The Doves Were Right. I Was Wrong.

Americans like me ignored—or scorned—protesters who warned of an endless quagmire in Afghanistan. Next time, we should listen to the critics.

Protesters raising fists and signs
Bazuki Muhammad / Reuters

The 80 percent of Americans who supported the war in Afghanistan back in 2001 were wrong. And the tiny anti-war faction that opposed the conflict was correct in warning that an invasion and occupation would turn into a bloody quagmire.

That was my thought as I read the long-suppressed war documents that The Washington Post published yesterday after a three-year fight to make them public. Officials under Presidents George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and Donald Trump “failed to tell the truth about the war in Afghanistan throughout the 18-year campaign,” the Post showed, “making rosy pronouncements they knew to be false and hiding unmistakable evidence the war had become unwinnable.”

Observers will differ on whether U.S. officials could have been more effective or honest, or whether their failures were foreordained by perverse incentives and hard choices. A shorter war that struck al-Qaeda members but eschewed occupation can be imagined.

But there’s no disputing what actually followed the decision to go to war:

  • 2,300 American troops killed;
  • 20,589 Americans wounded in action;
  • more than $1 trillion in expenses;
  • war crimes perpetrated by U.S. troops; and
  • a propaganda effort that hid truths about the war from a self-governing people, corroding American democracy.

What might each of those 2,300 killed have done with another 60 years on Earth? Could homelessness in America have been ended for a generation if $1 trillion were invested in that effort? Which public and private tasks could have been accomplished domestically by the more than 775,000 humans deployed to Afghanistan during the conflict?

Despite everything, Afghanistan has not secured a stable democracy, assured women’s rights, protected the lives of Afghan civilians, strengthened America’s hand against regional rivals, defeated the Taliban, or established a central government or security force that can survive U.S. departure. Given how the war turned out, America would have been better off not going at all, especially given that anti-war options never precluded hunting Osama bin Laden, as U.S. Special Forces did later even as he hid in Pakistan outside a war zone.

Americans ought to be upset at the officials responsible for this historic debacle and everyone complicit in hiding the truth about it from the citizenry. As John Sopko, the special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction, told the Post, “The American people have constantly been lied to.” All who lied deserve public censure.

But those responsible for the war in Afghanistan aren’t just the U.S. officials who presided over the war effort or the Congress that approved it by overwhelming margins. Most Americans favored war in an unfamiliar country, knowing that the authorization to use force was expansive, that what victory entailed was never defined, that the U.S. government has lied to the public frequently during past conflicts, and that the Vietnam War lasted years longer than most anticipated when the fighting there began.

It is tempting to blame Washington elites, or the deep state, or the military-industrial complex for America’s misbegotten Afghanistan policy. And I, among others, have been critical of all those forces. But as a 21-year-old who favored the Afghan War when it began, I was among the majority who believed that the anti-war leftists of 2001 were wrong in their dire warnings of quagmire. So I am painfully aware that the American masses, almost the entire populist right, the center-left, and Bush-era elites joined forces in supporting the war in Afghanistan, while a tiny faction of anti-capitalists, paleoconservatives, and libertarians opposed it.

Some anti-war signs held aloft at small protests included unhelpful comparisons of George W. Bush to Adolf Hitler and mistaken assertions that racism had motivated the intervention.

But the dismissive response to those anti-war protesters extended to more reasonable claims, some of which proved prescient. An illustrative example, published at The American Prospect on October 2, 2001, took aim at a sarcastic protest sign that declared Rush In, Think Later.

The journalist Chris Mooney commented:

This is precisely what the Bush administration has not done, though it’s hard to say the same of certain peaceniks … I think about its holder, and try to imagine what was running through his or her mind. Protests themselves may take weeks to organize, but protest signs take just minutes to draw up. There must have been something instinctive and deep-seated behind that slogan, for its creator to be able to twist reality so starkly, rushing in to protest U.S. haste long after our government showed caution. Dare one suggest––without cramming stars and stripes down anyone’s throat––that it is the blindly held creed of anti-Americanism?

But two years later, in a September 8, 2003, memo, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld admitted, “I have no visibility into who the bad guys are. We are woefully deficient in human intelligence.”

While reeling from a catastrophic terrorist attack in 2001, America made a decision that turned out badly. These past 18 years should cause Americans to heed the warnings of anti-war protesters when next they raise the alarm about a war of choice. Almost inevitably, wars have a momentum of their own. They come with powerful propaganda efforts that hide the extent of what’s going wrong from the public.

And all wars have the potential to be long, hard slogs. As Winston Churchill warned in 1930:

Never, never believe any war will be smooth and easy … The Statesman who yields to war fever must realise that once the signal is given, he is no longer the master of policy but the slave of unforeseeable and uncontrollable events. Antiquated War Offices, weak, incompetent or arrogant Commanders, untrustworthy allies, hostile neutrals, malignant Fortune, ugly surprises, awful miscalculations all take their seat at the Council Board on the morrow of a declaration of war. Always remember, however sure you are that you can easily win, that there would not be a war if the other man did not think he also had a chance.

According to the Post, “Last year, 3,804 Afghan civilians were killed in the war, according to the United Nations. That is the most in one year since the United Nations began tracking casualties a decade ago.” As of last month, more than 10,000 U.S. troops remained in the country.

There’s still no telling when America will withdraw for good.