The day before yesterday and a few days before that I made allusions to and wrote about Dr. Brydon and what happened during the First Afghan War. In late 2001 I was pretty darn convinced that what is happening today was going to happen unless we fixed Afghanistan, first and foremost. Not only was it our duty, but it was in our long-term vital interests to rebuild the country. We did not. Although we pretended to, now, sadly, the consequences of our pretensions result in the suffering of others.
Today William Arkin reveals the very depressing (now it is, then it was triumphalist), but unsurprising, mindset which prevailed all over Washington in late 2001 about Afghanistan:
In the end, Rumsfeld, Franks and Washington in general could not exploit the tactical success delivered by air power. No one in the intelligence world evidently understood the Taliban or the Afghan situation well enough to anticipate or recognize what was happening. Washington thus failed to formulate a post-Taliban strategy.
There are many reasons for this but one of them is crystal clear: policymakers (and most Americans) are utterly ignorant of history. I hated the international relations program I was in a few years ago for precisely that reason: there was no history. The students knew nothing of history and most were there because they wanted a job with the government. As one told me, “You know, little work and great benefits.” Of course, we learned a lot about flow charts, the foreign policy bureaucracy and a few useful IR theories but we learned absolutely no history, we did no case studies and role playing? Who are you kidding? Instead we took statistics and argued that international politics were rational and predictable as long as you had the right theory or model for your computer to run. (Much like the markets these days.)
In my opinion, history is a critical, essential tool in the formation of foreign policy. The value it provides is similar to the value stock charts and earnings histories provide investors and how a person’s family medical history informs her doctor. As ever mutual fund prospectus in the world says, “past results are no indication of future results.”
Indeed, history won’t tell you where you are going, but it will help you understand how you got there. Ideally it helps the policy maker formulate solutions for moving forward, as well. We ignore history too much in this country and we (and others) suffer because of it.
Afghanistan is the epitome of my point.