If Shakespeare had ever written a play about Afghanistan, it would have been a tragedy, not a comedy. For the United States, Afghanistan has been one tragedy after another, with more looming ahead.
In that part of the world, the only thing more dangerous than failure is success. It was America's success in helping the mujahedeen rebels defeat the Soviet Union that spawned later troubles. In the vacuum left by the departure of the Red Army, civil war broke out among competing factions, with the fanatical Taliban coming out on top.
Their theocratic regime eventually found common cause with al-Qaida after it moved from Sudan to Afghanistan. From that safe refuge, Osama bin Laden plotted and carried out attacks on American targets, but the Clinton administration and the Bush administration failed to respond effectively. The failure led to the 9/11 catastrophe.
After nearly 3,000 people were slaughtered on American soil, the United States invaded Afghanistan. Critics warned it was plunging into a quagmire, but they were proved wrong. In just two months, the Taliban were smashed, al-Qaida was on the run, and victory was ours.
It was a heady moment. In his State of the Union speech in January 2002, President Bush waxed triumphant, asserting that we had "saved a people from starvation and freed a country from brutal oppression."
But as any student of tragedy knows, it is moments of triumph that carry the greatest risk. Emboldened by our stunning victory in Afghanistan, Bush and his advisers concluded we could win just as easily and quickly in Iraq. The Pentagon figured the U.S. presence would stay no more than six months, with a spokesman saying, "The plan is to get it done as quickly as possible and get out."
Having been drawn into that blunder, the administration proceeded to make another one: shortchanging the mission in Afghanistan to avert defeat in Iraq. Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, recently told a Senate Committee, "We very badly under-resourced Afghanistan for the better part of four or five years."
The Bush administration, through hubris or incompetence, acted as though that war were not very important or already won. For the average American, it was easy to forget it was still going on. Few people ever expected that after routing our enemies in 2001, we would still be fighting eight years later -- and faring worse all the time.