Our Longest War
For a moment Afghanistan was back at the top of the headlines, clawing for attention amid the COVID crisis, the political showdowns over infrastructure and voting rights, another horrific mass shooting, and the ever-present currents of race and justice. The occasion for the attention was President Biden’s announcement that he would withdraw U.S. troops by September of this year. It was not a date chosen at random —the 20th anniversary of the terror attacks of 9/11 that launched what has become America’s longest war.
I feel deeply that a war fought in our name deserves our attention. But I also understand those who wish to close this chapter and put it in the past. Most Americans already have.
In the wake of Biden’s announcement there was a wave of predictable but important think pieces: predictions of whether the war-battered nation would once again be a harbor for terrorism, about what might happen to the faint social and political progress that’s occurred, and what it might mean for the geopolitics of the region and the broader world. Some news organizations looked back at the cost of the war, in lives, money and influence. There were pictures and videos of long-ago firefights and dangerous dusty deployments. Twenty years is a long time to keep anyone’s attention. The young service members who went to Afghanistan in the immediate wake of 9/11 are now entering middle age. Some are sending their own children off to the war they also fought. And we must remember the many who didn’t survive or came back wounded in body and mind.
The toll of this war is impossible to calculate. It has had so many fits and starts, so many re-imaginings, offensives and retreats, so much churn and stasis. In our country, by far the greatest burden has been borne by only a small subset of Americans, service members and their families, who have had to face deployment after deployment. To every soldier, sailor, Marine or airman—past and present—who served in Afghanistan every American owes an eternal debt.
The cost of the war to the Afghan people is at a scale where I don’t even know where to begin. I worry about all of those who cast their lot with the Americans. And I worry especially about the women and girls who, after harsh repression, have seen opportunities to share their talents and dreams with the world. What will befall them? That question, as with so many others about Afghanistan, hovers and haunts.
I first went to Afghanistan early in 1980, just after the Soviet invasion, and I have returned many times since. I read about the country and its history, trying to understand more about a land that coaxed and rebuffed the many armies and empires that tried to bend it to their will. It is quite a list: the Persians, Alexander the Great, the Mongols, the British, the Soviets, and now us. It is trite to write about lessons drawn in sand, but in Afghanistan the notion is apt. You can’t help but be humbled by going there, and many have been. There is a timelessness, a permanence to the landscape, that reminds you that your time and influence, no matter your own power or ego, will be fleeting.
I would never consider myself to be an expert on Afghanistan, and whoever claims to speak with certainty about what will happen next in the region should be treated with skepticism. All one can do is weigh imperfect options, hopefully tempered by an appreciation of what has happened in the past. This is apparently what President Biden has done to come to the conclusion that it is time for America to leave. Of course we won’t really be totally leaving. One can expect clandestine operations there for the foreseeable future. And yet, the focus of America’s military gaze will shift elsewhere, to formidable challenges by China and Russia.
As an American, as someone who has welcomed my travels to Afghanistan and have counted many Afghans as friends, I hope desperately that this works out for both countries. I know there are no perfect solutions. I know resources are finite, and so is patience. I know that this is but one corner of a complicated world. This is the nature of global power dynamics, where the struggle between great powers often sweeps up countries that before had barely registered in our consciousness. For a while, we learn about their societies and geography. We can start to put places like Kandahar and Tora Bora on the map. And then they recede as another story dominates our headlines, and thus our attention.
For those who fought or lost loved ones in Afghanistan, those places will forever be etched in memories and mourning. And even as the story has settled low in our national consciousness over the years, the country remained a very real part of the lives of those who served there. And now we are leaving, without any plausible claim of victory other than the limited but important objectives of rooting out Al-Qaeda (for now?) and killing Bin Laden. What about all of the larger objectives, the nation building and endless war against the Taliban that cost nearly 2,400 American lives and a price tag of about $2 trillion? What are those who served there to make of how it is ending?
(Click the above video to see a report I did in Afghanistan more than a decade ago)
I am not ready to turn the page so quickly on Afghanistan. My mind races back across the years, to dangerous patrols but also joyous meals with old friends, to blood and death and also the beauty of the vistas, to tyrants and warlords and also those Afghan dreamers who wanted to make their country thriving and free. I think of the farmers in the fields and a young American sentry standing watch on a distant forward operating base. Many books have been written on Afghanistan. Many more will likely follow. Will we read them? Will we remember? Will we put this long, complicated era of American foreign policy into its proper contexts? Will we be surprised by what happens next - for good or bad? Will we have to go back?
Questions tumble forth. I close my eyes and see the faces, so many different faces over the years who called Afghanistan home and called it their duty. There is a haunting quality to these faces, these memories. Often, when the candlelights are burning, or just when alone at the close of a long day, I think of them and wonder; wonder many versions of what might have been, and wonder why and how we gambled and lost so much blood and treasure for so long in such a remote, mysterious place.
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