We’ve been here before. Anyone with a rudimentary knowledge of history has seen that image, but this isn’t black and white, and this isn’t Vietnam. This is the reboot.
As of this writing, reports have Afghan president Ashraf Ghani fleeing Afghanistan and the Taliban demanding the “unconditional surrender” of the government. America’s longest war finally heads to the inevitable conclusion that should have been so easy to see 20 years ago.
But it was a different time, and it wasn’t fashionable to question then. In fact, some thought it downright treasonous.
The urge to “do something” in the wake of the heinous 9/11 attacks — to get those responsible — was all-consuming. While it felt something like bringing a gun to a knife fight, we went all in with the full brunt of the U.S. military. No matter that the removal of an Osama bin Laden seemed exactly why we had the precision of special forces and a CIA in the first place.
Yet, invade we did, and with the Taliban and al-Qaida driven from power (albeit temporarily, we know now), the scope of the mission changed. Despite the lessons of very recent history — we laughed at the Soviets as they ground their empire into the ground in Afghanistan — we allowed ourselves to be deceived into believing we could establish a democracy there in our own image.
It ultimately led to nearly 100,000 troops on the ground — a far cry from George W. Bush’s campaign trail pledge that we shouldn’t be in the nation-building business.
He was right.
Bush handed the war off to Barack Obama, who promised to end it while, in fact, escalating it. He, in turn, handed it to Donald J. Trump, who eventually set us on the path to withdrawal that Joe Biden has executed.
Along the way, we spent trillions. More than 2,400 U.S. service members died. Untold thousands more will carry the scars — visible and invisible — for the rest of their lives. A generation of kids have graduated from high school never knowing a nation not at war. Parents who served so their kids would not have to in turn watched as those children went overseas.
Meanwhile, the lofty days of “paid patriotism” arrangements with sports leagues and “America Supports You” are things of the past. Today’s troops have been shunted to the background, drowned out by culture wars, Trump follies and Kardashians. Vietnam veterans returned to a nation where many were hostile to what they represented. Today’s war fighters return to one that is largely indifferent.
All this for what?
We were never going to stay in perpetuity, no matter what the Defense Department believed, and the results would have been the same had we left ten years ago or ten years from now. The Afghan military and government were rife with corruption, unprepared and unmotivated to stand on their own. A final indignity? Intelligence had them holding out for months. Weeks or days would have been accurate. The Taliban and al-Qaeda were never defeated. They simply waited us out.
The spin doctors will have you believe we achieved our goals in Afghanistan — the elimination of bin Laden and the squelching of terrorism in the region. Sorry, you can’t retcon this war’s objectives 15 years after the fact. At any rate, I’d be hesitant at this moment to put my eggs in the “no terrorism” basket. And while today’s Taliban claims to be kinder and gentler, I’m not sure I’d be placing any bets on that one, either. This is going to be ugly.
Richard Nixon coined “peace with honor.” In Afghanistan, we don’t even get that. It’s “same as it ever was.”
We ask our service members — volunteers, mind you — to do for us what we will not undertake ourselves. For a nation that so often touts its moral superiority, we must do better. They ought not to have been used this way. What a waste.