President Biden signaled to America and the world that he’d be a different kind of commander-in-chief when he moved this summer to finally end the nearly 20-year “forever war” in Afghanistan — a bold step that his predecessors Barack Obama and Donald Trump had not taken despite their own qualms about the mission.

But when a suicide bomber tied to the terror group ISIS-K attacked the throng at the gates to Kabul’s airport seeking to flee the country after its rapid fall to the Taliban and killed 13 U.S. servicemembers and dozens of Afghans, Biden’s rhetoric fell back on the tried and true: America has the superior know-how and military might to exact deadly revenge.

“To those who carried out this attack, as well as anyone who wishes America harm, know this: We will not forgive,” Biden said from the White House that night, Aug. 26. “We will not forget. We will hunt you down and make you pay.” His words felt very much like a clapback to George W. Bush’s 2001 “bullhorn moment” with workers at the rubble of the World Trade Center, when he vowed to get the masterminds of the 9/11 attack.

A short time later, America indeed struck back. The next night, Pentagon officials said a U.S. drone strike in a remote corner of Afghanistan killed a “planner” of the attack from the terror group ISIS-K — although it was hard to check that, and locals said a woman and child were killed along with a man. Next, a second attack seemed to show that the Biden administration was indeed in control of the situation on the ground in Kabul. In that drone strike, U.S. military officials claimed intelligence had been tracking a would-be second bomber and blew up his vehicle before it reached the crowded airport.

But things looked very different on the ground — as they so often had in the 20-year crusade that our nation’s leaders dubbed “the war on terror.” Neighborhood residents said 10 people had been killed in the U.S. attack, most of them children, and then — in a tragically ironic twist — the New York Times and Washington Post reported on the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks that triggered the terror wars that there is substantial evidence that the man America targeted in the drone strike wasn’t a terrorist at all, but an ally ... one of “the good guys.”

The Times reported that the very last U.S. missile fired in its two-decade-long war in Afghanistan — “a righteous strike,” according to the Pentagon, launched from a flying death robot that is called a Reaper drone — killed Zemari Ahmadi, a 43-year-old veteran aid worker for a U.S.-based company, in addition to the nine other civilians, including seven children.

Reporting by the two papers uncovered no evidence that Ahmadi had any connection to terrorism, and suggested his murder was the result of tragically flawed assumptions by U.S. intelligence who came to believe the man had been in contact with an ISIS-K “safe house” in Kabul. But witnesses told the Times that what Ahmadi loaded into his Corolla was not explosives but water bottles for his family. Indeed, the Post reported that forensic evidence found the explosion at the killing site was equal to that caused by a U.S. missile — suggesting there were no bombs in the van. Any secondary explosion was probably just the Toyota’s fuel tank.

“We have nothing to do with terrorism or ISIS,” the Kabul-based director of the program Ahmadi worked for told the Times. The director said he was on the list for U.S. resettlement. “We love America. We want to go there.”

Beyond its timing, the paradox of this immorally flawed American killing of innocents is almost too much to bear. On one hand, it is arguably the worst action of Biden’s eight months in the White House — a blundered rush to show presidential resolve and U.S. military might at a time when critics were charging the White House with losing control of the situation in Kabul. The deep irony is that Team Biden’s lethal mistake also shows the 46th president was absolutely right to end U.S. involvement in Afghanistan and wind down America’s broader “forever war” when he did. Coming right before the 20th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, Ahmadi’s senseless death became the exclamation point on a “righteous” U.S. response that went horribly wrong.

To be clear, Biden’s “we will hunt you down” bluster, and the wrongheaded, deadly responses that seem to flow from that, is nothing new, and in fact predates 9/11. Richard Nixon knew the Vietnam War was unwinnable yet feared an abrupt ending would make America look weak, so 20,000 more U.S. troops and countless innocent Vietnamese died on his watch. Both Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan responded to humiliation and loss — the 1975 fall of Saigon and the 1983 Beirut barracks bombing — with military strikes that were poorly planned (Ford’s SS Mayaguez assault in which 41 Americans died) or strategically baffling (Reagan’s Grenada invasion). After al-Qaeda bombed U.S. embassies in 1998, Bill Clinton ordered the bizarre bombing of a Sudanese medicine factory.

» READ MORE: Afghan exit is a low moment for journalism | Will Bunch Newsletter

After the 9/11 attacks, the overriding goal of the George W. Bush administration was to project U.S. strength on a broad global canvas, to prove that America — which indeed spends more on its military than the next 10 nations combined — was still the world’s lone superpower to be feared. “Bush believed that the threat of U.S. power had lost credibility” because of terror attacks culminating in 9/11, according to the University of Virginia’s Miller Center. Thus, the response went well beyond the reasonable — eliminating the safe haven for Osama bin Laden and other terrorists in Afghanistan and tightening security at home — into projects like the 2003 invasion of Iraq, which had nothing to do with the assault on the World Trade Center. That the U.S. plan for massively bombing Baghdad was called “shock and awe” sums up the post-9/11 mindset.

The last 20 years have provided plenty of shocks, but from a moral standpoint the U.S. “forever war” has been less than awesome. Leaders failed to absorb the painful lessons of Vietnam, that American claims on democracy can’t be easily imposed at the barrel of a gun, in lands that our generals and soldiers poorly understand. Last month’s drone killing of Zemari Ahmadi was far from the only case of horrific collateral damage, nor was the mistaken U.S. 2008 airstrike on an Afghan wedding party that killed 47 innocent civilians, including the bride, just one of several such tragedies. It’s been estimated that U.S. air attacks in the two decades after 9/11 have killed at least 22,000 civilians — creating a new generation of anti-Americanism.

Although the fall of Kabul was not the mainstream media’s finest hour, there has also been some remarkable truth-telling, including the Times and Post investigations of the August 29 drone strike but also a recent piece in the New Yorker by Anand Gopal entitled “The Other Afghan Women.” It argued that the clear-cut gains for female empowerment in the relatively cosmopolitan capital of Kabul were offset by women in the countryside furious because they’d lost family members to U.S. military actions or the corrupt warlords we allied with. “On average,” Gopal writes of his thorough investigation of rural Afghan towns, “I found, each family lost ten to twelve civilians in what locals call the American War.”

This is the wider truth, that the “forever war” sparked by 9/11 was making America look weak — both morally and as a driver of world events — and, in creating new enmity in the multiple nations where we conducted drone strikes or other military actions, undermined our position in global affairs instead of strengthening it.

This was Biden’s crucible as he assumed leadership of that war. He would face continued pressure to “project strength” — often with hasty, misguided actions like the final Kabul drone strike — or he could start pulling the plug on a terribly misguided operation that had already killed thousands and wasted trillions of dollars. Leaving Afghanistan was literally the only way to stop America before we killed again. For now, we can only pray that Zemari Ahmadi was the last man to die for a mistake.

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