“Next year, an international coalition will end its war in Afghanistan, having achieved its mission of dismantling the core of al Qaeda that attacked us on 9/11.”
—Barack Obama, United Nations speech, Sept. 24, 2013
Farewell, Afghanistan. Twelve years ago, my country’s military crossed the seas to launch its longest war yet on your soil. The end has yet to come, but already our leaders speak of you in the past tense. The mission has been achieved. Time to go.
You see, with other wars to wage elsewhere, you’ve become something of a distraction. A deadweight. Americans don’t like thinking about how their government and its allies have so far killed as many as 6,481 Afghan civilians, over twice the number slain by the 9/11 hijackers. Great crimes deserve great punishment—just not ours.
And so begins the great erasure. Just as before the 2001 invasion your history was wiped clean of U.S. interference, now again come the convenient redactions and revisions.
George W. Bush told Congress, “We will pursue nations that provide aid or safe haven to terrorism.” It was a statement looking forward, not backward, in the parlance of his successor. The CIA’s arming, training and funding of extremist Afghan mujahideen as Cold War proxies in the 1980s; U.S. funding of Osama bin Laden and his fighters against the Soviets; Ronald Reagan hosting fundamentalist jihadis in the White House and calling them “freedom fighters” in speeches…these are embarrassing memories, moments we’d rather forget.
Because justice, American-style, demands historical amnesia. We cannot stand “callously by while children are subjected to nerve gas” in Syria, chides our Nobel Peace Prize-winning president, but Israeli white phosphorus used to burn children’s flesh to the bone (2008-09, Gaza) and depleted U.S. uranium still mangling unborn babies (2004, Fallujah) are too far gone. Others may have the history books; we have the munitions.
As new crimes emerge on the horizon—always framed in easy moral binaries—you too, Afghanistan, begin to fade away. Soon you will be nothing more than a useful fable, lessons to be drawn, parallels to be found along a road paved over future societies.
Hardly any of us remember the beauty before the bombs. For most, all you are is mullahs, militiamen, mines and misery. Why are your people so uniquely evil, so deserving of those thousands of anonymous murders only accelerating in pace? To ask the question, I suppose, seems racist, and that our government is not. Let’s not ask it, then.
But history is a hard thorn to remove. The Kabul of the 1960s and 1970s, before the long war that lasted four decades, appears as an alien world. Women attended the university in mini-skirts. Hippies smoked hashish on Chicken St. and hung out in shops selling coffee and carpets. Tourists came streaming in the tens of thousands to visit the city’s gardens, scaling the snowy peaks at its periphery.
War, when it came, devoured it all. Until 1992, your National Museum was one of humanity’s finest treasures, housing some 100,000 pieces spanning two millennia of a rich civilization. Reagan’s freedom fighters shelled, occupied and looted the collection during the fight for Kabul, sparing only a few thousand artifacts. Many of these were later pulverized by the victor of their infighting, the Taliban.
Farewell, Afghanistan, in so many shards.
Farewell to your women, kidnapped, assaulted and assassinated for choosing to work, whose murders are neither recorded nor investigated by your government, in whose name our leaders said we would fight.
Farewell to your children, one in 10 of whom still die before the age of 5, whose internationally-funded schools educate only half and graduate a mere tenth, mostly boys.
Farewell to the 100,000 shipping containers and 50,000 vehicles we will spend $6 billion to remove, to the $7 billion spent on “excess” military equipment (20 percent of the total) that will simply be shredded and sold as scrap. At least someone made off good.
Farewell to the asylum-seekers pouring out of your borders in record numbers as the foreign troops leave, their ranks tripling over the past four years. Maybe they are wary of a 2014 presidential election in which a longtime friend of bin Laden, al Qaeda and global jihadi networks—Abdul Rab Rasul Sayyaf—is a frontrunner. Don’t they know our mission was achieved?
Farewell, too, to those who could not make the escape, dead or lost along desperate sea voyages to lands as far as Australia.
It’s not farewell from everyone, however. Traumatized veterans alone are projected to require $754 billion to truly move on. Even as the war ends in 2014, the Pentagon will leave behind several thousand “trainers,” nine of its biggest bases and a residual force of around 10,000 troops in seeming perpetuity.
At least one of the quiet, daily cruelties of those years when the Soviets left and American attentions drifted elsewhere has ended. Qawwali, that wavering, trancelike music of the Sufi mystics, was once banned by the Taliban. Today, thankfully, it has returned. Sitars, drums, harmoniums, rubabs and wailing vocalists again echo at dusk over rapt audiences sipping tea, the sounds curling into the air and disappearing with the smoke. This is your humble reprieve, Afghanistan, a dream of a farewell that is not yours to say.
Prashanth Kamalakanthan is a Trinity senior. His column runs every other Wednesday. Send Prashanth a message on Twitter @pkinbrief.