When they were called Mujahideen, we idolized and romanticised them. Rugged, well leathered Afghan resistance fighters, coming down from the mountains to bloody the Soviets, then like gear-laden-billy-goats they'd retreat back up the slopes into the mysterious tough-as-iron world from which they were forged
Heck, we even had America's #1 beefy-bone-head, Sylvester Stallone cast them as freedom-loving brave-hearts in the shamefully overlooked by the Academy masterpiece, Rambo III. But that these same Mujahideen would form the core of the Taliban, that they were Shariaists who represented a brutal shudder-inducing theocracy was something we absolutely did not know.
And shame on us for not knowing it. And we must never forget the lessons of not knowing it - that the world is full of ironies we don't understand. All we wanted, me too at the time, was for the Soviets to get bloodied. We couldn't see past the Cold War. So Carter started arming the Mujahideen and Reagan accelerated it. Then the world sat back aghast (and this even before 911) at what the Taliban actually were. We watched them blow up 1,500 tear-old carvings to Buddha, literally destroying irreplaceable national and world treasures because it supposedly went against their religious creeds. Women were not allowed to be educated and religious death squads were formed, enforcing Sharia law with an iron fist.
Now it wasn't the Taliban directly that perpetrated 911, but they welcomed Bin laden and his terrorist camps into the country with open arms. And we're left with the supreme irony that a Soviet-style Communist Afghanistan would have actually been more in our national interest than was the post-Soviet Taliban. One take-away from this is that we really don't always know what our national interest is at the time, although we think we do. Another is that we don't understand foreign people, their societal factions, their cultural and religious institutions and proclivities the way we think we do.
This lesson was solidified further in Iraq. Which, by the way, I actually thought we were going to just knock off Saddam Hussein and leave. Not caring what they did next, but just making it clear that governments who may do us harm will get harm done to them first. When it became clear we were actually going to stay to build a Jeffersonian democracy, then we began to understand what we didn't understand. For instance, there never was 1 Iraq, there were 3 Iraqs. The Kurdish north, Sunni center and Shiite south. Apparently, Saddam permitted opposition Shiite clerics to exist. I would have just though he would have had them all killed. But there they were, El-Sadr and the like. What a mess.
I'm tired of these parts of the world. We only need to do what we need to do, both home and abroad, to keep crazies from flying planes into buildings. Let's do no more, and never get caught not knowing what we don't know ever again.