Two New York Times stories this week capture the persistence of U.S. folly in Afghanistan. The first highlights the persistence of corruption in Afghanistan and our country's key role in funding it. The second showcases the enormous expense of providing U.S. air power as a "force multiplier" to prevent the Taliban and other anti-coalition forces from prevailing. The subtext of both articles is that without massive funding and aid from the United States, and without profligate expenditure of money and munitions by American air assets, the Afghan government of Hamid Karzai would almost certainly collapse.
Haven't we seen this before? Think Vietnam in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The United States spent enormous sums of money, and used air power in even more profligate ways, to prop up the corrupt and ultimately illegitimate government of South Vietnam. Prodigious expenditures of money fed the corruption of Vietnamese officials while profligate expenditure of munitions kept the North Vietnamese enemy from prevailing (as in our ability to thwart the North Vietnamese Army's Spring Offensive of 1972), even as a suspect South Vietnamese army (ARVN) became dependent on that same U.S. air power.
When the United States finally tired of the corruption and waste of Vietnam, we pulled out our props, only to witness the unviability of our client state without massive U.S. aid.
What happens when we finally tire of Afghanistan? Though we won't witness a massive conventional military assault that ended in the chaos of Saigon in 1975, it is likely that the corrupt government of Karzai and the suspect Afghan National Army will also collapse, sooner rather than later.
Just as in Vietnam, in Afghanistan we are not winning the war, because these were and are not our wars to win. We were and are only preventing one side from losing, a side that is seemingly sympathetic to America precisely because it feeds off our largesse.
So in spite of today's pledge of special ally status for the Karzai government, the United States will almost certainly withdraw most of our props to that government. The result? Afghanistan could destabilize and devolve into civil war.
Doubtless we'll continue to ignore lessons from Vietnam, so we'll double-down on our folly by yet again playing the blame game. We'll ask,"Who lost Afghanistan," forgetting that from the beginning it was never ours to win. We'll hear about how we should have showed more fortitude, how our homefront should have been tougher, how a weak-kneed leader (and weaker NATO allies) conspired to snatch political defeat from the jaws of military victory.
And if this grim prediction proves correct, the wrong lessons we draw will only lead to new U.S. folly in the future.