As a teenager and son of a Navy veteran who fought in World War II, I shared the illusion with many Americans that our nation had never lost a war and never would. While Korea ended with the nation split, our military remained to keep the North Koreans out of South Korea after a negotiated agreement.
Vietnam, however, was another story. I was last in Saigon as a reporter and photojournalist shortly before America gave up the South Vietnamese cause in a so-called “peace agreement” that ended with helicopters rescuing the American ambassador and his staff from the Embassy as troops and protestors were storming the gate.
For many who lost friends and family in that war, the ending was bitter, especially for those who came home to calls they were “baby killers” and other nasty epithets.
We had a brief victory in Grenada, of all places, in a rescue of American students in a medical school on that Caribbean island, and the soldiers marched in a parade before George H.W. Bush along Pennsylvania Avenue afterwards. Then, his son, George W. Bishop, stood on a ship with a victory banner that declared “Mission Accomplished.” It was a lie, as was the claim that we went to war to destroy “weapons of mass destruction” that did not exist.
Victories are becoming harder to find with the American military, and some have suggested we should now declare American “loses it wars.” We withdrew from Syria, leaving behind “allies” that were tortured and killed for aiding our effort.
When driving the Taliban out of Afghanistan as art of search for Osama bin Laden, leader of the terrorist destruction of the twin towers of the World Trade Center, an attack on the Pentagon and another headed for Washington to fly its hijacked plane into the Capitol or the White House, George W. Bush declared Afghanistan a target because it harbored the Taliban protected bin Laden.
That began America’s longest war, which ended with a withdrawal that began in May and ended this week with helicopters picking up Americans at the Embassy in Kabul as the Taliban reclaimed the nation in a record blitzkrieg that rivaled the massive tank invasions of Adolf Hitler.
We went into Afghanistan, kill bin Laden. It took nearly 10 years to find and kill him in a raid by Navy SEALs. For a while, the Taliban was pushed back, but it was never defeated, and it was ready to take over as soon as the U.S. military pulled out.
The pace of the military collapse has stunned many American officials and other foreign observers, forcing the U.S. government to dramatically accelerate efforts to remove personnel from its embassy in Kabul.
The Taliban capitalized on the uncertainty caused by the February 2020 agreement reached in Doha, Qatar, between the militant group and the United States calling for a full American withdrawal from Afghanistan. Some Afghan forces realized they would soon no longer be able to count on American air power and other crucial battlefield support, and grew receptive to the Taliban’s approaches.
In other words, we walked away from a mission that was far from complete.
An Afghan special forces officer who, for obvious reasons, doesn’t wish to be identified says:
They saw that document as the end. The day the deal was signed, we saw the change. Everyone was just looking out for himself. It was like [the United States] left us to fail.
The same thing happened in Iraq. Without American troops in place, they had no one to step up when the under trained and unwilling local military was on its own.
In the end, even the evacuation of what one Defense Department official estimated could be 20,000 Americans and an untold number of Afghans somehow managed to reflect the story of the entire 20-year war: a disconnect between American diplomats and the reality on the ground.
That disconnect has been clear as a series of administrations presented a succession of optimistic prognoses: the Taliban was in retreat, the Afghan military was on the brink of assuming control of the country, and the government in Kabul was one step away from being able to provide security across the land. In the last four months, as U.S. troops packed up and left the country under orders from President Biden, administration officials said the staff at the American Embassy in Kabul and State Department headquarters in Washington hung on to hope that their presence in the country could instill some backbone in the Afghan government.
I was in Afghanistan early in the war as a reporter and photojournalist. A Marine in a forward base just shook his head when I asked, “how are things going?”
“We’re wasting our time,” he said. “We can’t win here. The Russians tried for years and withdrew. Other nations came before them and pulled out. This will be a lost cause, just like the others.”
He’s home now after finishing his enlistment and multiple deployments in both Afghanistan and Iraq.
“We keep getting into wars where we don’t understand the enemy,” he told me last week. “My father fought in Vietnam and lost his arm there. He said they never understood the North Vietnamese or the culture of the nation. Neither did the officers. As long as we don’t really understand the people of a nation at war, we can never achieve victory.”
Even President Joe Biden, who should have known better, said:
There’s going to be no circumstance where you see people being lifted off the roof of an embassy of the United States in Afghanistan
The likelihood there’s going to be the Taliban overrunning everything and owning the whole country is highly unlikely.”
Welcome to America, Mr. President — the nation that now seems unable to win wars or even understand what would go wrong when they failed.
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