America’s longest war is ending. A nation is left wondering whether it was all worth it.
Analysis by Stephen Collinson, CNN
America’s “forever war” in Afghanistan outlasted the first three commanders in chief of this century. But this week, Joe Biden is set to become the president who imposes closure on the US’ role in the bloody, intractable conflict.
Twenty years after the 9/11 attacks — plotted by al-Qaeda from Afghan soil — plunged the United States into a fractured graveyard of empires, the US pull-out will be complete within days, multiple military sources told CNN. As many as 1,000 troops could remain to guard the American embassy in Kabul, and to protect the airport — a lifeline for the fragile government and its armed forces who are destined to carry on fight the perpetual war that raged before the US arrived and will continue after it leaves.
But the American operation — launched by President George W. Bush when New York’s Twin Towers and the Pentagon lay in ruins — is functionally over.
In a wider strategic sense, the withdrawal underscores how the War on Terror — which US and allied leaders insisted would be the organizing principle of international relations for decades to come — has faded as the dominant priority. Years of war abroad sapped US hegemony and contributed to domestic discord that further weakened its global footprint. A new era of great power competition, marked by China’s rise and Russia’s belligerence now most concerns Washington.
And the Covid-19 pandemic has killed hundreds of thousands more Americans than terrorism ever did.
After years of full-scale anti-terror blitzes, bitter land combat, nation-building, US neglect then fresh resolve, counter-insurgency offensives, negotiating with the Taliban and simple grim holding on, the US will leave with many citizens wondering why Americans are still in Afghanistan.
Unless things really deteriorate in Kabul, there will no scenes like the last helicopters lifting off from the US embassy roof in Saigon after the Vietnam War. This conflict, which dragged on so long that some US soldiers who deployed sent offspring off to the same battlefield, is ending largely out of the view of the American public. But just as in that earlier prolonged war, there are no victory parades, only exhaustion, a series of busted US plans and offensives and a strong political imperative to quit.
“We did not ask for this mission. But we will fulfill it,” Bush said in October 2001.
Two decades later, many are left wondering if the US lived up to that promise. That this is such a difficult question to answer explains why it was such a harrowing experience for those who fought and led the war.
The muted departure lacks the drama and resolve that drove Bush’s lightning offensive against the Taliban and al-Qaeda. But it is an important moment in American history, nonetheless. The more than 3,500 US and allied war dead, the many more maimed physically and mentally and tens of thousands of Afghan security forces and civilians who also perished, deserve an accounting.
A new US chapter
The US exit will sever one of the final links with the tumultuous years of America’s wars abroad after the September 11 attacks, a period that shook the nation’s feeling of security in its own continent, challenged its global reputation and tested the Constitution.
As the President who is ending America’s “longest war,” Biden will be on the spot for these answers and what happens next. The Afghan war has faded from public consciousness to such an extent that there is no huge groundswell of demands to leave. But ending foreign wars has been one belief that has united progressives and Donald Trump’s voters.
There is kudos in being the president who ended it all. But the privilege begs the question of whether Biden is acting on political or strategic goals.
Then there is the question of whether the United States has a responsibility for millions of Afghans who thrived under its sponsorship of democracy and who now face the prospect of a new dark age under the feudal Taliban, which stops little girls from going to school among other terrors. Indeed, Washington is making a hurried effort to extract thousands of translators and other Afghans who helped US troops.
Inside Afghanistan, the Taliban is on the march, assuming control of districts countrywide. There are real fears that the government will fall in what could be a severe blow to American prestige. While US forces are expected to continue anti-terror operations from bases outside the country, some military experts worry such strikes won’t be as effective as an on-the-ground presence. The US intelligence operation will need rebuilding.
Yet all foreign wars rely on the consent of people at home. The rationale for US involvement — to fight the terrorists over there instead of over here, in a popular phrase of the Bush era — is hard for a new generation to comprehend.
Biden, who was always one of the less enthusiastic warriors in the war on terror overseas as vice president, channeled this disconnect when he announced the final US departure in April.
“We went to Afghanistan because of a horrific attack that happened 20 years ago. That cannot explain why we should remain in 2021,” Biden told the nation from the same spot in the White House Treaty Room from where Bush launched combat operations 20 years before.
Was it worth it?
The question of whether the war was worth it looks different from Section 60 of Arlington National Cemetery, which holds ranks of the dead from the post-9/11 wars, than in the West Wing or Washington think-tanks.
But those courageous Americans who perished early in the war may not have died in vain.
To begin with, the war was a success. Al-Qaeda was gutted within weeks. Dreams of democracy stirred after the rout of the Taliban by US and Northern Alliance forces — even if Osama bin Laden escaped to live another decade before the US finally exacted revenge in his Pakistan hideout. And the large-scale follow-on terror attacks feared by US leaders two decades ago never materialized.
But when the Bush administration diverted attention to Iraq the war languished, and the Taliban regrouped. From then on, new US offensives and new plans to build Afghan forces unfolded, none with great success.
Confidential documents published by The Washington Post in 2019 suggested that senior US officials failed to come clean with Americans about the war — making optimistic assessments they knew were false.
The paper reported, “US officials acknowledged that their war-fighting strategies were fatally flawed and that Washington wasted enormous sums of money trying to remake Afghanistan into a modern nation.”
For years, Afghanistan was the war that the US couldn’t afford to wage but thought it couldn’t afford to leave. But Biden made his decision to make good on an earlier undertaking by Trump to leave this year.
“When will it be the right moment to leave?” Biden asked in April. “One more year, two more years, 10 more years? Ten, 20, 30 billion dollars more above the trillion we’ve already spent?”
Most dilemmas that presidents face involve bad choices.
If the Kabul government falls and there is a bloodbath, it will be on Biden’s watch. If US diplomats die in a terror attack blamed on diminished security in the country, he will face a human and political disaster.
The danger in post-US Afghanistan is acute. The top US commander in the country, Gen. Austin Miller, told the New York Times on Tuesday that civil war was a real possibility and “that should be a concern for the world.”
Ever since the 1980s, when the US turned its back on Afghanistan and paved the way for the emergence of an anarchic terror-haven after arming mujahideen forces to defeat occupying Soviet forces, experts have warned of the peril of ignoring the country. National security hawks point to President Barack Obama’s withdrawal from Iraq and the subsequent rise of ISIS as another cautionary tale.
Retired Gen. David Petraeus, a former CIA director who commanded US troops in Afghanistan and Iraq, said he did not see a threat to the homeland right now. But he warned at a Washington Post event Monday that the group has shown “no signs that it’s going to cut ties with al-Qaeda.”
Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in an interview with Italy’s RAI TG1 on Tuesday “al-Qaeda in Afghanistan currently does not represent a real threat to the United States, to Italy, to any of the other countries.”
The argument that the US needs to stay to prevent a new terror haven is undercut by the fact that extremists operate from many failed states across the globe — and are targeted by the US without huge troop garrisons.
This logic helped Biden conclude in his April speech that the US had achieved its clear goals when it went to war since bin Laden is dead and al-Qaeda is degraded, before adding: “it’s time to end the forever war.”
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CNN’s Barbara Starr, Nicole Gaouette and Kevin Liptak contributed to this report.