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Finale of the Forever War

Twenty years, 2,300 deaths, $1 trillion: what did the US achieve in Afghanistan?

Photos: AP Images


The jetliners that were flown by al-Qaeda terrorists into the World Trade Center and Pentagon in 2001 changed the world forever. Fortress America looked vulnerable, radical Islam was on the march, and a new era of terror was launched.

The immediate result of the attacks was a US declaration of war against terror, backed up by a coalition of other Western countries. Just three days after 9/11, Congress passed the “authorization for use of military force against terrorists,” which was signed into law by President George W. Bush four days later. The law authorized the president to use military force to strike everyone responsible for the terror attacks as well as anyone who gave them shelter.

Things moved quickly from there. On September 20, Bush delivered an ultimatum to the Taliban government of Afghanistan — turn over terror mastermind Osama Bin Laden or suffer the consequences. With the fires still burning at Ground Zero, Bush made good on his threat, as America — together with a coalition of NATO allies — invaded Afghanistan less than a month after the attacks, on October 7,

When American jets began pounding the Taliban, no one could have predicted that the attempt to destroy al-Qaeda’s hosts would turn into a quagmire that has lasted two decades. No one can forget where they were on 9/11, but for a child born on that day, Americans fighting in Afghanistan has been the only reality he’s known.

So last week’s announcement by President Joe Biden that all American forces would be withdrawn from the country by September 11 was the end of an era.

“It’s time to end this forever war,” he said.

But for a historic declaration, reaction was muted. If Biden’s speech had been delivered five or six years ago, the press would have obsessed over it for weeks. But the news that America was ending its longest war was greeted by the foreign policy world as something long overdue, and by most Americans with a collective yawn.

So as the US prepares to exit the country once called the “Graveyard of Empires,” leaving behind a resurgent Taliban, what has been achieved over the last 20 years? After expending 2,300 lives and $1 trillion in bringing democracy to the country, what did the blood and treasure achieve?

The Good War

John Hannah, today a senior fellow at JINSA’s Gemunder Center for Defense and Strategy, has a lot of mileage in the Afghanistan war. He served in senior foreign policy positions for both Democratic and Republican administrations over the last 20 years. From 2005 to 2009, he was chief foreign policy advisor in Vice President Dick Cheney’s Office of National Security Affairs, after serving as deputy national security advisor for the Middle East for the vice president from 2001 to 2005. He says that even today, the demand to end the war and give up on Afghanistan has always come much more from the American elite and political class than from the broader population.

“At least at its start, the Afghan war was considered the ‘good war’ by most Americans, an entirely justified response to the horrific al-Qaeda terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001,” Hannah told Mishpacha. “In contrast to the war in Iraq, which was later derided by many critics as a war of choice, Afghanistan had broad popular support from the start as a war of necessity.”

He said that in the eyes of Americans across the political spectrum, the United States had to go to Afghanistan to punish, if not destroy, those who had perpetrated the 9/11 atrocities and make sure they would never be able to do so again.

“That perception imbued the war with a greater legitimacy in the eyes of the American people, and helped sustain popular support for the mission for a longer period of time — even as the conflict dragged on and the difficulties of helping build a stable Afghan government capable of standing on its own feet proved elusive,” he said.

Michael Kugelman is the deputy director of the Asia Program and senior associate for South Asia at the Wilson Center, is a leading specialist on Afghanistan, India, and Pakistan and their relations with the United States. He agrees that the war carried broad legitimacy, but he thinks the effort was encumbered with open-ended, unclear objectives.

“Let’s put it this way — it would have been difficult to justify not starting the war,” he told Mishpacha. “The US had just experienced its worst-ever terrorist attack, and it had to go after those that had orchestrated it. Once the Taliban refused to give up Osama Bin Laden, it would have been very difficult — for both domestic political and security reasons in the US — to refuse to stage a military intervention.”

Conquering Afghanistan proved the easy part. By mid-November the allied forces were in control of Kabul, the capital, as well as most of the rest of the country. The Taliban regime had been toppled, the exiled president Rabbani was returned to power, and at least on paper, the allied forces had made a significant achievement.

But then the problematic phase began, the attritionary phase. The remaining Taliban forces fled to the hills along the Pakistani border, and the US believed that Osama Bin Laden and his men were hiding in the Tora Bora caves. In the Battle of Tora Bora in late 2001, the allied forces came very close to capturing Bin Laden, but he managed to escape over the border to Pakistan.

After the occupation of the country was completed, ISAF — the NATO security mission called for by the United Nations — was established, and with that, the easy part of the War on Terror was over.

“While the war may have been justified initially, it was not worth fighting for nearly 20 years,” says Kugelman. “The US achieved its initial goal-eliminating al-Qaeda sanctuaries very early on. After that point, successive US governments struggled to justify why the US was still in Afghanistan. It’s hard to win a war when you don’t know why you’re fighting it.”

Into the Quagmire

The United States had already had a nasty experience with the so-called “asymmetric warfare” that became the hard slog against the Taliban. In Vietnam, too, the world’s strongest army came up against guerilla tactics and suffered heavy losses as well as public criticism.

When Israel fought an asymmetric war in Lebanon for 15 years, it too faced the dilemma of when to end the war and how to terminate a prolonged military operation whose objectives nobody could say had been met because they were unclear.

But with Afghanistan, unlike with Vietnam, there was no large-scale movement calling for an end to the war. Patrick James, the Dornsife Dean’s Professor of International Relations at USC, told Mishpacha that “as opposed to Vietnam, or later, Iraq, the war in Afghanistan clearly involved an attack on the US. Vietnam is clouded by ongoing concerns that the US did not receive any direct threat to its own soil from North Vietnam.”

According to John Hannah, “There’s been nothing like the mass peace movement that we saw during the Vietnam War, with thousands of people around the country regularly taking to the streets to put immense pressure on the national leadership to end the war.

“Indeed, in the 2020 elections, ending the Afghanistan war almost certainly didn’t rank among the top five issues of greatest concern to the American people.

“One reason why it became the ‘forgotten war’ is the absence of a draft today, and the fact that so many fewer American families are directly affected by the war than was the case during Vietnam. But another reason is that — as costly as Afghanistan has been for the United States, with more than 2,000 American soldiers killed over two decades — the losses in Vietnam were much greater by several orders of magnitude. The fact is that from a military standpoint, the US war effort in Afghanistan today is an entirely sustainable mission. There a low numbers of US troops providing support mostly away from the front lines to Afghan security forces who have done almost all the fighting and dying.”

War on Autopilot

On May 2, 2011, Osama Bin Laden was finally hunted down by US forces, near Abbottabad, Pakistan. In two weeks, we’ll mark the tenth anniversary of his elimination, and yet the American military presence in Afghanistan continues. Over the years, and especially after Bin Laden’s killing, different presidents have promised to end the American military presence in Afghanistan. As a matter of fact, with the exception of George W. Bush, who started the war, every subsequent president — Obama, Trump, Biden — has promised to pull out. So why has it taken so much time?

According to John Hannah, that was a failure of presidential leadership. “Rather than using the power of their office and the bully pulpit to constantly explain to the American people why remaining in Afghanistan with a small troop presence was critical for fighting terrorism and preventing another 9/11, they either didn’t talk about the war much at all, as in Obama’s case, or as in Trump’s case, actually led the calls of those who insisted that the continued US presence was a lost cause, waste of resources, or both.”

But wishing Afghanistan away without doing anything about it, says Hannah, was the worst of all worlds. “Even with their strong desire to bring troops home, neither Obama nor Trump succeeded in doing so, in no small part because they understood that the risks attached to total withdrawal outweighed the likely benefits of terminating the small US presence. While fully appreciating all the dangers of an Afghan collapse, Biden has made clear he’s prepared to bear those risks to achieve what he believes is the greater long-term good for the country of extricating it from the Afghan quagmire.”

In the Trump era, says Professor James, inter-Republican politics prevented a total withdrawal. “For Trump, withdrawal would anger the faction within his party that saw imminent danger from a troop withdrawal. Members of the Trump base, the other faction in the party, probably would be more favorable to a withdrawal — ending what they saw as an endless war. However, in the end, the staying power of the status quo proved to be overwhelming.”

For Michael Kugelman, there was also the sense that success was only one small push away. “There was always a sense of ‘let’s just give it a bit more time.’ Past presidents concluded that by keeping US troops on just a bit longer, the gains of the post-Taliban era could be consolidated. In reality, this was a lie. In recent years, the Taliban has become stronger than ever, and the country has become even more unstable — all with US boots on the ground.”

Undefined, Unclear

So as Army quartermasters prepare to ship out quantities of Hummers and other military assets, the question remains: Did the US presence there fulfill its mission?

“This critical question can’t be answered, because the current mission has never been properly defined,” says Michael Kugelman. “Have the perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks been eliminated? Yes. Has terrorism been eradicated, has the Taliban been defeated, and has Afghanistan become a stable place? Not at all. But then again, it’s unclear which if any of these goals constitute part of the current mission.”

David B. Edwards, James N. Lambert ’39 Professor of Anthropology at Williams College, is less equivocal. “The problem was that the US never had a mission. It never had a strategy. It only had tactics, but never a clearly thought-out or articulated set of goals that would constitute a ‘mission.’

“One reason for that is that we didn’t know anything about the country. Through the 1980s, we gave hundreds of millions of dollars to the Pakistanis to give to the Afghans, and we were content to let them decide who to give the money to and we stayed out. Then another decade passed in which we again failed to pay any attention to what was going on in Afghanistan.

“If we had had some idea of Afghan history and culture and politics, we could have made better choices and been in a position to have a mission. But we didn’t, and now we will abandon the Afghans again, as we did in 1989, and there will once again be consequences for that decision, the nature of which we can’t predict. But there will be consequences.”

Michael O’Hanlon, a senior fellow and director of research in foreign policy at the Brookings Institute, thinks that on an interim basis, the goals were achieved. “Of course the risk remains,” he says. “But in 20 years, we have not had another major attack from that region.”

After Trump prepared the political road for Biden’s withdrawal, a related question is whether it’s now the time to bring the soldiers home. Even after 20 years, the foreign policy experts are from united.

According to Michael Kugelman, “it’s definitely time to come home. To be sure, there are tremendous risks in leaving Afghanistan. The Taliban could fight its way back to power.

“But the main justification for staying on in Afghanistan has long been to wage counterterrorism operations to ensure the country doesn’t once again become a safe haven for terror groups that plot and mount attacks on the US. But it’s not 2001 anymore. Al-Qaeda is a shadow of its former self. ISIS is resilient, but there’s no indication it has the ability to plot attacks on US targets outside of Afghanistan, much less on the US homeland. The Taliban is a local insurgency that isn’t interested in staging attacks outside Afghanistan.”

John Hannah disagrees, arguing that the current low cost to the US taxpayer in both blood and treasure is sustainable. “Politically, it’s a brave decision, one that Biden deserves credit for,” he says. “But I don’t agree with it. In reality, as hard as it is to accept, effective national security policies are not always about achieving heroic victories, but rather about keeping the forces of mass chaos and violence at bay at sustainable cost until better options emerge. US policy in Afghanistan was effectively serving that important, albeit difficult mission.”

In a testament to the sustained legitimacy that the “Forever War” has even after 20 years, Professor Edwards argues that leaving the Afghani government to fend for themselves damages America’s credibility. “It’s a mistake on a number of levels,” he says, “not the least of which that it basically tells the Taliban that they have no more reason to negotiate, and it tells the Afghans who trusted us that they were suckers. Promises broken, and hope springs eternal for those who wish us ill.”

(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 857)

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