Twenty years ago today, less than a month after 9/11, then-President George W. Bush addressed the nation to announce the US-led invasion of Afghanistan.
"Good afternoon. On my orders, the United States military has begun strikes against al-Qaeda terrorist training camps and military installations of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan," Bush said.
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Fast forward two decades, and this year in August, Afghanistan fell to the Taliban again, followed by an address to the nation by President Joe Biden announcing the end of the war.
"Our mission in Afghanistan has taking many missteps, made many missteps, over the past two decades," said Biden. "I'm now the fourth American president to preside over war in Afghanistan. Two Democrats and two Republicans. I will not pass this responsibility onto a fifth president."
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Now, Illinois Democratic Senator Tammy Duckworth, herself a veteran, has called for a commission to study the past 20 years of US involvement in Afghanistan. She joined The World's host Marco Werman from Washington to explain what it entails.
Marco Werman: You've called your proposal, senator, the Afghanistan War Study Commission. What do you hope it will achieve?
Sen. Tammy Duckworth: Well, I hope that it will achieve a comprehensive look at the various errors that have been made by all the different folks involved and gives us the lessons learned so that we don't enter into another quagmire like the one we've been in for 20 years in Afghanistan. We know that the United States will be involved in future conflicts. We need to make sure that we don't get ourselves into a situation where we spend 20 years at war in a country, only to come away and have the people who were in charge when we got there put back in charge when we leave.
There have already been a series of lessons learned, reports on the Afghanistan war. How will your committee and investigation be different?
Well, the key thing is that I want it to be completely nonpartisan, not bipartisan, but nonpartisan. I've served on bipartisan commissions before. I served on the Benghazi Commission, for example. That was bipartisan, but it was highly political. I want this to be a real, cold-hard facts look. I don't want anybody on a commission that was in any position of decision making or authority during those 20 years. So, not a past secretary of defense who was in charge at the time, not a previous president, not a member of Congress. This needs to be someone who can lead this commission, much like the 9/11 Commission, and bring us the lessons learned, whether it is the legislative branch failing to reauthorize a new authorization for use of military force or presidents choosing to do a troop surge or the corruption, trying to do nation building with the military as opposed to nation building with the State Department. All of the things that led us to where we are today. What we really need to do is make sure that we do this in a systematic way. I think the 9/11 Commission is a great example of the kind of work that can be done. And it must produce actionable recommendations.
Like what? What would you see as an actionable recommendation?
Well, I think, if you look at contracting, a significant portion of what happened is corruption within the Afghanistan government, within their national security forces. We know about the ghost soldiers in that we paid for the salaries of many, many thousands of so-called Afghan national security forces who never existed, and in fact, were on the books only, and their commanders collected that money. That corruption piece is really important. We certainly need to do an actionable recommendation for Congress [that] would be any type of authorization for use of military force must sunset after three years or must sunset after five years. You must have a new look at a new debate, instead of keeping an old one that lasts 20 years. So, there are things that can be done.
You were on the committee that investigated the disaster at the US embassy in Benghazi, Libya, in 2012. That turned out to be a deeply politicized committee. What did you learn from that?
Not to make it bipartisan. Make it nonpartisan. Don't let the politicians get involved. And if you watch the Benghazi Commission and watch my questioning, you'll see that I tried really hard to keep my questions and my focus solely on, what are the lessons learned that we never have an ambassador get killed in that way, so that we never have an embassy that's not listening to the intelligence community or is overriding what military leaders are saying, "hey, we should be doing this." It was my experience on the Benghazi Committee that led me to say, "Hey, what this needs is complete independence." I don't want it to be bipartisan, I want it to be nonpartisan, and I don't want anybody that had any skin in the game in terms of they were part of the decision-making process to be part of this of this analysis. It needs to be a cold, hard, independent look, with real actionable recommendations coming out of it. That's how we can best serve the American people with this commission.
Senator, when do you think the committee would present its findings? And are you worried that if it takes a few years, a report on what went wrong from 2001 to 2021 might not be must-read material anymore?
Well, I think it will be must-read materials. I mean, I'm still looking at lessons learned from the Civil War. You know, when I was an ROTC cadet, they took us to Gettysburg and we reenacted all of the battles and talked about the lessons learned from Gettysburg. In a 21st century army, we were learning about Gettysburg. I think lessons learned here will be relevant for many, many more decades into our nation's future. But what I do want to come out of it is, in addition to the long-term results, I think there will be many-short term findings that we can find out right away. For example, one of the things that we're hearing is that, I've known this, but it's the State Department that calls for the evacuation of civilians on the ground. what's called the noncombatant evacuation operations. The decision to start that is not the DOD [Department of Defense]. It's actually the State Department. So, there are some things that are more short-term lessons learned that we can get the results of in the next months or the first six months, the first 12 months of this commission. Some things are going to take many years for us to get the results for. But I think we're going to see findings and results coming out all along the way, even as the commission continues to work.
Finally, you've been a senator since 2017. Prior to that, we must remember you were deployed to Iraq. That was 2004. And then later that year, your Blackhawk helicopter came under attack from an insurgent rocket, a horrific attack that left you a double amputee. How much did your own experience energize a desire to not leave any stones unturned from the last 20 years of war in Afghanistan?
My personal experience is the core of who I am. I should have died on that day in Iraq, and my buddies didn't give up on me. And those same buddies later on returned and did more deployments. And that was really at the heart of why I wanted this commission, because our troops, over the last 20 years, many of them have had three, four, five, six, seven, I've heard of 10, 12 deployments. And every time we asked our troops to go overseas and they stand up and they salute, and they say, "Yes, sir," and they packed their rucksacks and they go. And I feel like we, who are here at home, just haven't lived up to the dedication and the sacrifices that these troops made. And one of the things that we can do is to make sure we don't make the same mistakes ever again if there are lessons can be learned. And so, yeah, my experience as a soldier does drive me now, because I feel that I owe my life to the men who saved me. And that means that now that I am in this position as a United States senator, that I'm not going to shirk that duty, so that, you know, my buddies have sons and daughters who are serving. And maybe someday one of my two girls will serve. And I want to make sure that we do right by them. And one of the things we can do is to have a cold, hard look when we make mistakes, learn those lessons and let's not make them again.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.