Sunday, October 7, 2001: Less than a month after 9/11, President George W. Bush announces to the world, “On my orders the United States military has begun strikes against al Qaeda terrorist training camps and military installations of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan.
These carefully targeted actions are designed to disrupt the use of Afghanistan as a terrorist base of operations, and to attack the military capability of the Taliban regime… We are supported by the collective will of the world.
My then-wife and I watched Bush on TV from our downtown Manhattan apartment, just two miles from Ground Zero. On September 11, we had stood on the corner watching the World Trade Center burn.
After Bush spoke, we walked up the street to a restaurant owned by friends. Despite the recent fatal cataclysm, it was raucous and bustling, the bar and Sunday brunch crowd filling the place. A TV above the bar was tuned to CNN.
We had just gotten our table when suddenly, the entire joint fell silent, as if a switch had been flipped, a phenomenon I have never witnessed before or since.
Osama bin Laden was on the TV screen responding to Bush. As he spoke, it felt like the air had been sucked out of the entire restaurant:
God has blessed a group of vanguard Muslims, the forefront of Islam, to destroy America. May God bless them and allot them a supreme place in heaven, for he is the only one capable and entitled to do so.
And so it began. The White House and Pentagon said it would be a quick push into Afghanistan to overthrow the Taliban government and hunt down bin Laden and al Qaeda—those responsible for directing the 9/11 attacks, and the Afghan regime that had hosted them. But what we were told would be just a few months turned into years and years, two decades worth, America’s longest war. More than 2500 of our military are dead, including the 13 who died in Thursday’s suicide bomber attack (along with scores of civilians). A reported more than 240,000 Afghans have been killed. And a financial price tag for the United States of $300 million a day.
Had we stuck to what allegedly was the original plan, or not have done it at all, with some mental acrobatics it’s conceivable things somehow might have been different. Instead, we made another attempt at “nation-building,” in theory a lovely vision of bringing democracy to others but usually disastrous in execution.
And yet, amidst the death and bitter recrimination, we saw some positive results of that attempt to build: foremost, the education of women and children and the loosening of many cultural, sexist, fanatical restrictions.
A filmmaker friend produced a moving documentary about the return of indigenous music to Afghanistan and the joy and hope that accompanied it. My sister-in-law worked for more than a decade with Afghan women judges; many had been removed from the bench by the Taliban in the 1990’s. Because written laws and law books had been destroyed, judges had to work with older male judges to even remember what the former laws were.
Early on, women judges developed programs for high school girls and their teachers to explain their rights under the new Afghan constitution, including their right to an education and not to be married off at ages 12 or 14. During the past 20 years, these same girls have been able to study law and become lawyers, prosecutors and judges themselves.
Now they’re in peril and all the advances they have made are in doubt. In a press statement shortly before the fall of Kabul, New Zealand Justice Susan Glazebrook, president of the International Association of Women Judges (IAWJ) wrote, “By serving as judges and helping develop the Afghan judicial branch, women judges have helped establish the rule of law in their country…. Allowing them to be at the mercy of the Taliban and insurgent groups, given what they have sacrificed, would be tragic indeed.”
The images from Kabul, the crowds clamoring for escape, terrorist attacks on the airport and counterattacks are frightening and soul wrenching. The future is unknown but the immediate aftereffects of our withdrawal from that country doubtless will be bleak.
A doctor I know who once worked in a children’s hospital there, the head of which survived a Taliban assassination attempt, told me over the weekend that as far as he could tell, it’s primarily the Pashtun members of the Taliban who have been seen swinging chains and screaming at women to cover their faces—that the current Taliban heads are from the northern and central portions of the country and more rational—comparatively. But how long that could last is yet another enormous uncertainty. On Sunday, the Taliban’s minster of higher education announced a ban on co-education and that men are not allowed to teach women; all schooling must conform with Sharia law.
That the American experience in Afghanistan has been such an omnishambles should not come as a surprise to anyone who’s even a little familiar with the history of British and Russian involvement there; they don’t call it “the graveyard of empires” for nothing.
“Certain themes are consistent across the distance of a century,” Washington Post columnist David Von Drehle recently wrote.
There’s the near-impossibility of creating a strong central government in a land of tribes and clans. There are the constantly shifting allegiances and temporary alliances. There’s the fierce skepticism and outright hostility of the uneducated majority toward the educated elite. There’s the infinitely porous frontier that makes Afghanistan a part of Pakistan and Pakistan a part of Afghanistan in a tangle of intrigues too ancient and too complex to be unraveled. There is the tendency of outside powers to play Afghan pawns in their global chess games.
One cannot say whether greater awareness of this history would have revealed a path to success for the authors of the American story in Afghanistan. Certainly, it would have made them more cautious, more circumspect. It might even have made them sympathize with the U.S. leaders who would eventually have to write an ending to the tale. More wisdom in the beginning could have meant less catastrophe at the end.
Writing at Foreign Affairs magazine way back in 2020, just before the pandemic struck, historian and former senior adviser to the chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Carter Malkasian, noted:
Underneath these factors, something more fundamental was at play. The Taliban exemplified an idea—an idea that runs deep in Afghan culture, that inspired their fighters, that made them powerful in battle, and that, in the eyes of many Afghans, defines an individual’s worth. In simple terms, that idea is resistance to occupation. The very presence of Americans in Afghanistan was an assault on what it meant to be Afghan. It inspired Afghans to defend their honor, their religion, and their homeland. The importance of this cultural factor has been confirmed and reconfirmed by multiple surveys of Taliban fighters since 2007 conducted by a range of researchers.
The Afghan government, tainted by its alignment with foreign occupiers, could not inspire the same devotion.
And so Joe Biden had to face a difficult choice: keep US and NATO troops in-country for an unknowable number of years, risking more American and Afghan lives to maintain a shaky, corrupt government in a nation riven for centuries by tribal rivalries. Or cut loose and send our people home.
Blood would further spill no matter which he chose but by leaving, American blood will no longer soak Afghan soil. Charges will be made and Republicans will demand Benghazi-style congressional hearings, conveniently ignoring the deal made with the Taliban by their former guy in the White House—the man who told supporters, “We’re cleaning up the mess… and with time, we’ll have it spinning like a top.” Spinning being the operative word.
Questions are valid about misleading progress reports over the years, flawed military planning for the evacuation and the intelligence reports that seem to have misread the speed with which the Afghan government collapsed. Valid, too, is praise for the speed and efficiency with which, after initial missteps, the United States flew more than 123,000 Americans and Afghans to safety (although leaving behind many Afghans who had assisted our forces). What isn’t valid is trying to make political hay from a horrific situation and ignoring the actions of Biden’s immediate predecessors, including Barack Obama and Republicans Trump and Bush, the man who gave the initial orders for invasion.
As Richard Stengel, former Time magazine editor and Obama undersecretary of state, tweeted on Monday, “Blaming Biden for Afghanistan is like saying the last batter in a 9-inning 10-to-nothing rout was responsible for the loss.” There is plenty of blame to go around and the loss of innocent lives continues, but Biden at least has withdrawn us from a war that was lost long ago.
F. Scott Fitzgerald famously wrote that the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function was the mark of “a first-rate intelligence.” I can’t attest to that first-rate intelligence part, but I do hold the opposed ideas that it’s good for us to get out while simultaneously fearing the fate of the Afghan civilians left behind, especially the women and kids who learned to read, write, and move about freely while religious extremists no longer ran their country like a theocracy. So heartbreaking, and a bit like that moment in October 2001 when we watched bin Laden vow to destroy America: it takes your breath away.
Michael Winship is the Schumann Senior Writing Fellow for Common Dreams. Previously, he was the Emmy Award-winning senior writer for Moyers & Company and BillMoyers.com, a past senior writing fellow at the policy and advocacy group Demos, and former president of the Writers Guild of America East.