This summer, the world watched, sick to its collective stomach, as the United States carried out its final withdrawal of troops from Kabul.
Setting aside both the strategic merits and logistical blunders of the withdrawal, those final visions of chaos and terror served as a stark reminder of all the progress that had been gained and lost over 20 years in Afghanistan.
It was a difficult lesson in regret. A humbling reminder of all that had changed since that fateful day in September two decades ago when thousands of Americans were murdered, and the very axis of the world seemed to tilt.
For all the deeply felt emotions stirred up by the footage from Afghanistan, there was also a sense of confusion. So many questioned how so much ground had been ceded in a matter of days. Many more wondered how on earth the United States, the greatest military force in the history of the world, had failed in its duty to those who had supported its mission. It was a pile-on by those who knew better, those who coulda, woulda, shoulda done things differently.
In those days, it was very easy to deride the Biden administration for what seemed a colossal failure. Just about everyone did — their ranks including many who had orchestrated the war to begin with, or who had supported former president Donald Trump’s disastrous 2020 treaty with the Taliban.
Notably, their ranks did not include the late General Colin Powell. In fact, the former secretary of state and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff cut the administration some slack. Powell told the Washington Post: “I’d say we’ve done all we can do … What are those troops being told they’re there for? It’s time to bring it to an end.”
Going further and with remarkable candour, Powell argued the Soviets had left Afghanistan in the same manner, ultimately with limited impact on their global standing. “They got tired, and they marched out and back home. How long did anybody remember that?”
General Powell’s remarks were surprising at first, especially given the outsize role he played in launching the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. But with his passing this week at the age of 84, I was reminded of his remarks precisely because they were not out of character, but rather part of a larger pattern of candid and public regret.
When people think of Colin Powell’s legacy, there is no doubt that the same visual comes to mind for most of them: the image of a passionate statesman making a compelling case to the UN Security Council, supporting the invasion of Iraq. But for me, the visual that comes to mind is very different. It is of General Powell sitting for an interview with Barbara Walters, and it is that visual that provides a lesson for our time.
It was in that 2005 interview on ABC News that Powell admitted his deep regret at having misconstrued the evidence — regarding WMD and Taliban ties — to support (and sell) the invasion of Iraq. Instead of passing the buck, Powell owned up to his mistake, admitting that he had got it wrong.
That kind of admission, just a few years after the event, is exceedingly rare if not extinct in political life today. Nowadays, public figures are given almost no leeway for forgiveness. It has become the norm to assume that when a political leader screws up, it was intentional; that there is some kind of malfeasance at play. We have forgotten that we are governed by human beings, who like all of us, sometimes simply make mistakes.
That’s what makes Powell’s example a powerful one. He had justified not invading Iraq under one Bush administration and had then done the opposite for a second. By 2005, he had seen enough to know how wrong he was. Rather than retreat quietly into private life, Powell chose to speak up. To share his regrets as a caution to those who followed.
In doing so, he staked his reputation for the sake of the future. And that, above all, makes him worthy of commendation.