By Terence Smith

The headline in The New York Times was stark:

                      “AMERICA'S MONSTER

How the United States Backed Kidnapping, Torture and Murder in Afghanistan”

Starting across the top of the Thursday, May 23, 2024, NYT front page and jumping to four full pages inside, it documented how U.S. forces in Afghanistan empowered a local warlord, Abdul Raziq, and encouraged his reign of terror against suspected Taliban operatives in Kandahar Province.
It is a deeply reported investigation into one of the darker chapters of America’s longest war: the 20-year, fruitless attempt to remake the “graveyard of empires” into a modern democracy after driving out Osama Bin Laden and Al Qaeda in the wake of the attacks of 9/11. After a full two decades, an estimated 200,000 casualties, including 46,000 civilians, the war left 2.6 million refugees in a broken nation that was immediately taken over by the Taliban in the wake of the chaotic U.S, withdrawal in 2021. We left a failed nation in our wake.
From its inception, the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan was a classic example of the perils of “mission creep.” From a sharply-targeted goal to remove Al Qaeda, the American effort grew and evolved over and again into ill-defined nation-building. By the end, even the commanders on the ground were hard-pressed to explain what they were doing there. The American exit was ugly, but it was unquestionably the right, if long overdue, decision.
To me, Afghanistan was a vivid example of the repeated failure of the United States to project its extraordinary military power abroad. Not since World War II, or maybe Korea, have we succeeded in using our power to achieve clearly-defined, achievable goals at the point of a gun: not in Vietnam, nor Afghanistan, nor Iraq. Nor is there any likelihood we will do better going forward. The harsh reality is that it is the threat of American military intervention that has an impact. The actual commitment is another vastly more complicated task, in which the exit is more challenging than the launch.
Presidents after presidents, from LBJ to Nixon to George W. to Obama have learned the lesson the hard way. George H.W. was criticized for pulling out of Iraq in 1991, but he didn’t pursue a forever war. Too bad his son didn’t get the message.
President Biden may have bungled the exit from Afghanistan, but he got out. More recently, he has avoided putting American troops on the ground in Ukraine and Gaza. He has sent crucial weapons to Ukraine, employed economic sanctions against Russia, revitalized NATO and weighed in diplomatically in the Middle East.
Is it — at long last — a lesson learned?

TERENCE SMITH is the author of “Four Wars, Five Presidents: A Reporter’s Journey from Jerusalem to Saigon to the White House.”

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