As the U.S.’s two decade war in Afghanistan draws to a close, very few former officials involved in prosecuting it have publicly struggled with the consequences.
Instead of contrition, regret, or introspection, most reactions have focused on either criticizing the circumstances of a withdrawal taking place under the specter of defeat, or on arguing that the U.S. should never have left.
But that handwringing about the withdrawal — divorcing the past two weeks from the reality of two decades of war — doesn’t get at fundamental questions about what went wrong in Afghanistan, or whether the U.S. should have been there in the first place, or for as long as it was.
It’s not just the withdrawal that needs to be considered, but rather the whole 20-year enterprise.
A few of those involved in decision making over the past two decades have spoken up. Admiral Mike Mullen, who served as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff from 2007 through 2011, told ABC News’s Martha Raddatz on Sunday that he has regrets about the war. Specifically, Mullen said that he has second thoughts about having supported the strategy, in 2011, of training the Afghan forces to fight for themselves.
“So, when you look back on — on those years, are you really kind of beating yourself up over that?” Raddatz asked Mullen.
“Well, I am, yes,” he replied. “What I thought we could do — and I advised President Obama that, accordingly — is I thought we could turn it around. Obviously, I was wrong.”
Mullen isn’t entirely alone. Richard Armitage, deputy secretary of state under Bush, told NPR this week that he struggles with that administration’s decision to stay in Afghanistan while neglecting the war in favor of Iraq.
“This is something that I had bear on my conscience,” Armitage told NPR’s Steve Inskeep.
“I think I’m one of those who are responsible during the Bush administration for not having turned around and gotten us out of there.”
Now, Armitage is one of the few voices saying that the Trump administration’s “conga line of grifters” — his words — and the Biden administration’s inability to “run a two-car funeral” in the withdrawal should not supplant a real reckoning over the war.
To Aaron David Miller, a former State Department official who worked on Middle East peace issues, that approach is more the exception than the rule.
“Regrets aren’t the issue,” Miller, now a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told TPM. “The issue is: has this experience prompted current and former national security officials on the political or military side to take a long look in the mirror?”
“That’s what’s required, a very long look in the mirror, to try to determine what we were trying to achieve, and to prevent anything like this from happening again,” he added.
It’s a call that may strike a dissonant chord with a foreign policy community that still largely takes the notion that the U.S. has a moral obligation to support human rights overseas, sometimes through direct military intervention, as a given.
Miller isn’t a stranger to that world. He recalled being “inspired” by hearing President Clinton say at a meeting in the mid-1990s, with respect to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, that “trying and failing is not the same as not having tried at all.”
“I remember how inspired I was, but over the time I began to understand that if trying and failing is better than not having tried at all, then there’s a serious problem,” he said. “Because failure has huge consequences. Trying and failing is an appropriate slogan for the University of Michigan football team; it’s not a substitute for the foreign policy of the most consequential power on Earth.”
And in some cases, the loudest voices calling either for the U.S. to stay in Afghanistan or criticizing the circumstances of the withdrawal have been from those who have personal experience of how these interventionist assumptions work in practice. They have committed years of their lives to state-building efforts in Afghanistan. These former officials, dedicated to serving the country, built close relationships with Afghans and watched as colleagues were wounded or perished in the effort to transform the country.
That itself doesn’t render anyone incapable of objective analysis. But it can make the perspective of some critics easier to understand.
Armitage served in the State Department from 2001 to 2005 — during the critical years that encompassed 9/11, the invasion of Afghanistan, and the subsequent buildup and meltdown of the Iraq war. He went so far in his NPR interview as to admit that Iraq sucked his attention away from Afghanistan.
“After all, I did visit Afghanistan on several different occasions,” he said. “But from my point of view, my inbox was filling up, and it was filling up primarily with Iraq.”
Mullen, who primarily served during the Obama administration, went on to say in his ABC interview that he now believes it would have been correct to leave in the years after the 2011 killing of Osama bin Laden.
Biden advocated for that as Vice President, writing a now well-known memo to Obama pushing for troops to be withdrawn from the country. Mullen opposed that at the time.
“A lot of people are critical of the president right now. President Biden had it right back then,” Mullen said. “He was focused singly on counterterrorism. His advice was along those lines. And he certainly said that. And I give him credit for that.”
It’s a level of contrition that betrays a deeper unease as the interview progresses.
“I think we’re somewhere in between,” Mullen said, when asked whether the war was a success or a failure.
Mullen then lurches towards a more fundamental question: what role should our military really have? And what are the limits of what it can accomplish?
“I think we need to — we need to learn lessons,” he added. “I think we need to examine in the military that ‘can-do’ spirit — and that, can we understand why we too often say yes to a mission when we should say no?”