The war in Afghanistan is over. The foreign-policy debate is not.

President Biden and George W. Bush.
(Image credit: Illustrated | Getty Images, iStock)

After 20 years, the war in Afghanistan is finally over — and the foreign-policy debate remains frozen in 2001.

To vast swathes of the national security elite and numerous elected officials, a largely Taliban-run Afghanistan is as likely to serve as the homebase for terrorist attacks against the United States and its allies as when we invaded in response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks nearly two decades ago.

There is as much consternation about an "over the horizon" approach to counterterrorism, as some argue it repeats the past failures of airstrikes and drones to truly defeat threats even as they continue to generate collateral damage that plays an important role in stirring up anti-Western radicalism. In Washington, there still remains no consensus on whether the real problem was interventionism run amuck in the 2000s and 2010s or neglect of terrorism in the 1990s.

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Even before the last troops left Afghanistan, there was talk that there is no such thing as a forever war — or that such wars can never really be ended. Some people essentially said both things.

It may yet be that all the king's horses and all the king's men will discover that not even skipping town can put Humpty-Dumpty back together again. From Vietnam to Iraq, we have seen dead-enders argue that more time, money, and bodies could have made the difference, that these wars failed because we lost our will to fight. These debates carry on until this day, even though the Soviet incursion into Afghanistan proved far more costly to their Cold War ambitions than America's messy departure from Vietnam.

But the war in Afghanistan was related to an attack on America as direct as any since the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor. It is different.

And yet the fact that so little else is should give us pause about attempting a nation-building exercise of that scale, in such an underdeveloped country, ever again.

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