Afghanistan always took a backseat to Iraq. Even though Operation “Enduring Freedom” commenced a full year and a half prior to the even more dubious Operation “Iraqi Freedom”, the latter quickly and totally overshadowed the former. Some of us recall bits and pieces of the Afghanistan misadventure. We remember U.S. news sources reporting enthusiastically on things like “daisy cutter” munitions and showing the same clip of the infamous MOAB (Mother Of All Bombs) exploding at the base of the Afghan mountains. It was Afghanistan where we first heard new terms like IED and insurgency and learned about exotic sounding corners of the planet like Kandahar and Tora Bora. Afghanistan was where the world learned of how sadistic intelligence agents, brutal military personnel and shadowy corporate mercenaries were using terror to fight the war on terror. We remember the daily servicemember body counts, the jubilant women after finally being able to vote, Hamid Karzai and the constant questioning of why we couldn’t track down Osama bin Laden.
But Iraq was always the bigger story. Afghanistan didn’t have alleged weapons of mass destruction — Iraq did. Afghanistan was not part of George W. Bush’s infamous “Axis of Evil” — Iraq was. Afghanistan was a rocky, desolate, landlocked chunk of land with little to offer other than, possibly, bin-Laden. Iraq was a vast, oil-rich country with ports and infrastructure that could provide a useful ally against Iran. The Taliban was a chronic but enigmatic threat that would strike with a vehicle bomb or gunfight and then go back into hiding for weeks or months. Iraq had an endless succession of bad guys and disasters to keep the international media interested — the supposed Baathist resistance, the sectarian violence, the militias and then ISIS — all were very visible and active which meant they were constantly attracting attention and staying in the consciousness of Americans back home. In short, most Americans lost touch with Afghanistan, whether intentionally or as a result of decreased government and media concern.
Fast forward to August of 2021. Just short of the 20th anniversary of 9/11 and the ensuing invasion of Afghanistan about a month later, we find Kabul and the rest of the country again under the thumb of the Taliban. In what seemed like an overnight change in events, two decades of what could loosely be called nation-building, came to an abrupt and spectacular end. We have been left to puzzle over what the project accomplished. What did the enormous expenditures in blood and treasure, energy and material yield? After all the drone strikes and special forces operations, what has NATO and the United States to show for it? After twenty years of kicking up dust in central Asia, the view from the escaping planes probably doesn’t look that much different now that the dust has settled.