Shortly after the events of September 11, 2001 we learned that Osama bin Laden masterminded the attack. We also knew that he was protected from capture by the Taliban, a terrorist organization who occupied Afghanistan. The Taliban identified as Muslim but denied basic rights and education to women. Most of us believed the Taliban to be evil because of their beliefs but felt we couldn’t invade another country only to impose our values on them, noble though they may be.
Osama bin Laden wasn’t a member of the Taliban but was instead the head of another terrorist organization (who also claimed to be Muslim) called al Qaeda. When we demanded that bin Laden be turned over to us Afghanistan refused.
At that point the administration of President Bush had a choice to make. They could either see the 9/11 attack as a criminal matter and dispatch the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) or they could see it as an act of war and ask Congress for a Declaration of War.
They did neither. Instead, on September 18, 2001 Congress authorized President Bush to “prevent acts of international terrorism.” On this authority President Bush sent troops into Afghanistan. But here’s the problem: In December our troops were closing in on bin Laden in Tora Bora, in Afghanistan close to the border with Pakistan.
But at the time the Bush administration were more interested in invading Iraq because they claimed that Iraq stored “weapons of mass destruction.” They didn’t but the invasion of Iraq pulled out troops that could have captured bin Laden. Simply put, we were at war with both Afghanistan and Pakistan and bin Laden avoided capture.
That’s where things stood at the end of President Bush’s 2nd term in 2008. He was replace by Barack Obama. President Obama ended the occupation of Iraq in 2017. On May 2, 2011, on orders from President Obama, Osama bin Laden was killed in Pakistan.
So if we invaded Afghanistan in 2001 to capture or kill bin Laden and we did that over 10 years ago, why have we continued to be in Afghanistan? Good question.
President Bush famously claimed that we weren’t in the business of nation building and had no interest in forcing our American values on another nation. But that’s exactly what we tried to do. Both Presidents Obama and Trump claimed to wish to leave Afghanistan but neither did it.
This year President Biden found himself saddled with a war that none of his predecessors were willing to end, and he decided to end it.
Yes, it’s a mess. Yes, many good people in Afghanistan believed our promise to liberate them from the terrorists that drove girls and women from classrooms and the freedom to go outside their homes.
And yes, perhaps most importantly, we promised good, honest Afghans that if they helped us they could look to a better future for themselves and their families. Now many of these Afghans find themselves trapped in a country no longer their own, fearing reprisals from the Taliban, and wondering why they trusted our promises.
I don’t blame them if the regret helping us. War is an awful thing and promises easily made become hard or impossible to keep. Their vision was our vision for a free and inclusive Afghanistan, and that vision now lies in tatters.
I grieve for them. I also grieve for the brave and heroic American men and women who were placed in harm’s way. Some of them sacrificed their lives. Others came home with horrific wounds (physical, emotional, and spiritual) that will haunt them the rest of their lives. But all came home wishing for a different outcome, and many of them will likely never reconcile the guilt they feel in making promises they intended to keep.
As Americans we need to stand for the promises we make. We are a nation founded on the belief that each and every one of us has the God given tools to create a nation that embodies truth, justice and love.
Finally, and we didn’t learn this after Vietnam, we should never land boots on the ground without deciding in advance what victory would look like. If our goal was to kill or capture bin Laden, we achieved that 10 years ago. If our goal was to create a new Afghanistan in our own image, we should have had that debate 20 years ago.