Fair warning. Stop reading right now if you want, because I’m going to repeat myself. What choice do I have, since my subject is the Afghan War (America’s second Afghan War, no less)? I began writing about that war in October 2001, almost 17 years ago, just after the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan. That was how I inadvertently launched the unnamed listserv that would, a year later, become TomDispatch. Given the website’s continuing focus on America’s forever wars (a phrase I first used in 2010), what choice have I had but to write about Afghanistan ever since?
So think of this as the war piece to end all war pieces. And let the repetition begin!
Here, for instance, is what I wrote about our Afghan War in 2008, almost seven years after it began, when the U.S. Air Force took out a bridal party, including the bride herself and at least 26 other women and children en route to an Afghan wedding. And that would be just one of eight U.S. wedding strikes I toted up by the end of 2013 in three countries, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Yemen, that killed almost 300 potential revelers. “We have become a nation of wedding crashers,” I wrote, “the uninvited guests who arrived under false pretenses, tore up the place, offered nary an apology, and refused to go home.”
Here’s what I wrote about Afghanistan in 2009, while considering the metrics of “a war gone to hell”: “While Americans argue feverishly and angrily over what kind of money, if any, to put into health care, or decaying infrastructure, or other key places of need, until recently just about no one in the mainstream raised a peep about the fact that, for nearly eight years (not to say much of the last three decades), we’ve been pouring billions of dollars, American military know-how, and American lives into a black hole in Afghanistan that is, at least in significant part, of our own creation.”
Here’s what I wrote in 2010, thinking about how “forever war” had entered the bloodstream of the twenty-first-century U.S. military (in a passage in which you’ll notice a name that became more familiar in the Trump era): “And let’s not leave out the Army’s incessant planning for the distant future embodied in a recently published report, ‘Operating Concept, 2016-2028,’ overseen by Brigadier General H.R. McMaster, a senior adviser to Gen. David Petraeus. It opts to ditch ‘Buck Rogers’ visions of futuristic war, and instead to imagine counterinsurgency operations, grimly referred to as ‘wars of exhaustion,’ in one, two, many Afghanistans to the distant horizon.”
Here’s what I wrote in 2012, when Afghanistan had superseded Vietnam as the longest war in American history: “Washington has gotten itself into a situation on the Eurasian mainland so vexing and perplexing that Vietnam has finally been left in the dust. In fact, if you hadn’t noticed — and weirdly enough no one has — that former war finally seems to have all but vanished.”
Here’s what I wrote in 2015, thinking about the American taxpayer dollars that had, in the preceding years, gone into Afghan “roads to nowhere, ghost soldiers, and a $43 million gas station” built in the middle of nowhere, rather than into this country: “Clearly, Washington had gone to war like a drunk on a bender, while the domestic infrastructure began to fray. At $109 billion by 2014, the American reconstruction program in Afghanistan was already, in today’s dollars, larger than the Marshall Plan (which helped put all of devastated Western Europe back on its feet after World War II) and still the country was a shambles.”
And here’s what I wrote last year thinking about the nature of our never-ending war there: “Right now, Washington is whistling past the graveyard. In Afghanistan and Pakistan the question is no longer whether the U.S. is in command, but whether it can get out in time. If not, the Russians, the Chinese, the Iranians, the Indians, who exactly will ride to our rescue? Perhaps it would be more prudent to stop hanging out in graveyards. They are, after all, meant for burials, not resurrections.”
And that’s just to dip a toe into my writings on America’s all-time most never-ending war.
What Happened After History Ended
If, at this point, you’re still reading, I consider it a miracle. After all, most Americans hardly seem to notice that the war in Afghanistan is still going on. To the extent that they’re paying attention at all, the public would, it seems, like U.S. troops to come home and the war to end.
That conflict, however, simply stumbles on amid continuing bad news with nary a soul in the streets to protest it. The longer it goes on, the less — here in this country at least — it seems to be happening (if, that is, you aren’t one of the 15,000 American troops stationed there or among their families and friends or the vets, their families and friends, who have been gravely damaged by their tours of duty in Kabul and beyond).
And if you’re being honest, can you really blame the public for losing interest in a war that they largely no longer fight, a war that they’re in no way called on to support (other than to idolize the troops who do fight it), a war that they’re in no way mobilized for or against? In the age of the Internet, who has an attention span of 17 years, especially when the president just tweeted out his 47th outrageous comment of the week?
If you stop to think about it between those tweets, don’t you find it just a tad grim that, close enough to two decades later, this country is still fighting fruitlessly in a land once known by the ominous sobriquet “the graveyard of empires”? You know, the one whose tribal fighters outlasted Alexander the Great, the Mongols, the British, and the Russians.
Back in October 2001, you might have thought that the history lurking in that phrase would have given George W. Bush’s top officials pause before they decided to go after not just Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda in Afghanistan but the Taliban, too. No such luck, of course — then or since.