We just passed the 17-year anniversary of the war in Afghanistan. You know, the one most people forget we’re actually fighting because we’ve been there since most of us can remember. And yet, despite the fact that most of us don’t exactly understand why we keep sending our soldiers overseas, thousands of men and women are still dying as a result of this war, both from our country and theirs. This is the longest war in American history, and while the basics are well known, what is not known is why a seemingly in-and-out job has stretched on for 17 years.
As is common knowledge, the war in Afghanistan started as a result of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. In response to these attacks, the U.S. decided to invade Afghanistan in order to find Osama bin Laden, remove the Taliban from power and prevent Afghanistan from harboring any more terrorist organizations. While Osama bin Laden was killed in 2011 and the Taliban rule was toppled in 2001, the Taliban insurgency remained. Up until leaving office in 2017, former President Barack Obama had been slowly drawing troops out of Afghanistan and focusing on advising the new government rather than fighting. However, Trump has stated the war will continue for an indefinite period of time and has loosened restrictions placed on military action in Afghanistan imposed by the Obama administration. We have spent almost 1.07 trillion dollars, cost 2,403 American servicemen their lives and lost 28,000 Afghan civilian lives on the war in Afghanistan, not to mention the 17,674 servicemen and 50,000 Afghan civilians injured.
Right now, we’re at the point where we can’t exactly win, but there’s still a lot to lose. With the Taliban still linked to al-Qaeda, there remains a chance for more terrorist attacks. John Nicholson, the U.S. commander in Afghanistan has said, “There is a threat from this region to our homeland. So our choice is fairly simple: We either keep the pressure on them here, or they bring the fight to our doorstep.” Yet we have funneled billions of dollars and thousands of soldiers into a fight where we cannot seem to come out on top.
This threat perceived by our leaders continues to bring men and women into foreign territory to fight a war they know very little about. But while this has been the case for many years, what’s different now is this year kids who weren’t even alive when the war started can now enlist to fight. Think about that. These kids don’t even know life not at war. Living the majority of our lives post-9/11 has changed our generation in ways we can’t possibly understand because we don’t know anything different.
The New York Times recently put out a feature by C.J. Chivers on a then-19-year-old man named Robert Soto, a specialist in the First Battalion of the 26th Infantry, fighting in Afghanistan. Chivers interviewed Soto in 2009 and learned he was 10 years old when the twin towers were struck. He distinctly remembers being picked up from school by his father and seeing the fear in his eyes. Though he was young, this had a profound impact on his life and led him to enlist in the infantry in 2007. He said he wanted to be an actor after the war if he survives.
“He had his idealism and his hope scraped away at an extraordinarily young age,” Chivers wrote about Soto losing friends and people he admired in the violence. While the story of Robert Soto is a sad one, he understood what he was fighting for. He grew up in New York and was deeply affected by the attacks. He understood the magnitude of the event because he remembered what life was like before. Our generation has not had that experience.
Having grown up in a post-9/11 era, our generation is so removed from the war, we don’t even consider it in our everyday lives. We barely even consider our country at war at all. Because this war is being fought halfway around the world, and not at our doorstep, it removes us from the everyday consequences of growing up in a country at war.
Everyone is asking when the war will be over, but not enough people are asking what effect the war will have or has already had. This is impossible to answer because we don’t know when it will end and we don’t know what life was like before. People are giving up their lives for a war they don’t even remember starting. It has simply become a part of our existence now. The question is: What do we do about it?
While we can’t exactly pull all of our troops out of Afghanistan today and let the people left there fend for themselves, we do need to reevaluate what we can and should be doing in Afghanistan to alleviate the situation. There are many ethnic and tribal complexities at play, which makes the situation difficult to assess. The idea of recruiting and training a national Afghan army has been proposed to improve the situation, but this has already failed. There is no guarantee that these ideas or solutions will ease the situation, but what we are currently doing is not working and something has to change. Because 17 years is too long to be fighting.
Dana Pierangeli can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org