Given I have taught a course on the War on Terror at Colorado Academy since 2002, a number of parents, students, and former students have reached out for my thoughts on the end of the war in Afghanistan. This course has evolved over the years. New realities, new documents and evidence, and ever-changing circumstances have impacted my understanding of the conflict. So, I thought I would offer some historical insights on the recent tragic events in Afghanistan. Because so many critical documents are still classified, it will take decades for scholars to fully understand this conflict, and I am sure that my understanding will change over time.
Success and failure
The past 20 years have seen both success and failure. The United States did succeed in a few areas in the War on Terror. First, there have been no large-scale 9/11-style attacks on the United States by Al Qaeda or ISIS. (Although there have been jihadist events like the Fort Hood and Pulse Nightclub shootings.) Second, the United States developed capabilities to track, monitor, and conduct operations against terrorism. Policymakers shifted our immense national security state from a Cold War posture to one that could respond to asymmetric warfare. Third, the United States killed Osama Bin Laden, removing a charismatic figure of jihadist terrorism who thought about global jihad in ways heretofore not conceived by terrorist organizations. Fourth, in the 20 years of presence in Afghanistan, the U.S. brought a level of modernity never before seen in that country.
But, in the world of national security and warfare, failures tend to matter more. While the U.S. might end up winning the War on Terror, we certainly didn’t win in Afghanistan. The manner in which the U.S. ended the war in Afghanistan has provoked so many Americans to wonder if our 20-year War on Terror was worth trillions of dollars and thousands of lives. Perhaps, some of the successes will carry over. However, the Taliban’s sudden victory has undermined the credibility of the United States as a world leader and ally. We have failed our servicemen and servicewomen who made sacrifices to protect this nation by not seeing a victory through. We have failed our veterans—as too many struggle with mental health issues because of the stressors of combat. We have failed the Afghan people—particularly women and girls in Afghanistan who made so many gains under the American occupation, as well as thousands of Afghans who helped the American war effort who now cannot get out. In Iraq, our withdrawal created a power vacuum that ISIS seized upon and contributed to regional instability that caused massive death and devastation. And, in the case of Afghanistan, we now are facing a Taliban government that could cause regional and even global unrest. While the number of people evacuated in the last days of this conflict is truly impressive, it is hard to understand how there are Americans still in Afghanistan.
There’s plenty of blame to go around for what happened in Afghanistan over the past 20 years. The presidential administrations of Bush, Obama, Trump, and Biden all made significant errors that led to the final withdrawal on August 31. Senior military leadership made mistakes that in George Marshall’s WWII system of job performance for his generals would have led to higher accountability and turnover. However, there were extraordinary military leaders like Admiral William McRaven who helped the military evolve and be more capable of operations like the one that took out Osama bin Laden. There were foreign policy experts, think tanks, and cable news talking chairs that contributed to flawed thinking about how to fight terrorism that were often based on faulty assumptions and wrong facts. Congress failed by not holding the executive branch to account for progress on the war. The U.S. didn’t do enough to curtail Pakistan’s efforts to undermine our efforts in Afghanistan. The U.S. tolerated too much corruption by Afghan leaders. And, we the American people failed as well. American citizens largely tuned out this conflict, and our leaders were not held accountable for their failures.
The ultimate sacrifice
Meanwhile, honorable American servicemen and servicewomen and their families made all kinds of sacrifices. A typical tour of duty is 15 months for service in Iraq and Afghanistan. If a soldier served in the armed forces for a 10-year period since 9/11, they would have likely had 3-4 tours of duty. Think about that for a moment. Many veterans are struggling to make sense of what their service meant in light of recent events. I, for one, believe their service was worth it. Their efforts did forestall large-scale attacks on our nation. That is not insignificant. And, given the massive capabilities of counter-terrorism operations after two decades of war, perhaps we can stop any attack that might originate in Afghanistan. Al Qaeda did represent a fundamental threat to the United States, and that threat was diminished greatly. The rise of ISIS demonstrated the dangers of not standing firm against the forces of extremism. We civilians will never fully understand what a combat veteran has gone through or the pain of a Gold Star family. I know from my teaching that the stories of our veterans and their sense of duty and patriotism have inspired so many of my students. As a teacher who believes in the promise of America, that is also worth so much.
One of those veterans who speaks to my class is CA parent Warren Thomas, who shared these thoughts:
“It truly breaks my heart that our withdrawal was not ideal, and the recent events continue to jeopardize the lives of our soldiers and allies. My hope is that this directs the American public’s attention to the grave sacrifices our soldiers have made and continue to make. Many of the leaders that I served with in combat continue to fight each day to ensure no one is left behind in Afghanistan. This should inspire us all to renew our support for servicemembers and veterans in our communities.”
Like the Vietnam War, there was a certain American arrogance that guided our efforts. We didn’t really understand Afghanistan and its people. We didn’t understand that you can’t take a country that faced a brutal conquest by the Soviets, followed by years of rebellion, and then Taliban rule, and turn it into a functioning democracy. Most Americans, both Republicans and Democrats, wanted out of Afghanistan. But, global stability sometimes requires a larger commitment. Consider that there are Americans still stationed in Germany, Japan, and South Korea. Ultimately, the U.S. failed to develop strategic policies that could defeat the Taliban. The U.S. relied too heavily on kinetic military action versus “soft force” (i.e., diplomatic and political efforts to build institutions that could be effective in winning the hearts and minds of the Afghan people). Policymakers thrust American soldiers into a region with cultural and political complexity that is hard to comprehend. A successful counter-insurgency strategy requires a 10-to-1 numerical advantage. The U.S. didn’t have the political willpower to send the large number of troops required to successfully put down the Taliban and provide security. It seems like defeating an enemy who treats its own people sadistically could have been a realistic goal, but the U.S. could not come up with effective diplomatic and military strategies to prevent the Taliban from rebuilding after their initial defeat in 2002.
As I teach my course, I do my best to hold back my personal thoughts and opinions. I know that the passage of time changes our interpretation of the past, so I don’t hold strongly to any of my views. I know the evidence will shape our understanding. I want my students to come to their own conclusions; and despite what I share in this blog, my goal is to create a classroom that cultivates critical thinking. We read accounts from veterans and will even have a few CA parents who served in Iraq and Afghanistan visit. We will read documents and watch documentaries. Because of these recent events, we will have a new lesson and different experiences than my past students. I don’t think the War on Terror is over by any stretch, but an important chapter has closed.