Today is apparently the 17th anniversary of the start of the US (and then allied) war in Afghanistan. Not quite old enough to drink but old enough to disapparate. Anyhow, when I was working on ethnic conflict stuff, including my time in the Pentagon on Bosnia, the frequent refrain was that it takes generations for a society to start to recover from a war. Indeed, when I first heard that the US was calling its post-invasion role in Iraq "Occupation," I was relieved. Why?
Because I thought we might have realized that it takes quite a while to make progress after conflict. That many of the previous conflicts were still problematic because each peace-keeping/nation-building effort was focused on the very short term, as in one year at a time or so. Indeed, I remember an American officer comparing Bosnia to the American civil war since his unit was one that combined VA and MA personnel--blue and gray. My response (in my head): yeah, because the North and the South only took 100 or more years to get along.
If the US had invaded Afghanistan with the intent of being there twenty years, as opposed to looking to get out at the first moment possible, much might be different. Not only would the Taliban perhaps have been less willing to just out-wait the outsiders, but the plans, operations, campaigns and investments might have been different. Rather than focusing on just getting to the next election or other key milestone (definitely not benchmarks), the US and its allies could have been more focused on building institutions. Institutions take time to become legitimate and respected and taken for granted.
Of course, it would be unrealistic for any democracy to tell its public that it would be going to war in a place for two decades. Far more realistic to say we will be there just for a few years and then keep kicking the can down the road. This works for winning (or not losing) support back home, but it does no favors to those in the field.
So, on this anniversary of the Afghanistan campaign, I am embracing humility. Since we can't expect politicians to defend long term investments, we probably should avoid making decisions that lead to long term wars. Maybe an American intervention in Syria in 2012 might have improved things compared to what happened, but how many forever wars can the US be sucked into at any one point in time? As long as we keep thinking that these wars are all going to be short, we are going to do just enough to make sure that they are prolonged.
And, yeah, I am in a pretty pessimistic mood given the destruction of American institutions the past week or two.