Few wars get clean ends. Some here in America may want that small grace for Afghanistan as surely as some there deserve it, but in this way, war’s like life. Being deserving just makes you a target.
It began clean enough. The US invaded in the weeks after 9/11, at George W Bush’s behest, to dismantle and destroy Al Qaeda who’d attacked us. We sought something between justice and vengeance. Once the terrorist group and its Taliban enablers had been defeated, we stayed. Once Osama bin Laden was killed, in neighbouring Pakistan, we stayed. We stayed and we stayed and we stayed.
We stayed for democracy at one point, human rights at another. To nation-build, if you believed in counterinsurgency, or to ‘mow the grass’—a euphemism for killing terrorists that admits doing so will produce more—if you favoured counterterrorism.
Somewhere along the way, the war lost public interest and support. Those matter in a republic, though one could be forgiven for getting lulled into thinking otherwise the past 20 years. The war’s justification became the war’s existence itself, and that’s a twisted reason to keep killing people in the name of country, as well as risking the lives of our own.
A ghoul of a question hovered over the rapid Taliban advancement in the summer of 2021: How? How had two decades of blood and treasure left a porous apparatus either unwilling or unable to defend itself? US personnel had tried to build the Afghan security forces in our own image, with a national army and special operations and a core belief that the military can and should do more than engage the enemy on battlefields.
The hubris of it all. In our own image. Hold up a mirror and you may not like what you see.
Even in this shared defeat, we want—we seem to need—to make it about us. So big-brained pontificators and TV squawkers made grand declarations about the ugly withdrawal marking our lateimperial decline. The tail of the American Century, the death knell of star-spangled exceptionalism. The end of something, certainly, and the end of something demands hysterics.
Sometimes, though, tragedy is just tragedy. Sometimes meaning is only more noise.
A tragedy’s coda: 13 American service members and more than 170 Afghan civilians were killed in the 26 August suicide bombing at Kabul’s airport. It’s the bleakest of ironies that those troops who died did so with a moral purpose not seen in the war for some years. They died trying to shepherd strangers to safety, 20-year-old Marines among the final casualties of a war their same age.
The Afghanistan war’s end was brought about by a commander-in-chief who took seriously his pledge to do so. He’s a military father, and that may have made the difference. Joe Biden faced down a lot of entrenched institutional forces to follow through, and future historians should credit him that resolve. America’s broader ‘forever war’ continues, but who knows what the Afghanistan withdrawal augurs. Nothing lasts forever, not even forever wars.
Did it have to end like this, though? With allies braving Taliban checkpoints and desperate mobs for the mere chance to get on an airplane? With US Marines and paratroopers holding the line, gripping cocked rifles in one hand and reaching for Afghan babies with the other, all under the constant threat of another bombing?
It did not. Anyone who says differently has bought a political lie or is selling the same. We have our eyes and basic sense, if we’re willing to use them. One hard truth is that no matter what, some allies would’ve been left behind. Another is that the logistical marvel of evacuating more than 120,000 people in a month’s time does not atone for the lack of planning that necessitated the feat.
The US Air Force rescued human beings in Kabul. It did not rescue talking points for the Biden administration.
Americans found strength after 9/11 by saying “never forget”. Now, with Afghanistan, a lot of people will try their damnedest to, because what happened—what’s still happening—hurts and disgusts, shames and frightens. Still others will attempt to warp what occurred for reasons far more cynical than avoidance.
We must seek to wrest some truth while we can. To know truth, one must first find it, and finding truth is much harder than just alluding to it. Six lives and stories shaped by the Afghanistan war follow. They are not comprehensive. They represent distinct perspectives and time frames and motivations. Wars, especially ones that last as long as Afghanistan’s, defy coherence. When placed alongside and in contrast with one another, perhaps these experiences bring readers closer to what it all was and will continue to be.
The American war in Afghanistan has ended. Now begins the war over its memory.
They called him King David, once upon a time. The thinking man’s general who’d save the war in Afghanistan and America’s pride.
For good or ill, it’s impossible to reckon with the war on terror without examining David Petraeus’s legacy. Petraeus is one of its few generals who breached public consciousness. He’s 68 now, retired but still carrying and conducting himself like a wartime commander. It’s probably hard to stop being a general, in fairness.
I find him sitting alone in a corner of the Metropolitan Club’s penthouse bar, in a crisp banker’s suit, hunched over his phone. This private social club maintains an old-society presence off Central Park, a sanctuary for New York’s elite for generations. We meet a few weeks before Kabul’s fall, as the withdrawal from Afghanistan begins in earnest.
“This is not going to end the endless war. It’s going to end our involvement in it,” Petraeus says. “I fear that the endless war is actually going to get worse.”
He goes on to cite those fears, some of them prescient: an Afghan civil war. A refugee crisis. A safe haven for radical jihadism to flourish. He’s professorial and didactic in his delivery; it’s not hard to see why then-president Bush turned to him after the failed bluster of Donald Rumsfeld and friends, or later why then-president Obama tapped him to try to salvage the Afghanistan campaign. But as ever, the question with Petraeus’s counterinsurgency pitch is time. How much longer would the long war—the longest war—need to be? “It’s a generational challenge,” Petraeus says; we “should not define it with decades, much less a few years... You just have to keep at it.”
COIN—the pithy abbreviation for counterinsurgency—has aged like milk. At its plainest, the strategy seeks to separate insurgent guerrillas from the population that produced them. Petraeus’s version involved a lot of money and messy compromise and, again, too much time. America changes its governments, and different governments will have different ideas on war and peace. But for all the cash COIN required to turn insurgents into nominal allies, for all its overcooked hearts-and-minds practices, parts of it worked. I was there, in Iraq in 2007 and 2008, as a young officer, when COIN brought calm to a people desperate for it.
I should disclose here I still have mixed feelings about the whole enterprise. That calm was real, as was the ability to bring home alive every soldier in my scout platoon. But we bribed the hell out of tribal leaders. That was dirty. And the relief our actions brought proved temporary. Even then, we feared it couldn’t last without American soldiers on every neighbourhood corner. Lo and behold, after we left, ISIS claimed much of Iraq as part of its caliphate.
When Petraeus assumed command of the Afghanistan war in 2010, a year after the troop surge began there, the dream was to replicate that calm. This included doubling down on building the national army in the American military’s likeness. A national army meant that soldiers of various Afghan ethnic groups would invariably serve in regions populated by other groups, no minor thing in a tribal society. So Pashtun farmers in Helmand Province were pitched on the wisdom of burning their poppy fields by armed outsiders, be they a grizzled sergeant from Atlanta or an ethnic Tajik from the Panjshir Valley.
Four hundred ninety-eight US troops were killed in 2010, the war’s deadliest year for America—a gruesome by-product of COIN’s mandate to push into remote areas. An additional 411 were killed in 2011. Estimates for Afghan security casualties range wildly, but a 2013 examination determined that over 60 percent of their losses since the war began had occurred in just the three preceding years.
The bodies outpaced the gains. So the war outlasted COIN; Obama announced a troop drawdown in the summer of 2011, and the Afghanistan surge ended the following year. By then, King David had returned home and become director of the CIA.
A decade later, in the Metropolitan Club, the details still nip at Petraeus: The public’s expectation that COIN could serve as a onesize-fits-all panacea, despite the many differences between Iraq and Afghanistan. The domestic political considerations that led Obama to announce the drawdown, which, in Petraeus’s view, emboldened the enemy. And then there’s what he refers to as inputs: “Not only the right number of forces... the right big ideas, the right leaders, the right other resources, from diplomatic contributions, aid development, intelligence, various international efforts. It took us fully 10 years to get all that right.”
Recalling what went well, ruminating over the what-ifs: Petraeus is like any old soldier in this regard. Though, of course, he’s not any old soldier. He was the HMFIC. I try a few times to interject, but he is a forever general, and I am a forever junior captain, at least in the confines of the Metropolitan Club. He points out that both his son and his daughter- in-law served in Afghanistan. He’s not unfamiliar with the impossible demands COIN places on young leaders.
His next appointment arrives. I think to hell with it and ask what every veteran through the eons has probably wanted to ask their former commander. Does he have any regrets? Is there anything from the war that keeps him up at night?
For two, maybe three seconds, Petraeus seems almost shaken.
“I’ll never forget,” he begins, “we had Apache gunships on patrol in eastern Afghanistan, a very mountainous area, 3:00, 4:00 in the morning. Through their thermals, they thought they saw men with rifles. We did a lot of checking, there were no friendlies around, so, ‘Okay, we’ve got to engage them. They’re hostile.’” His voice holds steady. “They were teenage boys collecting sticks for construction.”
The regret expressed is of a tactical variety, not a strategic decision. Still, I think, it’s a genuine response.
He pauses. “I mean, we’re supposed to be protecting the people.”
Nicholas Irving conveys the seriousness of a man who’s travelled to the edge. He served in the US Army for six years, all with the prestigious Third Ranger Battalion. He deployed to combat six times, three tours each in Iraq and Afghanistan. Some folks still know him as the Reaper. It’s a nickname he earned when, as a direct action sniper in the Taliban stronghold of Kandahar, he killed 33 enemy insurgents, with a dozen more “probables,” he says. “We just never found the bodies.”
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