“This has been an epic failure across the board, one we’re going to pay for for years to come,” declared Representative Liz Cheney, of Wyoming, as she denounced Joe Biden’s decision to complete the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan.
Cheney spewed most of her vitriol at Biden. But she did not stop there. Rejecting “the notion of we’re going to end endless war,” Cheney complained Sunday on ABC’s This Week that “the Rand Paul, Donald Trump, Mike Pompeo, Joe Biden view of the world here is fundamentally dangerous and irresponsible and wrong.”
But the Republican representative neglected to identify the most dangerous, irresponsible, and wrong player of all. She had no criticism for her father, former Vice President Dick Cheney.
The US military presence in Afghanistan did not begin with Joe Biden, or Donald Trump, or Barack Obama. It began with the flailing co-presidency of George W. Bush and Richard B. Cheney. It was the Bush-Cheney administration (for which Liz Cheney served as the nepotistic deputy assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs) that responded to the September 11, 2001, attacks with a boundless “war on terror” that first targeted Afghanistan but quickly evolved to include the primary project of the Cheneys: the invasion and occupation of oil-rich Iraq.
Through it all, Dick Cheney made outlandish claims about the Afghan project. While he did not pull on a flight suit and appear before a “Mission Accomplished” banner—as did a hapless Bush on May 1, 2003—Cheney regularly made inflated pronouncements about the “success” of the Afghan mission. As early as November 2001, the vice president was taking a victory lap on the CBS News program 60 Minutes. That’s when he announced that “we’ve provided the kind of air support and logistic support and intelligence and so forth that was needed for [Afghan forces aligned with the United States] to be successful in their campaign against the Taliban.”
Recalling the long history of conflicts in the region where empires have repeatedly failed to impose their will upon Afghanistan, Dick Cheney declared, “When all is said and done and the dust settles, this one will probably have occurred with less loss of life than in any prior conflict.”
Two years later, in September 2003, Cheney appeared on NBC’s Meet the Press to chirp about “what we’ve accomplished in terms of taking Afghanistan—we had a total of 30 killed in action in Afghanistan—taking down the Taliban and destroying the capacity of al-Qaeda to use Afghanistan as a base to attack the United States.” Yes, he acknowledged, there had been casualties in Afghanistan—and in Iraq. Yet, Cheney told Tim Russert, “the price that we’ve had to pay is not out of line, and certainly wouldn’t lead me to suggest or think that the strategy is flawed or needs to be changed.”
Four years later, the supposedly taken-down Taliban learned that Cheney was visiting Bagram air base in Afghanistan and targeted it with a suicide-bomb attack. Cheney survived, but, as Craig Whitlock recounts in The Afghanistan Papers: A Secret History of the War, “The blast killed 20 Afghan laborers who came to the base that day looking for work. It also claimed the lives of two Americans and a South Korean assigned to the international military coalition: Army Pfc. Daniel Zizumbo, a 27-year-old from Chicago; Geraldine Marquez, an American contractor for Lockheed Martin who had just celebrated her 31st birthday; and Staff Sgt. Yoon Jang-ho, the first South Korean soldier to die in a foreign conflict since the Vietnam War.”
When the Taliban announced that it had targeted Cheney, US officials said that it was and “absurd” claim. But, notes Whitlock, “the U.S. military officials were the ones hiding the truth.”
Cheney wasn’t the only manufacturer of fabrications regarding the “success” of the longest war in US history. But the steady expansion of the mission in Afghanistan as an exercise in nation building began with Cheney and Bush. “Had the United States caught and killed Osama bin Laden in December 2001, the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan would have faded away almost immediately afterward. I cannot prove that. It’s only an opinion from my vantage point as one of President George W. Bush’s speechwriters in 2001 and 2002,” wrote David Frum in a recent essay for The Atlantic. “Yet I strongly believe it. The U.S. stayed for 20 years in Afghanistan because first Bush and then his successors got trapped in a pattern of responding to past failures by redoubling future efforts. In the fall of 2001, the U.S. mission in Afghanistan was clear, limited, and achievable: find and kill bin Laden. After bin Laden escaped, that mission escalated into something hazy and impossibly difficult: to rebuild Afghanistan’s society and remodel the Afghan state.”
In his speech on Monday, Biden said, “Our mission in Afghanistan was never supposed to be nation building.” But that is what it became.
Cheney set the tone when it came to Afghanistan, and his choice to “rebuild it, put it back together again, whatever phrase you want” cost the lives of almost 2,500 American service members, almost 4,000 US contractors, and tens of thousands of Afghan soldiers and civilians. It also cost US taxpayers $2 trillion. When the military-industrial complex makes this kind of commitment, it’s hard to end a nation-building exercise—even when its failing.
Biden knows this. “There is never a good time to withdraw U.S. forces,” he acknowledged. What distinguished Biden from Cheney and Bush was his willingness to make the hard choice they had refused to make two decades earlier.
So, now, Liz Cheney, every bit the hawk her father was, and every bit the partisan hack her father was, is claiming, “We were able to prevent the Taliban from establishing safe havens with 2,500 to 3,500 troops on the ground.”
That’s a classic Cheney distortion of reality. If the Taliban hadn’t established safe havens within Afghanistan, how were they so well prepared, so organized, and so efficient when the time came to seize power?
This is the sort of unfortunate truth about Afghanistan that the Cheneys have always refused to acknowledge.