As Afghanistan Collapses, a Lament for ‘Repeating the Same Mistakes’

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Retro Report

Shifting objectives led to the enlargement of a warfare that dragged connected for astir 2 decades, and is ending successful chaos.

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How the U.S. subject effect to the 9/11 attacks led to decades of war.

Officials who drove the decades-long warfare successful Afghanistan look backmost connected the strategical mistakes and misjudgments that led to a 20-year quagmire.

Two decades aft invading Afghanistan, the United States is withdrawing, leaving chaos successful its aftermath and the state overmuch arsenic it recovered it 20 years ago. “The Taliban don’t conscionable power Kabul, but the full country.” How did a warfare that began successful effect to the 9/11 attacks go the longest successful American history? “If idiosyncratic had told maine successful 2001 that we were going to beryllium determination for different 20 years, I would not person believed them.” And what lessons tin beryllium learned for the future? “We were doing the aforesaid happening twelvemonth aft twelvemonth aft year, expecting a antithetic result.” “Nearly 2,400 Americans person died successful Afghanistan.” “More than 43,000 Afghan civilians mislaid their lives.” “You can’t remake a state connected the American image. You can’t triumph if you’re warring radical who are warring for their ain villages and their ain territory. Those were lessons we thought we learned successful Vietnam. And yet, 30, 40 years later, we extremity up successful Afghanistan, repeating the aforesaid mistakes.” On the greeting of Sept. 11, 2001, President George W. Bush was visiting an simple schoolhouse successful Sarasota, Fla., erstwhile helium received connection of an onslaught connected the World Trade Center successful New York City. “We’re looking astatine a unrecorded representation of the, of the gathering close now. And, uh, what would you say? That would beryllium astir the 90th level oregon so?” The president joined his unit successful an bare classroom, wherever his C.I.A. quality briefer, Michael Morell, had been watching the onslaught unfold. “There was a TV determination and the 2nd level hit.” “Oh my goodness.” “Oh God.” “There’s different one.” “Oh.” “Oh my goodness, there’s different one.” “God.” “And erstwhile that happened, I knew that this was an enactment of terrorism.” At the Capitol successful Washington, Representative Barbara Lee’s gathering was interrupted. “I heard a batch of sound saying, ‘Evacuate. Leave. Get retired of here. Run fast.’ So, I ran up Independence Avenue. As I turned around, I was capable to spot a heck of a batch of smoke.” “Another aircraft, unbelievably, has crashed into the Pentagon.” “What you person to recognize is this is the largest onslaught ever successful the full past of the country.” At 9:59 a.m., the 2nd World Trade Center operation to beryllium struck collapsed. Twenty-nine minutes later, the different operation followed. “The president, helium asked to spot maine successful his bureau connected Air Force One. The president looked maine successful the oculus and helium said, ‘Michael, who did this?’ I told the president that I would stake my children’s aboriginal that Al Qaeda was liable for this attack.” Within hours, grounds surfaced that Al Qaeda, a multinational violent enactment headed by the Islamic fundamentalist Osama Bin Laden, had committed the attacks. The radical was being fixed harmless haven successful Afghanistan by the Taliban regime. “The president’s inclination was to deed backmost and deed backmost hard.” “I tin perceive you. The remainder of the satellite hears you. And the radical — ” “So the president decided to spell to war.” “ — And the radical who knocked these buildings down volition perceive each of america soon.” “We had to spell to Afghanistan. There’s nary question successful immoderate of our minds, it’s a warfare of necessity. We had to spell aft Al Qaeda, we had to termination them, we had to get them out, and we had to prosecute them to the ends of the earth.” “The connection connected the thoroughfare was everyone’s got to beryllium agreed with the president. You know, the state is successful mourning.” Three days aft the attacks, Lee was nether unit to ballot yes connected a solution successful Congress to authorize going to warfare against Al Qaeda and its allies erstwhile she heard a eulogy astatine a memorial service. “That arsenic we act, we not go the evil we deplore.” “It was astatine that constituent I said, We request to deliberation done our subject response, our nationalist information effect and the imaginable interaction connected civilians.” “Mr. Speaker, members, I emergence contiguous truly with a precise dense heart. One that is filled with sorrow for the families and the loved ones who were killed and injured this week. Yet I americium convinced that subject enactment volition not forestall further acts of planetary coercion against the United States.” “Got backmost to the bureau and each hellhole was breaking loose.” “The lone dissenting dependable was Democrat Barbara Lee of California, voting no.” “Phone calls, threats. People were calling maine a traitor. She’s got to go. But I knew past it was going to acceptable the signifier for perpetual war.” Within weeks of 9/11, the U.S. struck backmost successful Afghanistan. “The United States subject has begun strikes against Al Qaeda violent grooming camps and subject installations of the Taliban regime.” Soon after, U.S. crushed troops arrived successful the country. “The penetration was a occurrence precise quickly.” “At the gates of Kabul, quality of a Taliban illness had already reached these thousands.” “The Taliban retreat has turned into a rout.” “By the extremity of the year, the Taliban had been driven from power. A ample fig of Al Qaeda operatives had either been killed oregon captured.” And though Osama Bin Laden had managed to escape, the U.S. had accomplished its main goal. “Al Qaeda could not run retired of Afghanistan anymore.” President Bush knew determination was a past of failed subject campaigns successful Afghanistan. “We cognize this from not lone quality but from the past of subject struggle successful Afghanistan. It’s been 1 of archetypal occurrence followed by agelong years of floundering and eventual failure. We’re not going to repetition that mistake.” [Applause] But aft his archetypal success, Bush expanded the ngo to nation-building. To forestall further Al Qaeda attacks, his medication said it wanted to alteration the poor, war-torn state into a unchangeable democracy, with a beardown cardinal authorities and U.S.-trained military. “The thought was it would beryllium intolerable for the Taliban to ever instrumentality to powerfulness and intolerable for Afghanistan to ever beryllium utilized arsenic a harmless haven again.” “There were girls starting to spell to school, determination were clinics and hospitals being acceptable up, determination were vaccinations, determination were elections planned. Everything was benignant of humming on and we each thought, OK, this is going to beryllium fine.” But by the mid-2000s, aft the Bush medication expanded the warfare connected panic to Iraq, Richard Boucher realized that the U.S.-backed Afghan authorities was plagued by corruption and mismanagement. “I utilized to accidental to my guys connected the Afghan desk, ‘If we’re winning, however travel it don’t look similar we’re winning?’” “The Taliban person staged a large comeback, seizing power of ample swaths of the country.” “The radical were not rejecting the Taliban. And that was, successful the end, due to the fact that the authorities couldn’t present overmuch for the people. Everybody had this thought successful their heads that authorities works the mode it does successful Washington. But Afghanistan hasn’t worked that mode successful the past. I deliberation that was a infinitesimal we should’ve astatine slightest asked ourselves whether it wasn’t truly clip for america to permission and to accidental to the Afghans, ‘It’s your place, you tally it arsenic champion you can.’” Instead, by 2011, President Bush’s successor, Barack Obama, had sent astir 50,000 much troops to Afghanistan, hoping to reverse the Taliban’s gains. “I deliberation 1 of the biggest mistakes we made strategically, aft 9/11, was to neglect to decorativeness the occupation here, absorption our attraction here. We got distracted by Iraq.” One of those troops was Marine Captain Timothy Kudo. Part of his occupation was to enactment up enactment for the authorities by digging wells and gathering schools. He soon mislaid religion successful that ngo after, helium says, his institution killed 2 Afghan teenagers they mistakenly believed were firing connected them. “And their household saw this happen. The mothers, the grandmothers, they came out. It was the archetypal clip I’d ever seen an Afghan pistillate without wearing a burqa. They were sobbing and crying uncontrollably. I mean, however tin you termination 2 guiltless radical and expect thing that you accidental to substance astatine that point?” “People present person small religion successful U.S. forces anymore. More Afghans present blasted the unit present connected the U.S. than connected the Taliban.” Weeks aft Kudo returned location from Afghanistan, determination was a monumental development. “I started getting each these texts, like, ‘You’ve got to cheque retired the TV.’ My roommate calls maine from the different room. ‘Turn connected CNN.’” “The United States has conducted an cognition that killed Osama Bin Laden, the person of Al Qaeda.” “U.S.A.! U.S.A.!” “In that moment, radical are celebrating successful beforehand of the White House. They’re celebrating by Ground Zero.” “This is wherever it happened. We’re back. It’s justice!” “And to my mind, there’s nary much crushed to spell done this madness. And, of course, we past did it for different decade.” “I deliberation the subject and the nationalist information apparatus thought they could win. And I deliberation that they besides wanted to judge that due to the fact that they had invested truthful much. People had died and they didn’t privation them to dice successful vain.” “2011, Bin Laden is present dead. Why was it truthful hard to de-escalate?” Jeffrey Eggers was connected President Obama’s National Security Council. He says that the extremity since 9/11, to marque definite Afghanistan would ne'er again beryllium a harmless haven for terrorists, had go a look for endless war. “We volition everlastingly forestall the conditions that led to specified an attack.” “Danger close!” [Gunfire] “And if you specify it that way, erstwhile are you finished?” [Gunfire] “Go! Come on, travel on, travel on!” Though the surge failed to propulsion backmost the Taliban, the U.S. drew down unit levels adjacent arsenic doubts were increasing that Afghan forces would beryllium capable to support the country. In 2021, President Biden, the 4th president to preside implicit the war, announced that helium would retreat U.S. troops, a program acceptable successful question by his predecessor, Donald Trump. “Nobody should person any doubts. We mislaid the warfare successful Afghanistan.” “And we’re wide to cross?” “It wasn’t a bid agreement; it was a withdrawal agreement. The statement was essentially, As we withdraw, don’t onslaught us.” As the U.S. leaves Afghanistan, the Taliban is taking implicit again, having rapidly overrun the Afghan Army, which the U.S. spent much than $80 cardinal to bid and equip. “The Taliban are retired successful afloat force. And their Islamist regularisation is already coming back.” “They tin usage this arsenic a recruiting tool. They are present the champions of the jihadi question due to the fact that they pushed retired the United States.” And U.S. officials are reflecting connected the opening of the war, 20 years aft 9/11. “More radical should person thought astir endless war, not conscionable successful Congress but successful the State Department, successful the Defense Department, C.I.A. and elsewhere, successful the White House. That the look of utilizing subject means to spell aft coercion was conscionable going to get america into 1 combat aft different aft another. One tin lone anticipation that Americans of the caller procreation volition deliberation astir this.”

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Officials who drove the decades-long warfare successful Afghanistan look backmost connected the strategical mistakes and misjudgments that led to a 20-year quagmire.

Aug. 22, 2021, 6:00 p.m. ET

Few radical successful Congress person stood arsenic unsocial arsenic Representative Barbara Lee did connected Sept. 14, 2001. Three days earlier, the United States had endured the astir devastating onslaught ever connected its soil. Now Congress was called connected to authorize the unleashing of American subject powerfulness against Al Qaeda and its Taliban enablers successful Afghanistan who were held liable for what has eternally travel to beryllium called 9/11.

In the House, 420 members voted to springiness the president that authority. The Senate agreed, 98-0. Only 1 lawmaker said no: Ms. Lee, a Democrat representing a territory centered connected Oakland and Berkeley, Calif. Her ballot brought aggravated denunciations and adjacent carnal threats.

“People were calling maine a traitor — ‘she’s got to go,’ ” she told Retro Report. “But I knew past that it was going to acceptable the signifier for perpetual war.”

That is precisely what it did.

But aft 20 years, that perpetual warfare has yet ended. With the United States-supported Afghan authorities gone and the Taliban erstwhile again successful control, Ms. Lee is nary longer a lonely skeptical dependable successful Washington, doubting America’s capableness to reshape a distant and often hostile land. Lessons from the Afghanistan acquisition signifier the halfway of the accompanying video from Retro Report, whose ngo is to analyse the enduring interaction of past events connected contiguous policies.

A stiff measurement of humility is successful order, suggested Richard A. Boucher, who was the adjunct caput of authorities for South and Central Asian Affairs during the medication of President George W. Bush.

“You can’t remake a state connected the American image,” Mr. Boucher said to Retro Report. “You can’t triumph erstwhile you’re warring radical for their ain villages and their ain territory. Those were lessons we thought we learned successful Vietnam. And yet, 30 oregon 40 years later, we extremity up successful Afghanistan repeating the aforesaid mistakes.”

Humility was not a hallmark of United States argumentation successful Afghanistan, adjacent though Mr. Bush and his advisers understood that the state was called “the graveyard of empires” for bully reason. Britain had a misadventure determination successful the 19th century. The Soviet Union had its ain successful the precocious 20th century. Somehow, Mr. Bush thought 21st-century America would beryllium different.

Addressing cadets astatine the Virginia Military Institute successful April 2002, a fewer months aft United States-led troops had routed the Taliban, Mr. Bush offered a imaginativeness of an Afghanistan reconstituted with Washington’s guiding hand, overmuch arsenic devastated Europe had been aft World War II done the Marshall Plan. “True peace,” helium said, would not effect from subject unit unsocial but alternatively from caller networks of roads, hospitals and schools.

Mr. Bush said helium understood the past of subject struggle successful Afghanistan. “It’s been 1 of archetypal success, followed by agelong years of floundering and eventual failure,” helium said. But helium added, with a fleeting, assured smile, “We’re not going to repetition that mistake.”

Mistakes, obviously, were nevertheless made. Among them, successful the judgement of galore analysts, was the Bush administration’s enlargement of its “war connected terror” to Iraq. And arsenic the years passed, it became evident that the Afghan leaders connected whom Washington had placed large bets would not beryllium the hoped-for instruments of effective, corruption-free governance.

“I utilized to accidental to my guys connected the Afghan desk, ‘If we’re winning, however travel it don’t look similar we’re winning?’ ” Mr. Boucher told Retro Report.

To complicate matters, the Taliban ne'er disappeared. Slowly astatine first, and past with stunning speed, they regained control.

“The radical were not rejecting the Taliban,” Mr. Boucher said. “That was, successful the end, due to the fact that the authorities couldn’t present overmuch for the people.”

Understand the Taliban Takeover successful Afghanistan


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Who are the Taliban? The Taliban arose successful 1994 amid the turmoil that came aft the withdrawal of Soviet forces from Afghanistan successful 1989. They utilized brutal nationalist punishments, including floggings, amputations and wide executions, to enforce their rules. Here’s much connected their root communicative and their grounds arsenic rulers.

Well earlier caller weeks, helium said, “we should person astatine slightest asked ourselves whether it wasn’t truly clip for america to leave, to accidental to the Afghans, ‘It’s your place. You tally it arsenic champion arsenic you can.’”

Now the satellite is near to wonderment whether the comparatively mean representation that Taliban leaders person sought to task successful caller days should beryllium taken seriously. Or volition they, instead, revert to the thuggery of the past, with dissidents killed, past monuments leveled, women denied jobs and compelled to deterioration burqas, and girls forced to permission school?

What lasting lessons the United States has learned stay likewise unclear. For 1 thing, the legislature ballot successful 2001 that gave the president open-ended licence to usage subject unit is inactive successful force; it has been utilized arsenic a ground for the deployment of American soldiers to Ethiopia, Somalia, Yemen and galore different countries.

Across the years, Representative Lee has introduced authorities to revoke this broad authorization for the White House. She managed to win successful the House successful 2019, but the effort past failed successful the Senate.

Her presumption 20 years ago, she told Retro Report, was that “we request to deliberation done our subject response, our nationalist information response, and the imaginable interaction connected civilians.”

On that score, she seems unchanged from erstwhile she roseate successful Congress successful 2001 to say: “However hard this ballot whitethorn be, immoderate of america indispensable impulse the usage of restraint. Our state is successful a authorities of mourning. Some of america indispensable say, ‘Let’s measurement backmost for a moment, let’s conscionable pause, conscionable for a minute, and deliberation done the implications of our actions today, truthful that this does not spiral retired of control.’”

At the time, “some of us” ended up being “one of us” — conscionable her.

The video with this nonfiction is portion of a documentary bid presented by The New York Times. The video task was started with a assistance from Christopher Buck. Retro Report, led by Kyra Darnton, is simply a nonprofit media enactment examining the past and discourse down today’s news. To ticker more, subscribe to the Retro Report newsletter, and travel Retro Report connected YouTube and Twitter.

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