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American Hubris: Disastrous Consequences of U.S. Occupation of Afghanistan linger to this day

In early 2020, thinking he’d be reelected president that year, Mr. Trump dispatched his secretary of state to negotiate a peaceful withdrawal of nearly all U.S. forces and an end to the U.S. occupation. Mr. Trump’s diplomats did not negotiate with the government of Afghanistan but with the government-in-waiting — the Taliban.

“For they have sown the wind, and they shall reap the whirlwind” — Hosea 8:7

The debacle of the nearly 20-year American occupation of Afghanistan continues in President Biden’s America today.

This disaster began when President George W. Bush — stung deeply by the intelligence that he failed to heed, thus enabling the attacks of 9/11 to take place unimpeded — convinced the American people and Congress and most of our allies that the bad guys who ran Afghanistan in the early part of this century needed to be taught a lesson, whether they enabled or facilitated the 9/11 attacks or not.

Mr. Bush’s moral monstrosity was executed in the name of retaliation, deterrence and liberation, but in reality, it was American hubris.

Here is the backstory.

Mr. Bush — knowing days after the 9/11 attacks that they had been perpetrated and paid for by his friends the Saudis — believed that by blaming the attacks on Afghanistan, destroying much of that country and causing the deaths of hundreds of thousands of innocents, he would somehow teach the world that no one would “mess with us” without severe consequences.

His knee-jerk reaction and exploitation of Americans’ mass fear in the weeks following 9/11 set in motion a series of events that culminated in the triumph in Afghanistan of the very mindset Mr. Bush, his military and his borrowed $2 trillion tried to destroy.

To amass the international consent needed to produce the invasion he wanted, Mr. Bush also vowed — channeling his inner Woodrow Wilson, who killed innocents in World War I “to make the world safe for democracy” — to defy history by installing a Western-style democracy in Afghanistan.

Didn’t he know that tens of thousands of British troops in the 19th century and more than 100,000 Soviet troops in the 20th century had failed to bend the culture and the will of this rugged and wretched country? President Barack Obama accepted Mr. Bush’s scheme and continued the American occupation, as well as the mission-impossible task of building a democracy there.

This gambit — borne of Mr. Bush’s hubris and nurtured by Mr. Obama’s incompetence — was one of the worst foreign policy errors in modern American history.

During the 2016 presidential campaign, candidate Donald Trump split with his own party to denounce the long war in Afghanistan, vowing to bring the troops home. Mr. Trump’s heart was in the right place — he was sick and tired of war — but his head was not.

In early 2020, thinking he’d be reelected president that year, Mr. Trump dispatched his secretary of state to negotiate a peaceful withdrawal of nearly all U.S. forces and an end to the U.S. occupation. Mr. Trump’s diplomats did not negotiate with the government of Afghanistan but with the government-in-waiting — the Taliban.

The deal they struck, which was agreed to by Mr. Trump and Taliban leaders, required the Afghan government to release 5,000 Taliban soldiers/prisoners from its jails and the U.S. to complete its military departure by May 2021. By the time Mr. Biden became president, he was faced with that deadline and the realization that the Taliban former prisoners, in a number that exceeded the number of American troops there, had been freed and were now armed.

We all know what happened when Mr. Biden pulled the plug: The Taliban resumed control of the Afghan government. Mr. Biden’s head was in the right place, but his heart was not. He knew most Americans are, like Mr. Trump, sick and tired of war, but he failed to grasp the grave situation present in Afghan streets triggered by the sudden American departure.

Now, back to the moral monstrosity that Mr. Bush created and why it lives on.

When Mr. Bush attacked Afghanistan, he didn’t ask Congress for a declaration of war, as the then-existing Afghan government did not attack the U.S. Instead, he asked for and received a novel creature called the authorization for use of military force.

This creature is unknown to the Constitution, as it purported to authorize war without end against unknown and unnamed targets.

Congressional declarations of war historically established that once the war had been fought and the target surrendered, the declaration no longer authorized the war. Not so with the military force authorization; its wording is so expansive and ambiguous that it authorizes any president to use military force at any time against any person or entity who allegedly perpetrated or facilitated the 9/11 attacks.

All of Mr. Bush’s successors have relied on this authorization to kill people in the Middle East, even though many of them were infants on 9/11.

Can presidents kill anyone they wish in the name of national security? In a word, no.

American presidents, however, have had their hearts set on empire-building since Thomas Jefferson engineered the Louisiana Purchase. How ironic that the man most responsible for articulating the evils of empire in 1776 would himself set about to build one in 1803. Yet unlike Abraham Lincoln or Woodrow Wilson or Mr. Bush, Jefferson did so legally and without force or bloodshed.

The modern American empire-builders surely think that they can kill any foe, real or imagined. Mr. Bush claimed powers from some source other than the Constitution. He also claimed he could strip Americans of their natural and constitutional rights by shipping them to Cuba — all for the empire.

All this killing, unless in self-defense — killing for empire is not in self-defense — defies natural law, which teaches that all aggression is illicit and every person, American or not, enjoys the inviolable right to live.

The lesson of Afghanistan is that American presidents had no moral, constitutional or legal authority to send troops, dollars and assets there in the first place. Is the United States to go about the globe building empire under a pretext? Don’t ask the American empire-builders, as they already have their sights set on Syria, Iraq, Ukraine and Gaza.

Author

Andrew P. Napolitano

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