There is a scene in the movie Burn After Reading that goes like this. A CIA supervisor asks his underling, “What did we learn, Palmer?” Palmer replies, “I don’t know, sir.” The supervisor says, “I don’t f***ing know either. I guess we learned not to do it again.” He then adds, “I’m f***ed if I know what we did.” “Yes, sir,” Palmer replies. “It’s hard to say.”
A friend posted a clip of this scene after US President Joe Biden announced on Wednesday that the US would be withdrawing its forces from Afghanistan by 11 September 2021, the 20th anniversary of the terrorist attack that prompted US entry into the country. Biden, who had been against the early Obama-era “surge” of troops into the country, outlined the facts: Osama bin Laden, who was responsible for the 2001 attack, was killed by US forces a decade ago; the argument that diplomacy can only succeed if backed by military presence has had a decade to prove itself; and those who say that the US should leave, but not yet, are keeping Americans in Afghanistan waiting for a perfect set of conditions that will never materialise.
Biden also noted in his speech that the US had ultimately been successful in Afghanistan. He said America would remain committed to the fight against terrorism, and that this withdrawal would better position the country to face other foreign policy challenges.
Yet here is the issue: the US was many things in Afghanistan, but to say that it was successful in its mission seems a stretch. The US invaded a foreign country and then spent two decades there. The Taliban is still in Afghanistan – in fact, it was with the Taliban that Biden’s predecessor, Donald Trump, made an agreement to have all US troops out of the country by 1 May, on which date Biden will begin withdrawing US forces.
“We did not ask for this mission, but we fulfil it,” George Bush said when he announced the first strikes on Afghanistan 20 years ago this October. What mission? What were we trying to do? Was it to kill Bin Laden (accomplished a decade later in Pakistan under Obama)? To root out all terrorism? To set up a government in a country we invaded?
What has the US accomplished in Afghanistan? US military operations in the country through the end of last year cost $824.9 billion, according to a Pentagon estimate. But that does not factor in the incalculable loss of life: 2,448 US military personnel have died in Afghanistan since 2001, Biden announced. Estimates of civilian deaths range from 35,000 to 40,000.
If any future promised fight against terrorism tempts a US leader to invade another country, will they take it? Will they tell themselves that this time will be different? Have we learned not to do it again? Do we even understand – fully understand – what it is we did?