Reflections On America’s Longest War

Sep 11th, 2021 | By | Category: Featured Issues, Politics & Current Events

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The war in Afghanistan lasted 19 years and 47 weeks, beginning with the first bombing of the Taliban on 7 October 2001. It was America’s longest war. Over the past two decades, the U.S. has been able to claim some accomplishments: American troops killed Osama bin Laden (in Pakistan, not Afghanistan) and captured or killed other architects of the 9/11 attacks. Afghanistan was temporarily turned into a democracy where schools improved and women could live more freely than before.  For all of the bravery and sacrifice of the Afghan and American troops who fought together, their leaders failed to create an enduring government or functioning military. Despite two decades of work and about $2 trillion dollars spent, the U.S.-backed Afghan government collapsed in a matter of days.  “Across the span of American history, it’s hard to think of another failed project that lasted so long or cost so much. There have been worse injustices and tragedies in this country, but they were usually deliberate. The U.S. has been attempting to win in Afghanistan for nearly the entire 21st century.”

As the US passes this historic milestone, it is important to reflect on these last two decades of war.

  • First, let’s go back to 2001.  At the start, in early October 2001, the US rode a wave of international support following 9/11 to launch a sustained aerial campaign against al Qaeda and the Taliban and dispatched Special Operations forces to assist a Northern Afghanistan resistance organization.  “The result was a rout.”  Within 60 days, the Taliban was driven from power, with the loss of only 4 US troops and 1 CIA agent.  Flushed with success, the US was not quite certain what to do next.  Then Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld made no real distinction between al Qaeda and the Taliban and worried about the US getting bogged down in Afghanistan.  Perhaps most importantly, Rumsfeld neglected to build up the Afghan security forces.  By 2004, a mere 6,000 Afghan Army troops had been trained and by 2006, when he stepped down, that figure was 26,000.  That same year the Taliban launched their successful offensive to retake the country.  Furthermore, by that time the US under George Bush was giving near singular focus to Iraq.  It was now clear that the US was losing the war in Afghanistan.  The important “surge” under President Obama in 2009 temporarily stopped the Taliban advance but failed to produce lasting results.  President Trump continued a military presence but was adamant that the US must end its policy of “endless wars” in the Middle East.  Therefore, under the four-page deal signed with the Taliban in February 2020, Trump agreed to withdraw all American troops by 1 May 2021, lift sanctions and compel the release of 5,000 prisoners held by the Afghan government, which took no part in the negotiations.  The Taliban committed to not attacking American troops as they left Afghanistan or let terrorist groups use Afghanistan as a base to attack the US.  It was such a one-sided bargain that even Trump’s former national security adviser H.R. McMaster called it a “surrender agreement.”  Therefore, Trump reduced American forces from 13,000 to 4,500.  Had he been re-elected, American troops would already be out of Afghanistan.  Finally, as Ross Douthat comments, “the withdrawal’s shambolic quality [under President Biden] . . . displayed incompetence in departing a country that matched our impotence in pacifying it.  There were aspects of chaos that were probably inevitable, but the Biden White House was clearly caught flat-footed by the speed to the Taliban advance, with key personnel disappearing on vacation just before the Kabul government dissolved.  And the president himself has appeared exhausted, aged, overmatched—making basic promises about getting every American safely home and then seeing them overtaken by events.”
  • Second, As Walter Russell Mead correctly summarizes, President Biden believed three things about Afghanistan:  [1] That he could stage a dignified and orderly withdrawal from America’s longest war.  [2] That a Taliban win in Afghanistan would not seriously affect US power and prestige in the world.  [3] That Americans were eager enough to put the Afghan war behind them that voters would not punish him even if the withdrawal was perceived as a failure.  But the way the withdrawal unfolded, he strained our alliances, especially NATO, and handed a potentially major advantage to Russia and China, adversaries he swore to confront.  Indeed, “the big win for China in Afghanistan is seeing American humbled.”  And as the columnist “Lexington” in The Economist observes, “He has made a farce of his pledge to restore human, especially women’s and minority, rights to foreign policy.”  With the Taliban victory, the killing will not stop in Afghanistan and women will be treated as chattel.
  • Third, as Paul Wolfowitz has argued, the war against Islamic Terror will not subside but will intensify.  “The Taliban feel inspired by their victory over the US, which they portray as replicating the historic victory of the Afghan resistance over the Soviet Union in the 1980s.”  He also maintains strongly that it was mistake for Trump to trust the Taliban and for Biden to ignore the Taliban’s aggressive opposition to a peaceful outcome.  Perceptively, he contends that “the president was wrong to disparage the bravery of the Afghans, 66,000 of whom had died defending their country—nearly thirty times the number of American combat deaths in Afghanistan.  Giving the impression that the US had borne the brunt of the fighting is virtually designed to make Americans say it is time to quit.”
  • Fourth, America’s withdrawal from Afghanistan highlights what Bret Stephens calls a “broken windows” world.  As America continues to retreat from its strategic role in the Middle East and as the “world’s policeman,” consider what has happened:
  1. Under President Obama, we vacated Iraq in 2011.  Instead of peace, we got “the horror of ISIS, forcing us to send back troops and fight a war that lasted for years, [which] cost thousands of civilian lives and led to the displacement of more than 3 million people.”
  2. We declared that Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons would cross a red line and lead to a decisive US response.  As Assad brazenly used chemical weapons against his own people, the US ignored “the red line” forcing millions of Syrians into exile, straining the nations of Lebanon and Jordan, while flooding Europe with refugees in 2015.
  3. China in 2020 unilaterally revoked the “one country, two systems” policy for Hong Kong.  The US and the world did nothing.
  4. In Russia, Vladimir Putin annexed Crimea in 2014.  Putin further fomented a pro-Russian insurrection in eastern Ukraine.  He sent Russian forces to support Assad in Syria and persistently interfered in American and European elections.  The US response at best to all these events was muted.

This is the global context in which the catastrophe in Afghanistan has occurred.  For that reason, watch what Putin does in his ongoing challenge to NATO, especially in Latvia.  Too, watch what China does as it moves subtly, yet decisively, toward seizing Taiwan.  As American influence continues to recede, the “broken windows” world will continue to deteriorate.

  • Finally, Ross Douthat asks us to reflect on “the American Empire in Retreat.”  What he means is the retreat from areas of world influence the US has exercised since World War II:  [1] The “inner empire,” the continental US, with its pacific and Caribbean holdings.  [2] The “outer empire,” namely the regions that the US occupied and rebuilt after World War II—Western Europe and the Pacific Rim.  [3] The remaining parts of the world, where the commercial and cultural power of the US has reached.

China and Russia are clearly challenging US influence in numbers 2 and 3.  And as we end the “forever wars,” to use former president Trump’s phrase, our influence will further recede.  Are we witnessing the decline of America as a world power?  Is the Afghanistan catastrophe a metaphor for this decline?  It is too early to reach such a dramatic conclusion, but one thing is certain: America is not wielding the kind of influence it has had since 1945.  We are alienating our allies and emboldening our enemies, especially Russia and China.  May God have mercy on our nation!

See David Leonhardt, New York Times “The Morning” (31 August 2021); New York Times news “analysis” (20 August 2021); David Ignatius, “Don’t compound the Afghanistan mistake by fighting the last war” in the Washington Post (31 August 2021); Fredrik Logevall in the New York Times Book Review (5 September 2021); Ross Douthat in the New York Times (1 September 2021 and 5 September 2021); Walter Russell Mead in The Wall Street Journal (17 August 2021); The Economist (21 August 2021), p. 28; Paul Wolfowitz in the Wall Street Journal (28-29 August 2021); and Bret Stephens in the New York Times (25 August 2021).

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