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Assessing Afghanistan On Sept. 11: What's Been Achieved & What Victory Might Look Like

U.S. Army Europe

A month after the attacks on Sept. 11, President Bush authorized strikes against Al Qaeda terrorist training camps and military installations of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan.  Those limited attacks have since grown into an enormous commitment, amounting to thousands of American lives and billions of dollars. Meanwhile, President Trump recently renewed American involvement there, vowing victory. 

Conversation Highlights:

(Edited for clarity)

Joe Kenney, a marine for more than 30 years, served in both Iraq and Afghanistan. He was on a marine assignment when he watched the first plane hit the north tower of the World Trade Center. He says he told his supervisor that he suspected terrorism.

He goes, no, no that was just a plane that accidently hit a trade tower.  And a few moments later the second plane hit, and he looked right at me, and he had a really frightening look on his face.  He says, you’re right.

And at that point the world for me and for America changed. You had noncombatants who were in the Trade towers, who were in the aircraft, suddenly their innocent lives were taken away by this hostile group called Al Qaeda. And so my initial reaction was revenge, anger -- we have to reestablish America and that we're all in it together and we need to respond as a nation to make sure that we attack the people who attacked us.

So that was kind of the American kid that grew up in me that says you know I've got a new day, a new  responsibility to secure my nation, to help out my country anywhere that I can. So it's a very solemn day for me when I think of 9/11 and I get very emotional because we all know people through friends or relatives that lost lives that day. And so I know a couple of people indirectly who were lost on 9/11. So it's very emotional. And I know that there was a sense that I've been trained for this moment. And we need to respond, and we're on a heightened alert, and we need to go attack.

Rahmatullah Aka, originally from Afghanistan, came to the U.S. on a special immigration visa granted to those who worked with American forces. He says that although problems remain in Afghanistan, there has been real progress.

I have seen much growth and development in the country. First of all the country has a senate, the country has a House of Representatives. Elections happened in the country, without transferring the power by force.  The power was transferred to the election, and the people participated.  Whether there were elements of corruption, still everything happened through a very smart process.  Thousands of people graduated from colleges and universities.  The rights of females are now going to be equal in the country.  And now women are in the House of Representatives and that never happened in the country. Now women are in the media. Now more than 30 television media are in the country. And that’s huge progress.  There are some elements that are lacking because of the corruption, but the improvement is very huge.

In 2002, there were 900,000 boys going to school in Afghanistan. In 2016, there are 8 million children in school, a third of them are girls. That’s a huge change in a relatively short time. 27 % of the parliament is women. In the United States, it’s 19% so they are leading the way in Afghanistan. And life expectancy went from 44 to 60 years. So there are real tangible benefits we can point to that are the result of American involvement. – Wayne Lesperance, political science professor at New England College.

Dan Vallone, a West Point graduate who served in the infantry for six years, including one tour in Afghanistan, where he helped train Afghan army and police,  explains how he views victory in Afghanistan.

I would make the case that we won as we conventionally use that term in May of 2011 when we killed Osama bin Laden. Al Qaeda had been destroyed in all its capabilities to conduct international strikes, had been significantly degraded to the point that they were no longer a functional international terrorist organization. We killed Osama bin Laden. That is the win that I think that we understood as a nation, but, because we had had these false expectations, suddenly winning meant that we need to have a stable government in Afghanistan that's free of corruption. That is a wonderful thing,  and I have many friends in Afghanistan, and I worked actually with the special immigrant visa that brought Rahmatullah here. The sacrifice that the Afghans made doesn't get talked about enough because hundreds of thousands have given their lives. But conditioning our expectations towards a stable and corrupt-free Afghan government is not something that I think we have ever dedicated the resources to achieve, nor do I think it is actually necessary to achieve the American security that was the reason we went in there.

For Wayne Lesperance,  victory in Afghanistan, includes some of the societal changes that have taken place since American involvement there.

So I would I would agree that winning is the defeat, the killing of Osama bin Laden. Winning is the stories about little girls being able to go to school, women serving in the parliament, 120 plus women that are judges, the 20 % of college students in Afghanistan that are women. That's winning every single day. But those wins are easily lost. Those wins are easily given away and that's for me the problem with the President's plan. We can kill terrorists all day long. But if we do not eradicate the conditions that lead people to believe that dropping a bomb to their body or picking up a rifle in support of some twisted view of the world is appropriate, then we will we will find losing again.

We have to take care of these very nascent institutions that were created in Afghanistan and that's the American mission as far as I'm concerned. The President sees it very differently, and I suspect that if we just do the things that he's talking about -- killing terrorists, dropping more MOABs on caves or on mountains -- we'll kill a bunch of bad guys, but there will be new bad guys that follow. The swamp will not be drained. And you will see the conditions that led to the formation of groups like ISIS, like Al Qaeda; we'll call them something different, I'm sure. But they will they will reemerge. So nation building has a very negative connotation. I get that. But it's what's necessary to prevent the rise of groups like these, who eventually do mean us harm in the world.

But we as Americans have an obligation to have a conversation about what America's role in the world is, what Americans' values are and where we are willing to fight for those values. Or we're lost. Thomas Jefferson argued -- and this is totally impractical, but I love it -- that every time we make a decision to go to war, they ought to calculate what the cost is per citizen and hand them the bill.  We would take very seriously decisions about going to war if that was really how we manage it. 

For the full conversation, listen below:


  • Rahmatullah Aka - Case manager for the International Institute of New England, which helps refugees and immigrants settle in the region.   In 2015, he arrived in the U.S. on a special immigration visa he was granted after working with U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan. 
  • Joseph Kenney -  A marine for more than 30 years, he served in both Iraq and Afghanistan, where he was stationed at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul. He is also an executive councilor representing District 1 in New Hampshire. 
  • Wayne Lesperance -  Dean of undergraduate programs and professor of political science at New England College.
  • Daniel Vallone -  He graduated from West Point in 2007 and served in the infantry for six years, including one tour in Afghanistan, where his duties included training the Afghan army and police.  He currently works for Reaching Higher New Hampshire, a nonpartisan education policy nonprofit. 

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