Humility was not a hallmark of United States policy in Afghanistan, even though Mr. Bush and his advisers understood that the country was called “the graveyard of empires” for good reason. Britain had a misadventure there in the 19th century. The Soviet Union had its own in the late 20th century. Somehow, Mr. Bush thought 21st-century America would be different.
Addressing cadets at the Virginia Military Institute in April 2002, a few months after United States-led troops had routed the Taliban, he offered a vision of an Afghanistan reconstituted with Washington’s guiding hand, much as devastated Europe had been after World War II via the Marshall Plan. “True peace,” he said, would not result from military force alone but, rather, from new networks of roads, hospitals and schools.
He understood the history of military conflict in Afghanistan, Mr. Bush said. “It’s been one of initial success, followed by long years of floundering and ultimate failure.” But he added, with a fleeting, confident smile, “We’re not going to repeat that mistake.”
Mistakes, obviously, were nonetheless made. Among them, in the judgment of many analysts, was the Bush administration’s expansion of its “war on terror” to Iraq. As the years passed, it became evident that the Afghan leaders on whom Washington had placed big bets would not be the hoped-for instruments of effective, corruption-free governance.
“I used to say to my guys on the Afghan desk, ‘If we’re winning, how come it don’t look like we’re winning?’ ” Mr. Boucher told Retro Report.
To complicate matters, the Taliban never disappeared. Slowly at first, and then with stunning speed, it regained control.
“The people were not rejecting the Taliban,” Mr. Boucher said. “That was, in the end, because the government couldn’t deliver much for the people.” Well before recent weeks, he said, “We should have at least asked ourselves whether it wasn’t really time for us to leave, to say to the Afghans, ‘It’s your place. You run it as best as you can.’ ”
Now the world is left to wonder if the relatively moderate image that Taliban leaders have sought to project in recent days should be taken seriously. Or will they, instead, revert to the thuggery of the past, with dissidents killed, ancient monuments leveled, women denied jobs and compelled to wear burqas, and girls forced to leave school?
What lasting lessons the United States has learned remain similarly unclear. For one thing, the congressional vote in 2001 that gave the president open-ended license to use military force is still in force; it has been used as a basis for the deployment of American soldiers to Ethiopia, Somalia, Yemen and many other countries.
Across the years, Representative Lee has introduced legislation to revoke this blanket authorization for the White House. She managed to succeed in the House in 2019, but the effort then failed in the Senate.
Her view 20 years ago, she told Retro Report, was that “we need to think through our military response, our national security response, and the possible impact on civilians.”
On that score, she seems unchanged from when she rose in Congress in 2001 to say, “However difficult this vote may be, some of us must urge the use of restraint. Our country is in a state of mourning. Some of us must say, ‘Let’s step back for a moment, let’s just pause, just for a minute, and think through the implications of our actions today, so that this does not spiral out of control.’ ”
At the time, “some of us” ended up being “one of us” – just her.
CLYDE HABERMAN, a regular contributor to Retro Report, has been a reporter, columnist and editorial writer for The New York Times, where he spent nearly 13 years based in Tokyo, Rome and Jerusalem. Subscribe to our newsletter here and follow us on Twitter @RetroReport.
This article first appeared in The New York Times.