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WASHINGTON - America's longest war is nearing its end, with a loss to the enemy it defeated in Afghanistan nearly 20 years ago, shock that the government and military it supported collapsed so quickly and chaotic eleventh-hour evacuation operations.

And now, the 20th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks on New York and Washington will be marked with the Taliban back in power.

“This hasn’t been a 20-year war. It’s been one-year wars fought 20 times,” said a U.S. military official to convey the frustration with short-term thinking, multiple missteps and a lack of consistency over four administrations.

Interviews with nearly a dozen current and former U.S. officials and experts highlighted the failures that crippled U.S. efforts to stabilize Afghanistan that saw Washington spend more than $1 trillion and more than 2,400 American service members and tens of thousands of Afghans die, many of them civilians.

Two Republican and two Democratic administrations struggled to fight corruption and human rights abuses even while acquiescing to much of them as they sought to nurture democracy and rule of law, build a strong Afghan military and keep war-weary Americans engaged.

They promoted a powerful central government in a country where for centuries the tribes enjoyed local autonomy. Their drug eradication programs further antagonized people in the Taliban's rural strongholds who rely on opium poppy cultivation to survive.

Intelligence shortcomings also weighed, including last week when U.S. President Joe Biden's administration anticipated it would take a few months for the Taliban to enter Kabul. They took just a few days.

There were some undeniable successes.

The United States and its partners helped improve countless lives in one of the world's poorest countries, advancing the rights of women and girls, supporting independent media, and building schools, hospitals and roads.

All of that is now under threat.


President George W. Bush declared a “war on terror” and toppled the Taliban government in Kabul who had hosted al Qaeda militants responsible for the 2001 hijacked plane attacks. The strategy worked. For a while. The Taliban were routed and al Qaeda sent fleeing.

But former officials and experts said that instead of working to secure Afghanistan against a resurgence of the Taliban, the Bush administration diverted resources, personnel and time to invading Iraq on the erroneous claim that Saddam Hussein's authoritarian government had illicit weapons of mass destruction programs.

"The United States did become distracted by the war in Iraq for several years," said Lisa Curtis, a former CIA analyst and regional expert who served in the Bush and Trump presidencies and now is a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security.


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