The U.S. military spent 7,267 days (just 38 days shy of 20 years) actively fighting a war in Afghanistan or withdrawing from it.
Despite all that time, money ($2,261,000,000,000) and bloodshed (2,461 service members and civilians employed by the Pentagon died in the war), investigative reporter Craig Whitlock said U.S. forces never understood Afghanistan and its people.
As the U.S. military ended evacuations from Kabul’s airport this week and withdrew the last service member, I asked Whitlock and national politics reporter Matt Viser to share their insights about the war and its lasting effects.
Whitlock has been unraveling the military’s misleading statements about the Afghanistan war and officials’ false claims of progress ever since he got his hands on an oversight report that was never intended to be released to the public. Whitlock reported his findings in the 2019 series “The Afghanistan Papers,” then built on that reporting in a book by the same name that was published this week.
Viser wrote a revealing story this week about a grieving father’s meeting with President Biden. The man’s son, 20-year-old Marine Corps Lance Cpl. Jared Schmitz, was one of 13 service members who were killed when a suicide bomber detonated explosives at a Kabul airport gate last week.
What are your lessons, takeaways or surprises from the U.S. withdrawal?
The U.S. never understood Afghanistan
Whitlock: Despite fighting a war there for nearly 20 years and deploying more than 800,000 troops, diplomats and aid workers, hardly any Americans could speak an Afghan language or had more than a passing familiarity with Afghanistan’s history and social structures. As retired Army Lt. Gen. Douglas Lute said in an interview for “The Afghanistan Papers,” “We were devoid of a fundamental understanding of Afghanistan — we didn’t know what we were doing.” This persistent ignorance helps to explain why the Biden administration was shocked and unprepared for the sudden collapse of the Afghan state and security forces.
Biden’s first foreign policy crisis
Viser: One of the biggest surprises was not that Biden chose to follow through with the withdrawal — given that it was a longtime policy he wanted to implement — but that his administration seemed to be caught so flat-footed in implementing the withdrawal. Many of Biden’s predictions, made just a few weeks earlier, seemed to be off and it created the first foreign policy crisis of his administration. Time will tell how lasting the impacts of that will be, including how pointed Congress — particularly Democrats who control both chambers right now — will be in exploring any missteps.
President Biden, first lady Jill Biden and others watch as a Marine Corps team carries the remains of Marine Corps Lance Cpl. Jared M. Schmitz, 20, during a casualty return on Aug. 29 at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware. (Carolyn Kaster/AP)
How will this conflict affect future debates or decisions about entering war?
Generals at the Pentagon have suffered a lasting hit to their reputations
Whitlock: For many years, public opinion surveys showed that the U.S. military was the most trusted institution in America. Senior commanders were seen as especially honest and upstanding. But after two decades of misleading the public about the war in Afghanistan by robotically insisting that they were making progress, the uniformed brass have squandered their credibility. This bodes poorly for the next time that the United States has to confront a national-security crisis and a decision over whether it needs to go to war.
Expect more reluctance about initiating a large-scale conflict
Viser: Some of the stated reasons for entering Afghanistan — protecting the homeland, pursuing terrorists, and going after [Osama] bin Laden — probably still hold, and given another attack like 9/11 you can imagine a similar response. But I think policymakers may be far more reluctant to have a sizable military presence for a long period of time.