What Went Wrong in Afghanistan: A Primer

America’s youngest soldiers today were not even born when this war began but their generation will suffer its consequences most.

In 2001, the United States invaded and occupied Afghanistan, and eventually spent over a trillion dollars, as it and its allies killed some 170,000 Afghan citizens. Twenty years later, the United States withdrew from Afghanistan in defeat.

Why was America there? Thucydides reminded us in The Peloponnesian War some 2,500 years ago that, war’s “three…strongest motives [are] fear, honor, and interest.” The United States went to war in Afghanistan in the wake of the 9/11 attacks due to fear and to protect its honor, but inadequate understanding of Afghanistan and its geopolitical neighborhood as well as limited U.S. interests prompted mission creep, such that 20 years marched on. America’s youngest soldiers today were not even born when this war began, but their generation will suffer its consequences most. The U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan will destroy American honor and undermine American interests. Further, the suicide bombing reportedly carried out by the terrorist group ISIS-Khorasan on August 26, 2021, suggests that even fear, the initial motive for intervention, still exists. Perhaps the United States and other major powers can win only when they are motivated by intense fear. And once Osama bin Laden scurried away to Pakistan, the fear receded—or more probably, humans simply cannot stay in a state of intense fear for very long.

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