I drove to the office this morning baffled at what I had read earlier in the morning. Kabul had fallen, and the Taliban appeared on international television with an amalgamation of assault weapons to declare that they had formed an interim government in Afghanistan. They also openly declared or implied that they would resume attempts at attacking the United States through terrorism.
I was a mere six years old when terrorists associated with the Taliban crashed airplanes into the Twin Towers and the Pentagon on 9/11. I still remember precisely where I was and what I was doing when the first plane struck. I remember the gravity of the moment sinking in when my father announced we were going to my grandparents’ so we could watch the terrible events unfold on their television. Even though I was too young to understand much of what President Bush said that night, I remember President Bush assuring the nation that whoever perpetrated the horrors of that day would be held responsible. I even vaguely remember the night that President Bush announced that we would be going to war with Afghanistan because of the Taliban and that we actually did go to war.
Iraq was abstract to me as a kid. I didn’t understand our conflict with them until I got much older. 9/11, however, was forever associated in my memory with the Taliban and our war in Afghanistan. Like the rest of our nation, I felt some sense of closure when President Obama announced that Seal Team Six had blown away Osama Bin Laden – the 9/11 mastermind – in a Pakistani hut. It was as if we had finally avenged the national honor.
At the same time, I have grown old enough to realize that there is no such thing as an easy end to a modern war. It isn’t over until both sides say it is. Our forefathers learned that lesson in Vietnam. I would have hoped that we, as a nation, might have done so as well. We did to an extent in the First Gulf War when we managed to win and get out fairly quickly. Our new-found wisdom did not endure though.
In Afghanistan, we have engaged in about 20 years of war against a ideology or a twisted form of religion. We tried to replace it with our ideals of liberty and tolerance. Just like Vietnam, we built on a shaky foundation. Corruption and religious infighting doomed our experiment in building a democracy from the start. In the end, no matter how many bombs, bullets, and missiles we used, we could not permanently extinguish a fanatical ideology that masqueraded as a religion. I did have some hope, however, that we had sufficiently built a counterbalancing force in the Afghan military that would put up some resistance.
I now sit writing this blog post wondering what we did in 20 years. When a war lasts for 20 years, it is natural to question if it has dragged on too long. It may even be reasonable politically and strategically to question what victory looks like and whether it has been achieved. It may even be reasonable to acknowledge a lost cause and cut our losses before any more blood and treasure are lost in pursuit of a fool’s dream. I, however, cannot wrap my head around the fact that a 20-year military and diplomatic mission crumbled in a mere 20 days.
What did we do in 20 years? Why did we spend 20 years working toward something that crumbled within three weeks of us trying to let it walk on its own? Did we really try to fight the war and achieve a military mission or were we sold a bills of goods by politicians and lobbying interests who needed the war to continue for their own good?
President Eisenhower warned of the answer to the last question. His words make me wonder even more today.
When I emerged from my legal bubble this morning to check on the world, I couldn’t find any answers. What I did find on all of my social media platforms were eerie side by side images of Saigon falling and Kabul falling. They look almost identical. We learned nothing from history and lost 20 years of sacrifice in 20 days. In other words, I’ll say what no one else has said. We got played for fools over the past 20 years.