There could be no celebration as the Afghan war finally comes to an end. At best, there can be mixed emotions, but mostly there’s sorrow and there’s regret. As Americans, we never like to say we’ve lost, but this time it’s unavoidable.
The Taliban, whom American troops had routed nearly 20 years ago, are now back in command. There could hardly be a worse loss, even as those in Washington’s forever-war complex insist that 20 years just wasn’t enough time to do the job.
Yes, we lost this war. But we didn’t lose it in the chaos at the airport or at any point in the botched withdrawal. You can say, as I have, that we suffered a moral failure in not getting out more of our vulnerable Afghan allies, even as there are now reports that the Biden administration negotiated a deal with the Taliban to get U.S. citizens safely to the airport. There are still Americans there. There are many thousands of Afghan allies still there that Biden insists we can somehow rescue.
Looking back, you can’t pinpoint a single day of defeat, but I think we can come close. In my view, we lost Afghanistan when George W. Bush decided to attack Iraq. That’s when the mission changed. Before going into Afghanistan, Bush had issued an ultimatum to the Taliban to destroy the camps and to turn over al-Qaeda leaders. If they had listened, this story would have been entirely different.
When the war in Afghanistan was launched, there was nearly unanimous approval. The attacks of 9/11 had been planned in the terrorist camps under Taliban protection. There was no real alternative to the war. And, if you’ll recall, American troops routed the Taliban and destroyed the camps in short order.
What they didn’t do was capture or kill Osama bin Laden. Instead, Bush and his team decided to go after Saddam Hussein, who had nothing to do with 9/11 and who had, as we now know and as many of us suspected from the beginning, no weapons of mass destruction. This decision, as you don’t need me to tell you, was probably the greatest blunder in the history of American warfare.
No one expected the Taliban to make the right call when they got Bush’s ultimatum. And I guess I never expected Bush and Cheney and the neocon gang to have made the right call either, although this time the decision-making would become far from unanimous.
If Bush had never invaded Iraq and had kept his eye on bin Laden, who, of course, had escaped, this would also have made for a very different story.
Years later, even after so many mistakes had been made, the war could have ended when Barack Obama, who ran for president on the basis of ending the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, sent off the team that killed bin Laden. That would have been a time to claim a little piece of a mission-accomplished boast and to end the war.
But by that time, we were deep into nation-building, which was never, if you look at Bush’s announcement of the war, part of the plan. But with what looked like easy victories and missions accomplished, the neocons had seen a historic chance to remake the world. It was a time of hubris and freedom fries and you’re with us or you’re with the terrorists. Obviously, they missed that lesson from Vietnam that the world is often resistant to the spread of the American Dream.
And once nation-building begins, it is extremely hard to end, and also, of course, to end the war that supports it. And so the war establishment convinced Obama that a little more time, a few more troops, were needed. And that if we pulled out, chaos would ensue.
Guess what. We pulled out all those years later, and chaos still ensued.
Joe Biden was right to pull out, even if the ending could have been better planned. Most Americans agree. The fact is, there would never be a good time. There would never be a happy ending. Instead we get an ending where an ISIS-K suicide bomber hits the Kabul airport, the last 13 American troops would die in Afghanistan, and extremists get to celebrate another atrocity.
And for those who didn’t blame President Donald Trump when he negotiated a deal with the Taliban, it’s purely hypocritical for them to blame Biden now. But when wouldn’t you place your bet on hypocrisy when it comes to politics?
Even though Obama didn’t end the war in Afghanistan — I guess he did in Iraq — the war ended in its own way some time ago. Americans simply forgot about it. Instead, birthers would accuse Obama of being a closet Muslim allied with terrorists, and the culture wars would become those that held America firmly in their grip.
And so, we forgot to pay attention to Afghanistan. We would always salute the troops and thank them for their service, but those words rang hollow. We left the troops in Afghanistan to fight a war with no end in sight, with many more killed, many more wounded, the lives of many families forever changed.
And now that the last service member has left Afghanistan, we count the losses, in lives and in treasure and in missed opportunities and in a country so badly divided that it was guaranteed we would fight over who to blame or credit, no matter how the war ended.
Soon we’ll turn to the 20th anniversary of 9/11 when America, for the last time in memory, was briefly united. It was so long ago that Rudy Giuliani was actually seen as a hero.
Years later, years after Bush said we weren’t fighting against a religion, Donald Trump would assure us we were. He not only shamelessly lied about seeing Muslims celebrating the fall of the World Trade Center towers, he then tried to ban those from certain Muslim countries from entering America.
Is it any wonder that all these years later, Trumpists tell us we shouldn’t bring Afghan refugees — our allies — to America because, well, terrorism or COVID or something?
In Spencer Ackerman’s book, Reign of Terror, he draws a line from 9/11 and the xenophobia that followed to Trump and his American Firstism and his appeal to those who see America under siege from anyone who isn’t, in Sarah Palin’s words, a real American. The Big Lie would follow, as would the Jan. 6 assault on the Capitol and on our democracy.
Well, the real Americans, or most of them anyway, have now left Afghanistan. It was time. And for all too many, it was all too late.
Mike Littwin’s column was produced for The Colorado Sun, a reader-supported news organization committed to covering the people, places and policies of Colorado. Learn more at coloradosun.com.