America’s longest war has tested, and defied, four presidents.
Twenty years after George W. Bush ordered the first B-52s to bomb al-Qaida strongholds in Afghanistan, the final C-17 cargo jet carrying troops and equipment lifted off from the Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul.
American forces are out.
“No words from me could possibly capture the full measure of sacrifices and accomplishments of those who serve, nor the emotions they’re feeling at this moment, but I will say that I’m proud that both my son and I have been a part of it,” said Marine Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, the head of U.S. Central Command.
Operation Enduring Freedom was launched at a moment of almost unprecedented national unity. The nation was reeling from the 9/11 terror attacks on New York and Washington in 2001, and U.S. intelligence agencies quickly identified as culprits Osama bin Laden and the Islamic extremist group he led, which was given haven by the Taliban.
The war in Afghanistan finally ended Monday not with celebration but recrimination about all that has gone wrong and criticism about misjudgments made by a series of commanders in chief. The war has created a fraternity of frustration among them.
Before he announced plans to withdraw the final 2,500 U.S. troops in the spring, President Joe Biden called Bush and former President Barack Obama to let them know. He was unwilling to turn over this war to a fifth president, he said, and unwilling to send even one more American soldier to his death there.
Biden’s deadline triggered the collapse of Afghan forces, the advance of the Taliban, the chaotic evacuation of more than 120,000 Americans and Afghan allies — and a suicide bombing by a terrorist group called ISIS-K that caused one of the deadliest daily tolls of the war. The maelstrom has opened Biden to a flood of criticism about the competence of his administration.
Biden delivered on his promise to end the U.S. deployment in Afghanistan, a stance he had advocated privately as vice president in the Obama administration and one he repeated publicly during the 2020 presidential campaign.
Responsibility for the start of the war and its leadership through a generation goes to his predecessors. Bush, Obama and Donald Trump each has faced scrutiny, some of it scathing, for decisions both military and diplomatic. By more than 2-1, 60%-28%, Americans told a USA TODAY/Suffolk Poll the war hadn’t been worth it.
— Bush is faulted for turning his attention and U.S. resources to the invasion of Iraq in 2003. He expanded the goal in Afghanistan to nation-building, to establishing a Western-style democracy. In the survey, nearly two-thirds of those who said the war wasn’t worth it held Bush responsible.
— Obama promised during the 2008 campaign to end the nation’s “forever” wars, especially in Iraq. But when he took office in 2009, he was persuaded to approve a surge of 30,000 troops to Afghanistan. Even after bin Laden was captured and killed in 2011, warnings about the imperative to counter terrorism delayed Obama’s commitment to fully withdraw. When he left office in 2017, there were almost 10,000 U.S. troops deployed there.
— Trump vowed as a candidate to bring the troops home. He signed a “peace deal” with the Taliban last year that he predicted would end the fighting; it didn’t.
The critique was bipartisan in an investigation of the war and its roots by a special inspector general in 2019, first reported by The Washington Post. It found that a succession of senior U.S. officials failed to tell Americans the truth, making rosy pronouncements they knew to be false and hiding evidence that the war had become unwinnable.
After 20 years of combat, the investment of more than $2 trillion in treasure, the deaths of more than 2,400 U.S. troops — and of more than 100,000 Afghan soldiers and civilians — where do the war’s goals stand?
U.S. efforts improved the lives of millions of Afghans by some measures, including literacy and life expectancy, the inspector general reported last month. But he concluded that the gains were neither commensurate with the cost nor sustainable after U.S. troops pulled out.
Though al-Qaida has been largely routed, it’s hard to argue that the original goal of the invasion, to eliminate Afghanistan as a staging ground for terrorists, has been achieved.
Even more difficult to see on the horizon is the broader goal that the war came to embrace, to establish a stable democracy in Afghanistan, especially one that would respect the rights of women and girls. Taliban officials taking power warned women to stay in their homes, and there have been reports from regional provinces of young girls forced into “marriages” with Taliban fighters.
Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., who supports Biden’s decision to withdraw, called the policy failures “epic” and the war’s goals “illusory.”
“I think we all share responsibility for it,” H.R. McMaster, a retired general and former national security adviser for Trump, said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” “It’s been a one-year war fought 20 times over with ineffective strategies based on flawed assumptions,” ending in what he called “self-defeat.”
Addressing the issues that drew the United States into Afghanistan, and kept U.S. troops there for so long, will become even more problematic. Monitoring and disrupting terror groups will be harder without military outposts on the ground. Friday, U.S. forces blew up the sprawling center of the CIA’s counterterrorism operations, the Eagle Base, in an explosion that echoed across Kabul. The destruction was designed to deny the Taliban equipment and information left behind.
At risk of retribution, even execution, are thousands of Afghans who helped Americans by working as soldiers, as translators, as teachers.
Trump fired off statements denouncing Biden’s stewardship. Comments from the other two former presidents about the war’s end were laced with sorrow.
“I think about all the interpreters and people that helped not only U.S. troops, but NATO troops and they’re just, it seems like they’re just going to be left behind to be slaughtered by these very brutal people, and it breaks my heart,” Bush told the German state broadcaster Deutsche Welle in an interview in July.
Obama said he was “heartbroken” by the loss of life in the suicide bombing outside the Kabul airport. He had endorsed Biden’s decision to withdraw. “After nearly two decades of putting our troops in harm’s way,” he said, “it is time to recognize that we have accomplished all that we can militarily, and that it’s time to bring our remaining troops home.”
Even without boots on the ground, Secretary of State Antony Blinken vowed that the effort to help Americans and Afghan allies leave, if they wish, “will continue every day past Aug. 31.” The work to resettle thousands of Afghan refugees around the world is likely to take years and fuel the fierce debate about immigration in the USA and elsewhere. Some Americans see a moral obligation to try to protect Afghan women and girls from the brutal treatment that marked Taliban rule.
War or not, Afghanistan isn’t over. Not yet.
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