“You have the watches. We have the time.”
That is the quote attributed to a captured Taliban fighter assessing the battle with U.S. Forces, and it speaks to the different objectives.
Initially, the American mission was to take out Osama Bin Laden and the al Qaeda cells responsible for the 9/11 terror attacks.
Then there was mission creep. Could the U.S. presence in Afghanistan not only protect us from another terror attack, but also establish and support a central government strong enough to maintain security and provide for some basic freedoms, especially for women?
West Virginia Secretary of State Mac Warner is a 23-year active military veteran who spent five years in Afghanistan advising the Afghan justice system as well as the Ministry of Women’s Affairs.
He told me on Talkline Monday, “Viewing what happened in Afghanistan as a collapse or surrender is the wrong way to view the situation,” Warner said. “The result was inevitable. We simply managed an unsolvable problem for 20 years.”
After two decades of war, the deaths of 2,448 American service members (including 15 West Virginians) and 3,846 U.S. contractors, and over $2 trillion spent, our country’s desire to continue to “manage” Afghanistan had waned.
Back in 2001, just weeks after 9/11, Americans overwhelmingly supported the war. A Gallup Poll found that 93 percent of Americans backed sending troops to Afghanistan. Twenty years later, the country was evenly split; forty-six percent said it was a mistake to invade, while 47 percent said it was not.
So, former President Donald Trump and current President Joe Biden each pledged to end the U.S. involvement and set target dates for withdrawal. Establishing a timeline made war-weary Americans feel good about ending the war, but it also signaled to the Taliban that victory was within reach.
Tragically, the gains made over the last two decades—especially for women– have been wiped away in a matter of days as the country comes under control of Islamists who will impose a fanatical rule. Warner fears the country will again be a haven for terrorists.
“The Taliban harbored terrorists in the past,” Warner said. “Their Islamic culture will push them to harbor terrorists in the future.” That could mean the U.S. will have to go back into Afghanistan one day to resume the fight.
In the meantime, we have the horrific images. The scene of desperate Afghans running after a U.S. military plane leaving Kabul is a powerful symbol. It makes it appear to the world as though we are cutting and running (and maybe we are), leaving behind those to whom we promised loyalty, security and a better life.
Our adversaries will capitalize on that image for years as a way of undermining our credibility.
Prussian general and military strategist Carl Von Clausewitz said, “No one starts a war—or rather, no one in his sense ought to do so—without first being clear in his mind what he intends to achieve by the war and how he intends to conduct it.”
The Taliban had a clear goal—drive the Americans out and establish their own version of Islamic law. Our more nebulous mission was to try to manage the unmanageable.
We were going to leave at some point. It was only a matter of time.