The last US commander’s departure from Afghanistan was marked by a strange and gloomy ceremony. Standing outside the military headquarters in Kabul, amid flagpoles left behind by nations that had already pulled down their banners and traveled home, Austin Scott Miller, the longest-serving general in the United States’ longest-running foreign war, spoke to a string of Afghan and US officials and a handful of journalists.
He made no declaration of victory or promise of return. The short, formal event sometimes sounded like a tribute. “Our job now is just not to forget,” Miller said. “It will be important to know that someone remembers that someone cares and that we are able to talk about it in the future.”
The mission flag was rolled and handed over from Miller to Marine Corps General Kenneth F. McKenzie, Jr., who will oversee the Afghan operation from Tampa. The guests wandered back into the city; peeled the journalists off. Miller’s travel plans were secret, and there had been silent warnings against taking pictures of the general boarding a helicopter. Gordon Lubold, who covers the Pentagon for Wall Street Journal, circled back to headquarters later that day for a meeting, so he happened to hear Miller’s Blackhawk grinder up in the Afghan skies, followed by a Chinook with members of Miller’s staff.
“They choreographed it so the media would almost go,” Lubold said. “We did not even know he was traveling that day.”
As the United States rushes to remove its troops from Afghanistan this summer, the Pentagon has imposed a de-facto press ban on their departure. The military has ignored requests for embassies, rejected requests for even redundant interviews with troops, and generally worked to obstruct public opinion that the United States is stepping up efforts. Journalists submitted letters of appeal and protest, but they had no effect. That Times editor Dean Baquet intervened and pressured the Pentagon to give journalists access to troops and asked for a meeting with Miller to advance his case. But the general ignored Baquet’s overture, according to people involved in the incident. Martha Raddatz, the longtime ABC military reporter with a track record of exclusive Pentagon, gained access to the troops; others did not.
In a way, the blurring was predictable. After leaving a country that many now expect will collapse in civil war, the United States has no victory to declare; it can only acknowledge the reality of abandonment and withdrawal. “A military that withdraws from combat, whether it’s an organized withdrawal or a retreat, does not want any media nearby,” said Getty’s combat photographer John Moore. “The military wants to show itself in a victorious way. When you leave a battlefield, it never looks victorious. “
Moore, who covered Afghanistan before 2001 and has carried out dozens of military incursions there, was among those journalists whose requests to document the withdrawal were ignored. When I sent a message to Los Angeles Times reporter Nabih Bulos to ask if he had been given an embedding or a chance to interview troops during a recent trip to Afghanistan, he replied succinctly. “I tried. Failed,” he wrote, “they were not very accommodating.”
Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby acknowledged the dissatisfaction. “I’m not insensitive to that criticism,” he said. He explained that commanders were on guard against Taliban attacks and therefore “stingy” with details of troop movements. He added that the lack of press staff in Afghanistan made it difficult to arrange embassies and interviews.
To pretend that any war has been won or lost is to impose on an infantile logic a complex tangle of murder, primary emotion, and money. Some wars end in mutual exhaustion; others simply go into remission or slip out of our area of attention. But it is certainly true that a nation can come more or less triumphantly out of the battle, and along that spectrum, the outcome in Afghanistan was disgraceful. The conflict will cost taxpayers more than two trillion dollars, including veteran care and interest on war loans, according to the Costs of War project at Brown University, which also estimates that more than one hundred and seventy thousand people died in the conflict, including Afghan forces, Taliban fighters and contractors. This figure includes twenty-four hundred U.S. soldiers and forty-seven thousand civilians who died in a project that failed in its most basic goal of defeating the Taliban, which is now storming back to seize control of districts and, according to human rights groups, carry out organized revenge killings.
I went to Afghanistan in 2001 as a young reporter for Los Angeles Times, and I have recently spoken with others who fought, documented, and studied the war. I talked to old friends and journalist colleagues, to academics, to people in the military and withdrew from it. I asked everyone the same question: How will the war be remembered? And strikingly enough, they all said the same thing: they do not know, for an answer requires a coherent understanding of the overall purpose of war that no one has had for more than a decade. An occupation that began as an act of revenge against the planners of 9/11 and their Taliban protectors evolved into something more abstract and impossibly ambitious, a kind of rebirth of Afghanistan as a stable and prosperous country. It was a project that few American leaders knew how to implement, but no one had the strength to stop. And then the United States will end the longest foreign war in its history, and few can formulate what it was for. Of course, there is dysfunction among the propagandists.
“How can you turn the page of a book when you do not even know what is written?” Catherine Lutz, a co-founder of the Costs of War project, asked. “We still have not made an account of all the losses and all the fraud and abuse.”
The most optimistic assessment of the conflict came from Steve Warren, a longtime Pentagon spokesman who was pushed out of his job early in the Trump administration. He predicted that the American public would remember the war as having been more successful than Vietnam, though hardly a victory. “The goal was to kill Osama bin Laden. We killed that idiot. He’s dead,” Warren said.
But Warren also spoke of his own disillusionment with the war in Afghanistan, a kind of disgusting fatigue that fell upon him so abruptly and absolutely that he compared it to Saul’s conversion on the road to Damascus. It came over him years ago when he had been tasked with working on the issue of veteran suicide. One day he simply hit a wall. “I just got so tired of it all,” he said. “What are we doing? Stop. Enough. It’s time to go home.”
The post-9/11 wars have been notable for repackaging invasion and occupation as “nation-building,” a charitable enterprise in which the United States would teach a foreign country how to function better. But the Americans could never present a stable or convincing new reality to ordinary Afghans, who watched as security crumbled and new forms of corruption flowed from the splash of cash and contracts that came with the occupation. Meanwhile, the Pakistan-backed Taliban launched an increasingly effective insurgency campaign in which they killed US-backed Afghan troops and police officers at a dizzying pace. This troubled combination of violence and quixotic civic engagement led to genuine confusion among those who served, as well as the American public, who sometimes expressed indignation that the invaded countries were no longer grateful to the United States. “Are we helping people or are we killing people?” as Warren put it.
As time went on, US interest in reports of the Afghan war seemed to decline dramatically. “I did not feel a great, strong interest in the history of Afghanistan,” Kirby pointed out, until the withdrawal announcement led to an “increase” in journalists eager to hurry back to Kabul. Within two years of the invasion, the nation’s newspapers and newspapers had begun to refer to Afghanistan as a “forgotten war.” Soon, the term “war-weary” became an integral part of writing about Afghanistan.
If it is in fact a forgotten war, it may be because no one wants to dwell on the disgraceful exploits and corrupt alliances that have characterized it. To separate one of them is to undersell the others, but to list them all you need a book. In Afghanistan, the United States and its allies gathered and sent them to Guantánamo. It was the country that came under more shelling than anything else through the controversial program of American drone strikes. In Afghanistan, through a tangle of enemy-of-my-enemy pacts and dubious compromises, the United States found itself supporting vicious warlords, including former military commander Abdul Rashid Dostum, who tortured and then packed hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Taliban prisoners in transport containers. During their dying time, Dostum’s prisoners licked the sweat off their neighbors’ skin in a desperate attempt to quench their thirst. Dostum now controls a heavily fortified hilltop base in Kabul and a dreaded militia in his northern hometown of Jowzjan province; he is a close ally of Turkey, whose troops are now expected to defend Kabul airport against Taliban attacks.
Perhaps no single place has better symbolized the American occupation of Afghanistan, from start to finish, than Bagram Airfield. Built by the Soviet Union and occupied by Soviet troops during an earlier, similarly fateful intervention, it was lavishly renovated and expanded by the United States as the war dragged on.
But last month, when it was time to leave, the military simply turned off the power and got the last troops away in the gloom and darkness of the night. Looting from surrounding villages, realizing that the Americans had gone, climbed over the walls and laid waste the abandoned warehouses of Gatorade and Pop-Tarts. The following morning, the Afghan commander discovered that his ally had disappeared. When he heard rumors that the last U.S. troops had withdrawn from Bagram without informing local officials, Associated Press reporter Kathy Gannon repeatedly called Colonel Sonny Leggett, then a Kabul-based U.S. military spokesman. According to Gannon, Leggett first declined her call. Leggett, who has left Kabul and is retiring, said he was no longer authorized to comment and referred questions to the US Central Command; a spokesman, Bill Urban, said he did not know what was going on. happened with Gannon’s call, but that he was sure Leggett was committed to “maximum disclosure with minimum delay.”) The military later said it had discussed the departure of Bagram with higher-ranking Afghan officials, and blamed the confusion on a misunderstanding.
A few days later, Gannon, who has been covering Afghanistan since 1986, visited Bagram and spoke with an Afghan commander and his soldiers as they took stock of the abandoned airfield. “These soldiers were just kind of wandering around inside this huge area. It was their first time there,” she said. “Many of them were a little bit sour and had a bad taste in their mouths over how it had happened, it “the fact that the current had gone that way … They felt like they were veterans of this war, and here they were left with a skeleton of what was there.”