Afghani soldier in Nuristan. Photo credit: Sohaib Ghyasi

Four U.S. presidents stuck in Afghanistan war

The 20 year “forever war” started with weapons of mass destruction that were never found. It ended in defeat for the U.S.

Afghanistan’s current destabilization via terroristic coups and exploitation made the U.S. — the watchdog of the western hemisphere — finally hightail it home, four presidents later.  

The U.S. war in Afghanistan is its longest conflict, currently spanning the U.S. presidencies of George Bush, Barack Obama, Donald Trump and now Joseph Biden. The Associated Press says 2,448 service members and 3,846 U.S. contractors were killed.

As a Presidential candidate, Biden promised no future entanglements on his watch. During a July 11, 2019 foreign policy speech, he said military forces would be a “last resort” under a “defined . . . achievable mission.”

Searing evacuation images

Although most Americans support President Biden’s troop withdrawals from Afghanistan, they perceive the process as disorganized, according to opinion polls.  Many are alarmed over images of frightened Americans and Afghans desperately crowding packed military transport planes in Kabul’s Hamid Karzai International Airport.  Two former Obama administration officials are among those who were moved by what they saw.

“I am old enough to have been quite near the fall of Saigon [in 1975] .  .  . ,” President Obama’s national security advisor General Jim Jones,, told NPR. “That was very painful to watch. This is more painful.”

Leon Panetta, President Obama’s CIA director and defense secretary, said Biden was inadequately prepared and uninformed about the imminent Taliban takeover. “When the president does want to make a decision you want to be able to implement that decision in the right way, which means that you look at all the contingencies,” Panetta told NPR.

The need to know

But Biden was hard pressed to develop a contingency plan without thorough intelligence. His advisors could not predict when and how quickly the Taliban would capture most of Afghanistan nor its capital, Kabul. Lacking such information made it difficult for Biden to time U.S. citizens’ evacuations. Afghans assisting the U.S. were included in the plans as they were targeted by the Taliban too. 

“There was nothing that I or anybody else saw that indicated a collapse of [the Afghanistan] army and [the Afghanistan] government in 11 days,” Joint Chiefs of Staff chair Mark Milley told Pentagon reporters in August of anticipated Taliban invasion intelligence scenarios.

Of the four Presidents who were in office from the beginning to the conclusion of the Afghanistan war, more Americans blame George W. Bush for its outcome according to a poll by Business Insider. After Bush, 27 percent of respondents blamed Biden, 19 percent blamed Trump, and 12 percent blamed Obama.

American helicopter Apache in Afghanistan. Photo credit: Andre Klimke

International terror and the U.S. 

Whomever is to blame, many Americans weren’t born 20 years ago. They  might wonder why the U.S. had troops in Afghanistan from the get-go.The war began as a response to terrorists crashing planes into New York City’s World Trade Center Towers and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001. A fourth plane targeted the White House and crashed in Pennsylvania when passengers wrested control from hijackers and diverted it.

It was ultimately discovered that the Al-Qaeda terrorists who planned the attacks were based in Afghanistan. The Taliban reportedly assisted them. President Bush’s initial goals for deploying U.S. troops was to quash terrorism and prevent additional attacks on U.S. soil by destroying Al-Qaeda training camps and driving the Taliban out of Afghanistan.

Then there was “mission creep,” a shift from the war’s initial purpose to something more. In 2002, Bush envisioned rebuilding Afghanistan after Al-Qaeda and the Taliban were defeated. The U.S. would bring democracy to Afghanistan. It would help build institutions and forms of electing leaders like those in the U.S.Yet, the following year the Iraq war began, siphoning U.S. funds and resources from Afghanistan.

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When Barack Obama was elected president, there were 68,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan. Obama sent 30,000 additional troops to combat a Taliban resurgence. In 2011, the CIA along with U.S. military agents caught and killed Osama bin Laden in his hiding place, Pakistan. He was considered the key organizer of the 9-11 attacks. 

After, Obama withdrew 33,000 troops and was going to give Afghanistan’s government and military full responsibility for conducting the war by 2014. Obama wanted all remaining troops out of Afghanistan by 2016, but that was not the case.

Moreover, President Donald Trump opposed what he called a “hasty” exit from Afghanistan. He scheduled peace talks between the U.S., the Taliban, and Afghan President Ashraf Ghani in 2019. However, he cancelled them after a detonated car bomb in Afghanistan killed 12, including an American. The Taliban claimed responsibility for the explosion.

In 2020, Trump made a deal with the Taliban. He would withdraw 13,000 U.S. troops from Afghanistan by May 1 of this year. In return, the Taliban agreed to stop attacking U.S. troops and to end its Al-Qaeda affiliation. As Trump lost his re-election, only 2,500 U.S. troops were left in Afghanistan.

Know your enemy

It appears that none of the presidents nor advisors considered the Taliban’s motivations to battle for this long. Carter Malkasian, a former civilian advisor in Iraq and Afghanistan, wrote that nationalism and self-determination were central factors.

“For Afghans, jihad – more accurately understood as ‘resistance’ or ‘struggle’ .  .  . has historically been a means of defense against oppression by outsiders, part of their endurance against invader after invader,” explained Malkasian. 

He continued, “Even though Islam preaches unity, justice and peace, the Taliban were able to tie themselves to religion and to Afghan identity in a way that a government allied with non-Muslim foreign occupiers could not match . .  .  The Taliban’s ability to link their cause to the very meaning of being Afghan was a crucial factor in America’s defeat.” 

Protesters in London demonstrate against Taliban control in August 2021. Photo credit: Ehimetalor Akhere on Unsplash

Afghanistan and U.S. elections

Many Democrats worry that the chaotic evacuation scenes broadcasted from the Kabul airport will negatively impact the party in next year’s midterm elections and the 2024 presidential elections, especially if Biden runs again. The Republican Party already claims that Biden “lost” Afghanistan. 

On the other hand, Democratic pollster Jeff Horwitt of Hart Research told The Atlantic that voters care more about Biden’s handling of domestic matters such as the pandemic. “I don’t believe Americans are going to evaluate Joe Biden on whether Afghanistan is a stable democracy,” opined Horwitt. “They’re much more focused on whether America is a stable democracy.”

History will look favorably on Biden’s handling of Afghanistan and the “war on terror,” columnist and CNN contributor Bill Press recently wrote. Biden overestimated the Afghan government and military’s will to defeat the Taliban and underestimated the Taliban’s strength. “Three presidents promised to end [the war] but didn’t. Joe Biden did. And in the end, that’s what counts.”

Margaret Summers has worked as a print and radio news reporter and a media relations professional. She lives in Washington, D.C.

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