"We should have learned our lessons."
This coming Saturday, September 11, is supposed to be US President Joe Biden’s date with history. On this day, so the original White House narrative suggested, Biden would finally cement his lifelong ambition as the ultimate peace maker, the foreign policy guru. Where others failed to bring home the troops and end the last of America’s “ forever wars,” as many have come to describe the 20-year US engagement in Afghanistan, he would be the one to do it.
His legacy sealed, he would then turn around to domestic concerns and complete his mark as a transformational president in the league of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt who got America out of the Great Depression in the 1930s and presided over America’s heroic role as the lynchpin of Allied victory in World War II.
It was a plan made in heaven. But, as fate would have it, Biden’s legacy-sealing operation turned into a nightmare. Not only for him and his administration but the American people and its allies and all those who cheered when then-President George W. Bush decided to invade Afghanistan after the bombing of New York’s twin powers by Al Qaeda and its relations who were housed and sheltered by the Taliban, a Islamist movement who was then holding the reins of power in that country. That daring bombing run levelled the Twin Towers, the most recent universally accepted symbol of American engineering knowhow, killing 3,000 people and shattering the US’ image of invincibility.
That a second plane subsequently landed in the Pentagon, the seat of America’s military might, then a third one barely missing the Whie House before crashing into a Pennsylvania cornfield, merited worldwide condemnation pouring high-octane gas into an already seething American fury. Grief had to give way to derring do, to calls of crushing terrorists worldwide particularly those who vowed to destroy the “Great Satan” and its accomplices anywhere. And so, from the ashes of the Twin Towers on that fateful morning of September 11, 2001, the “ War on Terror” was born. And the rest is now history.
That 2001 Afghan invasion which led to the ouster of the Taliban government has since taken America and the world to uncharted waters, leaving in its wake unbearable losses of lives, properties, institutions, nations and societies. A report from the Costs of War Project at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island noted that “ 20 years of post- 9/11 wars have cost the United States an estimated US$8 trillion and killed more than 900, 000 people.”
“The war has been long and complex and horrific and unsuccessful and the war continues indefinitely, “ said Catherine Lutz, a professor of international and public affairs at Brown University and co-director with Stephanie Savell and Neta Crawford of the Costs of War Project.
The report advised that the US$8-trilllion cost estimate was for direct costs of the post-9/11 wars (this includes the Iraq and Syria engagements which continue up to the moment), mainly for the Department of Defense and the military establishment, the US State department, intelligence and counter-terror related costs, costs for veterans care, US Department of Homeland Security and interest payments on the funds allocated for the purpose.
Of the US$8 trillion cost, about one fourth or US$2.3 trillion was attributed to the Afghanistan/Pakistan war zone. The rest went to other segments of the total war effort including payments or subsidies to members of the “Coalition of the Willing,” the countries who joined in the Iraq invasion and who remain in that country to this day as well as the costs of carrying American and allied participation in the war against ISIS and its affiliates in Syria, Yemen, Somali, Nigeria and even some sub-Saharan countries.
It was the dollars and cents more than the human lives lost and societies broken which President Biden highlighted in that defiant speech justifying the incredibly chaotic and traumatic withdrawal from Kabul and, of course, his indefensible decisions and conduct before, during and after the withdrawal of US troops and the takeover of Afghanistan by the Taliban.
But even that pivot to the dollar cost of America’s interventions post 9/11 was under fire. Most nations where America has been preaching the values of freedom and nation building have come to question the value of dedicating such humongous sums to a war effort no matter how noble and necessary. It would have been a hundred times better, peoples in many of America’s poorer allies are now saying looking back, to have spent those amounts to enhancing the economies of these countries, building their infrastructures, getting them to produce their own food, rehabilitating their cities and basically getting their people out of poverty instead of spending such huge sums to military adventures.
That withdrawal fiasco could not have come at the worst time. Not only has the Taliban rose from the ashes and recaptured Afghanistan it has stained America’s reputation as a dependable ally and peacekeeper no end. And that is just putting it mildly as countries and societies who have looked up to America as the “ City on the Hill,” the country most others would like to become. Now they are having second thoughts.
As Stephanie Savell noted, “..twenty years from now we will still be reckoning with the high societal cost of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars—long after US forces are gone…” To an increasing number of Americans, the cost of being the “ world’s policeman”, the go-to country to change the world may no longer be proper and sustainable.
As for President Biden and his administration, the noted essayist and public intellectual Peggy Noonan had this to say in her August 19, 2021 piece at the Wall Street journal: “ “ ..the only right political path now is the humane one. It’s also the path to at least some partial redemption. Mr. Biden should see that his job now is saving the lives of Americans in Afghanistan and their friends in a major and declared rescue operation. If that means embarrassing himself temporarily by reversing decisions then so be it. Humility never killed anyone…Our government exists to help them..They must be rescued wherever they are. If we have to fight our way to them, we fight our way…Don’t be diffident and fatalistic. Don’t be equivocal. Don’t be forced by events. ..Take authority..This story is not going away..”
These are lessons we have to learn ourselves as we labor on with this pandemic and the other burdens which have come our way as we get into another round of selecting our leaders for the next six years. It is our hope we will now learn our lessons well.