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Labor Day was always a melancholy holiday for me as a kid. You know the tune: last day of summer, days getting shorter, return to school, parents getting their work-face on. It was extra painful for me because September meant that my annual dream of the Tigers winning a pennant had died once again.
The melancholy has been thicker the past twenty years because the holiday falls so close to September 11. And this year thicker still because of the shameful end last month of a shameful war waged in arrogance and ignorance to avenge 9/11.
The shame in the ending lies in part—I would say a relatively small part—in the helter-skelter rush by which the United States and its allies had to remove their nationals and some of their Afghan aides. This mess has gotten the lion’s share of attention with much righteous denunciation from the usual talking heads and the instant experts on social media. The legitimate part of the critique points to how surprised the Americans were that the Afghan army they had propped up to the tune of $88 billion the past twenty years could disappear in such a flash.
It’s less surprising when you remember the many warnings all those years of how much of that money was disappearing into the pockets of corrupt officers and warlords. And less surprising still when you understand that the U.S. had trained an army to be utterly dependent on American-supplied equipment and air power to fight an American-style war, not the kind of war that was actually on the ground. Remove that support as required by the treaty negotiated with the Taliban (N.B.: negotiated by Trump and acceded to, with a 3-month delay, by Biden) and the forces that were tailored to that kind of war would win.
More on the war in a moment. As for the evacuation, it turns out upon further review that what started in a shambles recovered very quickly and pulled off a remarkable feat. Between themselves and their allies, the U.S. helped evacuate a quarter-million people in two weeks’ time, and that despite the obstacles left by the previous administration. A view from the U.S. State Department is available here. (Disclosure: I have a son who works for the U.S. Foreign Service.)
I know, I know, many Afghans who helped the American cause were left behind and now live in jeopardy, and I realize that more chaos and violence are in the offing. But that’s how colonial occupations always end. Always. Think Vietnam, think Algeria, think India 1947 and Palestine 1948. It ain’t pretty because colonial occupation is at least oppressive and often brutal, and when it lifts there’s hell to pay. The goal, then, is to avoid occupation in the first place.
And that is the real tragedy of the war in Afghanistan. Leave aside for the moment the American invasion of Iraq which became the main event sandwiched between an Afghan prelude and postlude. Most people in the world agreed that, in the wake of 9/11/2001, al-Qaeda’s sanctuaries and the Taliban who at least tolerated and at most encouraged them had to be removed.
Already then I disliked the term “war” used to describe this operation. 9/11 was not an act of war; it was a monstrous crime, and crimes are better redressed by police action than by armies. To name the invading troops a police force, then, would have signaled an important distinction—and defined a particular purpose for the operation. Dismiss this as a semantic quibble or deride it as did the chicken hawks in the George W. Bush administration. Those tough guys lost their way soon enough in the mountains and plateaus of a country that had defeated the British and Soviet empires before the Americans blitzed their way in.
As it happened, U.S. forces routed—and totally discredited—the Taliban in a matter of months, suffering virtually no casualties in the process. By the end of 2001 there was a peace deal on the table, one accepting the Taliban’s surrender while according them a role in the new government. After all, they did represent the Pashtun 40 percent of Afghanistan’s population. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld disdained the very idea: “We don’t negotiate surrenders,” he boasted that November.
A week later he ended a laughter-filled news conference with a jab at nay-sayers bringing up the precedent of Vietnam: does it look like we’re in “a—all together now— quagmire”?
What Rumsfeld mocked turned out, of course, to be the deadly truth. The Afghanistan war and its overflow into Pakistan has cost twenty years, 2.3 trillion dollars, and 243,000 deaths. The dollar figure does not include future costs on the American side for veterans’ care or continuing interest charges on the funds borrowed to pay the tab. Nor does it even glance at repairing a landscape and a people that have seen unremitting combat since 1979.
Donald Rumsfeld represented American arrogance, pure and undiluted. George W. Bush brought the piety. Mocked for saying in the 2000 election that Jesus Christ was his favorite political philosopher, Bush made good on the claim in laying out his guiding principles for foreign affairs. Freedom is God’s gift to all nations, he intoned. America stands for freedom. Therefore, America would deliver the desire of all the nations to Iraq and Afghanistan by force of arms. That he, and the American electorate, and a good share of the American military command had no concept of the culture, religion, politics, economy, or social structure of those countries mattered to him not a whit.
The hard-drinking frat boy still lurked under the born-again soul. When Rumsfeld (!) tried to rein him in on the evening of 9/11, Bush replied: “I don’t care what the international lawyers say, we are going to kick some ass.”
To borrow from T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets, the end of this matter lay in its beginning. I could go on ten times longer here to detail the folly of the American conduct of the war, the disaster of trebling down and repeating the same mistakes and more in Iraq, the shifting guises and tones the conflict took under presidents Obama and Trump. Suffice it to say that the war’s brutal conduct and attendant corruption quickly discredited the American cause in the eyes of Afghans in the countryside so that within a few years the Taliban were reconstituting themselves as a force and began their long march of dodging, defying, and outlasting all comers, taking back territory piece by piece until the end.
The greater shame of that ending lies not in the United States’ shambolic improvisations but in the apathy and disregard the citizenry back home exhibited toward this war except for an occasional highlight-reel event: the brash beginning, the “surge,” the periodic (and grossly untruthful) press conferences by yet another new commanding general that all was well and a happy ending surely in sight.
Shame but also pain. Wars tend to rebound back home with a vengeance of their own, and surely that has happened in the United States. We can detail that another time. For now it chills the heart to read the prediction that Osama bin Laden, the architect of 9/11, gave three years before that event. “We anticipate a black future for America,” he said: financial bankruptcy from endless war-making, a steady line of bodies arriving back home, and a spiral of discord that would finally disunify the once United States.
“In my beginning is my end. In succession
Houses rise and fall, crumble, are extended,
Are removed, destroyed…
…old timber to new fires,
Old fires to ashes, and ashes to the earth….”