Afghanistan – Let’s Learn from the Mistakes of Four U.S. Presidents
Last week, our twenty-year war in Afghanistan came to an end. At times, it was quite chaotic. The country is back in the hands of the Taliban. Even the most optimistic political spin cannot this war into a total success. What should we do now? Let us learn from the mistakes of the four U.S. presidents who oversaw this war.
George W. Bush [#43] took us into war in Afghanistan in 2001. Our country was reeling from the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, and citizens wanted revenge. The Taliban controlled Afghanistan at that time and sheltered al-Qaeda which was responsible for the 9/11 attacks. The Taliban refused to turn over Osama Bin Laden, so Bush began dropping bombs on October 7. Within a short time, the Taliban was defeated…temporarily. Bush prematurely announced total victory. In November 2003, the president declared, “Our military went to Afghanistan, destroyed the training camps of al-Qaeda, and put the Taliban out of business forever.” That claim was arrogant…and turned out to be false. Although al-Qaeda was temporarily beaten, Osama bin Laden would not be killed until a decade later, and in Pakistan, not Afghanistan.
Bush made several mistakes, but possibly the biggest was that he led us into a war that had no “exit strategy”. Those who understand Just War Theory (and sadly, most people do not) know that a just cause is not sufficient to declare a justified war. Other criteria, such as just cause, last resort, and the realistic probability of success including an “exit strategy”, must also be met. (Back in the 1st Gulf War, then President George H. W. Bush [#41] pushed the Iraqi soldiers out of Kuwait in 1991, but the U.S. did not invade Baghdad at that time, because there was no “exit strategy”. The son should have learned this lesson from his father.) We the people of the United States should have learned a similar lesson from the failed war in Vietnam.
President Bush also allowed the war to morph from a limited objective of destroying the al-Qaeda camps to an ambiguous, nebulous goal of “nation-building”. Pentagon leaders were also at fault by misleading the president and the public by claiming that we were “winning” the war and that the new Afghan government and military were able to stand on their own. Based on their counsel, Bush affirmed in 2004, “as a result of the U.S. military, the Taliban no longer is in existence.” Four years later, Bush lied to us and denied having uttered those words, “I never said the Taliban was eliminated. I said they were removed from power.” We must learn to be suspicious of the cheap military claims made by our presidents.
Barack Obama [#44] campaigned on the promise to get our soldiers out of Iraq and Afghanistan. Although he did withdraw our troops from Iraq, he increased our military presence to 68,000 troops in Afghanistan in February, 2009. Although the capture and killing of Bin Laden in May of 2011 restored Obama’s popularity at home, the quagmire in Afghanistan continued. The Afghan people lost confidence in their own national government. When Obama left office in January 2017, he had not fulfilled his promise to end the “endless war”. We should learn to question the overly optimistic campaign promises and military predictions of our presidents.
Donald Trump [#45] also campaigned on the promise to end the war in Afghanistan. With his policy of “America first”, he criticized the “endless wars” that Bush had started. Nevertheless, when he talked about pulling our troops out, his military leadership continued to mislead him and the public with claims of us winning the war and the excellent training our military had given to the Afghans. In February of 2020, Trump totally ignored the Afghan government and negotiated a special deal with the resurgent Taliban (?!!!) to end the war. Trump began to withdraw the 15,000 troops down to 2500 and promised to leave Afghanistan by May 1, 2021, if the Taliban would not attack U.S. soldiers. Although this was an attempt to keep his promise and to end the war, it also meant that the death of 2,400 U.S. soldiers (and over a hundred thousand Afghans) and the 2 trillion dollars spent on training the Afghan army were largely in vain. Trump’s agreement was a clear signal that he had lost confidence in the Afghan government (even though the White House continued to proclaim the Afghan military was well equipped). Here again, the lack of a serious, good exit strategy guaranteed a bad exit. The lesson to be learned is that unjust wars should not be ended by bad agreements.
Joe Biden [#46] also campaigned to end the war in Afghanistan. Even when he was Vice-President during the Obama administration, Biden was in favor of bringing the troops home. Although he moved the Trump negotiated date of withdrawal back four months to August 31, 2021, he had decided to withdraw our troops (and some 70% of the U.S. people agreed with him). The Taliban quickly extended their control over the country. Afghan president Ashraf Ghani fled the country on August 15 and the city of Kabul fell into the hands of the Taliban. Biden had to send 6000 soldiers back into the country to oversee the safe withdrawal of U.S. citizens and thousands of Afghans who had helped the U.S. At times it was chaotic. A suicide bomber killed 13 American soldiers and some 170 Afghan civilians. Although Biden had promised that all U.S. citizens who wanted to leave would be able to do so, as of today there are about 100 Americans and thousands of Afghan allies still in the country. Biden made promises that he could not keep.
With the benefit of 20/20 hindsight vision, I would have temporarily kept the U.S. soldiers in the country even as I would have started processing the Special Immigrant Visas for the Afghan civilian allies earlier in the summer. Even this action would have been criticized, because it is likely that Kabul would have fallen even earlier than it did.
Upon seeing the chaotic departure, some people have argued that the U.S. should have stayed in Afghanistan for many more years. Unless these people also criticized the Trump withdrawal plan, this is blatant hypocrisy.
What should we do now?
- We should learn from our mistakes and not jump into bad wars so quickly. Invasions of other countries for ¨just¨ causes are rarely successful, especially when the invading army does not understand the target culture. When you bet on the losing side in a civil war, the exit will be messy.
- We should encourage peaceful means to reduce the poverty, hunger, and oppression of women in war-torn Afghanistan. This means working with the United Nations and other countries in the region.
- Congress should immediately increase refugee limits so that, upon appropriate vetting, Afghan civilians can be received into our country without delay.
- In our communities, we should work with groups like World Relief to help settle these Afghan refugees.