Twenty years of war: America magazine’s coverage of Afghanistan

The dramatic scenes unfolding in Kabul as Taliban forces overrun the last remaining government-held positions in Afghanistan’s capital have come as a shock to many American observers both on the ground and from afar. For those who remember the fall of Saigon in 1975, it has been a bitter repeat of history. A war that seemed eminently winnable—and justifiable—at its outset instead became a two-decade quagmire, and one that has left innocent noncombatants facing profound danger.

This is an occasion for all Americans to look back at our justifications for invading Afghanistan, our reasons for staying and our rationale for withdrawal. Where did it all go wrong? Or was the venture ill-fated from the start? Too many are dead for glib analyses to be appropriate, but a reckoning remains necessary. We at America have looked back over our coverage of Afghanistan since 2001, with some of the most pertinent accounts excerpted below.

The editors of America first weighed in on the situation in Afghanistan just a few short weeks after the United States began combat actions in that country following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 1, 2001. In the months and years that followed, the editors and other contributors weighed in with their reflections on and analyses of an increasingly fraught situation.

2001: “By their actions, the terrorists have declared war on the United States, and we certainly have the right under the just war theory to defend ourselves with military force.”

A Just War? (the Editors, Oct. 8, 2001)

The United States is going to wage a war against terrorists, says President George W. Bush. Is this a just war according to the principles of the Catholic just war theory? For this issue we asked experts in the just war theory to examine this question and present their views.

Before looking at the U.S. response, it is important to make clear that the terrorists’ attacks violated almost every principle of the just war theory. First, wars can be waged only by legitimate authorities of a state. They cannot be declared by anyone who feels he has a just cause. The terrorists are not government officials. Second, the attack on the World Trade Center was directed at civilians who, according to the principle of civilian immunity, should not be targeted. And even if the Pentagon could be considered a military target, using a plane loaded with innocent civilians as a bomb is unacceptable.

By their actions, the terrorists have declared war on the United States, and we certainly have the right under the just war theory to defend ourselves with military force. But before we go too far down this path, we should ask if the use of the word war is apt. The use of the word by the president is rhetorically satisfying. It makes clear that this is a serious endeavor that will take great effort and sacrifice. But calling our response war gives the terrorists a stature that they do not deserve. It treats them like a government, when in fact they are more like organized criminals: mass murderers, not soldiers. Treating terrorists as criminals does not mean that the use of deadly force is ruled out. Police have the right to use deadly force to protect themselves and others from harm.

The rhetoric of war also makes it easier for the president to argue that we will treat nations that support terrorism in the same way that we deal with terrorists. This is easy to say, but difficult to carry out. If we discover that a foreign intelligence service gave money, arms or forged documents to Osama bin Laden, do we bomb the country? Do we bomb the offices of the intelligence service? What if the government did not know the resources were going to be used in the attack on the United States? Since the U.S. government has stated that a number of countries support terrorist groups, we could quickly be at war on many fronts.

But granting that the rhetoric of war has captured the day, it is appropriate to use the just war theory to guide us in our response. Read more…

War in Afghanistan (the Editors, Oct. 29, 2001)

The aerial attack by the United States on terrorist and Taliban targets in Afghanistan has been declared a just war by a number of Catholic leaders, including some bishops and cardinals. While we hope that the war is brought to a swift and just conclusion, such certitude, at this point, is hard to echo. There is no question that stopping terrorism is a just cause. But waging war under the just war doctrine must be the last resort, after diplomatic, economic and other means have failed. Was a month enough time to exhaust these options? This is unclear.

….Once the obvious military targets are destroyed, what do we bomb next? From the beginning, the administration has thought of this struggle primarily in military terms, but the war on terrorism cannot be won simply with bullets. The United States needs the support not only of the elites governing Muslim countries, but also of Muslim public opinion. That is why it was foolish for the administration to wait a month before accepting invitations to appear on Al Jazeera, an independent all-news satellite channel based in Qatar, which could be used to send our message to the Muslim world. This war will not be won in the mountains of Afghanistan. It will be won when Muslims are convinced that the United States acts justly. Read more…

How Goes the Coalition? (the Editors, Nov. 26, 2001)

….The Taliban retreat from Kabul will both strengthen and challenge the coalition. On the one hand, nothing strengthens a coalition like victories. On the other hand, the international coalition must now quickly find an Afghan coalition that can govern without intertribal bloodshed.

For the ultimate success of the campaign, international cooperation is indispensable, because the terrorist networks are spread across 60 nations. The coalition is not an association as formal as an alliance, but it must be held together. In an age of global interconnectedness, even a superpower cannot behave like some sheriff at high noon. If the coalition is sluggish, that’s bad luck. If the United States tries to go it alone in the campaign against terrorism, that will be more than a misfortune. It will be a perilous mistake. Read more…

2001: “In an age of global interconnectedness, even a superpower cannot behave like some sheriff at high noon.”

Afghanistan Part II (the Editors, March 4, 2002)

The Bush administration has waged an effective war in Afghanistan, and, for the most part, has waged it in a just manner. After the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, we wrote that the terrorists should be brought to justice because of their crimes and because of the danger they pose to life in this country and elsewhere. If this cannot be done peacefully, then they are legitimate targets of military action.

….While the Bush administration deserves praise, its policies have not been without defects. Many Al Qaeda and Taliban troops escaped into the mountains or Pakistan. In addition, the administration lost the moral high ground by arguing that the captives taken during the war were not covered by the Geneva conventions governing prisoners, a position it was ultimately forced to reverse. Now it is trying to convince a skeptical world that there is a difference between the Taliban soldiers and the Al Qaeda terrorists, a distinction that it could have made more successfully if it had not earlier tried to ignore the Geneva conventions. In addition, allegations that U.S. soldiers have beaten captives are alarming. The facilities holding prisoners should be immediately opened to international inspection by the Red Cross and Red Crescent.

The first casualty of war, the saying goes, is the truth. While secrecy is vital to protect military plans, post-battle secrecy breeds suspicion and prevents us from learning from our mistakes. The military would have more credibility if it acknowledged quickly and forthrightly civilian casualties and other military mistakes. To assert, for example, against all evidence that those killed at the village of Chowkar-Karez, outside Kandahar, were enemy soldiers, renders suspect all information given out by the military. Better to admit the mistake, apologize, make reparations and strive to do better.

Apologies and reparations would do much to show the Afghan people that we, unlike so many previous foreign powers, are different: we care about their welfare. Estimates of civilian casualties from the war range from 1,000 to 4,000. Justice demands that we spend at least part of our military budget to help those innocent civilians who were wounded, widowed or orphaned by U.S. weapons. We also have an obligation to retrieve and destroy unexploded ordnance, lest more innocents suffer from the war.

Rebuilding Afghanistan politically and economically will not be easy. Read more…

2002: “The Bush administration has waged an effective war in Afghanistan, and, for the most part, has waged it in a just manner.”

The First Anniversary of 9/11 (the Editors, Sept. 9, 2002)

….In December, Washington was congratulating itself on defeating the Taliban regime in Afghanistan and expelling the Al Qaeda terrorists from that country—although, tragically, a significant number of noncombatant civilians were killed in the process.

But on the anniversary of 9/11, the new Afghan government remains highly unstable; the partners in the anti-terrorist coalition are growing ever more critical of U.S. leadership; the Al Qaeda leaders have not been found, much less immobilized; there is frightening talk within Congress and the administration of war with Iraq; and all the while Americans are continually assured by experts that new and more dreadful terrorist attacks are a certainty.

It is often said that 9/11 marked the beginning of a new age. It should also be said that if this age is to eliminate terrorism, it must be guided by the truth that Pope John Paul II repeated over and over in his message for the 2002 World Day of Peace: “No peace without justice; no justice without forgiveness.” Read more…

The True Costs of War (May 16, 2006)

….The campaign against international terrorism confronts a new kind of challenge. Unlike conventional wars between nation-states or the decades-long confrontation of the cold war, this campaign will not conclude with a surrender or a treaty. When the two global superpowers confronted each other in a climate of mutual assured destruction, the danger was all too real, but the competing interests of the adversaries were clear. Such clarity is not present in the campaign against international terrorism. Suicide bombers will not be defeated by missiles and tanks but by the promise of a life of opportunity with hope for future generations. While military responses to clearly defined targets must be part of our response to terrorist attacks, the fundamental and continuing conflict will be one of ideals and values. If American citizens accept the diminishment of constitutional safeguards and American values without protest, we will slowly surrender our most valuable resource in the continuing campaign against terrorism. By failing to understand our adversaries, we run the risk of becoming their mirror images. Read more…

Up or Out (Dec. 7, 2009)

Afghanistan, we are told, is the “graveyard of empires.” Visitors to the recent roving exhibit “Afghanistan: Hidden Treasures From the National Museum, Kabul” will know that description is an exaggeration. For Alexander the Great and his followers, it turns out, established colonial cities across northern and western Afghanistan. So not every foreign expedition has stumbled into disaster, like the ill-fated British and Indian troops annihilated in 1842 in the First Afghan War. Nonetheless, today Afghanistan does represent an extraordinary military and diplomatic challenge for the United States. The terrain is rugged, the climate inhospitable to invading armies. Its population consists of at least nine ethnic groups who speak more than 30 languages. Its tribal culture is, to put it kindly, highly defensive and its people skilled in irregular warfare. When the illegitimacy and corruption of the government in Kabul and the weakness of its police and military are added in, waging a counter-insurgency/counter-terrorism campaign in Afghanistan is a test of extraordinary complexity.

President Obama’s long, drawn-out deliberation on Afghan strategy is not just due to his rational temperament, as his kinder critics have suggested. It is demanded by the multiple challenges Afghanistan presents any outside power seeking to shape events in what Maryann Cusimano Love aptly called “a fictional state.” In this context, deliberation is an asset, but it cannot assure a happy outcome. Whatever the strategy, however focused the goals, war and nation-building are both chancy undertakings. The principal issue that we believe should be weighed as the nation moves ahead is the human capacity of the U.S. military to wage this war. Read more…

2006: “By failing to understand our adversaries, we run the risk of becoming their mirror images.”

Hold to the Deadline (Sept. 13, 2010)

The Taliban, according to a cover story in Time on July 29, ordered the nose of 19-year-old Bibi Aisha cut off to punish her for fleeing her husband’s family, where she was being abused. Later they shot 10 aid workers and stoned to death a young couple who had eloped. If NATO leaves Afghanistan, many tell us, such atrocities will continue. But Aisha’s husband, not the Taliban, cut off her nose; and the almost 100,000 foreign troops have failed to reform brutal tribal customs during the nine years they have fought there.

Meanwhile, civilian casualties rise. The U.S. policy is to avoid killing civilians, even at risk to our troops; but recent reports of 52 people, mainly women and children, killed in the Helmand province—condemned as “morally and humanly unacceptable” by President Hamid Karzai—and another 32 a week later, demonstrate that drones and rockets fail to distinguish sufficiently between the enemy and the innocent. According to U.N. reports, in 2009 the great majority of the 2,412 civilian victims were killed by insurgents; 596 were killed by the United States, mostly by air strikes. Nevertheless, local polls show that Afghans, particularly in the villages, blame the foreigners for civilian deaths.

Each week the parallels between Afghanistan and Vietnam become more vivid: the corrupt America-sponsored government; our troops bogged down in a hostile culture and terrain; our military leadership plugged into its “can do” philosophy; our domestic economy stretched to the breaking point; a public uninformed and unconvinced of the war’s necessity; and a president stuck with a premature decision to fight and determined not to become, in Richard Nixon’s words, “the first president to lose a war.”

Americans must face the fact that we cannot control the world. Given the current burdens on our military and our economic problems, we cannot remake a nation in our image. Read this…

Out of Afghanistan (Aug. 15, 2011)

Congressman Walter Jones Jr., of North Carolina, has undergone a thorough conversion. A Democrat, he became a conservative Republican; a Baptist, he became a Catholic. He supported the Iraq and Afghanistan wars; now he sends hand-written letters of condolence to the American families who have lost a son or daughter. He told George C. Wilson in The Nation (6/13) that he deals with the guilt over having voted for both wars because he was “not strong enough to vote my conscience as a man of faith.” Mr. Jones and his 13-member Out-of-Afghanistan caucus plan to push the war to the forefront in the presidential primaries. Public support for the war has fallen. Only 43 percent of Americans feel it is worth fighting, according to a Washington Post/ABC News poll (6/7). A Pew survey on June 21 found that 56 percent wanted troops out as soon as possible and only 39 percent supported staying until the situation stabilized.

In June, 40 religious leaders from all faiths wrote to President Obama that it is time to bring the war in Afghanistan to an end. What began as a response to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, they contended, has become an open-ended war against a Taliban insurgency. Read this…

2013: “Killing civilians is not only immoral but also strategically counterproductive.”

Our Sacred Dead (Oct. 23, 2013)

….As the war in Afghanistan intensified in 2008, the effort to keep count of civilian deaths increased, though many agreed the data gathered from Western media reports represented only the tip of the iceberg. The tension between the United Nations and United States increased. The coalition would claim they had killed insurgents, but the local population would tell the United Nations that the victims were farmers. A U.S. bombing in September 2008 killed 92 civilians in one village, and in May 2009 another airstrike killed 140. WikiLeaks revealed in July 2010 that the U.S. military secretly maintained files concerning 4,024 Afghan civilian war deaths between 2004 and 2009.

Killing civilians is not only immoral but also strategically counterproductive. Whether an attack using drones, or night raids on the ground, these actions lead only to new recruits for the Taliban. Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal often called this “insurgent math,” and his aide said every additional civilian casualty generates 20 more insurgents, an increase in road bombs and an additional violent clash between insurgents and U.S. troops in the following six weeks.

In U.S. culture, respect for human life is narrow, sometimes to the point of indifference to the fate of innocent persons who are not military enemies, but whom we kill. We are slow to see those designated “terrorists” as our brothers and sisters. There is a need for a truly independent agency, akin to the Government Accountability Office, to record and publish the names and number of civilians killed on all sides of a conflict. The nightly news should acknowledge both American and foreign dead. Memorials and liturgies that demonstrate respect for all the victims of war would give life to the most challenging words in the Sermon on the Mount. Read more…

As a soldier I was loved for my sins. Now I must repent for them (Peter Lucier, May 17, 2019)

….The Catholic faith tells us that we are sinners loved by God. I am a sinner who is loved. I struggle with both halves. I don’t always want to admit I am a sinner. What I went over there to do felt righteous. I believed in the cause, and even if I didn’t, I believed in my brothers. I believed in America, and even if I didn’t or didn’t know what America was, I believed in the Marine Corps. I believed in violence, in purpose, in our community, our brotherhood. I wanted to receive the sacrament of confirmation in the military service. I prayed for the opportunity to kill.

I believed in the redemptive power of violence. I was young and golden and fit, on fire with the zeal of a convert. On the firing ranges at the school of infantry, in the mountains of Camp Pendleton, I fell in love with the rhythms of squad fire and maneuver—the geometries of fire, crisp left and right lateral limits, the steady drumming of an M249 machine gun zipping rounds into targets. I was born again. I felt clean and right. I slept peacefully at night, tired from an honest day’s work of training to visit violence upon the others. Some days, it is hard to admit I am a sinner.

Other days, it is hard to accept that I am loved. I have not earned it. We went out all those nights and never came back with anything to show for it. The war I fought, I didn’t win. What have I done to deserve love? I have certainly done enough to deserve contempt, to deserve condescension, to deserve belittlement, to deserve hate, even. Pick your sin: pride, anger, despair, selfishness. I am guilty. I went to war feeling entitled. To what exactly? To save. To kill. It didn’t occur to me how arrogant that was until I came home. I carried that self-centeredness into a marriage after I got home and wrecked it. The uniform I wore reminds others of service. It reminds me of all the wrongs I’ve done and continue to do. Some days it is hard to accept love.

As a Marine veteran of Afghanistan, I am a sinner who is loved—and loved in a way I am not always comfortable with. Being a veteran means being venerated here at home. Before every college basketball game I go to, we take a moment to be grateful for our nation “and those who keep it safe.” I am loved with every flyover at a football game, every Fourth of July, every Veterans Day. I feel America’s love for me and for veterans in every “Thank you for your service” and in every “Support the Troops” bumper sticker.

The oftentimes adoring American public does not talk much about my sins, but I feel them acutely. St. Augustine talked about animi dolor, “anguish of the soul.” Animi dolor is the soul’s natural response to war, to killing. I feel viscerally the stains that entering into the morally complex arena of war has left upon my soul. In the American culture, I am loved for my sins. I am loved for being a Marine who went to war.

When I returned from Afghanistan, I needed to find a way to go from being a Marine who is loved for his sins to being a believer who is a sinner but who is loved. I needed to find a way to come home. The church has always offered a path for soldiers coming home from war: the path of penance. It is a hard path, both for veterans and for the families and communities to which they are trying to return. But if we really believe in the message and truth of the cross, and if veterans are to truly become again members of the community, we are compelled to take this route. Read more…

The Afghanistan Papers make clear that America has a repentance problem (Drew Christiansen, S.J., Dec. 17, 2019)

We have been here before. In 1964 there was theGulf of Tonkin resolution, and in 1971 came the publication of thePentagon Papers. In 1979, David Halberstam laid the blame for the Vietnam War at the feet of “the best and the brightest.” Not until four decades later in 2004, in the film “The Fog of War,” did Robert McNamara, the secretary of defense under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, own his culpability in that conflict.

In 2003, Vice President Dick Cheney and the hawkish neo-cons of the Bush administration led the United States to war under false pretenses once again, this time in Iraq. In 2006, theIraq Study Group, headed by James A. Baker and Lee Hamilton, issued a report listing 79 recommendations to correct and prevent the mistakes and abuses of that war.

The same year, the journalists Seymour Hersh and Mark Danner began extended coverage of the torture committed atAbu Ghraib. We later learned that the C.I.A. had filmed the “enhanced interrogations,” destroyed the tapes so they could not be turned over to investigators and continued applying these grossly immoral techniques even after they had proven ineffective at producing actionable intelligence. The new film “The Report” dramatizes an investigation into the torture program by the Senate Intelligence Committee, led by Senator Dianne Feinstein, a Democrat from California.

Now comes The Washington Post’s release, on Dec. 9, of the so-calledAfghanistan Papers—more than 2,000 pages from theLessons Learned Program at the office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, along with other documents. They reveal that, as The Post summarizes, “Year after year, U.S. officials failed to tell the public the truth about the war in Afghanistan.” Once again there was failure at the top, by both civilian and military leaders, in the Bush and Obama administrations and right up to the present.

“The interviews make clear,” the Post reporters write, “that officials issued rosy pronouncements they knew to be false and hid unmistakable evidence the war had become unwinnable.” They go on to say, “Several of those interviewed described explicit efforts by the U.S. government to deliberately mislead the public and a culture of willful ignorance, where bad news and critiques were unwelcome.” Americans, it appears, have not learned the lessons of our own past failures. Rather, we seem ensnared in a tragedy of biblical dimensions from which we cannot flee.

The first lesson I draw from the Afghanistan Papers is that U.S. civic culture has lost the capacity for repentance. Read more…

What America needs to know about the Afghanistan Papers (Ryan Di Corpo, Dec. 17, 2019)

The Washington Post released previously unpublished reports and memos related to the ongoing war in Afghanistan on Dec. 9. These428 interview transcripts and over 2,000 pages of notes, called the Afghanistan Papers, reveal a striking contrast between the private doubts and concerns of numerous ambassadors, military leaders and U.S. government officials and what they told the American public about the war.

More than 600 people sat for interviews with the Office of the Special Inspector for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) as part of its $11 million “Lessons Learned” program, which, according to The Post, “was meant to diagnose policy failures in Afghanistan.”

The documents are a sobering record of intelligence errors, strategic blunders and sustained, widespread uncertainty regarding the purpose of the U.S. mission in Afghanistan—a nearly$1 trillion endeavor. Since 2001, the war hastaken the lives of 2,300 American military personnel and an estimated 43,074 Afghan civilians.

On Oct. 7, 2001, President George W. Bushannounced strikes against Al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan. He stated that the purpose of these “carefully targeted actions” was to “disrupt the use of Afghanistan as a terrorist base of operations and to attack the military capability of the Taliban regime.” However, as revealed in the newly released Lessons Learned report, formerAfghan war czar Lt. Gen. Douglas Lute said in 2015, “We were devoid of a fundamental understanding of Afghanistan—we didn’t know what we were doing.”

To help make sense of the Afghanistan Papers, America spoke by phone with Karen J. Greenberg, who has written on matters of terrorism and national security for The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and The Washington Post. A permanent member of the Council on Foreign Relations, Ms. Greenberg is currently director of the Center on National Security at Fordham University School of Law. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What intelligence did the U.S. lack when beginning military operations in Afghanistan? Was the war strategically misguided from the start?

Much of the criticism about the war in Afghanistan was understated, but there are many things we didn’t know. Among them was how exactly this tribal country functions, what role the warlords and others were playing vis-a-vis the United States and other countries. In other words, who to trust, what their actual goals were, how they viewed the Americans.

On Dec. 1, 2009, at West Point, President Obamaannounced a surge of 30,000 additional troops to Afghanistan and his plan to end U.S. involvement by July 2011. At the time, was it possible for U.S. forces to complete a successful transfer of power to Afghan troops?

Why was the drawdown so hard? In part because there was such opposition to it by officials who wondered, “If we draw down in Afghanistan, then what will happen?” Will Al Qaeda be on the rise again? Will other Islamist terrorist groups will be able to take root? For the most part, Obama’s decision was to draw down, but among many military experts and national security figures, that was a problem. It takes time.

The question was, “How are they going to do it?” Read more…

2020: “An emboldened and patient Taliban appears content to simply wait out the Americans.”

As tensions rise with Iran, Afghanistan becomes the longest war in U.S. history (Kevin Clarke, Feb. 5, 2020)

The Afghanistan papers offer a litany of intelligence errors, strategic blunders and expressions of sustained, widespread uncertainty regarding the U.S. mission in Afghanistan. During his interview for Lessons Learned, formerAfghan war czar Lt. Gen. Douglas Lute said in 2015, “We were devoid of a fundamental understanding of Afghanistan—we didn’t know what we were doing”—a fitting summary of the sentiment expressed by scores of other combat officers, diplomats and Pentagon strategists who participated in the policy postmortem. According to The Post, those documents reveal “there was no consensus on the war’s objectives, let alone how to end the conflict.”

The same day The Post released its grim exposé, The New York Timespublished a summary of a report from Brown University’s Cost of War project. According to those researchers, the United States has spent $2.15 trillion so far in efforts to contain the Taliban, Al Qaeda and now ISIS militants and to stabilize Afghanistan’s government and civil society.

During that time, the war has cost the lives of2,351 American military personnel and anestimated 43,000 Afghan civilians. Yet more than 18 years after U.S. and NATO troops first arrived to begin the longest war in U.S. history, the stable, democratic Afghanistan the United States struggled to establish remains acutely vulnerable to collapse, and an emboldened and patient Taliban appears content to simply wait out the Americans. Read more…

What we owe U.S. veterans who fought in Afghanistan (Matt Malone, S.J., Feb. 18, 2020)

On Feb. 8, 2020, Sgt. First Class Javier Gutierrez, of San Antonio, Tex., and Sgt. First Class Antonio Rodriguez, of Las Cruces, N.M., became thelatest U.S. soldiers to die in Afghanistan. They were both 28 years old. Six other American personnel were wounded in the attack, which reportedly came as they were waiting for a helicopter transport in Nangarhar Province. Since the start of the war in 2001,more than 2,300 U.S. troops have died in Afghanistan and more than 20,000 have been wounded.

The war has been far costlier, of course, for Afghan civilians.According to Amnesty International, “in the first nine months of 2019 alone, more than 2,400 children were killed or injured in Afghanistan, making it the deadliest conflict in the world for children.”

You would think that these sobering statistics would keep the war at the forefront of our national consciousness. Instead, most of us hardly think about it. Philip Klay, a former U.S. Marine,described in these pages in 2018 how our mass indifference affected him when he came home from the war in Iraq: “To walk through a city like New York upon return from war, then, felt like witnessing a moral crime…. I was frustrated, coming home, that the American people did not embrace my vision of war.” Mr. Klay went on to explain how his “vision” of the war changed, but I think one could forgive any veteran for feeling what he felt. Read more…