This past Tuesday closed the final chaotic chapter of the longest war in American history. And nearly a week later, it still doesn’t quite seem real. Most students at Villanova are not old enough to remember a time when Americans were not deployed in Afghanistan, and yet it has never felt like a generation-defining endeavor in the way that Vietnam was to the baby boomers or World War II was to the Greatest Generation. Instead, for those of us without a direct connection to a service member, the war in Afghanistan has seemed to exist more as a force of nature than a man-made conflict that could ever come to a definitive conclusion. It has always just been there, rumbling on in the background.
Now that the final plane has left Kabul, this 20-year war can be viewed in its totality with fresh eyes as the pointless, inhumane atrocity that it was. Despite the flowery rhetoric of three successive administrations about “democracy” and “human rights,” it was, from beginning to end, an utterly fruitless endeavor that served no purpose other than to make a select group of defense contractors, Afghan warlords and corrupt politicians filthy rich at the expense of more than 240,000 lives and nearly $2.3 trillion.
It has become conventional wisdom that the war began with a clear moral and strategic objective and devolved into chaos in its later years. Amid the heat of the withdrawal, President Joe Biden expressed this sentiment, saying, “We went to Afghanistan almost 20 years ago with clear goals: Get those who attacked us on September 11, 2001, and make sure Al Qaeda could not use Afghanistan as a base from which to attack us again … Our mission ... was never supposed to have been nation-building. It was never supposed to be creating a unified, centralized democracy.”
While he is right in the narrow sense that the war’s aims became evermore abstract and unclear as it wore on, that goal of capturing Osama bin Laden and preventing Afghanistan from becoming a safe harbor for terrorists could have been accomplished within months rather than decades. In the fall of 2001, after an aggressive American bombing campaign, the Taliban announced a willingness to not only hand Bin Laden over for a trial but to step down from power, surrender to the U.S.-backed interim president, give up their weapons and return to their home villages.
One would think that in a self-proclaimed “war on terror,” to capture the mastermind of Al Qaeda and evaporate the regime that sheltered him would be a massive victory. Instead, the Bush Administration rejected the deal, Bin Laden escaped to Pakistan and the Taliban remained an active player in the nation’s politics, plunging the U.S. into two decades of hellish futility. The Taliban became an effective insurgency that managed to increase its territorial control as the U.S. propped up a ludicrously corrupt and incompetent government and armed warlords notorious for roles in drug and human trafficking. All the while, U.S. bombing raids and drone strikes killed thousands of civilians per year.
Presidents from both parties promised for years that progress was being made and victory was just around the corner. In reality, as we now know from The Washington Post’s brilliant “Afghanistan Papers” report in 2019, many of the most senior generals and diplomats had expressed that the war had become an unwinnable debacle in candid interviews with oversight authorities. In one 2015 interview with the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, Douglas Lute, a three-star general and war czar under the Bush and Obama Administrations explained, “We didn’t have the foggiest notion of what we were undertaking...We were devoid of a fundamental understanding of Afghanistan.”
Many others expressed concern that statistics were often manipulated or outright fabricated.
“Every data point was altered to present the best picture possible,” said Army colonel Bob Crowley.
John Sopko, whose agency conducted the interviews described the reality of Afghanistan most concisely: “The American people have constantly been lied to.”
The baffling decisions to keep a military in the country, to surge troops and to expand our bombing campaign long after concrete objectives had withered away make much more sense when the political and economic incentives behind them are examined. The truth of the matter is that the Afghanistan War never existed to be won. It existed to be had.
Over the last 20 years, the defense industry spent astonishing amounts of money persuading politicians to keep the war running even as it turned into a quagmire. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, the defense industry spent $285 million on campaign contributions and $2.5 billion on lobbying between 2001 and 2021. These expenditures have been worth their while, and then some. According to a report from the Intercept, the stock values of America’s top five defense contractors – Boeing, Raytheon, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman and General Dynamics – have increased almost ten-fold over the course of the war, outpacing the rest of the stock market by 58%.
Of course, Biden’s withdrawal threatened these massive profits, which explains the torrent of condemnation and nonstop coverage from the entirety of mainstream media - both conservative and liberal - after more than five years of completely ignoring the war’s carnage. Many of the talking heads who emerged on cable news in recent weeks to decry the horror of the withdrawal currently sit on the corporate boards of the companies with the most to lose from our exit.
Four-star general David Petraeus, who castigated the withdrawal as a “Dunkirk moment” on Fox News and demanded Biden “reverse the decision,” sits on the board of the cybersecurity contractor Optiv Security, which contracts with the Pentagon and whose parent company owns several aerospace companies. Likewise, former Defense Secretary and CIA Director Leon Panetta, who likened Biden’s withdrawal to the failed Bay of Pigs invasion on CNN, is a senior counselor to the defense consulting firm Beacon Global Strategies. These are just two examples out of dozens in which the American people were inundated with the apocalyptic musings of the very same people who architected the war, helped to cover up its failings and now serve to profit from its continuation.
The 20-year cataclysm of Afghanistan has had virtually no upside for those of us who are not defense contractors, American politicians or exiled Afghan president Ashraf Ghani (who fled the country in a helicopter full of cash as the Taliban rolled over the army the U.S. has been “training” for the last two decades). But if anything is to be gained from this nightmare, it’s the knowledge that our government and its endless wars are built on the self-dealing and perverse incentives of the most powerful. We must remember this when the next absurd war is offered up and say in a unified voice: “no.”