In the wake of Afghanistan’s fall to the Taliban, there’s plenty of talk about the lessons to be learned. There are many lessons, including the need for American leadership and the consequences of weakness.
Yet just as important is a renewed focus on why we went to Afghanistan in the first place. Those lessons are being forgotten, yet they are only growing in importance. The more they are ignored, the less America will be able to rally itself in times of true danger, and the more at risk our country and freedom will be. This national amnesia will have devastating consequences.
The overwhelming majority of Americans (at least two-thirds) no longer think the war in Afghanistan was worth it. For younger generations, especially those born after Sept. 11, 2001, and those going through America’s schools today, the percentage is surely higher.
The rising generation has little-to-no knowledge and no memory about what happened on that bright September morning. They don’t know the story of the mothers and fathers and husbands and wives and sisters and brothers who died on that day. Worse, they have no understanding of the enemy who not only killed 2,997 innocent people, but also hate us and everything our country stands for.
No wonder that today’s students – and tomorrow’s leaders – don’t know why we fought a 20-year war on the other side of the world. Yet the youngest generation, and future generations, should know: America went to Afghanistan because Afghanistan came to America.
Afghanistan’s regime of tyranny came here in the form of 19 Islamist terrorists. They were driven solely by hatred of America, and behind them stood Osama bin Laden and the legions of al-Qaeda, who planned the attacks from the safety of Afghanistan. They were welcomed into that country by another band of terrorists – the Taliban – and given sovereign protection by its government.
Both al-Qaeda and the Taliban despised American freedom and all of us who avail ourselves of that freedom. The very liberty to protest our government’s actions and exercise freedom of choice are among the things our enemy hates most. They still do, and they always will. Their extremist ideology demands nothing less and wants nothing more than America’s extinction and the submission of all human beings under their totalitarian interpretation of Sharia law.
That’s why America invaded Afghanistan. We rightly saw our mission as protecting the American people from further attacks launched from the Taliban-protected stronghold of al- Qaeda, which were already being planned. It was an act of national self-defense against those who were waging war against the United States. We should even now realize that Islamism would never rest in the attempt to wipe America off the map. That fact has not changed, even if the American people’s recognition of it has.
We went to Afghanistan for the right reasons, reasons that were well within the national interest. We should remember them. And while it’s right to question what has happened over the past 20 years, it’s important that we’re encouraging the next generation to ask the right questions. Why did we stay so long? How did a mission to defeat the Taliban morph into state building in Afghanistan? Why did we struggle to win? How did the surveillance tools we built to target terrorists become a surveillance state increasingly turned on the American people?
The answers to these questions matter, and we should search for them and encourage students to do the same. Yet we cannot simultaneously sink into the pit of disparaging America’s involvement in Afghanistan as a whole. If we do not learn from our history, we will see more self-inflicted catastrophes like the one unfolding today on the streets of Kabul and elsewhere around Afghanistan. There will be future complex and deadly threats to our way of life. It remains to be seen whether we have the courage and resolve to meet them.
Fostering that national willpower is a national imperative. It must start in the classroom and in the home. That’s why my organization is releasing a free educational module: "Understanding September 11th, 2001.” Intended for use in middle- and high-school social studies curricula, it gives students the chance to grapple with the reasons for those attacks, and the responses that followed.
Much more must be done to restore understanding of our country’s actions in the days after the worst terrorist attack on American soil. The upcoming 20th anniversary is a natural time to cast our minds back two decades, instead of just the past two months of American withdrawal and Afghanistan’s collapse. There are truths there that deserve our renewed attention, not least because Afghanistan is reverting to where it was on Sept. 11, 2001. The more citizens who reflect on what happened then, the safer and stronger America will be now – and for years to come.