When Will They Ever Learn? Out of Afghanistan, Into the Mire

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

When the Washington Post first published the names of some of the members of the US armed forces who were killed at Kabul airport by a crazed suicide bomber on August 26 it was sadly too easy to forecast most of the ages.  There they were . . . 20 . . . 22 . . . 20 . . . and so on.  The revulsion at the needless loss of life took me back to the days of Vietnam, where I served in the Australian Army and joined in the scoffing at all the anti-war protesters of these terrible years.  Yes, it’s difficult to admit that we mocked all these people who were telling us we were wrong because of course they were right and we indeed were wrong.  The recollection hurts.

And the photographs of these young men in the Post and other papers and on the internet brought back memories of the protest songs of the Sixties and most especially Pete Seeger’s Where have all the flowers gone?, of which one rendition goes:

Where have all the flowers gone?
Long time passing.
Where have all the flowers gone?
Long time ago.
Where have all the flowers gone?
Young girls have picked them every one.
Oh, When will they ever learn?
Oh, When will they ever learn?

Where have all the soldiers gone, long time passing?
Where have all the soldiers gone, long time ago?
Where have all the soldiers gone?
Gone to graveyards, everyone
Oh, when will they ever learn?
Oh, when will they ever learn?

There are countless graveyards in this world of self-destructive humans, and over the centuries they have expanded as monuments to the lunacy of mankind.

Following World War Two, Europe was reeling from the devastation of many years of savagery and it seemed it might never recover. The civilian casualty figures are staggering, with, in addition to the Soviet Union’s some 17 million, about three million were killed in  Germany and six million in Poland. 450,000 died in each of France and Romania, 1.4 million in Yugoslavia, and 150,000 in each of Austria and Italy. The surviving citizens in all European countries continued to suffer gravely from the catastrophe, not the least hazard being actual starvation.

The war-winning United States had only a handful of civilian casualties and prospered greatly from the commercial demands of conflict. In consequence, it was in a position of immeasurable economic and military ascendancy and fortunately was governed by an administration that, by and large, was sympathetic and prepared to be supportive in alleviating the misery of the countless millions in Europe who seemed to have nothing in their future but endless hardship.

President Truman and his State Department brought their considerable talents to bear and constructed a scheme whereby shattered Europe could be best assisted.  As noted by the History website, the 1948 European Recovery Plan was “The brainchild of Secretary of State George C Marshall, for whom it was named.”   It was “crafted as a four-year plan to reconstruct cities, industries and infrastructure heavily damaged during the war and to remove trade barriers between European neighbors — as well as foster commerce between those countries and the United States.”  In its final essence it didn’t entail a great deal of actual sacrifice on the part of the US, and in fact, benefitted the agricultural community and the massive industrial furnace that had been so effective in winning the war.

Nevertheless it was based on goodwill, charitable feeling, and concern for humanity, as expressed by Marshall himself in June 1947 in a speech delivered at Harvard University where he declared “It is logical that the United States should do whatever it is able to do to assist in the return of normal economic health in the world, without which there can be no political stability and no assured peace. Our policy is directed not against any country or doctrine but against hunger, poverty, desperation, and chaos. Its purpose should be the revival of a working economy in the world so as to permit the emergence of political and social conditions in which free institutions can exist.”

If only there had been more Marshalls in later years, the world would be a better place.  Certainly, the United States would be in a position of international economic supremacy — but it wouldn’t have invaded and almost destroyed Afghanistan and Iraq and blitzed Libya into an even worse shambles than it created further east.

And now that the US-Nato military alliance has staggered out of Afghanistan, defeated but grovelingly defiant, it should be giving thought to what has happened in that benighted country and planning for the future on the basis of what it has learned.  The problem is that Nato doesn’t seem to have learned anything by its absurd foray, and is indeed intent on widening its horizons in order to attempt to justify its existence.  The best lesson from Nato’s Afghanistan debacle (and its eight month bombing fandango that destroyed Libya’s economic infrastructure and encouraged home-basing of terrorist groups where none had formerly dared set a foot) is that it would be globally beneficial if Nato were to disband, but we have to be realistic and accept that common sense will not prevail in that regard.

Along the same lines, it would be sensible for Washington to objectively assess the value of the estimated 750 military bases in about 80 countries around the globe, and inform us exactly what benefit their existence is supposed to offer to the US and the rest of the world.  But again the signs are not good, as indicated on August 16 when an anonymous White House official spoke about a visit to Singapore and Vietnam by Vice President Kamala Harris and told the Washington Post that in spite of the concurrent Taliban takeover in Afghanistan she would continue with her trip because “Given our global leadership role, we can and we must manage developments in one region while simultaneously advancing our strategic interests in other regions on other issues.  The United States has many interests around the world, and we are well-equipped to pursue them all at the same time.”

When will they ever learn?

Did President Biden genuinely believe that his Administration was “managing developments” in Afghanistan?   Why is he determined to continue pursuing the supposed strategic interests of the US by deploying increasing numbers of troops and ships and planes and missiles to confront China and Russia and provoke them to react against the “global leader”?

The Washington establishment may have heard the pronouncement from the European Union concerning the wider effects of the Afghanistan debacle, but it is unlikely it will prompt an objective analysis.  On August 19 Josep Borrell, the EU’s high representative for foreign affairs, affirmed to the European Parliament and the world that the Kabul debacle “is a catastrophe . . . Let me speak clearly and bluntly: This is a catastrophe for the Afghan people, for Western values and credibility, and for the developing of international relations.”

What the rest of the world is waiting for is a positive use of the word “reset” by the Administration in Washington.  Instead of conducting another “reset” aimed at military domination and increased confrontation with China and Russia, President Biden should change to Marshall mode and concentrate on forging amity and cooperation while combating the real enemies of humanity.  An Economist/YouGov poll in early 2021 indicated that “Most Americans think of China and Russia as our country’s greatest enemies. Of the two, China is the most frequently mentioned threat, followed closely by Russia”, and it is disconcerting that the US President appears to be making no effort to reduce international tensions.

President Biden should reflect on the civilized declaration by George Marshall that “our policy is directed not against any country or doctrine but against hunger, poverty, desperation, and chaos” and consider how much better a world he could help forge if he concentrated the mightiness of the United States against the challenges presented by so many colossal problems besetting the peoples of the world.

Imagine what a Marshall Plan could achieve today.

But it is unlikely that the Biden Administration will consider any such thing, and it seems that in spite of his Kabul debacle speech on August 31 he is preparing for the US-Nato military alliance to leap out of Afghanistan into even deeper mire, which brings back painful memories of  “Where have all the flowers gone” and its evocative phrase “When will they ever learn?”

When, indeed?

Brian Cloughley writes about foreign policy and military affairs. He lives in Voutenay sur Cure, France.