TERRA INCOGNITA: Death in Afghanistan: America’s never-ending war and world order

David Gilkey, an NPR photojournalist, and his colleague Zabiullah Tamanna were killed while traveling with an Afghan army unit

US soldiers operating in Afghanistan (photo credit: US DEPARTMENT OF DEFENSE)
US soldiers operating in Afghanistan
Last week two journalists became the latest casualties in Afghanistan.
David Gilkey, an NPR photojournalist, and his colleague Zabiullah Tamanna were killed while traveling with an Afghan army unit.
They join almost 30,000 civilians killed in Afghanistan since 2001 and 2,381 US servicemen.
It is already the longest war in US history.
It has been called the “forgotten war.”
The deaths of Gilkey and Tamanna should not only remind us about this conflict but encourage Americans and others to ask tough questions about it. Is Afghanistan the model for all the conflicts we are witnessing in the region today, from Libya to Yemen, Somalia and Iraq? Why has the Afghan war gone unnoticed in the US election cycle? The immediate cause of the US war in Afghanistan was the 9/11 attacks and the Taliban’s hosting of Osama Bin Laden and his terrorist coterie.
Operation Enduring Freedom began on October 7, 2001, and by November Kabul had fallen. Bin Laden was killed in Pakistan in 2011.
In December 2014 US President Barack Obama announced an end to US operations. “Thanks to the extraordinary sacrifices of our men and women in uniform, our combat mission in Afghanistan is ending, and the longest war in American history is coming to a responsible conclusion.” He noted that fewer than 15,000 US troops remained in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Yet American troops would stay, almost 9,000 of them still, in a NATO-led operation that includes 28 countries, training, advising and assisting the Afghan army in its endless war with the Taliban and other extremists such as Islamic State. CNN noted in 2015 that the US “won’t be heading out anytime soon.” New plans call for a drawdown of US troops to 5,500 by 2017.
US combat operations in Vietnam continued for 104 months, whereas Afghanistan has surpassed 180 months of fighting. For comparison’s sake, US involvement in Vietnam, which began as an advisory mission in 1955, expanded to include 3,200 military personnel in 1961, before major operations began in 1965. Even by that measure, Afghanistan is far longer, and yet the political and social upheaval that Vietnam wrought is incomparable.
No one protests Afghanistan, no one cares.
It is not a subject of debate in either US political party. It is not on the international agenda.
It’s relatively easy for the war to continue as long as there are few casualties. Three American servicemen have been killed this year and 22 were killed last year. That doesn’t take into account the 6,000 US military contractors who have died in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2001. In a sense, the US military has partly outsourced some of its security and training to contractors, whose deaths should be included in the overall toll.
US policy in Afghanistan is also shifting. Since January more than 100 air strikes have been launched in Nangarhar, according to reports, that have mostly targeted Islamic State, which is thought to have thousands of fighters in Afghanistan.
Now all of a sudden the Taliban, the extremists who blew up the Bamiyan Buddhas and forced women into burkas, are going to be portrayed as the “moderates” who are fighting the “extremists” of Islamic State. Iran has already decided that the Taliban is the lesser of two evils.
What is the US and, by extension, NATO policy in Afghanistan? To manage an endless conflict.
Not to win, but to contain and fight forever. The endless nature of the Afghan chaos is similar to the experience of Somalia in the last decades and the decline of Libya, northern Nigeria, Iraq, Syria and Yemen into bubbling extremist failed states.
Thus Afghanistan has come to symbolize the transition from the 20th to 21st century. Whereas the 20th century was one of mass bureaucracy and extremely centralized pernicious state systems embodied by the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany, the 21st century is increasingly trending toward a century of chaos in world order.
Afghanistan played a central and symbolic role in the defeat of the Soviet Union after the 1979 invasion, and it was a major cleavage of the Cold War in that respect.
Since the 1990s various commentators have tried to provide a recipe to explain this phenomenon.
In 1995, in his Jihad vs. McWorld, Benjamin Barber posited a world of tribalism against globalization; and in 1996, in his The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, Samuel Huntington saw the world as balkanized into religious groups. In 2004 The Pentagon’s New Map by Thomas Barnett brought us an image of the planet divided between the “non-integrated gap” around the equator, and the integrated “core” of countries and regions that basically boil down to Europe, Russia, China, India, the former Anglo colonies and Argentina and Chili.
Since then the commentators have given up, in much the same way the US politicians have given up asking questions about Afghanistan and the way European states have given up trying to have an efficient and managed immigration system.
Outside the binary constraints of the Cold War, the world today seems inexplainable. Like Afghanistan, it is seen as so incredibly complicated and unmanageable that the only answer is to muddle on.
If the 21st century continues like this, just muddling on without strategy or new ideas, the evidence is that the Afghan experience will become an increasingly global experience.
Follow the author @Sfrantzman