Twenty years ago this month, the United States suffered the worst attack in its history. On September 11, 2001, three thousand Americans perished, many more were wounded, and the way Americans saw the rest of the world changed overnight. Many of us were shocked that Al Qaeda, a relatively small group of religious extremists with little in the way of traditional military might, could cause such destruction in the centers of American power. In retaliation, the United States under President George W. Bush invaded Afghanistan in October 2001, with the goal of eradicating Al Qaeda and ensuring that such an attack could not be repeated.
Now that the United States has at last left Afghanistan, two decades and three presidents later, it’s hard to say just what we were doing there during most of that time. In the years after the initial invasion, the mission morphed and expanded: first it was about uprooting Al Qaeda and capturing or killing the mastermind behind 9/11, Osama bin Laden; then it was also about removing the ruling Taliban that had harbored the terrorists; and finally it was about establishing a liberal democracy in Afghanistan and training the Afghan military to fight like ours. Meanwhile, the war in Afghanistan became the longest foreign war in U.S. history. For Americans, it cost thousands of lives and more than $2 trillion. But the toll for Afghans was far worse: there the war meant not only occupation by a foreign power, but also constant political instability, corruption, drone strikes, civilian deaths, starvation, and displacement.
When President Joe Biden announced in April that U.S. forces would be withdrawn by September 11, it was clear this date was no coincidence. “War in Afghanistan was never meant to be a multigenerational undertaking,” he said. “We were attacked. We went to war with clear goals. We achieved those objectives. Bin Laden is dead and Al Qaeda is degraded.”
On July 8, Biden confidently reassured Americans that the prospect of “the Taliban overrunning everything and owning the whole country is highly unlikely.” But intelligence reports were by then warning that this was indeed a possibility. In the weeks that followed, the Taliban captured city after city until finally, on August 15, they conquered Kabul in a single day. President Ashraf Ghani resigned and fled the country. Many ordinary Afghans also tried to flee; countless others have been internally displaced. In some parts of the country, women and girls have already been forbidden to leave their homes without a male relative and are being kept from school. Those who aided or worked with Americans fear for their lives and the lives of their families, despite the Taliban’s promises of amnesty.