyone else. These interventions led to the terrible misallocation of money, resources and attention that should have been used to address economic disadvantage and threats to human security. We are all now paying the price for these disastrous decisions.

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About the Author

Brendon O'Connor is an Associate Professor in the US Studies Centre at the University of Sydney and is the 2008 Australia Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington DC. He is the editor of seven books on anti-Americanism and has also published articles and books on American welfare policy, presidential politics, US foreign policy, and Australian-American relations.

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