Honesty about Afghanistan would be a life-saver
By JAY AMBROSE | Tribune News Service | Published: December 12, 2019
It’s no small thing when grotesque mistakes and lies about them cost 2,300 lives and a trillion dollars, but that’s what we got from U.S. officials who have kept us at war in Afghanistan for 18 years. A chief culprit is the Pentagon, of course, but also presidents, Congress and the State Department. And the overall picture is powerfully sustained by a Washington Post expose that comes at us at a time when so much else in our republic seems a mess.
After all, we right now have House Democrats atrociously and deceptively abusing their power in an impeachment effort doing more to toss principles out the window than a legitimately elected if fault-filled president who will be saved by the Senate. We likewise have a Justice Department explicitly shown in an official report to have engaged in incompetent, strikingly dishonest practices to prove a nonexistent Russian collusion.
And on top of all of these scandals we once-proud Americans are learning how the military went askew in Afghanistan after an initial attack following the 9/11 tragedy at the hands of al-Qaida. We needed to strike back if we were going to prevent future terrorism on our shores, and we asked the Taliban, then pretty much in charge of Afghanistan, to let us punish the al-Qaida conspirators in the neighborhood. The Taliban said no, and we invaded, pushed the Taliban aside and shredded al-Qaida as its terror-struck terrorists fled into Pakistan. We should have then said goodbye with a promise to visit again if necessary.
Instead, our military hung around with no idea of what our mission was or what strategies would work in a land where we understood nothing about the culture. We weren’t going to try nation building, but we did, leading to confusion and unspeakable corruption. We were going to stop the opium trade, but saw it blossom. We were going to train the Afghan army, but it’s still untrained. We were going to crush al-Qaida, but what was left was gone. We were going to sink the Taliban but it was big and entrenched and we should have negotiated instead of just watching it rise again. We were going to protect civilians but saw thousands killed.
We heard all kinds of positive stories from people named Bush and Obama along with the military, bureaucrats and members of Congress even if they all knew how much was amiss. There was then a federal project to get at the truth through hundreds of interviews and its report was hidden away. For several years now, The Post has tried to get access to it, not through leaks but through the Freedom of Information Act, and has lately been successful. What it has come up with is story after story of the missteps, the failures, the negative consequences, the pointlessness of so much that has been tried.
I myself recently heard such a story at a gathering spoken to by a brave if tearful soldier who had served as a medic in Afghanistan for four years. He showed us videos of bloody U.S. soldiers being carried into helicopters. He showed pictures of soldiers who were killed in combat. He told of awful incidents. He told of watching horrifying drone attacks on long-distance monitors. He said everyone in Afghanistan knew at least one person killed by the United States. At the same time, and to my surprise, he did not want total withdrawal. He clearly loved the Afghan people and thought the Taliban would return to excruciating power if we left. I have no choice but to respect his view even if I now feel differently.
Our resources extend only so far and there is no way we can keep every place else in the world safe from itself. We need to keep an eye on Afghanistan, especially since we know other terrorist groups are building bases there, and we should be prepared to hit hard and get out if the need arises. But we should quit sacrificing American lives over and meanwhile demand truth from people who are supposedly our public servants.
Jay Ambrose is an op-ed columnist for Tribune News Service.