The mission that the United States—or, to be more precise, the George W. Bush Administration—set for itself in Afghanistan was doomed from the beginning. It declared unrealizable goals, which experience quickly showed were unrealizable, and then instead of learning from that experience, doubled and tripled down over and over. And not just the Bush Administration but the entire bipartisan foreign policy establishment. If the hoary cliché is true that insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result, then American policy in Afghanistan over the last 20 years is a textbook example.
While my foreign policy views have changed substantially since September of 2001, some points have remained constant. I believe, with the 9/11 Commission, that al-Qaeda committed the 9/11 attacks, with non-trivial (if hard-to-pin-down) levels of state support from America’s enemies. I believe that the attacks demanded a response. No great nation can suffer such an affront and remain great; great nations must avenge great insults.
And make no mistake, the United States in 2001 was still a great nation. True, the trends that have decimated and hollowed out heartland communities—mass immigration, financialization, deindustrialization, among others—were already powerful. But their effects were just beginning to be felt. There was time to correct course (though not that many beyond Pat Buchanan—certainly not George W. Bush!—were calling for that). The chasmic divisions which today make a coherent American foreign policy almost comically impossible, and all but a waste of time given urgent domestic priorities, had not yet opened up to their present degree.