Speed Reads

History Lesson

BBC News breaks down America's 20 years in Afghanistan by the 4 presidents who oversaw the war

The last U.S. military flight out of Afghanistan on Monday was "the final chapter" in a contentions 20-year military effort that ultimately "saw the U.S. handing Afghanistan back to the very Islamist militants it sought to root out when American troops entered the country in 2001," BBC News reports

The Afghanistan War "began under President George W. Bush as a hunt for Al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden, the Qaeda leader who oversaw the 9/11 attacks on the United States," The New York Times recounts. "On that score, it succeeded: Al Qaeda was driven out and Bin Laden was killed by an American SEAL team in Pakistan in 2011." But 20 years, three presidents, more than $2 trillion, and 170,000 lives after the 2001 invasion, America's longest war "failed in nearly every other goal."

Early on, the U.S., "confident it had routed the Taliban, refused their entreaties for a negotiated surrender, and plowed ahead with an enormous effort to not only drive them out but to construct a Western-style democracy in Afghanistan," the Times writes. "The lengthy occupation allowed the Taliban to regroup, casting itself as the national resistance to the American invaders and, three American presidents later, driving them out in a war of attrition, much as Afghans had done to the Soviets in the 1980s."

BBC News broke the war into four phases: Bush's "nation building," former President Barack Obama's "shifted expectations," former President Donald Trump "planning withdrawal," and President Biden's "rapid execution." Presidential historian Barbara Perry and Carrie A. Lee, a national security expert at the Truman National Security Project, judged the collected U.S. effort an initial victory followed by a long defeat. 

"There's an old saying that victory has a hundred fathers and defeat is an orphan," former President John F. Kennedy said in 1961, after the Bay of Pigs fiasco. If that were true, the Afghanistan War's paternity test would show a "victory," even if the war was not.