The cover headline on an NBC News piece this morning reads, "The war in Afghanistan is officially over. Now, some wonder, are we back where we started?" It's hardly an unreasonable question.
On the contrary, as the longest war in U.S. history comes to an end, the parallels seem obvious: At this point 20 years ago, the Taliban controlled Afghanistan, which was home to dangerous terrorist networks. As the last American troops exit the country, the Taliban again controls Afghanistan, which is again home to dangerous terrorist networks.
It's why prominent Republicans such as Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina are making comments such as, "The chance of another 9/11 just went through the roof."
But while the parallels matter, so too do the qualitative differences between then and now. Michael Leiter, the former director of the National Counterterrorism Center in the Bush and Obama administrations, wrote a persuasive Washington Post op-ed explaining that from a counterterrorism perspective, the United States and our allies are "vastly safer than we were the last time the Taliban ruled Afghanistan."
When al-Qaeda launched its horrific attacks in September 2001, it operated with near complete impunity in Afghanistan. ... Two decades later, this picture is dramatically improved. The individual elements of the U.S. counterterrorism community are likely the most integrated part of the entire U.S. government. Add to this the global nature of allied counterterrorism efforts, and the result is a significant, worldwide network of allies that share information and coordinate operations in a manner wholly different than in 2001.
Leiter's piece added that counterterrorism work "will be far more effective than it was the last time the Taliban controlled Afghanistan"; al-Qaeda "is a shell of its former self"; and while ISIS-K has emerged, the group isn't focused on Western capitals, and the Taliban sees it as an enemy — which is the opposite dynamic that existed before 9/11.
To be sure, there's room for a robust debate over the merits of ending the war and the way in which the operation came to an end. But are we "back where we started"? Almost certainly not.