Analysis: America’s longest war is coming to an end. One nation wonders if it was all worth it.

But the US operation – launched by President George W. Bush when New York’s Twin Towers and the Pentagon were in ruins – is functionally over.

In a broader strategic sense, the pullout underscores how the war on terror – which US and allied leaders have insisted on being the organizing principle of international relations for decades to come – has become the overriding priority. Years of war abroad undermined American hegemony and contributed to national strife that further weakened its global footprint. A new era of competition between great powers, marked by the rise of China and the belligerence of Russia, now concerns Washington the most.

And the Covid-19 pandemic has killed hundreds of thousands more Americans than terrorism ever has.

After years of large-scale counterterrorism blitzes, fierce ground fighting, nation-building, US neglect and then new resolution, counterinsurgency offensives, negotiations with the Taliban and simple skirmishes , the United States will leave with many citizens wondering why the Americans are still in Afghanistan.

Unless things really deteriorate in Kabul, there won’t be scenes like the last helicopters taking off from the roof of the US Embassy in Saigon after the Vietnam War. This conflict, which has lasted so long that some deployed American soldiers have sent their offspring to the same battlefield, largely ends out of the sight of the American public. But just like in that earlier protracted war, there are no parades of victory, only exhaustion, a series of broken American plans and offensives, and a strong political imperative to step down.

“We did not ask for this mission. But we will fulfill it,” Bush said in October 2001.

Two decades later, many wonder if the United States has kept that promise. The fact that this is such a difficult question to answer explains why it was such a painful experience for those who fought and waged the war.

The muted start lacks the drama and determination that led to Bush’s lightning-fast offensive against the Taliban and al-Qaeda. But it is nonetheless an important moment in American history. The more than 3,500 American and Allied war dead, the many more physically and mentally crippled, and the tens of thousands of Afghan security forces and civilians who have also perished, deserve to be held accountable.

A new American chapter

The exit of the United States will sever one of the last links with the tumultuous years of the American wars abroad after the attacks of September 11, a period which shook the sense of security of the nation on its own continent, put back in caused its worldwide reputation and put the Constitution to the test.

As the president who ends “America’s longest war,” Biden will be on hand for those answers and what happens next. The Afghan war faded from public consciousness to such an extent that there was no huge wave of demands to leave. But ending foreign wars has been a belief that united progressives and Donald Trump voters.

There are kudos to being the president who put an end to this. But the privilege raises the question of whether Biden is acting on political or strategic goals.

Then there is the question of whether the United States has a responsibility to the millions of Afghans who prospered under their democratic sponsorship and who now face the prospect of a dark new age under the feudal Taliban. , which prevent little girls from going to school among other things. terrors. Indeed, Washington is rushing to extract thousands of translators and other Afghans who have helped American troops.

Inside Afghanistan, the Taliban are on the march, taking control of districts across the country. There are real fears that the government is falling into what could be a severe blow to American prestige. While US forces are expected to continue counterterrorism operations from bases outside the country, some military experts fear such strikes may not be as effective as a presence on the ground. The US intelligence operation will have to be rebuilt.

Yet all foreign wars rely on the consent of the people at home. The rationale for US involvement – fighting terrorists there instead of here, to use a popular Bush-era phrase – is difficult for a new generation to understand.

Biden, who has always been one of the less enthusiastic warriors in the war on terror overseas as vice president, channeled this disconnect when he announced the final departure from the United States in April.

“We went to Afghanistan because of a horrific attack that happened 20 years ago. That cannot explain why we should stay in 2021,” Biden told the nation from the same place in the room. of the White House treaties from which Bush launched combat operations 20 years ago. .

Was it worth it?

Whether the war was worth it is different from Section 60 of Arlington National Cemetery, which contains the ranks of the dead from the post-9/11 wars, than in the West Wing think tanks or Washington.

But those brave Americans who perished at the start of the war may not have died in vain.

For starters, the war was a success. Al-Qaida was eviscerated within weeks. Dreams of democracy were awakened after the Taliban rout by US and Northern Alliance forces – even though Osama bin Laden escaped to live another decade before the United States finally took revenge in his Pakistani hiding place. And the large-scale follow-up terrorist attacks dreaded by US leaders two decades ago have never materialized.

But when the Bush administration shifted attention to Iraq, the war languished and the Taliban regrouped. From then on, new American offensives and new plans to build Afghan forces unfolded, without much success.

Confidential documents published by The Washington Post in 2019 suggested that senior U.S. officials had not been honest with Americans about the war – making optimistic assessments they knew were wrong.

The newspaper reported that “US officials have recognized that their combat strategies are fatally flawed and that Washington has wasted enormous sums of money trying to make Afghanistan a modern nation.”

For years Afghanistan was the war the United States couldn’t afford to wage but believed it couldn’t afford to go. But Biden has made up his mind to follow through on an earlier Trump pledge to leave this year.

“When will it be a good time to go?” Biden asked in April. “One more year, two more years, 10 more years? Ten, 20, 30 billion dollars more than the trillions we’ve already spent?”

Most of the dilemmas that presidents face involve bad choices.

If the Kabul government falls and there is a bloodbath, it will be under Biden’s watch. If American diplomats die in a terrorist attack blamed on reduced security in the country, it will face human and political disaster.

The danger in post-American Afghanistan is acute. The highest American commander in the country, General Austin Miller, told the New York Times on Tuesday that civil war was a real possibility and “it should be of concern to the world.”

Since the 1980s, when the United States turned its back on Afghanistan and paved the way for the emergence of an anarchic haven of terror after it armed the Mujahedin forces to defeat the Soviet occupying forces, experts warned of the danger of ignoring the country. National security hawks cite President Barack Obama’s withdrawal from Iraq and the subsequent rise of ISIS as another warning.

Retired General David Petraeus, a former CIA director who commanded US troops in Afghanistan and Iraq, said he saw no threat to the homeland at this time. But he warned Monday at a Washington Post event that the group had shown “no sign that it was going to sever ties with al-Qaeda.”

Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in an interview with Italian broadcaster RAI TG1 on Tuesday that “al-Qaeda in Afghanistan does not presently pose a real threat to the United States, to Italy, to any of the other countries. “.

The argument that the United States must stay to prevent a new terrorist haven is contradicted by the fact that extremists operate from many failed states around the world – and are targeted by the United States without huge garrisons troops.

This logic helped Biden conclude in his April speech that the United States had achieved its clear objectives when it entered the war since bin Laden is dead and al-Qaeda is degraded, before adding: “He is time to end the Eternal War “.

CNN’s Barbara Starr, Nicole Gaouette and Kevin Liptak contributed to this report.


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