Following 9/11, President George W. Bush sent American troops into Afghanistan when the Taliban refused to turn over Osama Bin Laden. Twenty years later, we’ve all but pulled out. Have we learned anything?

The Twin Towers turned rubble, Bush made countless mistakes. Defeating the Taliban was easy. But he refused to send American troops after Bin Laden, trapped in the mountains at Tora Bora. We paid corrupt Afghan militias to do the job. They didn’t. Then Bush committed troops to rebuild Afghanistan. Life improved there, but the country’s endemic corruption and ethnic rivalries continued. 

In 2003, George W. moved troops out of Afghanistan into Iraq even though Saddam Hussein had no connection to 9/11 or weapons of mass destruction. The born-again president proselytized for Western democracy. 

The war went quickly, but we soon found ourselves stuck in a desert quagmire. The administration understood nothing of Iraq’s religious and tribal issues. 

Let’s get something straight. My negative opinion of Bush doesn’t impact my respect for our troops. They implement—not make—American policy. Placed in a difficult position, they, for the most part, conducted themselves with honor despite the horrible stresses warfighters face.

President Biden removed almost all of our remaining troops from Afghanistan then ordered 3,000 back. They’ll augment those guarding our embassy and Kabul’s airport, and safeguard Americans told to leave immediately. Meanwhile, the Taliban conquered most of the country faster than anticipated. The prospects for many Afghans look bleak.

Biden’s situation represents the classic “Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.” His call may be right, but innocent blood will flow.

As we close this chapter in American military history—Iraq soon to follow—we’d be wise to recognize the limits of our power. The Middle East is far from the U.S. in terms both of distance and culture. We can be proud that we want others to live with freedom and dignity but quoting Proverbs 16:18 (JPS translation): “Pride goes before ruin, / Arrogance before failure.” 

We’ve failed before. On March 29, 1973, the last American troops left Vietnam. President Richard Nixon trumpeted “peace with honor.” Bullshit. 

I enlisted in the Army in 1966 and graduated from Infantry Officer Candidate School in 1967 but never was sent to Vietnam. I would have gone. But during my term of service, I recognized that the war not only was going badly but was misguided. President Lyndon Johnson, who required conservative support for his domestic programs, never understood the Vietnamese and that we weren’t about to win if only we had more boots on the ground.

Nixon could have ended the war after taking office in 1969 but refused. He wanted far-right support to win re-election. Honor? The man was clueless.

Too many Americans brought home wounds from Vietnam. 58,000, like my buddy 1LT Howie Schnabolk, a medevac helicopter pilot, came home in coffins. Howie wrote me that he was flying in support of the 101st Airborne Division. The Screaming Eagles were “getting the shit kicked out of them.” Brave men were placed in untenable positions far away to satisfy political ambitions at home.

Kenny Rogers in his 1978 hit song “The Gambler” (written by Don Schlitz) warbled, “You got to know when to hold ’em / Know when to fold ’em.” Easier sung than done. 

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  1. Jane Cutler on August 13, 2021 at 10:45 am

    Terrific piece, David. And a wonderful quick review! Thanks.

    • David Perlstein on August 13, 2021 at 11:11 am

      You’re most welcome, Jane.

  2. Joan Sutton on August 13, 2021 at 1:14 pm

    I think it’s a big mistake to withdraw from Afghanistan, despite our dire history of these sorts of mistakes. We’re throwing those innocent citizens to the lions. The lives of women and children will be ruined, after we’ve protected them for decades. I hope Biden can change his mind in some way. I’ve read that it would only take about 5000 troops to hold off the Taliban. But I guess it’s already too late. A terrible error.

    • David Perlstein on August 13, 2021 at 1:25 pm

      I hear you (or read you), Joan. Afghans will suffer. But it’s too late. Going back in means more American troops will die or be wounded. I stick with my closing statement: you have to know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em–and that’s easier sung than done.

  3. Manfred Wolf on August 14, 2021 at 2:47 pm

    One thing that has long bewildered me about the Afghanistan situation is that we so frequently are told the Afghanis “don’t want us there,” but we’re also told often that that they fear that “some day we’ll just leave.”

    Can you clarify this seeming contradiction?

    • David Perlstein on August 14, 2021 at 6:23 pm

      I believe, Manfred, that once we arrived and booted out the Taliban, many Afghans, who may have supported the Taliban or a similar Islamist-state approach, resented the presence of non-Muslim, “liberal westerners”on their soil. They doubtless saw us upending their conservative Muslim society with its regional and tribal customs.

      Other Afghans sought a “modern” life even if they maintained some or much of their ethnic/tribal/Muslim identities. They wanted girls to go to school; access to films, TV and books; and a connection to the rest of the world, which included doing away with women’s face and body coverings. They naturally feared we’d leave, which would enable the Taliban to re-take power and target them.

      A third group may have believed that Americans had defeated the Taliban, having enabled Afghanistan to form a different government, had done our job. “Thank you, go home.” Sadly, American and NATO forces were required to keep the Taliban at bay. Doing so must have wounded the pride of this third group… and maybe some people in the second though they required our presence. Those in the first group are probably welcoming the Taliban.

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