Talking Points

America's 3 big 'what ifs' in Afghanistan

Is it possible to approach the end of a 20-year war without asking "what if"? I suspect not — at least, not when the drawdown is as chaotic and controversial as the past few weeks in Afghanistan have been. Here are three such hypotheticals that caught my eye.

What if we'd never invaded? At The Atlantic, pastor and Poor People's Campaign chair William J. Barber II reminded his readers that the call to invade wasn't unanimous. Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) "stood alone, the only member of Congress to vote against giving President George W. Bush the authority to wage unlimited war in the name of stopping terrorism." Lee's vote was not enough to forestall, in Barber's phrase, the U.S. going "to war to respond to a crime." But what if her view had prevailed?

What if we'd gotten bin Laden immediately? This second question comes from former Bush speechwriter David Frum at DefenseOne. "Had the United States caught and killed Osama bin Laden in December 2001, the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan would have faded away almost immediately afterward," Frum postulates. "I cannot prove that," he concedes, but from his vantage as a member of the Bush administration at that time, Frum suggests the war in Afghanistan would have ended, the nation-building projects never would have begun, and the war in Iraq may even have been forestalled had the al Qaeda leader been caught or killed right away.

What if we'd accepted the Taliban's plea for peace in 2001? "Did the war in Afghanistan have to happen?" wonders the headline of a Monday report by New York Times Baghdad Bureau chief Alissa L. Rubin. As explored in this article, "the war" means everything after the initial invasion and swift rout of the Taliban. "It was in the waning days of November 2001 that Taliban leaders began to reach out to Hamid Karzai, who would soon become the interim president of Afghanistan: They wanted to make a deal," Rubin writes. Though the Taliban's sole demand was amnesty, then-Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld categorically refused to deal.

What if he hadn't? Or what if bin Laden had been found in 2001? Or what if we'd responded with a police action instead of a military intervention? These are fascinating and tantalizing questions — and impotent, too, except perhaps to bring greater wisdom to the aftermath of tragedies yet to come.