The lives of baby boomers have been bookended by wars that have not gone the way the United States intended. On the one end, Vietnam. On the other, Afghanistan. In this Boomer Opinion piece, BoomerCafé’s co-founder and executive editor Greg Dobbs asks, what have we learned?
Afghans beat the Greek Empire. ✔️
Then the British Empire. ✔️
Next the Soviet Union. ✔️
Now the United States of America. ✔️
David versus Goliath is not just a biblical parable about an underdog besting a bigger foe.
Four superpowers in their day, each arguably dragged down to defeat and driven to retreat. Not by another great power, but by a culturally primitive force in what is, I can say from firsthand experience there when the Soviets were trying to conquer the country, one of the most backward nations on earth.
Each time, a superpower knew Afghanistan would fold in the face of superior strength. Each time, Afghanistan fooled those who made that miscalculation.
Now that President Biden has effectively ended America’s longest-ever war, we’re wrestling with the question, if we haven’t tamed the Taliban, is our withdrawal the wrong thing to do? Or is the president right to pull out even though, from trends right now on the battlefield, it will put power back in the Taliban’s hands, and soon? Just last week they fought their way into the nation’s second largest city and the birthplace of their movement, Kandahar. It was just 24 hours after Biden confirmed America’s withdrawal.
I don’t argue with the rationale for invading Afghanistan in the first place. We went in with one goal and one goal only: to get Osama bin Laden, to cut off the head of the terrorists who attacked us on 9/11. To do that— and rout al-Qaeda— we’d have to destroy the Taliban, who gave them safe haven, a staging ground for their evil attacks. In a way, it worked. If we hadn’t sent bin Laden packing for Pakistan, we might never have gotten to him at all. What’s more, no one has attacked us on the scale of 9/11 since we went to war.
But at what cost? By extinguishing Afghanistan as al-Qaeda’s safe haven, we dispersed the terrorists, and their successors and wannabes, to what analysts now say are more than two dozen other nations. Yet now? An Afghan army general says al-Qaeda is growing again, telling NPR early this week that he has never seen so many of its fighters on the battlefield as he sees today. What’s worse, we lost nearly as many lives in the war as we lost in the attacks bin Laden led and on top of that, 20,000 Americans were injured, many maimed for life, and upwards of a trillion dollars spent.
Personally I’m torn about our exit. Not that my opinion or anyone else’s at this point is going to change anything. What’s done is done. But there are valid arguments for and against it. Yes, we brought some stability to parts of Afghanistan and some measure of freedom to its long oppressed women. But those gains would only last if we were to stay, and we’re not, which means now we are leaving them once again to the demonic desires of a harsh and hostile interpretation of Islam.
But we also are acknowledging that in this 21st Century, we are no longer in the business, as Biden put it last week, of nation-building. He said, as if putting the pros and cons on a scale, “Just one more year of fighting in Afghanistan is not a solution, but a recipe for being there indefinitely.”
So in the spirit of “He who ignores history is doomed to repeat it,” we have to find the right answers to two questions. One is, once we’ve started something, should we finish it no matter what the cost? I think the answer to that is in the adage about throwing good money after bad. The other is— with shades of Vietnam still in our rear view mirror— are we immoral as a nation if no matter how much we’ve put into the effort, we cut and run when victory is elusive? I go with Biden’s answer, which acknowledges the inevitable: “I will not send another generation of Americans to war in Afghanistan with no reasonable expectation of achieving a different outcome.”
In other words, he was saying, we’ve done enough. What that really means is, we’ve done as much as we can. The reality is, it hasn’t been enough, because we can’t do enough, we can’t get it done if we’re fighting an enemy on its turf, not ours. If we haven’t learned that by now— after the Greeks, after the British, after the Soviets— we never will. Here too, Biden last week was mindful of history, saying, “No nation has ever unified Afghanistan.” And then, as if to concede that we have joined the list, he repeated, “No nation.”
We should not ignore the past but if history is any guide, some day down the road, we will. We will be conceitedly confident that a military advantage and a moral cause cannot lose.
They can. That is one lesson we dare not forget.
This is not to say that all wars are bad wars. Having covered eight of them around the world, I still believe that some battles must be fought, some enemies must be challenged, some oppressors must be stamped out. But if that’s why we go in, then if we get that done, we should come right back out. That was our mistake in Afghanistan. Another lesson we must not forget.
Because sometimes David wins.