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A U.S. soldier searches for weapons caches in an orchard in Afghanistan in 2012.

Voices / Viewpoint

The same mistakes — again?

In a new book, an experienced journalist returns to see if U.S. interventionists have learned any lessons. Sadly, they have not.

Dan DeWalt, one of the founders of this newspaper, is a woodworker and teacher at Leland & Gray Union High School. He is a longtime activist for social justice and peace.


Afghanistan is creeping back into the news.

Last month, it was the target of the obscenely named “mother of all bombs,” the largest non-nuclear bomb yet used by the U.S., which managed to kill 30 or 40 ISIS fighters.

The press and pundits on both sides of the aisle were pretty impressed with the size of the bomb, and our new president got some shock-and-awe cred.

More recently, a new U.S. Inspector General’s office report paints a bleak picture of security and corruption in the country.

The response from Defense Secretary James Mattis sounds depressingly like every other government response to this intractable entanglement, promising a “fresh, frank look at the reconstruction program” and a new counter-narcotics strategy.

His remarks, along with Trump administration rumblings about increasing troop strength to train the Afghan army up to a level of self-sufficiency, point to a real chance that we will once again escalate our military engagement in Afghanistan and make another round of the same mistakes once again.

* * *

What better time than now to read Douglas Wissing’s new book, Hopeless but Optimistic: Journeying through America’s Endless War in Afghanistan?

Wissing knows Afghanistan well, having spent months there on multiple trips since the U.S. began its military adventures in 2001. His earlier book, Funding the Enemy, tells how the Taliban was able to make use of poorly managed USAID programs to amass money and power, as well as taking advantage of the U.S. military’s short attention span in Afghanistan and Bush/Cheney’s pivot to Iraq to inherit U.S. arms and materiel.

In this new book, Wissing goes back to see if U.S. interventionists have learned any lessons.

Sadly, they have not.

On page after page, as Wissing travels around the country, we are told how U.S. operatives continue to repeat the same mistakes, over and over, leaving a trail of unfinished or sabotaged projects that have no value to the people of Afghanistan.

These projects have, however, done wonders for the enrichment of the warlords, the Taliban and, above all, the “beltway bandits,” as he calls them — the various for-profit reconstruction/development companies that still bilk U.S. taxpayers out of billions of dollars today on poorly planned, uninformed, and useless projects designed to “win the hearts and minds” of the people, a strategy called “WHAM.”

However, the only winners are a few well-positioned Afghan leaders and U.S. businesspersons, while the losers are everyone else in Afghanistan, and the U.S. taxpayer.

* * *

Wissing points out that after 16 years and more than $1 trillion, the U.S. supported central government is weak, corrupt, and feckless as ever, while the Taliban once again are regaining territory, influence, and power.

He points out the sad irony that the Taliban, ruthless and backward as they may be, nonetheless are more efficient, more honest, and more true to their word to the Afghan people than any of the central governments that have been successively propped up by U.S. money and might.

Wissing’s stories — of water projects that destroy the water table, agricultural initiatives that were doomed to fail from the beginning, outpost defenses that defend nothing but only make troops vulnerable to attack — are told not by an omniscient narrator but in interviews with soldiers and aid workers on the ground, sources who have no personal stake in retelling the big lie that government spokespeople are so desperate to maintain.

The people he interviewed tell their own stories of the situation as it swirls around them, with all the ambiguities, questions, and frustration that being in an untenable position with an unworkable job requirement would engender.

Wissing embeds with the troops at times. At others, he is on his own, widening his outlook and learning multiple sides of different events and attitudes.

When he hears directly from soldiers and Afghans about their plight, we begin to get a real sense of the futility and stupidity of American foreign policy, along with the self-delusion that is necessary for plodding ever onward on the same wrong-headed course.

He’s not encouraging in his assessment:

“I know now the American elites didn’t want to learn any real lessons, despite their failures to accomplish their stated military, diplomatic, and aid missions. The self-dealing American officials and corporate executives are acting like that is all OK. Let’s take the show on the road to the next profitable hot spot. Let’s keep on keeping on.”

While our president, Donald Trump, may have crowed about draining the swamp, his current crew of geniuses who are crafting military and WHAM policies in Afghanistan and elsewhere are the same old mud-and-slime-dripping swamp dwellers that have been feeding off of the Washington, D.C. corporate-welfare-and-military-industrial-government trough for a long time.

Seeing that not even a shovel has been employed to start the drainage, these people are safely ensconced to continue to drain our treasury, while making our troops less safe abroad and leaving us more vulnerable to terrorist attack at home and elsewhere, all for the sake of profit and the illusion of power.

Trump’s doctrine, as far as it goes, seems to be: Don’t do your homework to understand why things are the way they are. Assume U.S. superiority. Lie about the results. And, of course, keep on keeping on — just call it a win.

This administration and Congress won’t be interested in reading Wissing’s book, but we should be.

Read it and weep. Then, speak out and stop it from happening all over again.

Trump and his allies are feeding us a steady diet of lies and misinformation about many issues. We cannot allow them to use fancy talk to foist further war in Afghanistan upon us.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #408 (Wednesday, May 17, 2017).

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