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We Never Figured Out Afghanistan, and No Longer Want to Try

A reader wrote in about the revelations about U.S. efforts in Afghanistan and how she’s changing her mind about what America can actually accomplish when it takes military action overseas.

I hate the idea of standing by while they fill soccer stadiums to stone women, and all of that. I truly hate it. But I think we have proven we cannot really do this. I’ve always been more interventionist than isolationist, but I have to admit, the lives we’ve given, some of them personal friends, the money spent… and yet things are just not getting done there.

How do you tell yourself, ‘I did good, I did my best, I wasn’t wasting my time in that service,’ with reports like this? How do you tell yourself your entire career isn’t wasted, or even wrong? No wonder military personnel are fighting so many psychological issues now.

I thought we should even have gathered allies for stepping into Darfur, and Afghanistan was just a no-brainer for me, even as I lived with deployments right from the start. Listening to Colin Powell at the time, I thought [the 2003 invasion of] Iraq made sense, even knowing my [loved ones] would go too. I have thought we needed to stand up against tyranny and the use of chemical weapons for Syria against YEARS ago. I believed in the surges. Now… I don’t know. And I bet I’m one of many.

What our post-9/11 history has demonstrated is that the United States has a first-rate military that can tear apart an opposing force thoroughly, quickly, and effectively. But our government, along with the governments of our allies, have not yet figured out how to establish peaceful, unified, stable governments to replace the regimes we topple — not just in Afghanistan and Iraq, but also in Libya and arguably Syria as well. The problem was not that we were too stingy or didn’t try hard enough; it’s that we’re trying to plant seeds in soil that isn’t fertile enough to grow much of anything. (In Afghanistan, this is not merely metaphorical; the U.S. spent $34 million trying to grow soybeans in Afghanistan, despite previous researching the land was ill-suited to that purpose.)

The American public does not have the patience for the decades-long military presence, like in Germany and Japan and South Korea. We can argue that they ought to, and some would argue that the 13 to 16 U.S. personnel killed in Afghanistan each year since 2016 is a relatively small price to pay to ensure Afghanistan doesn’t once again become an incubator for terrorists who want to kill as many of us as possible. But the public remains unconvinced . . . that is, when the public stops to think about foreign policy at all. Americans are tired of being in Afghanistan, but the protests against the wars largely stopped once Obama took office.

The grim SIGAR assessment of U.S. efforts in Afghanistan disappeared from the news cycle quickly. As Alex Shephard observes over in The New Republic, “one major reason that the Afghanistan Papers have received so comparatively little coverage is that everyone is to blame, which means no one has much of an interest in keeping the story alive. There are no hearings, few press gaggles.”

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