WASHINGTON — In the 1990s, Afghanistan was allowed to fall to the Taliban and become the global center for the training, indoctrination and seeding of jihadists around the world — including the mass murderers of 9/11. This week, just three years after a two-month war that destroyed the Taliban, Afghanistan completed its first free election, choosing as president a pro-American democrat enjoying legitimacy and wide popular support.
This represents the single most astonishing geopolitical transformation of the past four years. (Deposing Saddam Hussein ranks second. The global jihad against America was no transformation at all: It existed long before the Bush administration. We'd simply ignored al-Qaida's declaration of war.) But perhaps even more astonishing is how this singular American victory has disappeared from public consciousness.
Americans have a deserved reputation for historical amnesia. Three years — an eon — have made us imagine that the Afghan war was easy and foreordained.
Easy? In 2001, we had nothing there. What had the Clinton administration left in place? No plausible military plan. Virtually no intelligence. No local infrastructure. No neighboring bases. The Afghan Northern Alliance was fractured and weak. And Pakistan was actively supporting the bad guys.
Within days of 9/11, the clueless airhead president that inhabits Michael Moore's films and Tina Brown's dinner parties had done this: forced Pakistan into alliance with us, isolated the Taliban, secured military cooperation from Afghanistan's northern neighbors, and authorized a radical war plan involving just a handful of Americans on the ground, using high technology and local militias to utterly rout the Taliban.
Bush put in place a military campaign that did in two months what everyone had said was impossible: defeating an entrenched, fanatical, ruthless regime in a territory that had forced the great British and Soviet empires into ignominious retreat. Bush followed that by creating in less than three years a fledgling pro-American democracy in a land with no history of democratic culture and just emerging from 25 years of civil war.
This is all barely remembered and barely noted. Most amazing of all, John Kerry has managed to transform our Afghan venture into a failure — a botched operation in which Bush let Osama bin Laden get away because he "outsourced" bin Laden's capture to "warlords" in the battle of Tora Bora.
Outsourced? The entire Afghan war was outsourced. How does Kerry think we won it? How did Mazar-e Sharif, Kabul and Kandahar fall? Stormed by thousands of American GIs? They fell to the "warlords" we had enlisted, supported and directed. It was their militias that overran the Taliban.
"Outsourcing" is a demagogue's way of saying "using allies." (Isn't Kerry's Iraq solution to "outsource" the problem to the "allies" and the United Nations?) And in Afghanistan it meant the very best allies: locals who had a far better chance of knowing what cave to storm without getting blown up. As Kerry himself said on national television at the time of Tora Bora (Dec. 14, 2001): "What we are doing, I think, is having its impact and it is the best way to protect our troops and sort of minimalize the proximity, if you will" — i.e., not throwing American lives away in tunnels and caves in alien territory. "I think we have been doing this pretty effectively, and we should continue to do it that way."
Now, as always, the retroactive military genius says he would have done it differently. Yet in the same interview, asked about how things were going overall in Afghanistan, he said, "I think we have been smart; I think the administration leadership has done it well and we are on the right track."
Once again, the senator's position has evolved, to borrow The New York Times' delicate term for Kerry's many about-faces.
This election comes down to a choice between one man's evolution and the other man's resolution. With his endlessly repeated Tora Bora charges, Kerry has made Afghanistan a major campaign issue. So be it. Whom do you want as president? The man who conceived the Afghan campaign, carried it through without flinching when it was being called a "quagmire" during its second week and has seen it through to Afghanistan's transition to democracy? Or the retroactive genius, who always knows what needs to be done after it has already happened — who would have done "everything" differently in Iraq, yet in Afghanistan would have replicated Bush's every correct, courageous, radical and risky decision — except one. Which, of course, he would have done differently. He says. Now.
The Washington Post Writers Group