Mission impossible in Afghanistan

On the evening of Sept. 11, 2001, members of Congress gathered on the steps of the Capitol to express their unity of purpose in the aftermath of the day’s catastrophic attacks. Then, apparently spontaneously, they began to sing. The television cameras widened their shots, and surprised anchors back in their studios grew quiet as the voices of Democrats and Republicans rose together: “God bless America, land that I love, stand beside her and guide her through the night with a light from above.”

The chorus moved a nation, and for a moment, we were truly a United States of America. In the weeks that followed, Congress and the American people rallied overwhelmingly behind a war to overthrow the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, which had given safe harbor to Al Qaeda.

But how things change. As the years have passed, layers of support for the war effort have peeled away. Today, a majority of Americans see the military campaign in Afghanistan as a futile endeavor.

That shift was foreseeable. Almost from the moment the first bomb dropped, we were destined to end up here, disillusioned and tired of a war that continues to consume lives with little hope of the clear victory Americans can embrace.

Some of this erosion of support has to do with the difficulty of the war effort, particularly in southern Afghanistan. But there’s a deeper reason why we’re disillusioned with the war, a reason that lies not in Afghanistan but in who we are as Americans.

America is a nation of idealists, bound together by the sacred values of democracy and liberty. We are deeply committed to those values, and we tend to assume that their virtues are obvious to all. Once the Taliban fled to the south and the United States began running the government in Afghanistan, our idealism set a high bar for success. We would be certain that the mission had succeeded only if Afghanistan somehow became a stable liberal democracy, a “land of the free” like the United States.

But reaching this bar was always mission impossible. Afghanistan was an utterly devastated, failed state long before we arrived, and the necessary precursors of true democracy were largely lacking. The literacy rate is 30% — lower than in America in 1650. Western-style civic institutions are virtually nonexistent. Even in a best-case scenario, Afghanistan would fall far short of our ideals, with the country looking to most Americans like a chaotic mess — more Mad Max than Massachusetts.

And there are further reasons why the situation we find ourselves in now was almost preordained. The idea of nation-building — in Afghanistan and elsewhere — touches a nerve in the American mind. For some on the left, it seems like imperialism. As the antiwar American Empire Project put it: “Americans have long believed that the very notion of empire is an offense against our democratic heritage, yet in recent months, these two words — American empire — have been on everyone’s lips.”

Meanwhile, for some conservatives, nation-building reeks of big-government social engineering. If Washington can’t fix problems in the United States, how can it solve Afghanistan’s woes? Congressman Mike Pence (R-Ind.) argued that the Republican Party should oppose “any effort to use our military for nation-building or progressive social experimentation.”

And then there’s the legacy of Vietnam. Traumatic memories of counterinsurgency in Southeast Asia also colored perceptions of Afghanistan. In early 2009, Newsweek called Afghanistan ” Obama’s Vietnam.” By October 2009, 52% of Americans thought that the conflict in Afghanistan had “turned into a situation like the United States faced in the Vietnam War.”

Indeed, Americans almost always see nation-building as a failure. We didn’t like trying to stabilize the government of South Vietnam in the 1960s, when 58,000 Americans died. But we also didn’t like the far more successful stabilization of Bosnia and Kosovo in the 1990s, when no Americans died in combat.

In the American mind, nation-building is almost synonymous with quagmire. And this isn’t a new idea. In 1900, Mark Twain described U.S. nation-building in the Philippines as “a quagmire from which each fresh step renders the difficulty of extrication immensely greater.” Fast-forward a century, and the Republican House whip, Tom DeLay, called Kosovo “a big dangerous quagmire.” In 2004, former President Carter claimed that “we’ve reached a point in Iraq that it’s become a quagmire.”

So it was hardly a surprise when Bob Herbert of the New York Times titled one 2009 column “The Afghan Quagmire,” depicting a war that “long ago turned into a quagmire.”

Even if Afghanistan stabilizes, Americans are unlikely to be impressed. After all, violence fell dramatically in Iraq after 2007, but there were no celebrations in the United States. Church bells didn’t ring. Flags didn’t adorn homes and storefronts. Instead, people stopped thinking about the Iraq war at all.

At this point, the best President Obama can hope for on the home front is that an uptick in security means that Americans forget about Afghanistan too.

Dominic Tierney, an assistant professor of political science at Swarthmore College and the author of How We Fight: Crusades, Quagmires, and the American Way of War.

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