Which president is most to blame for Afghanistan’s war?

With perhaps the most prolific and far-reaching military campaign of the modern era coming to a close, many questions weigh heavy on the minds of the American public: What series of failures led to us fighting a losing war for two decades? Was it all worth it? And at its terminus, who is to blame for this war and it’s horribly bitter end? 

Blame flows naturally in politics by design, and in times of great military failure it becomes natural to blame the commander in chief, current sitting president, Joe Biden. This criticism is entirely fair and rational, as President Biden is ultimately the head of the military and is responsible for the numerous failures of our evacuation from Afghanistan. Additionally, every President who oversaw the war in Afghanistan should be held accountable. Donald Trump and Barack Obama both continued the so-called “War on Terror” during their presidencies, and both have received rather extensive blame for their roles both in media and in public opinion. 

However, there has been a notable gap in news coverage of this event, a gap that is unsurprising given the current political climate; an honest and informed evaluation of George W. Bush and his administration’s complete inability, despite overseeing the largest and best equipped military force in modern history, to handle this conflict and allow his successors a route through which the war could end in a beneficial way. Additionally, there is a lack of research into how much of this incompetency still exists within our government, with innumerable similar (albeit smaller) operations taking place around the globe to this day.

It is worth emphasizing that by shifting focus to the man who began this dreadful war, I in no way seek to absolve of guilt the previously mentioned Presidents who, in their terms, oversaw it. However, it appears that Bush’s campaign built upon being a likable, good man if not slightly daft continues to pay dividends for the now 75-year-old former President. He has had numerous interviews in the aftermath of the recent catastrophe, and with some semblance of customary diligence to our armed forces members and subsequent expressions of sadness, he was largely allowed to come and go in the news cycle without much criticism. 

That is also not to say that simply criticizing Bush will in any way fix these problems. He has been all but removed from the public eye as a serious political figure, and outside of a periodic photo op and perhaps an election season interview, Bush has intentionally faded into political irrelevancy. Despite this, it is important for those living within the United States to never forget the machinations and political maneuverings that got us into this situation, with an eye towards the future to avoid a situation like this happening again. It becomes incredibly easy given the nature of our political system and it’s ever changing nature to care merely about the things you are told to care about, and ignore the rest. Failures cannot lead to change if they are forgotten, and it is the forgetfulness of the American public at large that enables history to repeat itself.

From my perspective, a simple truth remains; the United States does not have a consistent enough political basis to be the world’s arbiter of peace. Different presidents have entered the same scenarios, all with different ideas, hopes, and political ambitions. And especially in the case of Afghanistan and the Middle East at large, they have all failed. Considering also the numerous changes in the structure and leadership of NATO over the course of this twenty year catastrophe, it becomes clear that there were far too many chefs in this proverbial kitchen. Trillions of dollars have been essentially wasted, an immeasurable amount of lives have been forever changed, and for what? 

It is important to remember the reasoning for our entrance into Afghanistan in the first place. In the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks, Osama Bin Laden was a dead man walking. The American public would not rest until he was dealt justice for the attack, and Bush knew it. Even in retrospect, this perspective is rational. However, in the frenzy to do something about it, there was a staggering lack of actual plans in place in order to ensure that our inevitable military operations in the area would do any semblance of good. 

As a result, the Afghan people were left in the middle of a shifting and brutal conflict, thousands of American service members were killed or forever harmed, American taxpayers lost trillions that could have done immeasurable good if used within our own borders, and only the Taliban benefitted. For a glimpse into the circumstances that led to this situation, I defer to Stephen Hadley, United States national security advisor from 2005 to 2009, speaking in a confidential interview in 2015;

“We just don’t have a post-conflict stabilization model that works,” said Hadley. “Every time we have one of these things, it is a pick-up game. I don’t have confidence that if we did it again, we would do any better.”

It is a sobering and borderline terrifying thought that the leadership structure of the United States had little idea what they were truly getting into regarding Afghanistan. Given our extensive intelligence networks globally, especially in the known hotspot of conflict that is the Middle East, how could we have been so misinformed and ill prepared? This unpreparedness is further shown by Douglas Lute, Afghanistan war czar under the employ of the White House from 2007 to 2013, who was also interviewed in 2015 regarding an Afghani police station built by the Army Corps of Engineers;

“One poignant example of this is a ribbon cutting ceremony complete with the giant scissors I attended for the district police chief in some God-forsaken province. It was a USACE-completed building with a glass facade and an atrium. The police chief couldn’t even open the door; he had never seen a doorknob like this. To me, this encapsulates the whole experience in Afghanistan,” said Lute.

Also of note is the fact that previous to Dec. 2019, the interviews that spawned the above quotes and numerous other salacious details about the United States’ military involvement in Afghanistan were not public record. It was hardly known that these interviews had even occurred previous to this date. It took a three year legal battle for these testimonials to come to light, and it would be foolish at best and malicious at worst to pretend that this was any accident. 

This dilution of the issues, I believe, is exactly what is being used in order to mislead the American public. Instead of a broader, holistic introspective about the war, public debate and media coverage has centered around President Biden and his own personal failures in removing us from the conflict. As commander in chief, this blame is entirely deserved and worth talking about, but why does it stop there? Why is there little public debate regarding not this specific instance but the ever present thread in modern history of our military being used to begin conflicts known to be unwinnable, losing countless lives in the process, only to leave in shame when the money finally dries up? 

To clarify, Osama Bin Laden was killed over a decade ago. It is undeniable that in the aftermath of the horrors of the Sept. 11 attacks, something needed to be done. That mission was accomplished, but it was accomplished in a manner so haphazard and reckless that it took a decade of decimation and loss in order for our military to finally be taken out of Afghanistan. Upon the beginning of this evacuation, it was no secret that stability was still far off. It was known that we had lost and that the Afghan military was not ready to handle the threat. Despite this knowledge, both the United States and NATO at large poured billions into the Afghan military, only for the Taliban to take over Kabul in a mere five days once our plans to leave became known. 

In short, as far as the goal of lasting stability goes, we failed miserably and in a manner that we have failed before. There needs to be a fundamental change in how the American public perceives both war and those who lead us into it. If there is no such change, disasters like the one we have watched unfold will continue, and generations of human beings will continue to be scarred permanently by the horrors of unnecessary warfare.