If nothing else, 20 years in Afghanistan might have dampened U.S. appetites for war and nation-building.

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Photo by Andre Klimke on Unsplash.

News broadcasts and social media feeds have been inundated with images, videos, and reports about the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, especially over the past week. The “forgotten war” has made a sudden and shocking reappearance in the psyche of the American public.

Critics of President Biden are calling the withdrawal a massive disaster. Political pundits are busily arguing about who is to blame. More than a few elected officials have publicly wondered how the Taliban were able to so easily take over Kabul and ultimately Afghanistan. Understandably, Americans are furious at how the war is coming to a close. Parallels between this conflict and Vietnam became abundant once the Taliban began encircling Kabul airport.

Many are frustrated that after 20 years and $2 trillion dollars, Afghanistan’s military forces and political leadership fell so quickly to the Taliban.

However, the writing was always on the wall. Whether it was 10 years ago or 10 years from now — the result would have been the same. The Taliban were always going to inevitably take back the country. They have been biding their time and have slowly been retaking territory for years.

There has also been an uptick over the past few years of assassinations and terrorist attacks perpetrated against female journalists, members of the Afghan government especially antagonistic to the Taliban, and other political and military enemies of the Taliban.

When the Bush administration decided to invade Afghanistan, the goal seemed pretty straightforward: remove al-Qaeda. In reality, the U.S. stumbled into a war, creating plans and goals after the fact.

Instead of stopping with the relative success of routing al-Qaeda and the Taliban, despite failing to capture Osama bin Laden, the mission morphed into nation building. The incorrect thinking was that if Afghanistan could resemble a modern Western country, all its problems would disappear.

The U.S. and its allies shifted into rebuilding Afghanistan according to their own ideals.

Americans were still angry about 9/11 and wanted more. During the conflict, then Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld famously said “…there aren’t any good targets in Afghanistan. And there are lots of good targets in Iraq.” After that, the U.S. quickly shifted gears and found itself invading Iraq, once billed as the fourth-largest army in the world before the Gulf War.

Now the U.S. found itself fighting two wars and the objectives and reasoning started to become blurry. The U.S. was jumping from Afghanistan to Iraq to fight the Global War on Terror.

Time has now passed and the withdrawal in Afghanistan is drawing in new criticism. Some of those criticisms may be valid and some ignore the situation in Afghanistan that spans decades. Many of the misperceptions and missteps that led to the failure in Afghanistan stem from the failure to apply lessons learned from previous conflicts.

One of the major problems in Afghanistan was that the central government was corrupt. It had no power or influence outside its immediate location. The Afghan government was painted as ineffective, and seen as illegitimate because it was installed by the West. This fact did not change during the 20 years the U.S. and NATO were there. In the February 2020 peace agreement, the Trump administration decided to leave the Afghan government out of peace talks with the Taliban — who viewed the U.S.-backed government as illegitimate.

The U.S. fight against the Taliban also made for some strange alliances. Ethnic warlords and drug traffickers were certainly on this list.

One of the most infamous U.S. “allies” was Lt. General Abdul Raziq, a commander in the Kandahar province serving in the Afghan Border Police. He was known for being one of the most influential and powerful security officials in the region. However, this type of stability came at a price.

In return for it, the U.S. would turn a blind eye to the “drug trafficking, corruption, extrajudicial killings, torture, and illegal imprisonment” carried out by the Lt. Gen. Ultimately, in 2018 one of his bodyguards assassinated him.

Another shameful problem in Afghanistan was the rampant child sexual abuse among Afghan forces. The sexual abuse of young boys by Afghan commanders was an often-ignored plight. The focus was always on defeating the Taliban. Trying to distinguish the atrocities of the Taliban from those committed by U.S.-backed forces obviously did not make much of a difference to the local villagers.

The theme here is that the U.S. alternative to the Taliban weren’t always easy to differentiate between. Yes, Afghan women gained more rights and the people overall gained more freedoms. But, the government was corrupt. Afghan troops were not being paid and the Taliban were offering better incentives.

Additionally, the ethnic and tribal history and makeup of Afghanistan play a massive role in Afghan society- a factor which was often ignored.

To truly see the failure of foreign policy in Afghanistan, compare the withdrawals of the Soviet Union to that of the recent U.S. and NATO withdrawal. When the Soviet Union pulled-out, the Soviet-backed government in Kabul held on for another three years; the U.S.-backed government collapsed almost immediately. If 20 years and $2 trillion dollars couldn’t prevent that, then having approximately 2,500 troops stationed indefinitely in Afghanistan might not have either.

Global perceptions of the United States are likely to be severely impacted by the costly war in Afghanistan in the months and years to come. Many nations will view the U.S. abandoning its partners as a warning sign not to deal with the U.S. We have already recently seen this happen with the U.S. abandoning its Kurdish partners in Syria during the Trump Administration.

This time, Russia and China will capitalize on this massive foreign policy failure. Make no mistake; U.S. credibility has been lost because of the debacle in Afghanistan. However, it was invading Afghanistan which ultimately caused this, not withdrawing from it.

The biggest fear now is how the U.S. will react to current and future aggressions by Russia and China. The U.S. may try to save face and flex its muscles on contentious issues with these nations. However, in doing so it may overact, thereby creating a more dangerous situation.

Right now let’s hope that the appetite for war has been lost. The lesson of Afghanistan was a hard one the American military and foreign policy machine should only have to learn once.

(Contributing writer, Ari Mitropoulos) (Contributing editor, Brooke Bell)