Will America Ever Learn from the Mistakes of its ‘Forever Wars’?

Last August, the United States pulled out of Afghanistan, ending its longest-ever military engagement. For a moment, it seemed like the US might be entering a period defined more by its domestic agenda than its international entanglements. 

But then, of course, Russia invaded Ukraine. The US is getting more involved by the day in this new conflict, and Americans are once again debating what role their military should play in the world. 

One central question hovering over this debate: as we try to support Ukraine and its people, can we avoid making the same mistakes we made when intervening in Afghanistan and Iraq? 

Watson Senior Fellow Richard Boucher thinks it’s possible. But first, we need to make sure we’re learning the right lessons. And doing that requires looking back even further in our history than Afghanistan. As Richard explains, understanding how the “Vietnam generation” ended up leading the charge into Afghanistan and Iraq has a lot to teach us about the lessons we should take from past conflicts, and why it can be so difficult to learn them the first time around. 

From 2006 until 2009, Richard Boucher served as the Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia, where he played a leading role in defining American strategy and diplomacy in Afghanistan. Before that he was the longest-serving Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs in American history. You can find more of his analysis and insights on his blog

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[MUSIC PLAYING] SARAH BALDWIN: From the Watson Institute at Brown University, this is Trending Globally. I'm Sarah Baldwin. Last August, the US removed itself from its longest ever military engagement in Afghanistan. It seemed for a moment like we were entering a period when the US would avoid overseas conflicts and the international spotlight, maybe even take time to reflect on what our role should be in securing peace around the world.

But then of course, Russia invaded Ukraine. The US is finding itself more involved in that conflict by the day. And Americans are split on what role we should play in this grinding new war. One central question hovers over this relatively new debate. As we try to support Ukraine and its people, have we learned from our mistakes in Afghanistan and Iraq? Or when it comes to the tactical, political, and diplomatic errors we made in the post-9/11 wars, are we doomed to repeat them?

Our guest on this episode has done a lot of thinking about the successes and failures of American interventions abroad. And now at Watson, he's trying to teach some hard-won lessons to the next generation of leaders. On this episode, career ambassador and former senior State Department official Richard Boucher on the lessons we can learn from America's foreign policy failures and how to apply them to global conflicts today.


RICHARD BOUCHER: I'm Richard Boucher. I'm a former US diplomat. I'm now a senior fellow at the Watson Institute.

SARAH BALDWIN: Richard held high level diplomatic positions around the world during his 30-year career in the US Foreign Service. In the year Two-Thousand, he became the spokesman for the State Department. And in Two Thousand and Five, he became the Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia. He was involved in Afghanistan from the moment it became a focus for the United States. But before we get into the specifics of that war and the lessons Richard thinks we need to learn from it, there's a sort of meta-lesson about foreign policy that he thinks we need to understand. And that is--

RICHARD BOUCHER: We're not very good at learning lessons.

SARAH BALDWIN: Yikes. And to illustrate the point, we need to start a little further back than Afghanistan.

REPORTER 1: Vietnam.

REPORTER 2: Vietnam.

REPORTER 3: The United States may have to escalate the war in Vietnam.

SARAH BALDWIN: The war in Vietnam taught Richard's generation a lot about how not to conduct foreign policy. Richard was not yet part of the foreign policy establishment, far from it.

RICHARD BOUCHER: I was out in the streets protesting.

SARAH BALDWIN: But whether on the streets, on the ground in Vietnam, or in the Pentagon, the young people of his generation--

RICHARD BOUCHER: All of us thought we learned something from Vietnam. All of us thought we learned something about the use of the military, about positioning the United States vis-a-vis insurgencies, vis-a-vis corrupt governments.

SARAH BALDWIN: OK, so what exactly did they think they learned? What were the big lessons?

RICHARD BOUCHER: The first lesson of Vietnam was never get involved in a land war in Asia. And that even made it into The Princess Bride, if you watch that movie many times closely as I have with my children.

VIZZINI: You fell victim to one of the classic blunders. The most famous is never get involved in a land war in Asia. But only slightly less well known--

SARAH BALDWIN: Another big lesson, make sure the side you're supporting doesn't require your military for its survival.

RICHARD BOUCHER: We were supporting an urban elite, a modernizing urban elite, against a traditional rural insurgency. We were supporting an army that relied on American logistical support, often American fighting support, American air support.

SARAH BALDWIN: And furthermore, all the military support, it was being used often to the wrong ends.

RICHARD BOUCHER: Our army was very good at going after bad guys. But they needed an army that could hold territory, that could give security to villagers.

SARAH BALDWIN: The list could go on and on. But those were definitely some of the big ones.

RICHARD BOUCHER: All those were things that one or the others of us should have learned. And yet, when we got to Afghanistan and we got to Iraq, we repeated many of the same mistakes.

SARAH BALDWIN: Why? There's something to be said, surely, for the fact that those wars started with a traumatic event that from the very beginning seemed to require a historic response.

REPORTER 4: Lower Manhattan, two planes, one hitting each of the Twin Towers at the World Trade Center.

GEORGE W BUSH: Our way of life, our very freedom came under attack in a series of deliberate and deadly terrorist acts.

RICHARD BOUCHER: I was spokesman for Secretary Powell at the time. And when 9/11 happened, we were in Peru. And we flew back on the airplane. I remember going into his cabinet with a sort of a list of things and said, I think we ought to do this, this event, this change, blah, blah, blah. We can think about that. And he looked at me and said, you don't understand. This changes everything. And it did change everything.

GEORGE W BUSH: I've directed the full resources of our intelligence and law enforcement communities to find those responsible and to bring them to justice. We will make no distinction between the terrorists who committed these acts and those who harbor them.

DONALD RUMSFELD: The president has turned to direct, overt military force. The effect we hope to achieve is to create conditions for sustained anti-terrorist and humanitarian relief operations in Afghanistan.

SARAH BALDWIN: Now, the invasion of Afghanistan was not itself something Richard viewed as a mistake.

RICHARD BOUCHER: I'm convinced to this day, we had to go in and get the guys who attacked us.

SARAH BALDWIN: And at the beginning, it didn't look anything like Vietnam.

RICHARD BOUCHER: The military mission in Afghanistan was pretty straightforward when it came down to it. We dropped some special forces people in to hook up with the Northern Alliance. I think their first message back was send more saddles. They were on horseback. But together with a Northern Alliance, they swept into Kabul. They were able to chase the Taliban out.

And then we continued chasing them. Didn't get bin Laden in the mountains, Tora Bora. But we basically chased them out of Afghanistan by that point, very quickly. But then there you are. What's next? How do you make sure that Afghanistan is not going to be the source of attacks on the United States ever again? And that's a much more complicated problem.

SARAH BALDWIN: It was a challenge that Richard was working on firsthand, starting around Two Thousand and Six, as the Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs.

RICHARD BOUCHER: I was probably in Afghanistan every four or five weeks.

SARAH BALDWIN: This trickier phase in the war in Afghanistan, the phase that would define most of the war in Afghanistan, requires understanding two concepts in foreign policy that stand in some tension to each other. The first is nation building, which is kind of what it sounds like.

RICHARD BOUCHER: Nation building is an attempt to do what MacArthur did in Japan, to help them create a full fledged set of institutions and then run them.

SARAH BALDWIN: He's referring there to what the US did after World War II in Japan. The second concept is called stabilization.

RICHARD BOUCHER: Stabilization is more rudimentary. Stabilization, you might say, is based on the principle that good enough is good enough. And therefore, you want to have a government that is more or less representative, a justice system that can maintain security and provide a sense of order, an army that can defend the borders, a police force that can make people feel safe.

SARAH BALDWIN: Prior to 9/11, the American foreign policy establishment had no desire to nation build anywhere around the world.

RICHARD BOUCHER: George W Bush, during the campaign, had said I'm not going to have our military get involved in nation building.

GEORGE W BUSH: I think what we need to do is convince people who live in the lands they live in to build the nations. Are we going to have kind of a nation building crops from America? Absolutely not.

RICHARD BOUCHER: Nonetheless, as we went in for stabilization purposes, we said, oh, they need a government. They need a bureaucracy. They need a parliament. They need a judicial system. They need a police force. They need an army. They need a civil service.

SARAH BALDWIN: In other words, the line between stabilization and nation building, it's not crystal clear. But wherever that line is, a lot of leaders in the US blew right past it after 9/11.

RICHARD BOUCHER: We said, and we can help them do these things. And we can help them because we know how to do them. And so we ended up deploying all these different American experts, all these different American NGOs to help the Afghans put together their governmental system. And it was great. They had-- just like us, we taught them how to have ministries, and budgets, and inter-agency meetings.

SARAH BALDWIN: So we entered into some serious nation building, which itself is always risky, given the size of the task. And a lot of the time, in a lot of different ways, we just didn't do it very well. We invested lots of time, resources, and expertise.

RICHARD BOUCHER: But it wasn't really delivering to the people of Afghanistan.

SARAH BALDWIN: Let's take two examples, the creation of an Afghan police force and the crackdown on corruption. We'll start with the police.

RICHARD BOUCHER: We needed to train the police, right?

SARAH BALDWIN: First, German and then US forces took a stab at it.

RICHARD BOUCHER: And so we got guys who'd been policemen in Cleveland, or Detroit, or Sacramento. And we pulled them out and said, OK, you go train Afghan policemen.

SARAH BALDWIN: It didn't work so well.

RICHARD BOUCHER: Policing in Afghanistan is almost a paramilitary problem. It's protecting a village, not looking after petty crime. Afghan villagers, villages, have ways of taking care of petty crime. They work. So when an Afghan police group got to the village, they didn't try to do what we taught them. They tried to behave the way they had before. Sometimes, it worked. Most of the time, it didn't.

SARAH BALDWIN: Another example of our struggles with nation building, corruption. Corruption existed in every part of Afghan society and government. To the Americans, it was proof that we needed more intervention, more training, more auditors. But as Richard saw in Afghanistan and in lots of other countries, corruption maybe wasn't as bad a thing as we in the US thought.

RICHARD BOUCHER: I accept it as an expense of doing business in places that are not based on our system of accounting. And it's a way of spreading money around. Perhaps too many people get too much of their share. But in the end, the goal is not preventing them from getting money. The goal is to get the money to the places where it needs to go.

SARAH BALDWIN: In other words--

RICHARD BOUCHER: If you want money to get to the villages, some of it's going to get swiped along the way.

SARAH BALDWIN: But this was not a position the US was willing to accommodate. As Richard himself put it--

RICHARD BOUCHER: I didn't have the guts to go up in front of Congress and say, I want to give $50 million to the Afghan government. And I guarantee you 40% will disappear in somebody's pocket. But I'm hoping the other 60%, or maybe 50%, will get to a villager somewhere.

SARAH BALDWIN: In Afghanistan, we kept intervening in ways that were either too ambitious, too culturally out of touch, or often both. As a result, many of these reforms weren't sustainable without direct American support. So when our forces left the country last year, much of what we had tried to build there simply collapsed.

RICHARD BOUCHER: People who live out in the countryside of Afghanistan, they want three things. They want security. They want justice. And they want a livelihood. And what did we provide? We didn't provide a lot of security, because the army was a night raid kind of army. The livelihood was disrupted.

But the livelihood of corruption was there for people. And the justice was very slipshod. It was sometimes yes, sometimes no, depending on where we were. The Taliban provided very predictable Islamic justice, cruel security, and an opium livelihood. And so for a lot of villagers, that was a logical choice for them to make.


SARAH BALDWIN: There was another type of mistake that Richard also hopes we can learn from, which is that the military in Afghanistan was asked to do a lot of things the military doesn't traditionally do.

RICHARD BOUCHER: The problem of overmilitarization of US policy comes from a lot of different places.

SARAH BALDWIN: A big one is something Richard calls the can do problem.

RICHARD BOUCHER: We all support the military. And the Congress supports the military with a lot of money. And so when the President goes to a National Security Council meeting and says, we need to do this, there's somebody at the table that says, I can do that. There's a military expression that says when all you've got is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. And that's where we ended up. Everything started to look like a nail. And we got the military hammer out and we whacked it.

SARAH BALDWIN: Instead of using what Richard believes to be an often more effective tool.

RICHARD BOUCHER: Much more often, you've got to use diplomacy. You've got to talk to them. You've got to figure out what they want. You got to figure out how to let them have some of what they want in a way that's compatible with what you need.

SARAH BALDWIN: Propping up a government that most people don't support, not providing safety for everyday people, hell, fighting a land war in Asia, in obvious and subtle ways, the war in Afghanistan seemed to Richard to share so much with the war in Vietnam. And it haunts him. So how did the Vietnam generation embark on and stay in this war in Afghanistan for 20 years?

RICHARD BOUCHER: That's a very profound question that I haven't figured out yet. And that's what currently really bothers me.

SARAH BALDWIN: Do you think it's possible to make the same mistake a third time?

RICHARD BOUCHER: Well, we've already made it the third time. We made it the third time in Iraq.


RICHARD BOUCHER: Iraq, ill-conceived and poorly executed right from the start.

SARAH BALDWIN: We'll save that for another episode. But when it comes to Ukraine.

RICHARD BOUCHER: The question is whether we make it a fourth.


SARAH BALDWIN: Since Russia invaded Ukraine in February, America has gotten steadily more and more involved in the war. American troops are training Ukrainian soldiers. Senior government officials have personally visited Ukraine. And in late April, President Biden asked for an additional $33 billion in military and humanitarian aid to Ukraine. As Richard sees it, we're at an incredibly important moment in this conflict.

RICHARD BOUCHER: I worry that we're right on the edge of making mistakes.

SARAH BALDWIN: Mistakes that in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Vietnam, we've made before. One of those mistakes, a fundamental one we're on the edge of repeating, not having a focused, realistic definition of success.

RICHARD BOUCHER: I frankly recoiled at something that the Defense Secretary said the other day about weakening Russia.

LLOYD AUSTIN: We want to see Russia weakened to the degree that it can't do the kinds of things that it has done in invading Ukraine.

RICHARD BOUCHER: That can't be our goal. Our goal has to be security in Eastern Europe, including for Russia. And we've got to think about that, not just about weakening Russia.

SARAH BALDWIN: To Richard, that means using more of our diplomacy and less of our military. Avoiding relying on our big military hammer is especially important given Russia's aggressive use of its own military.

RICHARD BOUCHER: I worry that Putin is going to escalate in order to get out of his problem. He's going to drop a tactical nuclear weapon somewhere. I think the likelihood is very small. But the implications are very profound.

SARAH BALDWIN: Thankfully, Richard thinks that our current president might have a better sense of these risks than many in our past.

RICHARD BOUCHER: I think Joe Biden actually has a better grasp of this, partly because he was head of the Foreign Relations Committee for so long. I think his instincts are not to go too far. So limiting involvement, limiting nation building, limiting commitment is a really important principle. I think Biden understands it. And that's why we're approaching Ukraine in this way.

That we're supporting the Ukrainians to run their own war. We're supporting them to the hilt. But we're not turning this into a Russia-NATO conflict, at least we're trying not to. By and large, we're keeping it to be a localized conflict between Russia and Ukraine with a lot of our support.

SARAH BALDWIN: But there's still plenty of room for mistakes on the part of the US. And beyond that, there will, of course, be another conflict in another country after this one and another one after that. So I ended by asking Richard, is there anything we can do to help ensure that our foreign policy makers learn from past mistakes in a more permanent way. He had a few ideas.

RICHARD BOUCHER: The first is history, doing a better job of teaching history and reflecting on history as we go into places and we start to do things. The second is to deal with real people. These formulaic expressions that we use to make policy that it's either deterrence, or containment, or whatever, we have to really think about those in terms of what people are interested in what they do.

And that means actually taking into account the other side's history and taking us into account the other side's needs. You got to talk to people who don't agree with you. And we spend a whole lot of time talking to people who agree with us and not enough time talking to people who disagree with us.

SARAH BALDWIN: Another thing Americans need to wrap their brains around, the model of a country going to war, and defeating another country, and that being the end of the conflict, the way many of us view World War II, say, is not how most conflicts actually work.

RICHARD BOUCHER: We think victory is all out victory. We think wars end like World War I with German surrender or World War II, Japanese surrender on a battleship. They don't. Most in history probably never did.

SARAH BALDWIN: In other words, we have to get more comfortable settling for good enough.

RICHARD BOUCHER: You can't go in on a military operation thinking you're going to achieve total victory. Your military is just one of the many means you can use to pressure the other side into cutting a deal. And you've got to look for the deal all along the way. And you've got to be talking to the other side as much as you can along the way.

So the idea that it's some kind of concession to show up, I think we got to get rid of that. We got to get rid of this absolutist idea that you can solve every problem with military force, and once it solved, it stays solved completely.

SARAH BALDWIN: And if we do find ourselves occupying a country again, well first, let's do everything we can to avoid that. But if it happens, let's set some more realistic expectations.

RICHARD BOUCHER: Not thinking that we can build other countries in our own likeness. How do we empower them to do it themselves? And how do we actually stomach the fact that some of them are going to steal some of the money? But that's our problem, not theirs.

SARAH BALDWIN: And maybe within the foreign policy establishment, including the State Department itself, more accountability needs to be built into the system.

RICHARD BOUCHER: The military does do lessons learned. State Department doesn't. And if you read our annual performance reports, you'll see that everything we did was amazing, and perfect, and wonderful. But in fact, we ought to do a lot better job of learning some lessons from these situations.

SARAH BALDWIN: We focused on foreign policy failures in this episode. But let's end with a success that Richard thinks we can learn from too.

RICHARD BOUCHER: The success of diplomacy, the best example that I know and that I teach is the fall of the Berlin Wall. The wall came down, and then we were again in a-- oh my God, what do we do now kind of situation. Because the whole structure of the world was different.

And Secretary Baker and his team were able to enlist the French, the Germans, the Russians in a very complicated negotiation. And the structure was put together. The cooperation was put together. And it was done with hundreds of meetings and thousands of phone calls.

And that took us from a fixed, static situation of the Cold War into a stable one built on democracies, built on East Germans having a voice, based on Poles having a voice, based on Hungarians having a voice, based on Russians having a voice. And that was diplomacy at its best. And that, for a while, was an extraordinary success.

SARAH BALDWIN: Richard hopes there's similar diplomatic effort being put in right now between Russia and Ukraine, even if we're not seeing it on the nightly news.

RICHARD BOUCHER: I'm hoping there are secret talks going on somewhere that I don't know about, particularly between the Ukrainians and the Russians. And we can have a role helping with that. In the end, what is it going to take to make Russia feel comfortable within its own borders? Maybe that's a conversation we can't have yet, until they're back within their own borders. But it's a conversation we're going to need to have. And we're going to need to have it with the Russians.

SARAH BALDWIN: As Richard's work and this conversation made clear, no country, relationship, or conflict is ever permanently fixed. And no lessons are permanently internalized. Part of Richard's work at Watson is helping the next generation understand the mistakes of Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq in the hopes that someday we'll stop repeating them.


This episode was produced by Dan Richards and Kate Dario. Our theme music is by Henry Bloomfield. I'm Sarah Baldwin. Trending Globally is a podcast from the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University. You can find all our episodes by subscribing to Trending Globally wherever you listen to podcasts or on our website. We'll put a link in the show notes.

And if you like the show, help spread the word. You can leave a rating and review on Apple Podcasts or just tell a friend about us. We'll be back in two weeks. Thanks for listening.


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