December 16, 2019 10:57AM

The War in Afghanistan: Feeding Optimism on a Diet of Despair

Last week the Washington Post ran a series on “The Afghanistan Papers” based on newly‐​released documents that detail military decision‐​making during the lengthy, and apparently endless, war in Afghanistan. Stressed is the disconnect found between the dismal realities on the ground that were well known to military leaders and their unrealistic public optimism about progress in the war.

The documents and the analysis by Craig Whitlock in the Post add a great deal to the discussion, but both the dismal realities and the disconnect were already pretty well known as John Glaser and I argued earlier this year in a Cato Policy Analysis paper and in an article. The problem, as Jason Lyell has noted, is not that the information was unavailable, but that few people were paying much attention. Perhaps the series will help to change that.

Unwarranted public optimism by the officials during wars is hardly new. As Micah Zenko has noted, “US civilian and military leaders have misled the public for every war I have studied (Kosovo, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Syria, ‘non‐​battlefield’ drone wars).” That generalization can obviously be extended to Vietnam and, quite possibly, to just about every war ever fought.

One reason for the bogus optimism, as a senior Pentagon official told John Glaser off the record earlier this year, is that it is necessary to preserve troop morale. That is, as we send troops off to carry out policies that we know to be failed ones, we want them to be upbeat and enthusiastic in the process.

Other reasons are suggested in War and Politics, a brilliant 1973 book by defense analyst Bernard Brodie. In investigating the phenomenon during World War I, he stresses that it is impelled in part by a “fierce dedication to the goal of victory,” and, even more so, by a “fear of losing.”

Experience suggests that this concern may often be overwrought at least in cases like Afghanistan. The United States, after all, took defeat in Vietnam in stride. In 1975, a few months after the debacle there in which Communist forces defeated the American‐​trained South Vietnamese army in 55 days, I was able to talk with General William Westmoreland, who had been the commander there for years and was now on a book tour. I asked him how he felt about the collapse. He simply shrugged and said, “Well, what do you expect?” The American public responded similarly: despite fears that defeat in Vietnam would lead to the rise of a new McCarthyism, the war scarcely even came up in the presidential campaign a year later.

Brodie suggests that another reason derives from the fact that war is a highly uncertain undertaking: as Dwight Eisenhower put it succinctly, “every war is going to astonish you.” Thus, even though things may be going badly, there is always the hope that the enemy will suddenly blunder in an arena in which, as Brodie puts it, “mischance and miscalculation reign.”

And, most tellingly, Brodie notes that “the military commanders who in adversity can feel and exude optimism are the ones who inspire confidence.” That is, they not only lie to others, but to themselves, and, in the process, generate support and acclaim. By contrast, “the attempt to express reason is, under a wide variety of wartime circumstances, to risk the label of ‘defeatist,’ the penalties for which are always unpleasant and sometimes extreme.”

This condition is reflected in some of testimony relayed in the Post series. Notes a retired colonel who was a counterinsurgency adviser in Afghanistan in 2013 and 2014, “truth was rarely welcome” and “bad news was often stifled.” And when he attempted to air “concerns about the willingness, capacity or corruption of the Afghan government, it was clear it wasn’t welcome.”

Something of that phenomenon can also be seen in a 2010 military analysis noted in our paper in which briefers glumly observed that no counterinsurgency on record had succeeded when the insurgents had access to a deep cross‐​border sanctuary. On the brighter side, however, they felt compelled to add that one could “hope” the situation in Afghanistan would prove to be an exception.

Finally, the unjustified persistence of official optimism may owe something to the fact that the United States entered the war in Afghanistan in something of a rage after 9/11. Poll data show that about 75 percent supported the wars in Korea, Vietnam, and Iraq when American troops were initially sent it. For the war in Afghanistan, it was more like 90 percent.

World War I was also highly supported at the outset. And thus Brodie’s eloquent observation about that war may apply as well to the one in Afghanistan: “The urge to prevail, fed initially by what seemed an unlimited supply of frenzied national rage, managed afterwards with tragic impressiveness to survive a long time on a diet of despair.”