We got into Afghanistan without thinking it through. We effectively abandoned the fight there within a year, as the George W. Bush regime began to illegally shift monies appropriated for it to the war being secretly prepared against Iraq. Nonetheless, the war has dragged on bloodily now into its 18th year, the longest period of active American fighting (other than against Native Americans) in national history. So, how and why did we get into it; why did we abandon it; and why, as it seems, can’t we end it?
The “why” is only superficially explained by the World Trade Center attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. Those attacks were never proved to have come from Afghanistan. They were planned in Hamburg, Germany, carried out mostly by Saudi Arabians and chiefly financed by the Saudi government. It is true that the terrorist organization that conducted it, Al Qaeda, had military bases in Afghanistan, but Al Qaeda had bases elsewhere as well.
The only link between Afghanistan and 9/11 was that Osama bin Laden, Al Qaeda’s self-proclaimed leader who had ties with the Saudi royal family, claimed credit for the attacks. Bin Laden was living in Afghanistan, allegedly at the sufferance of the Taliban, recently victorious in the country’s brutal civil war. President Bush demanded the surrender of Bin Laden and the dismantling of Al Qaeda’s bases, neither of which the Taliban was in a position to do since the bases were outside its area of control. Had the bases been of material interest, the United States could have destroyed them from the air. Instead, it enlisted the support of warlords opposed to the Taliban to oust it from the national capital, Kabul. In doing so, it defined the Taliban as the prime state actor responsible for 9/11, although such a claim was absurd. It also defined victory as driving the Taliban from Kabul and installing a puppet government. This was accomplished without great difficulty. However, the Taliban simply took refuge in the countryside, armed and supported by neighboring Pakistan, the sponsor whose intelligence agencies had largely brought it into being. As for Bin Laden, he escaped into Pakistan with its aid, where he lived under its protection for a decade.
If, then, President Bush had been serious about pursuing the state sponsors of the 9/11 attacks, he would have targeted Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. But the Bush family fortune had been built on Saudi oil, and rather than permitting uncomfortable questions to be asked, he authorized the evacuation of Saudi embassy personnel from Washington on the day after the attacks when all other commercial flights in the United States were grounded. Pakistan received a similar pass, being designated an “ally” in the so-called war on terror. Only when Bin Laden was finally run to ground under the Obama administration was it revealed that he had been living openly under Pakistani military protection.
By that time, the corrupt narco-state that had emerged in Kabul had long since shown its incapacity to defeat the Taliban or govern generally despite massive American aid and a futile attempt by American forces to regain the military initiative under President Obama. Outside Kabul, control of the countryside was a mirage, and the capital itself was exposed to attacks at will. Afghan military forces proved as apt to attack their American trainers as to fight the supposed enemy. In the field, their performance was appalling, a fact masked only by official lying. As American forces were again drawn down and essentially removed from combat, the war receded from view outside Afghanistan itself. It has proceeded nonetheless.
In a quite startling admission of failure, it has now been revealed that some 45,000 Afghan soldiers have been killed since 2014. Such losses, comparable to those suffered by American forces in Korea and Vietnam, cannot be replaced. The war is far worse than lost. It is unsustainable.
Quite evidently, such news could only have come courtesy of Washington. It coincides with the well-publicized American negotiations with the Taliban, which have ostentatiously excluded Afghanistan’s government. Does this mean that, as President Donald Trump has several times indicated, the U. S. is finally preparing to withdraw from its longest war? We have been down this road before. I have little doubt that President Trump would like to get out of Afghanistan and for an essentially simple reason. He sees wars, as he sees alliances and treaties in general, as transactional: if they pay, okay, and if not, no. President Bush started the Afghanistan war on the false pretext of punishing the perpetrators of 9/11. It slowly morphed into a crusade to bring progress and democracy to a benighted land, the same shill trotted out for Iraq and, before it, Vietnam. Obama repeated it on his watch. President Trump, refreshingly, has not the slightest pretense of interest in Afghanistan and its people. He simply sees a bad deal with nothing in it for the United States — that is, for himself. He does not care if America’s allies take this as a sign it cannot be trusted, because he has no interest in allies. He does not care if the world sees it as an American defeat. He has been through bankruptcies before.
It may be one of the larger ironies of modern American history, but it might take a man as odious as Donald Trump to get us out of a war as odious as the one in Afghanistan. We have been sowing misery and death in that country for nearly 40 years, beginning with our response to the Soviet invasion of it in 1979. No one can truly assess the toll it has exacted or the cost of the civil war it will doubtlessly leave behind. The one certainty is that we have brought only ill, and our continued presence will only bring more of it.
This doesn’t mean, of course, that Trump will succeed in pulling out of Afghanistan or staying out if he does. The entire policy establishment is opposed to it: Congress, the Pentagon, the State Department. The Pentagon has plans to stay indefinitely, as in Germany, South Korea and Japan. Trump’s only natural allies are mavericks on the left, and the editorial board of what he likes to refer to as the “failing New York Times.” The Taliban may also have their own reasons for wishing to protract the war, or at least have their own timetable for America’s withdrawal from it.
If this is an endgame, it will be interesting to see it unfold. But don’t bet on our longest war going away anytime soon.