Sunday, October 7, 2001, marked the beginning of Operation Enduring Freedom, which, in a nationally televised address, President George W. Bush said was “designed to disrupt the use of Afghanistan as a terrorist base of operations, and to attack the military capability of the Taliban regime.”
Seventeen years have passed since that Sunday afternoon, when Bush predicted the United States would “win this conflict by the patient accumulation of successes, by meeting a series of challenges with determination and will and purpose.” He concluded his brief remarks to a still-shaken nation by promising that “we will not waver; we will not tire; we will not falter; and we will not fail.”
But the reality turned out rather differently. Initial successes on the battlefield were followed by quagmire and an occupation for which the United States proved spectacularly ill-suited.
As the scholar and Army veteran Andrew Bacevich presciently warned at the time, Bush’s quest for “enduring freedom” would end up “where the pursuit of absolutes always [have] in international relations: toward permanent war waged on behalf of permeant peace.”
The forever war in Afghanistan has spanned three administrations.
Under Bush, the mission to find Osama bin Laden and hold the Taliban to account for providing Al Qaeda safe haven transmogrified into a project of democracy promotion, nation-building, and regional transformation. According to Bush National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, nothing less than the “transformation of the Middle East” was required to thwart the “ideologies of hatred that lead men to fly airplanes into buildings in New York and Washington.”
In 2008 Barack Obama campaigned on a promise to “make the fight against al Qaeda and the Taliban the top priority that it should be.” For Obama, Afghanistan was the good war, “a war that we have to win.” By the middle of 2010 the US had nearly 100,000 troops in Afghanistan. The result was not victory, but rather an increase in green-on-blue attacks (whereby Afghans ostensibly serving under the coalition attack and kill US and coalition forces). Eventually, more US soldiers died in Afghanistan under Obama’s watch than under Bush’s.
And while the Obama administration deserves credit for finding and killing bin Laden in May 2011, the demise of the terror mastermind did not spur the administration to declare victory and end the war effort. Instead, in December 2014, the Pentagon declared the end of major combat operations in Afghanistan and renamed Operation Enduring Freedom. Operation Freedom’s Sentinel, its replacement, was billed as a counterterrorism and training mission (Operation Resolute Support was the name given to the mission’s NATO component).