Taliban leaders fled from Kabul on Nov. 13, and on Dec. 5 the Bonn Agreement was signed in Germany, installing Karzai as president and giving majority power to Northern Alliance - Afghan militias who had worked with the U.S. in defeating the Taliban. There were 12 U.S. casualties in Afghanistan at the time the nation was liberated in 2001. There have been more than 2,300 in the nearly 20 years since then.
Now that President Joe Biden has announced that all remaining troops will be removed from Afghanistan by the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks later this year, it’s a fair question to ask what has been gained from two decades of war. Especially since those who insisted that we remain in Afghanistan for the last 20 years are now criticizing the president’s decision to leave. They argue that it will result in a return to Taliban rule, with its mistreatment of women and aid toward other radical groups. If that is true, what have we gained from the past 20 years of sacrifice? And, why will things be different if we were to stay for another 20 years? Or 200 years?
Like most Americans, I supported the original strike against the Taliban because I was outraged by the terrorist attacks and I thought there was legitimate value in sending a message that state actors will pay a price for participating in terrorist plots against us. Well, some state actors. Those without the money and influence of Saudi Arabia. But, none of those supporting the war in 2001 signed on for a 20-year effort to bring Jeffersonian democracy to the remote mountain villages in the Wakhan Corridor.
There was really only one major piece of unfinished business in late 2001 after we had taken out the Taliban. And he wasn’t hiding in Iraq. It would be another 10 years before we were able to find a kill bin Laden. His decade of freedom came as the U.S. had turned its attention away from the 9/11 attack and toward Iraq, a country that had no part in that atrocity.
We went to war in Iraq when that nation’s leader refused to hand over weapons of mass destruction that he no longer possessed. Which was not the CIA’s finest hour. During the early stages of the Iraq War, President George W. Bush made the mistake of posing beneath a banner that declared “Mission accomplished.”
But I think his mistake was not in having that photo op too soon, but rather in having it too late. If he had rolled out that banner in December 2001 and declared victory after having banished the Taliban, the war in Afghanistan would have been seen as a great victory, the message would have been sent to nations throughout the world, and the casualty count from the war would have stood at 12.
Walter Rubel can be reached at email@example.com
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In his 2007 book, former CIA Director George Tenet boasts that the first U.S. covert teams were in Afghanistan 16 days after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. “Less than two and a half months later, a core group of 90 CIA paramilitary officers, along with a small number of special forces units, in combination with Afghan militias and supported by a massive aerial bombardment by the U.S. military, had defeated the Taliban and killed or captured one quarter of Usama bin Ladin’s top lieutenants, including his military commander, Mohammed Atef, a key player in the 9/11 attacks,” Tenet wrote. “Kabul had been liberated and Hamed Karzai named president by a national council. Afghanistan would be CIA’s finest hour.”
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