The Invasions of 2001 and 2002
When Covid hit, and everyone was glued to the news, we all learned a lot about health care together. That’s how 9/11 felt too. When the towers were still rubble in Manhattan, and the smoke still filled the air, we all jumped on the internet and began doing research. Who was Osama bin Laden? Why do these people want to kill us? And where in the world is Afghanistan? Are Afghans our enemies?
We Didn’t Start the Fire has that line about “Russians in Afghanistan,” and a quick wikipedia dive filled in the gaps in our memory. There was that National Geographic woman with piercing eyes, wasn’t she from Afghanistan? Was Osama bin Laden Afghani? What is Al-Qaeda? We all had a lot of questions as we tried to reason our way out of the situation we found ourselves in. Were we going to war? Was that next?
I heard a quote early on that stuck with me, and helped me frame my understanding. They said “when you think of the Taliban, think of Nazis. But when you think of the Afghani people, think Jews.” I’m sure it’s an imperfect metaphor, and missing a lot of important nuance. But the quote made the lesson clear: Afghanistan is poor, and its people have suffered for generations. Terrorists and warlords can get away with a lot in a failed state, which is why Al-Qaeda was able to operate there. And where did Osama bin Laden come from? He was a rich punk from Saudi Arabia, and 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudi as well. It was a lot to take in.
America invaded Afghanistan quickly, and that effort had the support of most of the world, including from the people of Afghanistan. The US military killed a bunch of terrorists, and then came the hard part: actually helping a poor, fractured country put itself back together again. But our leaders at the time weren’t interested in “nation building,” they were interested in kicking ass and taking names. So they stirred up a war with Iraq, who had literally nothing to do with 9/11 or Al-Qaeda, and America got its war fix for decades.
What’s happening in Afghanistan is a tragedy. But it was always going to end like this. Yes, the planners could have done a better job predicting. Yes, we could have drawn down slower or better. There are plenty of things that could have gone better. But it wouldn’t have changed the core realities on the ground. We’d be lucky to have things go about 10% better. The worst of it — a country sliding back into authoritarian rule by the Taliban — was always in the cards. One more year wouldn’t have changed that. Neither would five. Neither did twenty. It was a broken project from the start.
I blame America, my country, for what happened. But I mostly blame the pitiful leaders from 2001 who made failure the only option. I blame them for the war in Iraq. I blame them for leading with “shock and awe” and having no interest in actually helping the countries they were blowing to smithereens. I blame them for the trillions of dollars and hundreds of thousands of civilians who died. Before Trump, George W Bush was considered the worst US president of the modern era, and left office with an approval rating of around 30%. For good reason.
If we could go into a time machine, we wouldn’t have invaded Afghanistan the way we did. But we don’t have a time machine. In the present, we had two options: we could keep kicking the can down the road and delaying the inevitable, or we could withdraw now. I support our withdrawal, even as I’m saddened by the bloodshed and heartwrenching pain that the country is going through. Which is easy for me to say, because I’m not there on the ground experiencing a country being torn apart.
I’m so sorry, Afghanistan. Not because we finally gave up, but because the seeds of defeat had been planted twenty years ago. Because it was always going to end up like this. As a country, we need to stop invading and setting up permanant engamgents with sovereign countries. Long term, I think that’s the right answer, as do most Americans. But the first step is going to be horrific. The first step has to be leaving. We failed. We can do better.