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Why the Afghan War was a Mistake -- And Why that Matters

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

By sending 30,000 additional U.S. troops to Afghanistan, President Obama has made a tragic mistake that could define, and undermine, his entire presidency. But this mistake, which promises to prolong an impossible mission and take countless more Afghan and American lives, is only the most recent error in a war of choice that has from the beginning been not only impractical but also unjust.

If we are going to end the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, we have to put an end to the "war on terror." My first week at college, I woke up to see a plane crash into the second tower on TV, and rushed to call my family in Washington. A few weeks later, I protested the impending invasion of Afghanistan, one of a small number amidst a remarkably hostile political climate. I then joined the much larger protests against the Iraq war and witnessed the arrival of John Kerry's "good war/ bad war" campaign, later picked up by candidate Obama. The "war on terror" continues.

The liberal consensus has been that we "took our eye off the ball" when we could have grabbed Osama in the caves of Tora Bora. While "good war/bad war" helped mobilize public sentiment against the Iraq War, it laid the groundwork for Obama's escalation in Afghanistan. And while a new consensus is emerging amongst the liberal-left that Afghanistan is not a winning proposition, it has come too late. "Good war/ bad war" has born fruit. Eight years later, the fighting drags on.

Many who oppose the escalation in Afghanistan still think that our adventure in Central Asia is a good war gone bad. New York Times columnist Bob Herbert has made impassioned arguments against an escalation in Afghanistan, calling Obama's decision "a tragic mistake." Yet he insists that the venture was born of pure and just intentions, writing "there was every reason for American forces to invade Afghanistan in the immediate aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001." He does not articulate what those reasons were, perhaps assuming that many readers simply agree.

While many Times readers might buy that narrative, Herbert is wrong. Al Qaeda was from the beginning a global terror network and the attacks were as much launched from "safe havens" in Hamburg as from the rocky mountainsides of Afghanistan. In the wake of our two wars they are now even more dispersed, a multi-celled organization stretching from Waziristan to Somalia to Europe that depends on no command center. Fighting Al Qaeda, the only causus belli still seriously entertained by either right or left, was no reason to go to war.

The Taliban are a brutal regime, but there are many such governments around the world, some enemies, others friends. This has from the beginning been an ex-post-facto justification to rally liberal support--and is seriously suspect given our history of cynically supporting the very same mujahadeen against the Soviets. That there is no realistic end game in Afghanistan without significant Taliban involvement fatally undermines it. And to presume that most Afghans, tied to various ethnic and geographic loyalties, prefer the corrupt Karzai government to the vicious Taliban is the sort of wishful thinking that neoconservatives made famous.

That eight years later this war became the very sort of disaster we protesters were then predicting is not a cause for I-told-you-so's--however tempting that might be. The future of this war in some part depends on the conventional wisdom surrounding the legitimacy of its origins. We cannot end the Afghanistan war until we acknowledge that it began in the same heady, frightened and bloodthirsty moments in the wake of 9/11 that nurtured the more widely condemned Iraq War--the "9/12 America" that Glenn Beck tearfully pines for. This was a time when Americans hid cravenly behind the flag, with just one congresswoman brave enough to vote "no."

Ending the war is, of course, more important than quibbling over its beginning. But progressives at the very least must come to terms with how wrong this war has always been if we are going to lead the fight to stop it.

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