America’s longest war is officially over.
As decorated Vietnam War combat veteran, former Navy Secretary, and former U.S. Senator Jim Webb recently wrote: “Wars have beginnings and they have ends. The ends for one and sometimes both sides are not always what the combatants initially envisioned. And in the case of Afghanistan, the war that we began was not the same war that we are finally bringing to an end.”
For those Americans having not served in the conflict or connected to a service member, the War in Afghanistan has been over for years. For millions, the conflict ended when a bullet ripped through Osama bin Laden’s skull. Yet, the war continued because, as Webb observes:
When we went into Afghanistan in 2001 our national concern was to eliminate terrorist entities who desired to attack us. The common understanding at the time was that we would operate with maneuver elements capable of attacking and neutralizing terrorist entities. It was never to occupy territory with permanent bases or to attempt to change the societal and governmental structure of the Afghan people…
This ‘mission creep’ began after a few years of successful operations and was obvious in 2004 when I was in the country as an embed journalist. The change in mission eventually increased our troop presence tenfold and sent our forces on an impossible political journey that no amount of military success could overcome.
On this point, a heavy burden lies with Congress. Of course, you’d never know it but Congress has the power to declare war. It has only exercised that power 11 times in U.S. history. The last time was in June 1942 when war was declared on Bulgaria, Romania, and Hungary in World War II.
Yet, since the Korean War in 1950, Congress has appropriated funds for 17 U.S. military engagements, only eight which had been granted official congressional “use of force” authorization.
On March 3, 2003, Congress officially green lighted the invasion of Iraq. At that time there was broad public support for the invasion thanks to an effective persuasion campaign by the Bush administration and, as we now well know, faulty intelligence regarding weapons of mass destruction.
On each of those 17 occasions, Congress ceded its power to an increasingly imperial presidency. And when each of these conflicts devolved – as Iraq famously did in the mid-2000s by spiraling into sectarian violence – Congress did what it always does best: Pass the buck to the president. In the case of Afghanistan, Congress has passed the buck to four presidents.
Afghanistan has long since been off of Congress’s radar. During the 2013 confirmation hearings for Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, only two senators asked questions about Afghanistan. There were, however, more than 20 questions asked by many senators about U.S. policy towards Israel all because Hagel dared to publicly question America’s policies in the Middle East.
Some of the senators who are now criticizing the Biden administration’s decisions, grandstanded during the Hagel hearings. The record shows they were not one of the two senators to question Hagel on Afghanistan.
And then there’s the media.
In recent days no journalist has been as scathing in his criticism of the U.S. withdrawal than NBC’s Richard Engel. America’s wars have been his steady beat ever since, in his own words, he rushed to cover the 2003 Iraq war to make a name for himself. Engel openly admitted…
In the run-up to the war, it was clear that Iraq was a land where careers were going to be made. I sneaked into Iraq before the war because I thought the conflict would be the turning point in the Middle East, where I had already been living for seven years. As a young freelancer, I believed some reporters would die covering the Iraq war, and that others would make a name for themselves.
His urge for thrill seeking satisfied, his career long-since having been made – and, it should be noted, having cashed in on the speaker’s circuit and with book contracts – Engel and many other television network correspondents have now taken it upon themselves to lecture policymakers about “our commitment to Afghanistan.” Their critique rings especially hollow in light of the findings from the respected media monitoring service The Tyndall Report.
The report found the three major networks – ABC, CBS, NBC – devoted a total of only five minutes of their evening newscasts to coverage of Afghanistan last year. Yes, you read that right. Five minutes. Out of 14,000 minutes of broadcasting.
The American media doesn’t do context. Hell, it hardly covers the world anymore. The networks have been closing international bureaus for many years. And cable news is not ‘news’ at all – it’s mostly all opinion and partisan opinion at that.
So, it stands to reason that most Americans were shocked by what they saw in Kabul these last few weeks. They lacked context.
There is no question four administrations made multiple errors in Afghanistan. The Bush administration placed our forces with an open-ended commitment that allowed mission creep to set in. President Obama muddled through without clarifying the mission or ending it after we killed bin Laden. For his part, President Trump entered into a February 2020 agreement with the Taliban in which they agreed not to attack U.S. forces so long as those troops and American civilian contractors left by May 1. The Taliban then used the following months to strengthen their position. Last year’s release of 5,000 imprisoned Taliban warriors only provided the jihadists with critical reinforcements.
As noted by many others, upon taking office, President Biden faced a Taliban that was at its strongest position since 2001 with a commitment from the U.S. and its NATO allies to leave the country by May. That the Biden administration made many mistakes is not in question (in retrospect the most noteworthy was the closing of Bagram Air Base) and the unforced political error of promising that Kabul would not collapse like Saigon did in 1975.
But, at its core, the presidency is a decision-making machine. Biden was faced with two undesirable options. The U.S. could significantly deploy more troops to stabilize Afghanistan, thereby breaking the Trump administration’s agreement and inviting attacks from an emboldened Taliban, or it could withdraw.
What Engel and many other media critics fail to report was the previous status quo of keeping a few thousand U.S. troops in the country was no longer an option.
And while there is plenty of blame to go around for the Congress, the media, and four administrations from both political parties, the American people are not free from significant criticism. Collectively, we’ve earned it.
Our servicemen and women did all that duty and devotion asked of them. But they did it from afar and, for many Americans, the Afghan conflict has long since been out of mind.
Walter Russell Mead said it best. The Bard College professor and scholar at the Hudson Institute, observed that America is “not Sparta,” a society organized for war, conquest, and foreign policy. “When things don’t seem that urgent we want to get back to watching TV.”
Mead’s observation is evergreen. The media knows it so they fuel the outrage machine, continuously feeding the beast to generate ratings, breathlessly reporting on every tweet, sensationalizing the new scandal of the week, or telling us what Khloe Kardashian had for dinner last evening. And Congress knows it, too. Both, in fact, bank on it.
It is debatable that we lost Afghanistan. After all, we did kill bin Laden and avenged 9/11. But there’s no question the images of the last two weeks, punctuated by the deaths of 13 service members, makes this all feel like a defeat.
Americans clearly hate to lose a war. But how do you conclude a war Americans stopped supporting years ago?
How do you wrap up a conflict in an America that no longer asks its citizens to sacrifice? Where for many Americans, standing for Lee Greenwood’s ‘God Bless the USA’ and cheering Toby Keith when he sings about “putting a boot in their ass ‘cause it’s the American way” are expressions of patriotism?
How do such wars end?
As we have witnessed these last two weeks, they don’t end well. They end in a mess.