Friday, November 13, 2009

Doomed To Repeat History

George Santayana is credited with the quote, "Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it." This is indeed a pretty astute observation, it is also used in contexts where it is meaningless. History is not a collection of dates and names, battles lost and won; it is really a quite complex exercise. History is the study of entire societies, not narrow aspects of them and understanding outcomes of certain actions takes a lot more depth than simplistic quotes.

One that has been getting a lot play lately regards Afghanistan as the burial ground of empires. It is entirely accurate to note that empires have foundered on the shoals of Afghanistan, it is foolish to take more from it than that. If one proposes to play conqueror of Afghanistan there is a lesson for you right there. To take that particular aim and broaden it to any action taken in regard to Afghanistan puts entirely too large a load on narrow shoulders.

I do not know all the alternatives that were available to GWB in regard to Afghanistan in the beginning, there were more than the one he chose. We can see how the one he chose has played out as he ran it. This is what we do know. It would be reasonable to think that the way forward should not be an extension of the same failures.

We not only need to know how to proceed in Afghanistan now, we also need to understand what has gone wrong. We need to know that, not so much to know how to go on, but to avoid a similar mistake in the future - now is not then. I think it is optimistic to see the situation leading up to our action in Afghanistan as a one off, as something the future may not present us with again. Not many places on earth are Afghanistan, but things that pertain in Afghanistan are not that unique, hostile geography is scarcely a feature of only Afghanistan. Tribalism and barely governable areas within a country aren't just Afghanistan's difficulties. Most of what makes Afghanistan a really difficult proposition for the US right now are features you would find in a place that presented us with a similar problem.

There is no "do-over" in Afghanistan now, we have what we have now to deal with. I really hope some part of the government is taking a real serious look at what went wrong so that we do not repeat it. I hope we look a bit deeper into our tool kit and find one appropriate.

1 comment:

Zak Johnson said...

Biggest problem with Afghanistan appears to be Karzai. I personally think the need to drive both the Taliban & Al-Qaeda out of power in that country was both justified and necessary, but eight years later it's not clear that we've done either or that Karzai is all that better for the people there than the ones he replaced.