It’s been an eventful few weeks. One of the stories dominating the news has been the debacle in Afghanistan. Without question, it is one of the most humiliating moments in American history. You will be able to read more about who is to blame and the geopolitical impact elsewhere. Last Shabbos was Shabbas Shuvah. It was also the 20th anniversary of 9/11, which led to the war in Afghanistan. It is an appropriate time to think about what the war in Afghanistan can teach us about our personal lives as we reflect on our mistakes of the past and commit ourselves to a year of growth in Torah and mitzvos.
In the aftermath of 9/11, there was a sense of unity and purpose among Americans. When President George W. Bush visited the World Trade Center site a few days later, he proclaimed to cheers that “the people who knocked down these buildings will be hearing from all of us.” Americans cheered as we moved into Afghanistan. The al-Qaeda training camps were destroyed and the Taliban who harbored al-Qaeda were swiftly driven from power. But Osama Bin Laden and many of the Taliban fighters escaped to Pakistan through the Tora Bora mountains. Intelligence estimates are that if we had sent an additional 10,000 troops into the Tora Bora region, we could have captured Bin Laden and most of the Taliban fighters. But American troops and resources were shifted to Iraq. Al-Qaeda and the Taliban lived to fight another day.
President Bush proclaimed the goal of transforming Afghanistan and Iraq into democracies. Afghanistan is a country that has been ruled by various war lords. There are tribal, ethnic, and sectarian divisions, which people are willing to fight and die over. Corruption and nepotism are endemic. This is not to criticize Afghanistan. It is to state that it is a society with values that are very different from our own. To remake such a society in our image might well be an insurmountable goal under any circumstances. To expect military forces, that are trained to fight, to be able to transform a society that they don’t begin to understand, is asking the impossible.
While America’s longest war ended in failure, some positive things were achieved along the way. US Navy Seals killed Osama Bin Laden. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the mastermind of the September 11 attacks, is in American custody. In 2001, only 900,000 children, all of them boys, attended school in Afghanistan. By 2020, there were 9.5 million children, close to 40 percent of them girls, attending school.
As the war in Afghanistan dragged on, public interest and support waned. Three US Presidents steadily decreased troop strength. By 2019, there were 13,000 troops in Afghanistan. While this was not enough to defeat the Taliban, it was sufficient to prevent a total Taliban takeover. All the major cities and most of the country was under government control. To be sure, this was far from an ideal situation. The Afghan Army could not guarantee security. The government was corrupt. But maintaining a far-from-perfect status quo would have been better than the eventual result of a total withdrawal.
After spending $300 million per day and losing 7,000 of our finest young men and women, the people who harbored al-Qaeda are back in power. The people of Afghanistan, including tens of thousands who risked their lives to support us, have been abandoned to the mercies of the brutal Taliban regime.
To sum up: After the attacks of 9/11, we enthusiastically took on a goal that was probably unachievable to begin with. We failed to focus and devote enough resources to achieving the goal. While we fell far short, some positive things were achieved. As the enthusiasm wore off and the war dragged on, we lost patience and abandoned the goal, losing much of what we accomplished and leaving things worse than they were to begin with.
What are the lessons we can learn from this as we look to improve our lives in the new year?
Set ambitious but achievable goals. When we set our goals too low, we risk becoming satisfied with mediocrity. When we set our goals too high, we risk setting ourselves up for failure and disillusionment. We should set goals that challenge us to do better, but are within our grasp, if we devote enough time and attention to them.
There is value in partial success. Chazal have long debated whether fulfilling the mitzvos requires kavanah. I would venture to say that everyone would agree that it is better to do the mitzvos with kavanah than without. It is also better to do the mitzvos without kavanah than to not do them at all. A person who davens every day will at least sometimes daven with kavanah. The person who doesn’t daven at all will never daven with kavanah. We should not let the fact that we often fall short of the ideal discourage us from doing what we can. Doing the mitzvah in a less than ideal way can be a steppingstone to performing it properly.
Stick with your goals, focus, and devote time and effort to them; keep at it. It is relatively easy to become enthusiastic and inspired by the awe of the Yamim Nora’im and the joy of Sukkos. When we return to the workaday world after the chagim, the enthusiasm and inspiration can wear off in the face of setbacks and challenges. If we become disillusioned as we fall short, we risk going backwards and losing the positive things we accomplished. We should not let the pressures of day-to-day life distract or divert us from devoting time and effort to achieving our goals. Failure today should not cause us to give up. It should inspire us to try harder tomorrow. Challenges and setbacks are a part of life. Perseverance in the face of challenges and setbacks is the path to spiritual and personal growth.
May we all merit a G’mar Chasimah Tovah and a New Year filled with the best of everything.
By Manny Behar