The Twenty-Year War is ending with the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan.

But America’s longest ever war cannot simply be understood by the evacuation from Kabul. Here are key questions about this wasteful conflict that can help put the war in perspective.

Why did the U.S. go to war in Afghanistan? After the 9/11 attacks in 2001, the headquarters of the terrorist group Al Qaeda was found there, sheltered by the Taliban, religious zealots who ruled most of the country. The U.S. went in to stamp out Al Qaeda, which required ending Taliban control.

Did the U.S. mission change? President George W. Bush committed U.S. forces without defining the conditions under which they would leave. Though he had said he opposed “nation building,” that’s just what the U.S. tried to do. Under four presidents, it failed.

Could Afghanistan be turned into “a stable and open” society? It has never been a unified country, but had been ruled by regional warlords. The Soviet Union had failed to govern it and withdrew. Even legendary novelist Rudyard Kipling had revealed how ungovernable and divided it was.

Why couldn’t the U.S. defeat the Taliban? The Talibs have had a long history in Afghanistan and knew they could wait out the Americans. Long ago, British statesman Winston Churchill wrote about their entrenched power. They could endlessly develop and deploy home-grown terrorism to dominate most areas of the country.

Why couldn’t the new government in Kabul take control? It was riddled by corruption and incompetence. While it represented an attempt to graft Western values onto local roots, it lacked broad popular support. It was simply an overlay on historic tribal and Taliban structures.

Also, it was an economic failure. It depended on shipments of American dollars flown in regularly. In contrast, the Taliban economy is based on opium sales and few public services, notably schools.

Why did the U.S. and its European allies remain there? The goal was to prevent the growth of new terrorist bases in the country. There was progress toward that objective so long as Western troops were on the ground. But terrorism had grown up elsewhere, and it was impractical to keep troops everywhere it might occur.

What about women in Afghan society? The Taliban suppressed virtually all women’s rights. So long as it did not control the country, those rights could develop and did. But the society itself did not come to value those rights enough to resist the Taliban after the U.S. troops were withdrawn.

Could the U.S. have struck a deal with the Taliban? It tried direct talks, even excluding the Kabul government it had fostered. That alone must have sent a message that only the U.S. stood between the people and the Taliban. Knowing they could outwait the Americans, the Taliban never would make a deal.

Why did the U.S. withdraw from Afghanistan? It cost too much. Funds that could have gone to meet urgent domestic needs poured continuously into the country. Even more important, it cost the lives of Americans and others without producing the desired result.

Both Donald Trump, during his presidency, and President Joe Biden read the message from the American people that Afghanistan meant little when compared with the sacrifice, and it was time to leave. Some generals seemed to have a hard time accepting the failure and favored staying.

Why is the withdrawal a chaotic crisis? Biden thought the government would fall to the Taliban, but that it might save key cities, resulting in a settlement of sorts. He believed a gradual withdrawal would be possible by continued government control for a limited period. In effect, the U.S. bought its own propaganda about the Kabul government.

Biden’s policy was based on this faulty assumption, which provided an overly optimistic view of the country’s support for the government without U.S. military backing. He failed to order a withdrawal of diplomats and other civilians in line with the troop drawdown. This was a serious and costly error.

What about Afghans who helped the U.S.? Biden says they will be helped to leave the country. But it would be naïve to believe that all Afghans seeking U.S. help themselves helped the U.S. Some opportunistically chose a side; some simply see a way out to the West. Those left behind will undoubtedly survive as an American political issue.

Is all lost despite the effort? Russia and China are not likely to do better than previous outside powers in this failed country. The U.S. has learned a lot about the country and can use air strikes to damage terrorist bases as they develop. In the end, the U.S. dollar might have greater long-term influence on the Afghan economy than U.S. troops had on its governance.

Gordon L. Weil formerly wrote for the Washington Post and other newspapers, served on the U.S. Senate and EU staffs, headed Maine state agencies and was a Harpswell selectman.

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