As the Biden administration withdraws U.S. combat forces from Afghanistan, the prevailing media headline declares, with panicked certainty, that America has failed and suffered a strategic defeat. All is lost out there. Trillions of taxpayer dollars were squandered. Our killed and wounded in action suffered in vain. Etcetera.
That loser narrative ignores the historical fact that occupying and governing Afghanistan was never America’s objective. Stabilizing? Yes, but I’ll get back to that in a moment.
Fact: When U.S. military personnel entered Afghanistan in September 2001, America’s goal was to cripple and destroy the communication, supply, and personnel networks supporting Osama bin Laden’s Al-Qaida brand of global Islamofascist terrorism. Bin Laden’s zealots were global guerrillas whose victory was ordained by God. Destroying the World Trade Center demonstrated Al Qaida could destroy America as a world power, to be replaced by the global caliphate.
Al Qaida’s 9/11 massacre taught open-minded Americans that anarchy in even the world’s most remote and impoverished corners provided anti-American terror cults with a base of operations. If you read anti-American as also meaning anti-modern and anti-personal freedom, by George you’ve got it.
Between October 2001 and March 2002, in geographically fragmented Afghanistan, American military personnel dealt Al Qaida two major defeats. U.S. Air Force B-52s and Army Green Berets with radios crushed the Taliban of 2001’s attempt to destroy the Northern Alliance. In case you’ve forgotten (like the prevailing media), prior to 9/11, Al Qaida murdered Afghanistan’s Northern Alliance leader Ahmad Massoud. Massoud presented a popular political and military challenge to the Taliban of 2001. Bin Laden bet Massoud’s assassination would cause the anti-Islamist Afghan opposition to collapse. Besides, the Taliban had superior weapons and mobility (artillery and trucks).
When Green Berets appeared and the B-52s dropped bombs, the Taliban lost its tech edge. Bin Laden lost his bet.
In March 2002, the 101st Airborne Division’s Task Force Rakkasan landed by helicopter in the Shah-i-Kot valley southeast of Kabul. Operation Anaconda began. Al Qaida’s zealots had convinced themselves Americans lacked the guts for a close battle with holy warriors. Task Force Rakkasan arrived with 1,411 U.S. infantrymen. After five days of heavy combat, it left with 1,411 infantrymen, around 100 wounded, but no dead. Al Qaida’s body count? Roughly 500 dead global guerrillas.
Task Force Rakkasan’s victory had strategic narrative significance. Defeating bin Laden’s psychotic tale on his own battlefield dealt Al Qaida a global political defeat. Al Qaida didn’t have the mandate of heaven (to use a Chinese formulation for divine preference).
Eventually, American intelligence and special operations personnel located bin Laden himself. The raiders assaulting bin Laden’s Abbottabad, Pakistan flew in from Afghanistan. I think locating and attempting to apprehend bin Laden required having American forces in Afghanistan. Why? My bet: Corrupt Pakistani intelligence officers protected him.
Back to 2021’s withdrawal. The Obama administration’s declaration of victory in Iraq and the 2011 withdrawal of American troops created a power vacuum. In 2014, the Islamic State exploited it and established its caliphate. The Islamic State claimed it had one-upped bin Laden. Its caliphate had a capital, Mosul.
A grueling offensive by Iraqi troops militias—supported by U.S. airpower—retook Mosul. U.S. and coalition forces continue to battle terrorists in Syria’s cauldron. Russian and Turkish forces confront others.
Yemen is anarchic. U.S. commandos and armed drones still wage war on Al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula in Yemen, but off media radar.
What goes on in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen is a form of guard duty. Add Somalia to the list. In case you’ve missed it, the United States has withdrawn from Somalia.
What’s the difference between Afghanistan and these other chaotic, anarchic hells?
Afghanistan is landlocked. A nation can employ a punitive raiding strategy if it has a navy and the anarchic area has a coastline.
The war in Afghanistan isn’t over. U.S. airpower and special ops must remain on guard duty. Turkish troops may guard a couple of key airbases. That’s a good idea.
Austin Bay is a colonel (ret.) in the U.S. Army Reserve, author, syndicated columnist, and teacher of strategy and strategic theory at the University of Texas–Austin. His latest book is “Cocktails from Hell: Five Wars Shaping the 21st Century.”
Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.