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The U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan provides a bookend to the tragedy of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
I remember vividly where I was when I learned a plane hit one of the World Trade Center’s towers. Initial reports suggested the collision was by a small aircraft and it appeared accidental. When the second plane struck, it was clear this was an assault, the culmination of a plot.
Rumors swirled as flights were grounded across the country. We saw people trying desperately to escape those New York City skyscrapers and running amid the swirling debris. Passengers of United Airlines Flight 93 gave their lives, bringing down their hijacked plane before it reached Washington, D.C. A fourth plane hit the Pentagon.
Afterwards Americans grieved collectively. On the steps of the Capitol, 150 members of Congress from both parties stood together to sing “God Bless America.” Makeshift memorials were erected. Hundreds of funerals of heroic firefighters and police officers were held with solemn processions and bagpipes.
As we felt sadness and anger, decisions about military action were made. Three days after the attacks, former President George W. Bush visited Ground Zero in lower Manhattan, picked up a bullhorn and proclaimed “I can hear you. The rest of the world hears you. And the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon.”
Bush ordered military operations in Afghanistan, from which al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden had planned the attacks. While the U.S. made significant military gains, in December 2001 bin Laden escaped from Tora Bora. But the U.S. did not leave, and a year after bin Laden’s flight, Bush’s focus turned to planning the war in Iraq.
Now the United States is finally departing Afghanistan. This end comes after an occupation built on false promises that stability and peace were coming.
As journalist Craig Whitlock wrote in 2019 in a review of internal U.S. government documents, “senior U.S. officials failed to tell the truth about the war in Afghanistan . . . making rosy pronouncements they knew to be false and hiding unmistakable evidence the war had become unwinnable.” Interviews demonstrated “the U.S. government’s botched attempts to curtail runaway corruption, build a competent Afghan army and police force, and put a dent in Afghanistan’s thriving opium trade.”
Thousands of American military members died in Afghanistan, including 13 valiantly working at the Kabul airport to evacuate Americans and our allies last week. Some of the heroic 13 were babies at the time of the Sept. 11 attacks.
It’s painful to believe that the entire effort of two decades, with its expenditure of trillions of dollars and hundreds of thousands of deaths in the country, was a house of cards that so quickly fell.
All options involving the war and withdrawal had security and political risks. For instance, while some contend that U.S. military equipment should have been evacuated before the Taliban took territory, this likely would have been criticized as kneecapping the Afghan military.
Ultimately, the disarray at the conclusion of the U.S. war in Afghanistan was put in motion when the decision was made to stay after bin Laden escaped. I’ve asked experts if they know of a non-chaotic, nonviolent end to a foreign occupation by a military that backed the losing side of a civil war. None have any examples and their consensus is that a calm end in these circumstances could exist only through magical thinking.
What is unusual about the withdrawal is the large number of those evacuated, far surpassing initial goals of about 70,000.
As with the Sept. 11 attacks, there should be careful reviews of how the war in Afghanistan and its conclusion unfolded and mistakes across presidential administrations should be identified.
Gaining public support for starting the war in Afghanistan came easily after Americans sufferred terrorism on U.S. soil. But then the mission, joined by hubris, shifted to nation-building and spawned repeated six-month mission extensions with promises of impossibly positive scenarios. And now the consequences of 20 years of tragedy will linger.