Just now, the news media and Congress are obsessed with the images of a chaotic American retreat from Afghanistan, but, if the only lesson Americans learn from the nation’s longest war is that the exit needed to be better planned, we may be doomed to repeat this 20-year tragedy.

The larger lesson should have been learned in Vietnam when so many of our political leaders, foreign policy experts and military commanders let a limited mission expand into an attempt to build a Jeffersonian Democracy in a foreign land caught up in civil war. In Vietnam, we thought throwing enough money and troops at the problem would, eventually, fix it. It did not work there and it did not work in Afghanistan.

A very poor, tribal land like Afghanistan was never a very good prospect for nation building and all the hundreds of billions of dollars funneled into that country failed to create a sustainable, modern democracy. What that vast flood of money did do was fuel massive corruption among the ruling elite, including the president who recently fled the capital, Kabul, reportedly with an enormous cache of cash.

Our high-tech, superbly-trained military is the envy of the world, but, as one former state department official observed recently, over two decades our troops fought the same war 20 times. Commanders would rotate in and out every year, each one claiming to have made progress but, in reality, having merely engaged in another 12-month game of cat and mouse with the Taliban.

And the Taliban, like the Viet Cong, were fighting on their own turf, prepared for a generational battle. They simply had to wait until Americans got weary of the fight and departed. Unless the United States is prepared to act like a classical empire and impose its will by maintaining permanent hegemony in far flung regions of the world, this will always be the result.

It is hubris and folly to believe that American wealth and power can always achieve any starry-eyed mission that our leaders and experts concoct. From Ronald Reagan through the administrations of the next six presidents, the U.S. has meddled in Afghanistan, usually with idealistic intentions. There were some successes, like the killing of Osama bin Laden, but the biggest social reform — the partial emancipation of Afghani women — was totally dependent on the U.S. military presence and the other supposed achievement — the creation of a large, modernized Afghan army — evaporated as soon as American advisors and air power were withdrawn.

At last, we have a president who has recognized that we cannot do for the Afghanis what they will not do for themselves. If Joe Biden deserves blame for the messiness of this moment, he also deserves credit for seeing the hard truth more clearly than his predecessors and then acting upon it.

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