The Washington Post has published a story about a secret and highly critical government report on the seemingly endless war in Afghanistan. The report shows that both the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations were lied to and lied about the intervention that began 18 years ago. As the French might say, this is no quelle surprise.
In my book, Anatomy of Failure: Why America Loses Every War It Starts, the outcomes that followed in Vietnam, Iraq after 2003 and a number of smaller interventions from Desert One in Iran to Grenada and Beirut were carefully analyzed. Afghanistan was part of these analyses. The reasons for failure were similar, generic and possibly genetic to the American way of war.
Chief among the failures was presidential lack of experience and judgment followed by a categorical absence of knowledge and understanding of the conditions in which force was to be used. John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson were as ill-informed about Vietnam as were George W. Bush and Barack Obama over Afghanistan and Iraq.
"Mission creep" -- and the perception that America was capable of geopolitical and socio-economic magic to turn Arab and Muslim societies into representative democracies -- took hold. The objective of capturing or killing Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaida mob responsible for the Sept. 11 attacks morphed. Rebuilding Afghan society in our image once the wily terrorist escaped from Tora Bora due to the incompetence of the overall military commander became the aim.
Part of the failure stemmed from a "can-do" military attitude and mistaken belief on the superiority of the American fighting soldier and our technology. Both were as self-defeating in Afghanistan as in South Vietnam. Strikingly, failure in Afghanistan was predictable as early as January 2002, when Iran was prevented from joining the Bonn conference. NATO invoked Article 5 -- an attack on one was an attack on all -- and went to war for the first time in its history on Sept. 12, 2001 with the noble intention of aiding a stricken ally. Yet, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld believed that was a mistake given the disparity of military capability between America and virtually of its allies.
The way in which missions in Afghanistan were divided among NATO members to construct a new government and constitution with supporting economic, legal security, policing and nation-building components was doomed to fail due to the complexity and absence of coordination, authority and responsibility. The Obama administration, determined to extricate itself from the wrong war in Iraq and win the "right war" in Afghanistan, likewise had little understanding of conditions. Had that been the case, the title of the Afghan-Pak Study would have been reversed.
In early 2009, after taking office, the first major security effort undertaken by the new administration was on Afghanistan and Pakistan. The critical failure was that Pakistan, not Afghanistan, was the strategic center of gravity in the region. Success, however defined in Afghanistan, would be dependent on Islamabad not Kabul. But Obama never understood that and did not listen to those who did.
What to do? First, how does the United States disengage from Afghanistan without exacerbating conditions there making life worse for the Afghans and the region? Second, how does the United States learn from the past to prevent failure when using force as the initiator without due cause or allowing the missions to become unachievable?
Disengaging offers only bad choices. If the United States and its allies leave Afghanistan, it is far from clear that the government headed by President Ashraf Ghani can survive or prevent the country from disintegrating under the Taliban. At best, Kabul and part of the country might continue under the government. But they might not.
Continuing presence could last for an indefinite period and be costly in human and financial assets, especially for the Afghans. No good solution exists. As a result, the United States and its allies probably will remain at some level as the least worst choice.
The more challenging issue is America's failure in using force, especially in conflicts it starts, or allows mission creep to set objectives that cannot be met. Unfortunately, every president since George H. W. Bush failed to recognize these realities. He succeeded in the first Iraq War in 1991 because his objective was to reverse Saddam Hussein's occupation of Kuwait, a war he did not start.
Afghanistan again reflects this continuing failure of America's use of force. This lesson must be relearned. But do not count on that happening. This is bad for us and worse for Afghanistan.
Harlan Ullman, UPI's Arnaud de Borchgrave Distinguished columnist, serves as senior adviser at the Atlantic Council and has served as a professor of military strategy at the National War College and the Naval War College. His latest book is "Anatomy of Failure: Why America Has Lost Every War It Starts." Follow him @harlankullman.