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Why Haven't We Learned Anything After 10 Years of Fighting in Afghanistan?

Almost 10 years after the Bush administration invaded Afghanistan, we find ourselves in a state that might otherwise be achieved only if you mated déjà vu with a Mobius strip.

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One day in October 2001, a pilot for Northwest Airlines refused to let Arshad Chowdhury, a 25-year-old American Muslim (“with a dark complexion”) who had once worked as an investment banker in the World Trade Center, board his plane at San Francisco National Airport.  According to Northwest’s gate agents, Chowdhury writes in the Washington Post, “he thought my name sounded suspicious” even though “airport security and the FBI verified that I posed no threat.”  He sued.

Now, skip nearly a decade.  It’s May 6, 2011, and two New York-based African-American imams, a father and son, attempting to take an American Airlines flight from New York to Charlotte to attend a conference on "prejudice against Muslims," were prevented from flying.  The same thing happened to two imams in Memphis “dressed in traditional long shirts and [with] beard,” heading for the same conference, when a pilot for Atlantic Southeast refused to fly with them aboard, even though they had been screened three times.

So how is the war in Afghanistan going almost 10 years later?  Or do you think that’s a non sequitur?

I don’t, and let me suggest two reasons why: first, boredom; second, the missing learning curve.

At home and abroad, whether judging by airline pilots or Washington’s war policy, Americans seem remarkably incapable of doing anything other than repeating the same self-defeating acts, as if they had never happened before.  Hence Afghanistan.  Almost 10 years after the Bush administration invaded Afghanistan and proclaimed victory, like imam-paralyzed airline pilots, we find ourselves in a state that might otherwise be achieved only if you mated déjà vu with a Mobius strip.

If you aren’t already bored to death, you should be.  Because, believe me, you’ve read it all before.  Take the last month of news from America’s second Afghan War.  If nobody told you otherwise, you could easily believe that almost every breaking Afghan story in the last four weeks came from some previous year of the war.

Headlines from the Dustbin of History (Afghan Department)

Let me explain with seven headlines ripped from the news, all of which sit atop Afghan War articles that couldn’t be newer -- or older.  Each represents news of our moment that was also news in previous moments; each should leave Americans wondering about Washington’s learning curve.

* “ Pentagon reports 'tangible progress' in Afghanistan”: Here, the headline tells you everything you need to know.  Things are going remarkably swimmingly, according to a recent congressionally mandated Pentagon report (which cost a mere $344,259 to produce).  How many times in recent years has the military claimed “progress” in Afghanistan, with the usual carefully placed reservations about the fragility or reversibility of the situation?  (Oh, and how many times have U.S. intelligence reports been far gloomier on the same subject?)

* “ Afghan violence rises amid troop surge -- Pentagon”: The information that led to this headline came, curiously enough, from that very same upbeat Pentagon report.  As the Reuters piece to which this headline was attached put it: “A surge of U.S. troops into Afghanistan has dealt a blow to the Taliban insurgency, but total violence has risen since last fall and is likely to keep climbing, the Pentagon said on Friday in a new assessment of the war as it approaches its 10-year mark.”  This spring, insurgent attacks have reportedly been up about 80% compared to the previous year, which might be more startling if the rise-in-violence piece weren’t a longtime staple of Afghan War reportage.

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