In the 1987 movie “The Princess Bride,” Vizzini, a Sicilian assassin, warns Wesley, also known as the Dread Pirate Roberts, “You fell victim to one of the classic blunders — the most famous of which is, ‘Never get involved in a land war in Asia.’”
The United States fell into that classic blunder when it ignored 19th-century British debacles during the First Anglo-Afghan War (1839-1843) and the Second Anglo-Afghan War (1878-1880) and pretended it could avoid the fate of the Soviet Union in the Soviet-Afghan War (1979-1988).
A 1979 internal memo to the Soviet Union’s governing Politburo explained why “nation building” by the Soviet Union was doomed to failure. The reactionary forces described in the memo are now known as the Taliban.
“The Afghan reactionary forces,” the memo stated, “are very skillfully taking advantage of the almost complete illiteracy of the population, complex international and intertribal conflicts, religious fanaticism and nationalism. Subversive actions, sabotage and the resistance of the overthrown class of exploiters are deepening the economic problems, lowering industrial and agricultural output, as well as hampering business activity, raising prices and reducing the influx of revenue into the state budget.”
The memo warned the Politburo that “the use of Soviet troops in repressing the Afghan counterrevolution would seriously damage the international authority of the USSR.”
In his 2010 memoir “Decision Points,” former President George W. Bush tried to justify the 2001 decision to invade Afghanistan and the prolonged war that followed. This wasn’t just about revenge for the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, or a strategy to kill Osama bin Laden and destroy Al Qaeda.
According to Bush, “Afghanistan was the ultimate nation-building mission. We had liberated the country from a primitive dictatorship, and we had a moral obligation to leave behind something better. We also had a strategic interest in helping the Afghan people build a free society. The terrorists took refuge in places of chaos, despair and repression. A democratic Afghanistan would be a hopeful alternative to the vision of the extremists.”
The nation-building task was “more daunting” than Bush and his advisers anticipated because of their ignorance about Afghanistan and because they apparently never consulted either Wikipedia or the CIA World Factbook. It is a mountainous region of tribes, clans and linguistic groups, with millions of people who have little connection to those outside their locality or village. The constitution of Afghanistan, written in 2004 under U.S. auspices, recognizes 14 major ethno-linguistic groups. The largest is the Pashtun, who make up almost half of the population of the country and are the dominant group in the Taliban.
If only the Bush administration in 2001, or policymakers in the Obama and Trump administrations, had watched “The Princess Bride” or had access to the Soviet Politburo memo. I found it, quite easily, translated from Russian to English, on the website of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The memo, “Our Future Policy in Connection with the Situation in Afghanistan,” became available to the public in 1993.
As President Biden made clear in a speech to the American public, “After 20 years, I’ve learned the hard way that there was never a good time to withdraw U.S. forces [from Afghanistan] . . . There is no chance that one year — one more year, five more years or 20 more years of U.S. military boots on the ground would’ve made any difference.”
After the diplomatic, military and human disaster in Afghanistan, maybe there should be a constitutional qualification for becoming president of the United States: that a candidate be a certified historian. The American Historical Association and the Organization of American Historians could review all candidates the way legal organizations review potential judicial appointments.
Dr. Alan Singer is a professor of teaching, learning and technology and the director of social studies education programs at Hofstra University. He is a former New York City high school social studies teacher and editor of Social Science Docket, a joint publication of the New York and New Jersey Councils for the Social Studies. Follow him on twitter at https://twitter.com/AlanJSinger1.