Was America's 20-Year-Long Afghanistan War Really Worth the Pain?
A hasty US withdrawal has been wrapped up two decades of war in Afghanistan. Despite its original aim of taking out the Taliban in 2001, the US-led NATO campaign ended with the Islamist group's swift takeover of Kabul on 15 August, 2021.
The US' 20-year military mission in Afghanistan has ended with the Taliban* rising to power in Kabul: on 19 August the group declared the formation of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan – the exact same name of the state that was invaded by the US in 2001. In a statement quoted by the Associated Press, the Afghan insurgents claimed that their long resistance "forced…[an] arrogant power of the world, the United States, to fail and retreat from our holy territory of Afghanistan."
'When One Creates Vacuum It's Always Filled by Evil'
"I'm not happy with the way that it’s ending," says Dr. Jeremy Van Tress, a veteran of the US Joint Special Operations Command who served in Afghanistan.
According to him, "by botching this withdrawal completely and by withdrawing without stabilising the region, without maintaining stability in the region, the message that we've communicated to other adversaries such as China and North Korea is that we're willing to leave a job undone."
"Having served in Afghanistan, it breaks my heart to see where we were and where we are now in terms of our military strategy and position operationally," he stresses. "We were in a good position in terms of being able to support the Afghans in their quest to preserve the freedoms that they fought to attain. They were in a very good position and now, in a matter of days, that has been completely undermined by this administration's decision to withdraw."
The Americans should have maintained at least a special operations presence in Afghanistan, believes Tommy Altman, a disabled veteran of the US Air Force Special Operations community, who took part in both Afghanistan and Iraq campaigns.
"Being a veteran there, having spent time over there fighting, I don't think that you leave a country so quickly," he says. "I believe that what you do is you create a vacuum when that happens, as we're seeing now, and when you create a vacuum in that region, it’s always filled by evil."
Afghans who assisted the US before being deserted have found themselves in dire straits, according to Altman. He cites his friends in Afghanistan who are terrified that the Taliban will take revenge on anyone who cooperated with Washington. According to the veteran, the insurgents are going door to door trying to find people who supported American and allied military forces during the war.
"I myself and countless other service members from the United States promised these people that we would have their backs and that we would not leave them on their own," Altman says. "And so that's what gave them the courage to fight and to resist."
The veteran insists that the US-trained Afghan National Army (ANA) failed to counter the Taliban advance because they didn't have enough US air support: "Lacking that, I believe, is what sapped a lot of the strength and the courage from the men that are there fighting," he notes. "I don’t believe that the Afghan people gave up because they don't desire freedom."
The Taliban only understands strength, argues Altman, adding that "if President Trump was still in office, we would not be seeing what we're seeing right now."
'Nation Building Was an Immense Blunder'
One of the main problems with Washington's Afghanistan campaign was that the mission shifted, suggests Iraq War veteran Noah Malgeri. Although initially the US was focused on retaliation for 9/11 and degrading of the Taliban under the pretext that it was hiding al-Qaeda*, the shift to nation-building was "an immense blunder."
"You can see the appeal of that mission shift from the perspective of people in Washington who find it very appealing or are attracted to the prospect of having a never ending, perpetual war into which they can pour money and resources and continue to fund the military industrial complex in perpetuity," says Malgeri.
During the 17 August address to the nation on Afghanistan, Joe Biden said that Afghanistan was never about nation-building. Ironically, roughly 19 years ago, then-Democratic senator and head of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Joe Biden ardently supported the nation-building mission in Afghanistan, according to the Baltimore Sun.
Eventually, the US continued to heavily invest in Afghanistan under the pretext that if Washington did not become more involved in policing Afghanistan, Afghan warlords would take over the country.
Huge sums of money that were poured into Afghanistan still remain unaccounted for – the cash ended up wasted, in the hands of warlords, or used for bribes, the veteran argues. Nevertheless, between 16 and 18 American generals who controlled the mission in Afghanistan routinely stated that everything was going well, he adds.
"And everyone said the same thing," he says. "We're going to go in there. We're doing great. Everything's going great. We're building up the Afghan army. We're reconstructing the country, establishing an operational system over the rule of law. None of it was true, right? We came out here. I mean, twenty, twenty years later and the thing collapsed in a day. The Afghan army did nothing."
The US' Afghanistan War was mired in a series of controversies. In July 2010, WikiLeaks dropped a bombshell by releasing a huge cache of secret US military files which revealed "a devastating portrait of the failing war in Afghanistan," as The Guardian described it at that time. The war logs detailed how coalition forces killed Afghan civilians, increasingly used deadly drones, and hunted down Taliban leaders for "kill or capture" without trial. Meanwhile, audits by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) have repeatedly exposed mismanagement of finances and large-scale money waste.
All in all, the 20-year-long war claimed the lives of at least 2,443 US soldiers; 3,846 US contractors; 1,144 NATO and other allied service members; 66,000 Afghan national military and police; 51,191 Taliban and other jihadi fighters; 47,245 civilians; 444 aid workers; and 72 journalists, according to the Associated Press.
"In my view, yes, I think that all of that, all of the sacrifice and the blood, sweat and tears was worth it," says Dr. Jeremy Van Tress. "Now, do I think it's a mistake? We probably could have done things better in some ways, but there’s always hindsight."
*The Taliban and al-Qaeda are terrorist organisations banned in Russia and many other states.