History could soon repeat itself in Iran: What has 17 years of war in Afghanistan taught us?

Listening to the news media and state officials discuss how to respond to recent turmoil with Iran feels a lot like stepping into a time machine.

Rewind back to February 2003 when the Secretary of Defense Colin Powell, who eventually became a staunch critic of the war in Iraq, gave an address to the United Nations on Iraq’s alleged weapons of mass destruction, or WMD’s. In his speech, he asserted that the U.S. had indisputable intel that Iraq had “biological weapons factories on wheels,” and that the U.S. needed to act now to dismantle their capabilities. 

Though most of us know now that this was a manufactured lie peddled by the administration and its allies, most people at the time were unaware of what was going on behind closed doors. To the public, it seemed as if there were a credible, impending threat coming from a Middle Eastern country following the attack of 9/11. That was enough for most people to support aggressive action. 

Most importantly, the lie that sold the American public was based on claims that were possible but not necessarily plausible. It’s arguable that Saddam Hussein’s Iraq posed a degree of threat to the U.S., but the administration didn’t have enough to justify an attack. Instead, it manipulated the facts to support their conclusion and use fear-mongering to turn the public against Iraq. 

The consequence are now written in our history books. In fact, it’s less so history and more so a headline. Just last week, two soldiers were killed in Afghanistan. The soldiers who lost their lives join more than 2,300 who have died in the Afghan War since 2001, and another 4,400 in Iraq since 2003. This is, of course, on top of the over 111,000 Afghanis and 460,000 Iraqis killed since the war began. 

What did we get out of a war that was started by riling unwarranted suspicions and misleading the public? The Islamic State, a bogged-down effort in Afghanistan and the lowest credibility of Western leaders in the Middle East to date resulted. 

I detail the casualties and events leading up to Iraq and Afghanistan because our history is beginning to look eerily like the present. Since May, the U.S. has dubiously accused Iran of attacking six ships in the Strait of Hormuz. On June 20, the U.S. accused them of shooting down an American spy drone. In response, President Donald Trump sent warplanes to strike back, calling off a bombing run just 10 minutes before the scheduled strike. 

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The justification for an attack on Iran is thin. The Japanese government has called the evidence of Iran’s role in sinking their vessels not “convincing,” and the German government has cast doubt on videos released by the U.S. as proof. 

Contextually, these moves are a part of the Trump administration’s campaign to foment intense opposition to Iran. In mid-June, the U.S. sent troops and firepower to Iran to combat what the administration characterizes as “troubling, escalatory and dangerous” behavior in the Middle East. Yet, war hawks in Trump’s administration are having a hard time articulating what those exact threats are. In an appearance on Fox and Friends, Trump claimed that the attacks “probably got essentially Iran written all over it.” Mike Pompeo and John Bolton have made aggressive comments about Iran, suggesting that all options are “on the table.” 

But why? Is it because Iran is pursuing a nuclear bomb? A nuclear bomb that the Iran Deal would have prevented had Trump not scrapped it despite Iran’s compliance? Is it their funding of militant groups across the Middle East, similar to our long-time ally and top arms buyer Saudi Arabia’s funding of jihadist extremism and Wahhabi clerism? It sounds like Trump is singling out Iran because it is politically expedient to do (election year is upon us), not because they represent a unique and existential threat to us. 

Don’t just blame the administration for fabricating a story about a supposed threat to justify military aggression. Politicians on both sides are helping Trump sabre-rattle. Congressman Adam Schiff of California (D) is backing Trump, saying on Twitter that evidence of Iran’s attacks is “strong.” News outlets are making things worse by giving the same talking heads that got the Iraq War wrong a platform to argue for invading Iran. 

It seems as if we have a deep political amnesia for the events of 2001 and 2003. Here you have an administration with a record of manufacturing aggression and misleading the public to justify flexing our military muscles threatening war in the Middle East – again. To add to the severity, the media and politicians are dog-piling on by the hour, feeding the hawkish inclinations of the executive branch. It is, without exception, parallel to the story told before we stormed into the Middle East. 

For those certain that Trump would never be stupid enough to pull the trigger, the news doesn’t get much better. Even if the U.S. never strikes first, words of war send mixed messages to Iran, who might misread Trump’s red line and miscalculate, leading to an all-out battle between the U.S. and Iran. 

But moreover, let’s assume that Iran truly is responsible for sinking those ships and firing at our spy drones. Our response should still center around de-escalation rather than provocation. Why? No matter how much the president or the American public hates Iran, another war in the Middle East would be devastating. 

If you think Iraq and Afghanistan has been disastrous, consider the list of allies or prospective enemies that might come to Iran’s aid should things get messy: Russia, Syria, Turkey, Hezbollah, Hamas, China, Iraqi paramilitaries and a host of terrorist networks and militias being funded by Iran. Not to mention, the Middle East still hasn’t recovered from the long-term damage done by the post-9/11 invasions, and would thus be unwelcoming towards our return. Clearly, we can’t afford another complex, expensive proxy war in the Middle East. 

When everything is said and done, we will have gained nothing by applying Trump’s strategy of maximum pressure towards Iran. All we will have is blood on our hands, more dead soldiers and a devastated credibility on the international stage. 

To avoid repeating history, the U.S. must stand down and begin discussions with Iranian officials to de-escalate. Removing ships and troops out of Iran’s vicinity would alter the perception that the U.S. is about to strike, which might give Iran reason to watch its airspaces more closely. We might not get them to stop their nefarious activities completely, but that’s the price of a cool-headed foreign policy: reasonable compromise and balanced expectations.