The Soviet Union came immediately before us. Their adventures in Afghanistan left them vulnerable to the collapse of the Soviet empire that was to follow. The British, Sikhs, Persians, Mongols and Greeks all suffered the same fate, dating back to Alexander the Great and Genghis Kahn.
The fact that our 20-year effort in Afghanistan was no more successful than all the great empires before us should not be surprising.
What is surprising has been how quickly our efforts have all come undone and how little we were able to accomplish in two decades of work and sacrifice seeking to install a credible government and competent military.
Leaders have been telling us for the past 20 years that our commitment in Afghanistan was temporary. We would only be there for as long as it takes to build a self-sustaining government. It’s now become obvious that day will never come. It won’t matter if we stay another 20 years, or another 200 years.
This week, the war has come to an inglorious conclusion. The Afghan army that we have been equipping and training for 20 years failed to stop the advance of the Taliban as it claimed town after town on the march to Kabul.
Scenes of desperate Afghans clinging to American military airplanes attempting to leave the country bring back bad memories from Saigon in March, 1973, when our nation was ending another unsuccessful military campaign.
President Joe Biden can be faulted for a lack of planning in the war’s final days. But, as with Vietnam, our discomfort with how the war ended does not alter the fact that both wars needed to end much sooner than they did.
As we approach the 20-year anniversary of the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, I fear that many of our nation’s leaders have learned the wrong lessons from our failed attempts at nation building in Afghanistan and Iraq.
They believe we left Iraq too soon, leading to the rise of ISIS. And now, they believe we are leaving Afghanistan too soon, leading to a resurgence of the Taliban. They continue to believe that the American military can bring order to the world, if we’re just willing to drop enough bombs.
The real lessons are the limitations as to what can be accomplished with a strong military. Removing the Taliban from power was easy. According to former CIA Director George Tenet, Taliban leaders had fled the country before the first U.S. troops arrived. But, tanks and jet fighters are less useful for building democratic institutions of government.
Some members of Congress seem to be learning that lesson. In June, the U.S. House of Representatives voted 268-161 to repeal the Authorization for Use of Military Force, which was passed immediately after the 9/11 attacks and has been used like a blank check by three different presidents to justify any military actions they wanted to take.
The bill still needs to be passed by the Senate. Only Congress can declare war. It has abdicated that responsibility for far too long.
Our nation is in a much different place now than it was 20 years ago. While foreign terrorists are still a threat, the greater threat is now posed by Americans lashing out at their fellow countrymen over any number of perceived grievances.
It’s time we stopped fighting yesterday’s wars and turned our attention to the homefront.
Walter Rubel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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