Edited by The Nation
Imagine for a moment that America never invaded Afghanistan after 9/11.
Imagine that a multiversal variant of George W. Bush decided to test the Taliban’s offer to hand over Osama bin Laden for trial in a third country in exchange for the ample proof the US had of his culpability, rather than rejecting it as a cynical tactic to delay the war. Imagine this ersatz Bush focused the US’s military, intelligence, and law enforcement powers, then at their post-Cold War heights, exclusively on the al-Qaeda leadership that designed and orchestrated the attacks.
At the time, it would have been supremely politically risky, given the bloodlust that had consumed the country. And the outcome of the approach would have been uncertain. There would have been relentless pressure on doppelganger-Bush to escalate this more targeted response as it hit some inevitable snags.
We can only imagine this alternate timeline. But the consequences of the real-world decision to invade Afghanistan as the first act in a Global War on Terror are all too clear. We don’t have to imagine what choosing another path would have spared us. We would have been spared a futile, pitiless war that lasted two entire decades—a war marked by atrocities, one that by conservative estimates killed at least 176,000 people. We would have been spared a war that never had a coherent, credible plan for victory, despite the relentless prevarications to the contrary by an entire generation of US policymakers. We would very likely have been spared the Iraq War, as well, with its own abyss of agonies and futilities. We definitely would have been spared the decisive Taliban victory of August 2021.