President Joe Biden said on Aug. 24 that the United States’ armed forces are on track to pull out of Afghanistan by the U.S.’s deadline of Aug. 31. This is despite several twists and turns in the last month, including the Taliban’s swift takeover of Afghanistan in the wake of U.S. troop withdrawals and terrorist group ISIS-K’s suicide bombing of the evacuation site at the Kabul airport.
The attack killed 13 U.S. servicemembers and as many as 170 Afghans and prompted U.S. airstrikes in retaliation, according to the New York Times.
After 20 years of conflict, the war in Afghanistan is the longest in the U.S.’s history, despite Congress never formally declaring war at its inception or any point since. Now, it’s over, and many Americans are wondering whether the U.S. won or lost.
President Joe Biden said that the U.S.’s goals in invading Afghanistan have been met and it’s long past time U.S. forces went home.
“We went to Afghanistan almost 20 years ago with clear goals: get those who attacked us on September 11th, 2001, and make sure al Qaeda could not use Afghanistan as a base from which to attack us again,” Biden said in an address on Aug. 16. “We did that. We severely degraded Al Qaeda in Afghanistan. We never gave up the hunt for Osama bin Laden, and we got him. That was a decade ago.”
Biden also said that responsibility for the fall of Afghanistan’s government to the Taliban after ousted President Ashraf Ghani fled Afghanistan on Aug. 15 does not fall at the U.S.’s feet, but at Afghanistan’s.
“We gave them [Afghans] every chance to determine their own future,” Biden said. “What we could not provide them was the will to fight for that future.”
It is true that the original stated purpose of the U.S.’s invasion of Afghanistan was to disrupt terrorist networks there and roust al-Qaeda after its attack on the U.S. on Sept. 11, 2001. In his speech announcing the U.S.’s opening salvo on Oct. 7, 2001, former President George W. Bush said the U.S. was attacking for exactly this reason.
“These carefully targeted actions are designed to disrupt the use of Afghanistan as a terrorist base of operations, and to attack the military capability of the Taliban regime,” Bush said.
But Biden was wrong when he said on Aug. 16 that the U.S.’s goal was never “nation building” or “creating a centralized, unified democracy” in Afghanistan. During a speech on April 17, 2002, Bush clearly stated the exact opposite: that his administration’s goals in Afghanistan, in addition to military action against terrorist networks, also included nation building.
“We know that true peace will only be achieved when we give the Afghan people the means to achieve their own aspirations. Peace will be achieved by helping Afghanistan develop its own stable government,” Bush said. “Peace will be achieved by helping Afghanistan train and develop its own national army. And peace will be achieved through an education system for boys and girls which works.”
If the criteria Americans use to judge whether the U.S. has won or lost in Afghanistan are the ones Bush laid out in 2002, then it is clear that the U.S. has lost. And according to political science professor David Skidmore, Afghanistan is not the first time this has happened.
Skidmore, who studies international political economy, American foreign policy and international relations theory, said that there are more than a few instances in U.S. history of trying—and failing— to rebuild failed states like Afghanistan through military occupation.
“We tried that in Vietnam; it didn’t work. We tried it in Iraq; it didn’t work very well. It utterly failed in Afghanistan,” Skidmore said. “The United States just isn’t very good at going in and social engineering non-western countries and putting in place western-style democratic states. It just doesn’t work.”
Skidmore said there are explicit parallels between the U.S.’s failure in Vietnam in the 1970s and the U.S.’s failure in Afghanistan in 2021.
“In both cases, the United States went in and created states that were totally dependent on our military presence and our aid,” Skidmore said. “By sending in so much aid, we created perfect conditions for massive levels of corruption. By making them dependent upon our military, we created a situation where once that military was withdrawn their own military was unable to provide security.”
After the U.S. pulled out of Vietnam in March 1973, the South Vietnamese government it had been supporting lasted until April 1975 when North Vietnamese forces captured Saigon, its capital.
“In the case of Afghanistan, they didn’t even make it to the end of summer,” Skidmore said.