With President Trump pledging more troops and certain victory, this may be a good time to remember why this nation went to war in Afghanistan 16 years ago. It could be helpful in deciding what "victory" looks like, or when it would be time to leave.
Had there been no 9/11, it is doubtful that American soldiers would have ever invaded Afghanistan. Their mission was to apprehend the architect of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, who was being harbored by a separate Afghan terrorist group called the Taliban.
The campaign began in October with massive bombing followed by assaults on known Taliban outposts by U.S., British, and Afghan Northern Alliance troops. What seemed to be "victory" was rather swift. By November, the Afghan capital, Kabul, was under Northern Alliance control and the Taliban had fled to the mountains bordering Pakistan. But bin Laden had not been found.
It took another 10 years before that was accomplished. On May 1, 2011, a Navy Seal team aboard two Black Hawk helicopters flew into Pakistan to a locate a house in Abbottabad, in which intelligence had concluded bin Laden was hiding. The Seals found the terrorist and shot him. It was later said that there was never any question of capturing the man responsible for the deaths of more than 3,000 Americans.
But bin Laden's death didn't end the war. The Taliban, emboldened by a diminished U.S. presence, has reasserted itself in Afghanistan and regained control of some key ground. That has prompted Trump, who during his presidential campaign suggested possibly withdrawing from Afghanistan, to announce a new strategy in August. About 4,000 troops may join a U.S. force now reported to number around 12,000.
"My original instinct was to pull out, and historically I like following my instincts," Trump said. "But all my life, I've heard that decisions are much different when you sit behind the desk in the Oval Office." It's good to know Trump has come to that realization. But more important is knowing exactly what is his goal. What's his criteria for leaving Afghanistan?
In going after bin Laden, President George H.W. Bush declared a "war on terrorism," which is an open-ended conflict given that there is no end to the list of miscreants in this world who seek to terrorize their way to power or for another reason. They do this individually, or collectively, in the name of a religion, an ethnicity, a grievance, or sheer madness.
Islamic State founder Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was killed 11 years ago. The Russians claim they killed his successor, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, in a June air strike. But even as ISIS struggles in Iraq and Syria, its followers persist, including those recruited online to make lone-wolf attacks in the United States.