The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Afghanistan is a disaster we will probably cause again

A U.S. Chinook helicopter flies near the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, Sunday, Aug. 15. (Rahmat Gul/AP)

Afghanistan may have fallen, but the delusions and deceptions that brought the United States to this day have not. While some would like to blame this tragedy on military decisions, or on intelligence failures, or on Afghans themselves, or on President Biden — the fourth president to preside over the disaster — the roots lie deep in the ideology we have been taught and retaught over decades.

Just as before, there will be an effort to unlearn Afghanistan’s lessons so its mistakes can be repeated.

That ideology is about what the United States does and represents to the world. It says that we can accomplish anything, including remolding other countries in our image. It says not only that our motives are always pure but that even when we are breaking down doors and raining down bombs, those on the other end will crawl from the rubble of their homes and thank us for delivering them “freedom."

And it says that even in the wake of a catastrophic failure like this one — 20 years, thousands of American lives lost, over $2 trillion spent — all we have to do is wait a few years and then we should be ready to do it all again.

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We’ve often said over the last five years that everything in our political life seems bizarre and out of control. The Afghanistan war began in a period just as crazed, albeit in different ways. At George W. Bush’s urging, the nation told itself in 2001 that its disbelief and anger over the attacks of Sept. 11 had turned to “resolve." What actually gripped it was a mass delusion, a willful blindness to both history and simple common sense.

Sept. 11 took our baseline belief in our own moral innocence and righteousness, and cranked it up to the red line. On top of everything else we were now victims, a nation that believed that in the name of vengeance it could do nearly anything.

In a jingoistic frenzy — one New York Times headline at the time read “Marchers Oppose Waging War Against Terrorists” — we invaded Afghanistan almost gleefully, ostensibly to find Osama bin Laden and destroy al-Qaeda. But bin Laden disappeared and we quickly settled in, thinking that in short order we’d create a thriving liberal democracy.

Then just a year and a half later, Bush mounted the most extraordinary propaganda campaign in U.S. history to convince the public that Saddam Hussein was not only implicated in Sept. 11 but would soon attack us with his fearsome weapons of mass destruction if we did not invade Iraq as well.

So we did, repeating again and again that these were not wars of conquest or imperialism but mere self-defense, combined with a boundless concern for the people on whom we were dropping ordnance.

These wars, their promoters assured us, would not only bring the blessings of liberty to the lands we invaded, they would set off a cascade of freedom spreading from one country to another until much of the world rested comfortably in our beneficent shadow.

Even in January 2005 at his second inaugural — after he won reelection in a campaign built on the idea that anyone who questioned either of the raging wars was a terrorist sympathizer — Bush insisted that this noble crusade was proceeding as planned:

Yet because we have acted in the great liberating tradition of this nation, tens of millions have achieved their freedom. And as hope kindles hope, millions more will find it. By our efforts, we have lit a fire as well — a fire in the minds of men. It warms those who feel its power, it burns those who fight its progress, and one day this untamed fire of freedom will reach the darkest corners of our world.

We’re so convinced of our own benevolent intentions that we can’t wrap our heads around the idea that people in the rest of the world see us not as a force of altruism and liberation but as a global hegemon imposing its will and maintaining its control, so often indifferent to the death and dislocation it causes. They do not trust our motives, they do not share our confidence, and they often view our own history with a clearer eye than we do.

Today we’re all united in sadness and disgust over the disaster of Afghanistan, even if we differ on who is most to blame. But rest assured, there are those among us who are only too eager to put this failure behind us so we can do it all over again.

In 1991, just 16 years after the last Americans were lifted off the roof of the embassy in Saigon, President George H.W. Bush exulted in the effect his tidy little war to expel the Iraqi army from Kuwait would have. “By god,” he said, “we’ve kicked the Vietnam syndrome once and for all.”

No longer would we be constrained by doubts about the utility of an invasion here or there, skeptical questions about the costs and long-term impacts of U.S. military action, or the lack of vision that prevented us from seeing what glory awaited when we sent young people to fight and die for whatever purpose the current political leadership devised. Bush’s triumph was fully realized a decade later, when his son took the nation into two simultaneous wars in countries Americans barely bothered to understand, while telling themselves their truest goal was the spread of liberty.

One day — and it won’t be too long — another president will come along and tell us that morality and national security demand that we launch yet another invasion to add to our long list.

“By god,” he’ll say, “we’ve kicked the Afghanistan syndrome once and for all.”