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Analysis

This candidate who you probably don’t know revealed a big truth about U.S. policy on Afghanistan

This is America's longest-ever foreign war, and U.S. politicians are still making basic mistakes.

Rep. Tim Ryan (D-OH) speaks as former housing secretary Julian Castro looks on during the first night of the Democratic presidential debate on June 26, 2019 in Miami, Florida.  Ryan claimed the Taliban "started flying planes into our buildings," and Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI) had to correct him and say Al Qaeda, not the Taliban, was responsible for the attacks on September 11, 2001. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
Rep. Tim Ryan (D-OH) speaks as former housing secretary Julian Castro looks on during the first night of the Democratic presidential debate on June 26, 2019 in Miami, Florida. Ryan claimed the Taliban "started flying planes into our buildings," and Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI) had to correct him and say Al Qaeda, not the Taliban, was responsible for the attacks on September 11, 2001. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

When 10 of the 25 Democrats running for president gathered in Miami Wednesday night, they became the third group of presidential hopefuls to discuss the U.S. war in Afghanistan.

Though the 18-year war in Afghanistan rarely dominates such debates, last night highlighted a couple of startling points about U.S. lawmakers’ views on America’s longest-ever foreign war.

The most obvious fact was that the candidates, despite being from the same party, can’t seem to agree on the matter of the war itself. Equally troubling, there was a misunderstanding of why the war even began in 2001.

Rep. Tim Ryan (D-OH) said he believes the United States has “got to be completely engaged” in Afghanistan, both diplomatically and militarily. His statement was meant to send two messages, one to criticize the Trump administration for its lack of proper attention to the war, and two, to say the United States should not withdraw from Afghanistan. 

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Ryan went on to employ some questionable logic for his position, saying, “If we’re getting drones shot down for $130 million, because the president is distracted, that’s $130 million that we could be spending in places like Youngstown, Ohio, or Flint, Michigan.”

Ryan was referring to a U.S. drone Iran shot down over the Strait of Hormuz in the Persian Gulf last week. (Iran says the drone was in its airspace, while the United States says it was in international waters.) 

From there, the debate turned to a back-and-forth between Ryan and Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI), who served as an army military police officer in Kuwait in 2008. Gabbard called for an end to the U.S. war in Afghanistan, citing the Taliban-claimed deaths of two U.S. soldiers in the eastern province of Maidan Wardak earlier this week. 

Ryan then went on to employ dangerous, and incorrect claims about the Taliban, the group former President George W. Bush sought to drive from power with his 2001 invasion of the country.

The reality of it is, if the United States isn’t engaged, the Taliban will grow. And they will have bigger, bolder terrorist acts … When we weren’t in there, they started flying planes into our buildings. So I’m just saying right now we have an obligation.”

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The 9/11 attacks were carried out by Al Qaeda, a group founded by Osama Bin Laden, a Saudi national. Of the 19 hijackers, 15 were Saudi and none were Afghan, a fact Gabbard referred to in her rebuttal.

The reality is that attacks claimed by the Taliban are killing the Afghan people, including civilians. The Taliban has never presided over an attack that targeted foreign countries, including the United States.

This is important to remember, because Ryan’s words seem to echo those of two leading Republicans, President Donald Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

When Pompeo made his unannounced visit to Kabul on Tuesday, he said that ongoing talks between Washington and the Taliban have reached a point where both parties are “nearly ready to conclude a draft text outlining the Taliban’s commitments to join fellow Afghans in ensuring Afghan soil never again becomes a safe haven for terrorists.”

Pompeo’s insistence on this point — rather than a ceasefire, which the vast majority of Afghan people have been calling for — is yet more proof of U.S. officials’ misguided view of the war in Afghanistan. Since being driven from power in 2001, the Taliban have never allowed for another foreign armed group to seek refuge in areas under their control.

In fact, the group has been in constant battles with fighters claiming allegiance to the so-called Islamic State group in Afghanistan. In 2015, a top Afghan official said he believed that if a political settlement with the Taliban was reached, the group would help Kabul fight the forces claiming to be part of the Islamic State. Residents in the eastern province of Nangarhar, which was seen as a major base for fighters claiming to be Islamic State, have long said that the two groups fight each other in the same territory.

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Further, it is the US-backed anti-Soviet commander, Abdul Rasul Sayyaf, who is credited with bringing Osama Bin Laden to Afghanistan in 1996, when the Al Qaeda founder was expelled from Sudan.

Pompeo made his statement in Kabul and Ryan his in Miami, but both are equally troubling for their inability to see the situation on the ground in Afghanistan. 

Sources who have taken part in various peace-related meetings and have spoken with Zalmai Khalilzad, the United States’ chief negotiator with the Taliban, said the talks continue to focus on the issue of the Taliban harboring foreign groups or attacking U.S. interests, rather than on a ceasefire or a political settlement.

“I was told that the ceasefire will be the last issue discussed, after everything else is sorted out,” said a female MP who has participated in peace meetings in Europe and was supposed to be part of an Afghan delegation to Doha for talks with the Taliban.

Ryan, Gabbard, or any other candidate on stage could have mentioned the need for a ceasefire. They could have talked about the Taliban’s attacks on Afghan civilians, or the devastating toll drones have had, since former President Barack Obama began to rely on the unmanned aerial vehicles as a major component of his handling of the Afghan war. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, which has tracked drone strikes in Afghanistan over the years, has declared Afghanistan the most drone-bombed country in the world.

Instead, a false claim about the Taliban and September 11 attacks went unchecked in a presidential debate.

When coupled with Trump’s own praise for the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s — which amounted to a rewriting of Afghan history — Ryan and Pompeo’s statements highlight a startling lack of clarity on Washington’s intentions for the Afghan war, what led to the war in the first place, and why exactly it is that the United States has spent the last 18 years in the country.