Roughly 20 years ago, I wrote some (very unpopular, mind you) op-eds about our adventures in Afghanistan. As a lefty liberal in a conservative Northeast Wisconsin redoubt, I took a far less knee-jerk approach to 9/11 than some of my neighbors. I experienced the pain, horror, and fear of that day like anyone else. Still, my instinct was always to reject half-baked, jingoistic calls for “nation-building” (to resurrect a term George W. Bush had derisively used himself during the 2000 presidential campaign) and for using military action as a first—rather than rarely tapped and last—resort.
The publication I was writing for doesn’t exist anymore (it’s hard to overstate how unpopular antiwar sentiment was back in the early 2000s), and I don’t have any copies of those old, dusty opinion pieces, but I do distinctly recall my conclusion about our foray into the infamous “graveyard of empires.” I wrote something along the lines of “it’s hard to imagine a thriving Western-style democracy coming out of all this.”
Given the cultural and political challenges inherent in creating the kind of free and open “nation” that Bush was then proposing we “build,” it looked, to some extent, like a lost cause from the beginning. An operation to locate and capture Osama bin Laden? Sure, I was on board for that, and as Daily Kos’ Mark Sumner writes in this important retrospective, we had more than one opportunity to nab bin Laden without turning Afghanistan into a perpetual graveyard.
So why were we invading? Good question. Was it because they wanted to run an oil pipeline through the country? Was it to boost the fortunes of military contractors, who would waste no time scurrying up to the money spigot the U.S. government was preparing to put on blast? Or was it simply that our leaders at the time had big, feral war boners for any nation populated by brown-skinned Muslims? Or maybe it was a, b, c, and then some.
Whatever the reason, I smelled a rat. It was similar to my reaction roughly a year and a half later when Bush and his war machine started agitating for an invasion of Iraq while furiously misleading a great nation about Saddam Hussein’s (nonexistent) connections to bin Laden. By that time, I was smelling several rats and maybe a sewer-dwelling capybara or two. Just as the war party had less-destructive options early on in Afghanistan (as Sumner notes, the Bush administration rejected a surrender offer from the Taliban as well as overtures that could have led to the capture of bin Laden himself), the invasion of Iraq seemed, at least to me, completely unnecessary given that the UN had inspectors on the ground in Iraq looking for WMD even as Bush champed at the bit to invade. They were so sure the WMD were there, and they were spectacularly wrong.
Now, with the collapse of the Afghan government, which we spent nearly 20 years propping up with considerable blood and treasure, it’s clear that I—and the vocal minority of antiwar protesters at the time—were right. Bush and his enablers, including many of today’s anti-Biden armchair quarterbacks, such as Sean Hannity and Bill O’Reilly, were disastrously wrong. And, not for nothing, those pro-war cheerleaders cost us plenty in terms of lives, resources, and lost credibility.
There’s a lot that’s galling about conservatives’ reaction to the chaos we’ve seen in Afghanistan over the past several days. First and foremost, this was their hero Donald Trump’s plan all along, only he wanted to leave by Christmas and had established a May 1 deadline for the wholesale removal of our troops. The situation would have likely been worse under a second Trump regime, and even if things had somehow appeared less chaotic (given Trump’s allergy to planning and his affinity for chaos, this seems unlikely), it’s a preposterous fantasy to think the result—a complete Taliban takeover of the country—could have been avoided.
I assume President Biden received some bad intelligence concerning the Afghan military’s ability and willingness to confront the Taliban (this December 2019 Washington Post story about the clusterfuck that is was the U.S.-trained Afghan army should have given the Pentagon and our intelligence agencies pause, of course), but being the mensch he is, he’s taking full responsibility for this sad, disturbing denouement.
But blaming Biden—who, as Barack Obama’s vice president, wanted to get us out of Afghanistan in 2009—for 20 years of terrible decisions made by others seems a stretch.
Obviously, the pullout has not gone well, and Biden will, and perhaps should, receive criticism for that. But the idea that we were on the verge of turning things around in Afghanistan (like we supposedly were every year for the past 20) is nonsense.
Although I’ve become a big Biden fanboy over the past year, I initially second-guessed his decision to withdraw our troops completely. But if the past week has shown us anything, it’s that the Afghanistan project was always a pipe dream and an illusion. Yesterday, while I thought about the human rights repercussions of Biden’s decision, I felt like I needed a reality check. In his nationally televised speech to the nation, Biden provided it for me:
American troops cannot and should not be fighting in a war and dying in a war that Afghan forces are not willing to fight for themselves. We spent over a trillion dollars.
We trained and equipped an Afghan military force of some 300,000 strong — incredibly well equipped — a force larger in size than the militaries of many of our NATO allies.
We gave them every tool they could need. We paid their salaries, provided for the maintenance of their air force — something the Taliban doesn’t have. Taliban does not have an air force. We provided close air support. We gave them every chance to determine their own future. What we could not provide them was the will to fight for that future.
I don’t have children, but I do have nieces and nephews, and I can’t imagine encouraging them to risk their lives and limbs for a mission that is and always was vaporware. Nor would I lay down my own life for such a venture. So how could I quibble with a commander in chief’s decision to prevent other Americans’ kids from dying or being maimed in a lost cause?
I couldn’t, and Joe Biden, whose own son may have died because of his deployment to Iraq, couldn’t either.
It was the same reason I couldn’t justify the invasion of Afghanistan 20 years ago and why our Iraq adventure seemed particularly noxious. Old men with no stake in these wars other than their own reputations and political fortunes were making life-and-death decisions on poor and middle-class kids’ behalf.
Anti-war activists were right then, and we’re right now. And no amount of Biden-bashing from the warmongers on the right will ever change that.
As satisfying as it might be to say “I told you so,” what we and the sometime doves in the GOP really need to say is “never again.” Biden deserves ample credit for finally getting us out of George W. Bush’s mess, and his hypocritical right-wing critics need to finally and forever STFU.
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