Ho Chi Minh and General Giap pose with American OSS personnel when they were allied during World War II.
Ho Chi Minh and General Giap pose with American OSS personnel when they were allied during World War II.

CARMEL – In re-reading Winston Churchill’s 1897 book, “The History of the Malakand Field Force,” it became abundantly clear that the realities of life and war in eastern Afghanistan have changed little over the last 120 years. The enemy that Winston Churchill faced in his first action as a British soldier defending the realm has seen their great-great grandchildren squaring off against our American sons for the past 20 years to much the same result.

As Santayana so famously stated, “Those who fail to remember the past are doomed to repeat it,” was never truer than in Afghanistan. The British, Soviets and the United States have all been dragged into the quagmire of Afghanistan for various motivations, but ultimately each suffered the same ignoble result, a final struggle between escaping with your pride and merely escaping. Each lost men and vast treasures in trying to control the uncontrollable.

It would have been bad enough if our leaders had forgotten the lessons we should have learned from the British and Soviet experience in Afghanistan, but there were over 56,000 other reasons why we should have given pause to thoughts of a long-term commitment to the conflict, and that was the tragic loss of life we suffered in our previous aborted attempt at interventionism, Vietnam. Although the details may differ, there is much similarity to the two shameful disasters.  

The one glaring mistake that the United States seems to continually make is assuming that the rest of the world is either like us or wants to be like us. The stark, ugly fact is that much of the world shares neither our values nor our lust for economic freedom and materialism. When your life consists of an everyday struggle to merely survive, you simply don’t have the time, energy or inclination to worry about such western issues such as gender equality, LGBTQ rights, education, voting rights, freedom of the press, rights of peaceable assembly or religious freedom.  

You cling tight to your religion, your nationality and the simple orderliness of either a tribal or totalitarian system of order. This is true and may always be true despite the best intentions of intervening nations.

In my teenage years as I saw the young men of my community ship off to Vietnam, I believed that they were engaged in a noble battle between the forces of good and evil.  

I believed that Vietnam was merely a surrogate war between the United States and a stand-in for the Soviet Union. I once thought that if we did not stop the spread of Communism in Vietnam, that it would soon engulf all freedom loving people. Today, I have my doubts. Even though I deeply honor the service, sacrifices and deaths of our Vietnam veterans, I now question whether we had any business being involved in a conflict in that country. Wrong place, wrong time and wrong war!

In reading Stanley Karnow’s “Vietnam: A History,” I was surprised to learn that both Ho Chi Minh and General Giap both had a lengthy, and productive relationship with the American OSS and, later, CIA. They were once our friends and associates and only became our enemies when the United States decided to help France restore its colonial grip on the country after World War II.  

It was as simple as, we help the French and the North Vietnamese leaders seek out their own allies, the Soviet Union.  

For well over a thousand years, the Vietnamese people had fought as one nation against a litany of outsiders. Kublai Khan, China, Japan and the French had all been confronted with the reality of a true nationalistic enemy. It wasn’t until the intellectual lights at the CIA and the State Department decided to draw the line in Vietnam, that the Vietnamese people split into two spheres of the conflict.

Today, after billions of dollars in expenditures, 56,000 lives lost and massive social upheaval, Vietnam is a peaceful, productive nation that is now a de facto ally in a shared goal of containing the aggressive nature of China. The whole darn Vietnam mess was about nationalism and not communism and the United States was up to its neck in the quicksand before we knew the difference.

In the case of Afghanistan, there was no doubt that there were some bad actors. We knew that fact quite well because the CIA armed and trained them in an effort to undermine the Soviet Union.  

We should have known that Afghanistan was primarily a tribalistic country, with not much of a source of income other than poppy production and that the glue that loosely held the country together was a thousand-year history of nationalistic struggle and a fiercely fundamentalist Islamic religion. We should have known this from the start and planned our entire post-9/11 strategy around getting in quick, eliminating our biggest threats and then getting out before getting sucked into the vortex.  

Alas, we didn’t.  We’ve learned, once again, that it is so much easier to get into a war than to get out of one.

Just as we learned in Vietnam that the fighting and killing goes on long after you’ve forgotten why you got into the conflict in the first place, Afghanistan has followed the same dismal path to ultimate failure. No president wants to be the one who lost a war or threw in the towel. The constant worry about his legacy led Lyndon Johnson to continue to pile men and resources into Vietnam long after he knew it was an unwinnable war.  

This same reluctance to admit failure embraced both George W. Bush and Barack Obama and guaranteed 16 years of continued carnage. Donald Trump, to his credit, understood that Afghanistan was not a war that we should be fighting and that we had no long-term obligation to engage in nation building there. He advocated a more thoughtful approach to disengagement that would leave a somewhat stable Afghan government and preserve some degree of national honor.  

Unfortunately, President Biden seems to be hell bent on getting out of Dodge as quickly as possible, regardless of the effects on our relationships with our allies or the Afghan people who helped and supported us and came to believe in that quaint concept of freedom. We may not be seeing people climbing up on boxes on roof of the embassy in Kabul to catch the last helicopter out of town, but that scene is coming quickly, and it won’t be pretty.

How does the United States prevent another disaster such as Afghanistan and Vietnam from happening in the future? I believe that before we engage in any future conflict that requires a substantial investment of boots on the ground, we should be forced to answer the following questions and have a thorough national debate:

What is the ultimate goal of our intervention? What is the time frame for achieving the goal? What will be the estimated cost in lives and money in achieving the goal? Is there any other way of achieving the goal without committing ground forces? Once committed, how do we get out? Can our intervention actually make things worse?

Life as a young child was fun for me. I played lots of war games with me fighting as an American soldier against the Germans or Japanese. There were good guys, bad guys and no shades of gray. As an adult I have learned that there is more gray than I care to face, as the world is a truly complicated place and simple answers to complex problems just don’t exist. 

Dunn is the former Howard County Republican chairman.