I don’t know too many people who—after spending real time outside the wire in Afghanistan—come back with more certainty in their answer to that question. Still, it’s what you get asked.
Earlier this summer, I made a couple of trips to Kandahar, and at the end of the last one, I spent some time at the big airfield there, living with the Canadian contingent. It was a weird time to be there—the American "surge" was just starting to deploy, and there was a quiet reevaluation of strategy happening, both of the troops’ on the ground and of the government’s back home. With the deadline for Canadian withdrawal two years away, the PMO was trying to rebrand the mission, and the press officers on the base were tearing out their hair trying to stay on message.
The press tent was a moribund place, too. It was two-thirds empty, and the few correspondents hanging around reminisced to me about the glory days in 2006, when the mission seemed to make sense and the public back home was eager for news from the front.
What had we been fighting for, for three years? The massive influx of American soldiers seemed to be an admission that everything so far had been done with too little resources, too few soldiers, had even been done in vain. In any case, we were getting out, long before this war would be over.
It feels like we’ve already forgotten it here. It speaks to our exhaustion with the war, and the place, that you have Margaret Wente saying Afghanistan “needs a good, tough warlord,” and that no one points out that that’s the equivalent of saying “Africa needs a good, tough dictator.” Our politicians seem to hope that if everyone shuts up about it, the war will just disappear.
But going there leaves a mark on you, as anyone who went will tell you. Those big blue desert skies, the tough fibre of the culture, the dark eyes of the children—impossible to forget. And as a nation, we have spilled blood, our own and theirs. We cannot forget, or turn away, even if we are leaving—we bear a moral link to this country now.
Ignorance, avarice, and anger may have been the demons that haunted us there, but history will judge us harshest for our apathy.