“I think Americans have learned that it’s harder to end wars than it is to begin them,” the president said, restating a truism embedded within Pentagon planning at least since the Korean War. “Yet this is how wars end in the 21st century—not through signing ceremonies but through decisive blows against our adversaries, transitions to elected governments, security forces who are trained to take the lead and ultimately full responsibility.”
In fact, most wars involving the United States since World War II have ended vaguely, ingloriously, or semi-ceremonially. In the first instance, think Korea—it’s technically still a war because there was no peace treaty, only an armistice. In the second instance, think of the frantic U.S. pullout from Saigon. In the third, the end of the first Gulf War carried a surrender, but with it came flinching (in the eyes of neoconservative hawks), unfinished business defined by no-fly zones and a trade embargo.
It’s not that the Afghanistan war is ending differently. It’s that it’s ending the same way other recent wars have, with one big difference. This time the United States was attacked, the casualties were civilians, and the yearning for decisive victory was as clear as it’s been since Pearl Harbor. And yet there’s damn little that’s decisive in Afghanistan after all we’ve deployed, spent [see figure 1.27], and lost.