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All Our Recent Wars Have Gone Worse Than Expected

Victory has proved more expensive, time-consuming, and elusive than advocates predicted for the conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya

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Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya. What do these conflicts have in common beyond U.S. involvement, at great expense? A trio of news stories published today hint at one significant similarity.

Item one: "The hugely expensive U.S. attempt at nation-building in Afghanistan has had only limited success and may not survive an American withdrawal, according to the findings of a two-year congressional investigation."

Item two: "The State Department is preparing to spend close to $3 billion to hire a security force to protect diplomats in Iraq after the U.S. pulls its last troops out of the country by year's end."

Item three: "British and French attack helicopters struck for the first time inside Libya over the weekend, significantly ramping up NATO's operations. Ten explosions shook the capital early Wednesday, a day after the alliance's most intense wave of air strikes of the two-month campaign. The intensified air strikes raise the question of whether NATO is sticking rigidly to its U.N. mandate to protect civilians."

Do you see what I see?

Despite the differences in these wars, all are proceeding in ways that were unanticipated by their most prominent backers. In every case, the unwelcome surprises are so significant that they totally change the nature of the conflict. And had Americans had better forecasts about what would actually be involved in these military operations, opposition to launching them might have been far more widespread.

These realities are reinforced almost every time that Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya are in the news. And that ought to impart a lesson to elected officials and to the electorate: wars generally go much worse than expected. The folks who plan for them are regularly wrong... and even when they're right, that doesn't mean the politicians in charge are going to heed the advice they're given.

The next time the occupant of the Oval Office, the opposition leadership in Congress, or the Weekly Standard editorial board is agitating for war, it's worth recalling that America's ruling class has been impressively consistent in its ability to underestimate the costs and difficulty of its military campaigns. One might even say America is unexceptional in this regard.

Image credit: Reuters


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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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