The Tragedy of Afghanistan


National telethons used to be an annual event.  (The longest running was the Jerry Lewis MDA Labor Day Telethon; which closed in 2012.) If telethons reappear, I’m going to host the Bob Burnett Telethon to cure short attention span.  I’ll highlight the protracted failure of Americans to pay attention to the tragedy of Afghanistan.

On August 16th, President Joe Biden appeared on national TV and let the Afghanistan “buck” stop with him: “I will not repeat the mistakes we’ve made in the past — the mistake of staying and fighting indefinitely in a conflict that is not in the national interest of the United States, of doubling down on a civil war in a foreign country, of attempting to remake a country through the endless military deployments of U.S. forces.” God bless you, Joe Biden!  Thanks for being a real leader!

The US involvement in Afghanistan began twenty years ago, next month. After the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the United States was traumatized.  Congress wanted to do something and therefore passed the “Joint Resolution to authorize the use of United States Armed Forces against those responsible for the recent attacks launched against the United States” — an authorization that led to the US military operation in Afghanistan.   On September 14, 2001, when Congress considered the  joint authorization of military force, only Representative Barbara Lee opposed it: “I am convinced that military action will not prevent further acts of international terrorism against the United States. This is a very complex and complicated matter… However difficult this vote may be, some of us must urge the use of restraint. Our country is in a state of mourning. Some of us must say, ’let’s step back for a moment. Let’s just pause, just for a minute and think through the implications of our actions today, so that this does not spiral out of control.’” [Emphasis added] [For years after making this speech, Congresswoman Lee was subject to death threats and harassing phone calls.]  God bless you, Barbara Lee!  Thanks for being a real leader!

Over the past 20 years, i have written dozens of times about the tragedy of Afghanistan.  My most prophetic article was written July 30, 2010, Afghanistan: America’s Failed Project.

Writing in Rolling Stone Michael Hastings concludes: “There is a reason that President Obama studiously avoids using the word ‘victory’ when he talks about Afghanistan. Winning, it would seem, is not really possible.”  Reading this sobering article I was reminded of the advice proffered by a seasoned Silicon Valley software developer: “good projects may go bad, but bad projects almost never get better…” no matter how many billions the US spends, the situation in Afghanistan isn’t going to improve… The US effort in Afghanistan has become a failed project. We may follow Obama’s plan and tough it out for another 11 months, but there’s no reason to expect the situation to improve. We should cut our losses now; go to plan B.  Unfortunately, the US doesn’t have a plan B.

We’ve known for years that Afghanistan was lost.  Until Joe Biden became President, no one had the guts to admit this.  Why?

1.Failed Presidential Leadership: Over the past twenty years, there have been four American presidents: George W. Bush, Barack Obama, Donald Trump, and Joe Biden.  Earlier in the year, historians ranked the 44 presidents before Biden.  George W. Bush was ranked 29, Obama  10, and Trump 41.  For twelve of those twenty years, we had terrible leadership.

George W. Bush is the president most responsible for the Afghanistan tragedy.  In case you’ve forgotten, it was Dubya’s failure to heed intelligence reports that opened the door to the terrorist attacks on 9/11.  Then he bungled the intervention in Afghanistan: Late in November 2001, bin Laden and many Al Qaeda fighters were cornered in the remote Tora Bora region of Afghanistan. Bush made the decision to capture bin Laden by relying upon Afghani mercenaries, who were not up to the job. By the time regular American forces arrived, bin Laden and most of his companions had slipped across the border into northwest Pakistan. In March 2002, Dubya abruptly changed his focus: “I don’t know where bin Laden is. I have no idea and really don’t care. It’s not that important. It’s not our priority.” Bush had a short attention span; his focus shifted from bin Laden in Afghanistan-Pakistan to Saddam Hussein in Iraq.

Trump made the Afghanistan situation much worse.  To score political points, in February of 2020, Trump brokered a “deal” that called for US troops to be withdrawn from Afghanistan. Under the fourteen-month timeline, approximately 5,000 Taliban prisoners were also set to be released, including major Taliban leaders.  This legitimized the Taliban.

2. Failed Congressional Oversight:  Although the blame for the Afghanistan tragedy primarily rests with the four Presidents, Congress has a major share.  Under the Constitution, Congress has the responsibility to declare war.  Congress skirted this with the September 14, 2001, “Authorization for Use of Military Force,” which in effect gave the President carte blanche to send troops wherever he thought there were terrorists.  Afghanistan was occupied for twenty years because Congress stubbornly  held onto the attitude that Afghanistan might become a staging area for further terrorist attacks on the U.S.

Let’s be clear.  Since late in 2001, when Osama bin Laden and many al Qaeda fighters departed Afghanistan, there has been no justification for a U.S. presence in the country.  No President has defended the occupation on the grounds of “nation building.” Congress failed to do its job because it was very difficult for most members of Congress to stand up to U.S. military leaders, who were all too ready to argue: “Just give us a few thousand more troops and we will complete the mission in Afghanistan.”

3. Failed Military Leadership. In twenty years, the U.S. has spent more than $2 trillion in Afghanistan (https://www.forbes.com/sites/hanktucker/2021/08/16/the-war-in-afghanistan-cost-america-300-million-per-day-for-20-years-with-big-bills-yet-to-come/? ).  Take a moment to consider that.  $2 trillion.

With $2 trillion we could have ended U.S. poverty.  We could have built 10 million affordable homes.  We could have taken steps that directly benefited the American people.

The U.S. spent $2 trillion because the military lied to us.  First they said they could defeat the Taliban and pacify Afghanistan.  When that didn’t work, they created the myth of creating a reliable non-Taliban fighting force that we could trust to do the work when our troops left.  Biden called out this myth, noting that in the last couple of weeks the Afghanistan military collapsed. “American troops cannot and should not be fighting in a war and dying in a war that Afghan forces are not willing to fight for themselves.”

Americans want to trust our military leaders.  Nonetheless, these military leaders misled us in Vietnam and Afghanistan.

4. Failed American Public Awareness: It’s a familiar maxim: “Fool me once, shame on you.  Fool me twice, shame on me.”  Since the end of World War II, the citizens of the United States have twice been lied to by the military.  Shame on us for believing them about Afghanistan.

Americans believed the lies we were told about Afghanistan, because we are lazy and arrogant.  We are lazy, because too many of us didn’t take the time to uncover the truth.  We are arrogant, because we believed that we could buy our way out of this mess.

Summary: The best words to describe this tragedy were written by Bob Dylan in “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll:”

Oh, but you who philosophize disgrace
and criticize all fears

Bury the rag deep in your face
For now’s the time for your tears.