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After 20 years and little gained, it’s over in Afghanistan

If You Ask Me

After sending American troops into Afghanistan right after 9/11 to destroy the perpetrator Osama bin Laden, his terrorist group, al Qaeda, and their Afghan ally, the Taliban, the United States has ended the 20-year war after reaching just two of those three goals. Let us hope we do better in keeping our last promise to save those who worked for us as interpreters and their families.

American troops and their Western allies left their last military base during the first night of the four-day Fourth of July weekend, guaranteeing minimum public attention to the end of the long and what amounts to a lost war.

Ten years after the war began, in 2011, a small force of Navy Seals did find and kill bin Laden. But before and after that mid-war success, we never came close to eliminating Al Qaeda as an international terrorist threat and the Afghan government is expected to fall to a victorious Taliban in six months to two years, now that American troops have left the country.  A force of about 650 will remain to protect the staff of the American Embassy for as long as there is one in Kabul.

So what went wrong? We’ve already noted what went right: the killing of bin Laden by 24 Navy Seals in Pakistan, not Afghanistan. Of course, this is something that could have been accomplished without sending tens of thousands of American troops to the sprawling country, the site of previous failed efforts by such powers as the British Empire and the Soviet Union. The Western Alliance troops did inflict some damage to the Taliban but its guerrilla forces quickly regrouped in the nation’s mountains, much as the Viet Cong did against American forces in Vietnam.

Operation Enduring Freedom, as the Afghan invasion was dubbed by U.S. image makers, began less than a month after 9/11 with a bombing campaign against Al Qaeda and the introduction of ground forces to drive the Taliban out of the nation’s capital, Kabul. By December of 2001, the Taliban had retreated and an interim government had been installed by American forces. That government became permanent in 2004 with the drafting of a constitution, and an election that allowed Afghani women to vote. In as little as six months from now, all that could end.

Our good intentions in Afghanistan were quickly distracted by Iraq, its tyrant Saddam Hussein and the misinformed intelligence about his nuclear capability. In May of 2003, less than two years after the war began, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld ended all major combat operations in Afghanistan and withdrew 8,000 of the more than 50,000 American troops.  

The Bush Administration was then free to concentrate on Iraq, with somewhat similar results: the death of the tyrant and the destruction of his and future governments. 

While the on-and-off Iraqi operation was going on, Afghanistan was largely forgotten, even though thousands of troops remained there to occasionally fight — and die — while trying to train the Afghani military and prop up various corrupt and/or inept national governments.

Republican George Bush, the president who began the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, completed his second term in January 2009 and was succeeded by Democrat Barack Obama, who recommitted his administration to getting bin Laden by resuming the Afghan War with the addition of 17,000 more troops to the 38,000 already there. He raised the U.S. commitment to 100,000 troops by the middle of 2010. 

A year later, in May 2011, that force of 24 Seals hunted bin Laden down in bordering Pakistan and killed him. The next month, with the death of bin Laden accomplished and the Afghans tiring of mounting civilian casualties, Obama removed 30,000 troops, marking still another beginning of the end of the U.S.-led war with al Qaeda and the Taliban. The end has been a long time coming, but the beginnings of the end have been going on since Rumsfeld’s troop withdrawal 18 years ago.

The final years of the Obama administration saw little more than marking time in Afghanistan until the election of Republican Donald Trump in 2016.

And Trump’s conduct of the war was as murky as Obama’s. He came into office in 2017 saying he wanted to withdraw all troops, but then reconsidered and decided to pursue the war.  

But within a year, the Trump administration was holding peace talks with the Taliban — without the participation of the Afghan government. A peace treaty was signed in 2020 after the Taliban agreed to begin talks with the Afghan government on the country’s future. Those talks stalled rather quickly and the Taliban has since resumed fighting Afghani troops and winning.

After his inauguration, President Biden called for U.S. forces to be out of Afghanistan by Sept. 11, the 20th anniversary of 9/11, but then seemed to have had second thoughts on calling attention to the long, failed war and sped up the withdrawal.

And so, after the loss of more than 3000 American and Allied troops, 100,000 Afghan soldiers and civilians and the expenditure of $2 trillion, we lost this 20-year war in the dark of night at the start of a long holiday weekend.

And hardly anyone noticed.


Simsbury resident Dick Ahles is a retired journalist. Email him at rahles1@outlook.com.

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