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Why did we go to war in Afghanistan?

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Well do I remember the morning of Sept. 11, 2001. I had just woken up when the phone rang. It was Marilyn. “Are you watching T.V.?”, she asked. I turned on the tube and for the next 24 hours was glued to it.

And was furious. I was then keeping a daily diary of political events; this was before I had the outlet of my blog. Reading it today, I can hardly believe my outrage. “WE MUST BOMB AFGHANISTAN NOW!” I wrote. It became clear within hours of the attacks that Bin Laden and Al Qaeda were responsible. The American people were obviously united as they had seldom been before, and united for one thing: to go to war, in order to extract revenge.

Three days after the attacks, President George Bush asked the Congress for approval “to use all necessary and appropriate force” against any “nations, organizations or persons” involved in the Sept. 11 attacks. This was a pretty broad request, and I remember comparisons being made to Lyndon Johnson’s Tonkin Gulf Resolution of August, 1964, which effectively gave him the power to go to war in Vietnam without the express approval of Congress.

Now, even in September, 2001, it was understood by almost everyone that the Vietnam War had been a hideous miscalculation by the U.S., and that giving a president a blank check to go to war was risky. However, the anger caused by Sept. 11 erased any hesitancy among most Americans. In the Congress, Bush’s “Authorization for Use of United States Armed Forces” passed unanimously, except for a single vote against: Barbara Lee, who was then, and remains, my Congressional representative.

I was so mad at Rep. Lee I dashed off a fax (!!) to her office. I don’t remember what I wrote, but it was pretty fiery. And so began America’s war in Afghanistan, which is now, at twenty years of age, our nation’s longest-ever war.

But the war is about to end. President Biden just announced he will pull all remaining U.S. and NATO troops from Afghanistan by Sept. 11, 2021, at the latest. This is after 2,400 American troops have died there, and $2 trillion of the nation’s treasure has been expended there. (Ironically, that is the same amount that Biden has requested for his American Rescue Plan.)

In looking back at all this from the comfort of my desk on a lovely Spring morning in Oakland, I find my thoughts conflicted. Was the war “worth it”? What does “worth it” mean? Did America have an alternative to war? What would have happened if we had done nothing—had, in other words, allowed Al Qaeda to get off scot-free? The questions pile up, and have no easy answers.

As antipathetic to war as Americans are traditionally supposed to be, this country has certainly waged its fair share of them. We know about the more famous ones: the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, the Mexican War, the Civil War, the Spanish-American War, World Wars 1 and 2, the Korean War, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq. But a quick trip to Wikipedia shows no fewer than ninety-three wars that have involved the U.S. since the Revolution. That is hardly the record of a war-hating country. As an amateur historian, I’ve wrestled with this conflict for much of my adult thinking life, and I’ve come to think of it this way: the U.S. does have an aversion to war. But we are a Great Power, and, like it or not, Great Powers, to paraphrase Voltaire, have great responsibilities. It is true that a strong isolationist streak has always run through America’s bloodstream, which is why, even as Hitler’s Nazis assumed greater and greater power in the 1930s, our own isolationists of both parties were determined to steer clear of what George Washington, in his Farewell Address, called “permanent alliance[s] with any portion of the foreign world.”

But Washington made that remark when the U.S. was still an infant nation, its treasury weakened by the recent war, and its destiny obviously in the direction of the western frontier, not across the oceans. In my reading of history, by the time Theodore Roosevelt was president, America’s vital interests lay in every corner of the globe, and sometimes it was necessary to protect those interests by force of arms.

It’s interesting to me that many of the people who are most opposed to foreign wars are usually liberals, who evince no such antipathy to violence when it comes to street demonstrations in our cities. Be that as it may, I wonder what this country would do in the event of another massive attack upon our soil. Would Democrats and Republicans come together? Would the extremes of both parties—let’s call them rightwing insurrectionists and Antifa—cooperate? This is all speculation, leading nowhere, but I do sense a new period of isolationism in our country. Exhausted by Iraq and Afghanistan, people want to get out, to spend the money here, to cease supporting authoritarian theocracies. Trump and Biden have that in common: let’s not forget it was Trump who made an issue of avoiding foreign wars and getting out of Afghanistan and Iraq. Biden is simply continuing in that direction.

These things are cyclical, I suppose. Maybe a period of isolationism would be good for us. That doesn’t mean cutting ourselves off from the rest of the world, as Trump increasingly tried to do. We can rejoin the Paris Accords and the World Health Organization, we can reinvigorate NATO, we can re-engage with Iran and Russia, but at the same time, we can recognize that our most vital needs lay, not overseas, but here. This is why the American Rescue Plan is so timely. The Roman Empire increasingly let things at home fall to pieces while it bankrupted itself protecting its distant borders; Rome finally collapsed in the 4th century of the Common Era, in yet another war (this time against Germanic tribes) it could not possibly win.

The comparison game between the American Empire and the Roman Empire has encouraged many historians to write endless pages of books, but to understand how an Empire actually survives over centuries and millennia, we don’t have to look very far. China has been more or less united and strong for more than 3,000 years; and today, China stands on the threshold of the greatest strength in its long history. What has China done, and what is China doing, to achieve that? Clearly the first thing that comes to mind is that China has never bothered with democracy. Too messy for the refined Mandarin tastes of its Emperors.

We’re seeing a kind of anti-democracy movement all over the world, from Russia and Brazil to Poland, Myanmar, the Philippines and large parts of Africa. As the U.S. devolves (is there a better word?) into the chaos of political fighting approaching civil war levels, as U.S. cities deteriorate under the crushing burdens of homelessness, crime and the pandemic, as more and more Americans of both sides feel completely disenfranchised, as Congressional approval ratings approach 15-year lows, and, as we’ve seen for the last four years, as a depraved American president could virtually destroy our country single-handedly, we Americans are entitled to wonder if this “democracy” thing is really all it’s cracked up to be. Still, while I wrestle with these thoughts, one remark of Winston Churchill’s keeps haunting me: “Democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” I know of no refutation to this insight, which means that, as futile and ugly as things seem to be right now, we have no choice but to continue our historic democracy, stumbling, getting up, and trying again and again to make it better.

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