Better late than never: most Americans now believe that invading Afghanistan was a mistake. But what good does it do to recognize a screw-up unless you learn from it?
Failure to understand what went wrong, and why, sets you up for doing the same thing later. That’s what happened after Vietnam; rather than face up to the truth that we went there to prop up a corrupt puppet regime and exploit natural gas, we wallowed in ridiculous “Rambo” mythology about politicians stabbing our valiant warriors in the back by not allowing them to win, and libels of vicious hippies who supposedly spat on veterans returning to their hometown airports. (Never happened.)
It’s tempting to kick the dust of Afghanistan off our metaphorical boots and, as Americans prefer, look forward rather than backward. But an advanced civil society requires an after-action report. That’s what the military and other organizations do after an engagement in an intelligent effort to repeat what worked and avoid what didn’t.
Unless we conduct a sober reassessment of Afghanistan, ideally in the form of a congressional investigation, there is nothing to indicate that we wouldn’t start a similarly stupid war again in the future. That’s because the invasion and occupation of Afghanistan was based on a big lie — and that lie is still circulating as widely as it was when the first bombs started raining down on Kabul in October 2001. If we want to avoid another $2 trillion war that claims thousands of American lives, we have to drive a stake through that BS narrative.
Big Lie: Afghanistan and the war against it was revenge for 9/11.
American voters like wars that are framed as righteous retribution against unprovoked acts of naked aggression, like the Spanish-American War (“remember the Maine!”) and World War II in the Pacific (“remember Pearl Harbor!”). Never mind that we invaded Cuba over an accidental explosion that Spain almost certainly had nothing to do with and that a U.S.-led oil embargo drove Japan to the desperate act of bombing Hawaii. A war that seems to come out of thin air, like the Bush Administration’s 2003 invasion of Iraq, on the other hand, prompts big protests and widespread opposition.
So it’s easy to see why the White House and its press allies marketed the Afghan war as revenge against Al Qaeda. We were attacked. It was unprovoked (not really, but that’s what Americans thought). We had to strike back.
Al Qaeda was based in Pakistan. 9/11 was planned in Pakistan. Osama bin Laden, the man held most responsible, lived in Pakistan. Much of the money came from Saudi Arabia, by far the largest international funding source of radical Islamic fundamentalism. The hijackers were Saudi and Egyptian. Not a single hijacker was Afghan. The hijackers had attended training camps in Afghanistan for jihad generally, not 9/11 specifically. If we were interested in getting even for 9/11, we would have attacked Pakistan or Saudi Arabia instead.
This information is well-known and widely available. Yet President Joe Biden, who deserves accolades for sticking to his guns and pulling out U.S. troops, chose September 11, 2021 as the final deadline for the withdrawal and the official end date of the war. “Setting the 9/11 date…underscores the reason that American troops were in Afghanistan to begin with — to prevent extremist groups from establishing a foothold in the country again that could be used to launch attacks against the U.S.,” the Associated Press reported on April 14th.
There it is, 20 years later, the big lie again. 9/11 wasn’t planned by terrorists from a “foothold” established in Afghanistan. It was planned by terrorists from a foothold established in Pakistan, specifically in the city of Karachi, precisely at the home of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.
In total opposition to the facts, Biden keeps repeating the big lie. “As I said in April, the United States did what we went to do in Afghanistan: to get the terrorists who attacked us on 9/11 and to deliver justice to Osama Bin Laden, and to degrade the terrorist threat to keep Afghanistan from becoming a base from which attacks could be continued against the United States. We achieved those objectives. That’s why we went.”
Afghanistan never was a “base” of attacks against the United States; said attacks couldn’t possibly “continue” because there never were any originating from Afghanistan. Bin Laden, of course, was assassinated in Pakistan. Which is an entirely different country from Afghanistan. And no, we didn’t follow any trail from Afghanistan to Pakistan.
Biden piles on the lies. People remember symbolism.
Choosing the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks as the official withdrawal date was the White House’s way to reinforce the long-standing national slander against Afghanistan, while leaving our frenemies Pakistan and Saudi Arabia off the hook.
We have got to stop talking about 9/11 and Afghanistan in the same breath.
The lie that links Afghanistan to 9/11 is so powerful that even people on the progressive left bought into it. Only one member of Congress, Barbara Lee of California, had the courage and brains to vote against the Afghanistan war. The antiwar left cobbled together a few pathetic protest demonstrations during the September-October 2001 run-up to the U.S. invasion, but their number and turnout was a tiny fraction of those who marched against the Iraq War. Even now that it’s clear that both wars were equally unjustified and based on lies, liberals get much more agitated over Iraq than Afghanistan.
As usual, the media is the guiltiest cog in the machine of militarism. “Americans like me ignored—or scorned—protesters who warned of an endless quagmire in Afghanistan. Next time, we should listen to the critics,” Conor Friedersdorf kindly acknowledged in The Atlantic in 2019. Perhaps that will happen somewhere somehow. But not in The Atlantic. Like every other corporate media outlet, the magazine refuses to hire me or any other writer or artist who criticized the Afghanistan war when everyone else was all in.
(Ted Rall (Twitter: @tedrall), the political cartoonist, columnist and graphic novelist, is the author of a new graphic novel about a journalist gone bad, “The Stringer.” Now available to order. You can support Ted’s hard-hitting political cartoons and columns and see his work first by sponsoring his work on Patreon.)