It was Chuck Hagel’s first visit to Afghanistan as secretary of defense — and it was a deeply humiliating experience for the United States.
It wasn’t that Hagel made any obvious blunders. In fact, relative to his disastrous performance at his confirmation hearings, he did quite well in his public remarks. Rather, the visit merely highlighted how America’s longest war, which has been replete with missteps and tactical failures, is drawing to an equally disastrous conclusion.
Unlike Iraq, Afghanistan was supposed to be the noble war, part of an epic battle between good and evil. It was to have been a war with crystal-clear goals — driving out al-Qaida and replacing its Taliban allies with a freely elected democratic government.
It seemed like a relatively easy task for the world’s sole remaining superpower to rid a backwards country of its terrorist overlords. Some naïvely imagined that the Americans would be welcomed as saviors by a persecuted Afghani populace, eager to be free of radical Islamic rule.
Hagel’s trip was only the latest indication how wrong the optimists turned out to be. He was greeted by two suicide bombings that killed 19 people. One terror attack took place outside the Afghan Defense Ministry and the explosion was heard across Kabul, including at Hagel’s location. The second terror attack took place at a police checkpoint in eastern Khost province.
To add insult to injury, Afghan President Hamid Karzai declared that the Americans and the Taliban were working in concert to convince Afghans that violence will worsen if most foreign troops leave. This was followed in turn by a decision to cancel a joint Karzai-Hagel news conference.
The U.S. denied that the cancellation was prompted by Karzai’s outrageous accusations, and cited security concerns instead. It’s hard to decide which is more embarrassing, the astonishing ingratitude exhibited by Karzai, who was handpicked by the United States to lead Afghanistan, or the fact that after 12 years, thousands of American lives, and billions of dollars, Kabul is such a security risk that the American secretary of defense can’t even hold a news conference.
In fairness, Afghanistan has long been a daunting and unwelcoming land. It is told that Alexander the Great managed to briefly capture this country, but most other warriors were less successful. The British fought two bitter wars there in the 19th century, and ultimately decided to withdraw after suffering significant causalities.
More recently, the Soviets spent a decade fighting the Mujahideen in Afghanistan, before they, too, ultimately withdrew and their community puppet regime later collapsed, paving the way for the Taliban to take over.
But the failure of other nations to subdue Afghanistan is a weak excuse for an American policy gone awry.
There is little doubt that the time has come for the United States to leave this troublesome country. The American people have lost their appetite for the war, and it has become apparent that the Taliban will not be totally defeated, no matter how many troops are sent there and how many bombs are dropped. But as a humiliated United States continues to withdraw its troops, it’s also time to take account: What went so dreadfully wrong?
Was it a failure to gather the necessary intelligence data? Was there a lack of properly comprehending the inner workings of the local culture? Were the army attempts faulty at establishing a rapport with the local populace? Should the United States have tried to negotiate with the Taliban earlier?
We may never know for certain the answers to these questions, among many others. But every effort must be made to find out. It would be wise for the administration to establish a non-partisan commission of outside experts to thoroughly research what went wrong in Afghanistan, so that relevant lessons can be learned and applied.
As always, conservatives will choose to heap blame on President Obama, while liberals will point out that President George W. Bush tried and failed to win the war for eight long years. In reality, there is more than enough blame to go around for everyone.