Oops We Did It Again: Afghanistan as a cautionary tale

Every student, at some point in their undergraduate experience, is taught George Santayana’s assertion that “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” The phrase has produced various paraphrases, switching out “condemned” for “doomed” or “destined” but always maintaining the theme that, throughout history, humanity continues to be its own worst enemy.

This is nothing new. History is full of countless examples of humanity blindly stumbling into the same situation as before, just as desperate but just as unable to escape its self-imposed fate. Only if we look to our past can we prepare for our future.

Take, for example, Afghanistan. When the British crime drama “Sherlock” premiered in 2010, Martin Freeman played the role of Dr. John Watson, an Afghan war veteran battling the traumas of his experiences as he helped solve crimes across modern London. Yet this soldiering background was not an adaptation on the part of the script writers to modernize a 19th century character. Google, “When did Britain invade Afghanistan?” and it replies with 1838, far earlier than 2001, when Tony Blair sent in troops as part of a NATO coalition under Operation Enduring Freedom.

The First-Anglo Afghan War was fought between 1838 and 1842, and is one of the first major conflicts of the geopolitical struggle now taught by Dr. Kelly Greenhill in PS61 as “The Great Game.” All in all, between 1838 and 1919 Britain invaded Afghanistan on three separate occasions, totaling eight years of armed conflict. Thus, when Arthur Conan Doyle’s first serial of Sherlock Holmes began in 1887, just after the end of the Second Anglo-Afghan War (1878–80), it was just as believable to readers in Victorian England that Dr. Watson was an Afghan war veteran as it was to small screen watchers worldwide upon “Sherlock”’s premiere 123 years later in 2010.

One would think that other nations would have stayed away from Britannia’s mistakes. Nonetheless, the Soviet Union would also find itself bogged down in Afghanistan (some would say coincidentally — this author decidedly not) due to three invasions in 1929, 1930 and 1979. The final invasion, a precursor to America’s current situation in the Middle East, lasted for nearly 10 years, seeing roughly 100,000 Soviet personnel tied up in the region and earning the sobriquet of “the USSR’s Vietnam.” By the time NATO arrived in 2001, Afghanistan was well-deserving of its nickname as “the graveyard of empires.”

A recent USA Today headline read: “Afghanistan War veterans, still waiting for a peace deal, ask: Was the sacrifice worth it?” The fact that this is a question which can be asked by veterans of three separate countries (or, if you add all the former republics of the Soviet Union, 17) over the course of three centuries speaks to the trend we’ve yet to buck as a collective species: We don’t learn from our mistakes because we don’t want to. We always think we can do it better than those who did it before, and that we won’t stumble on the same blocks as they did.

But at the end of the day, as trite as it sounds, we’re only human. History is riddled with warnings the past has left behind for the present, and it’s up to us to stop long enough to see them.