This year, following the official end to the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan in August, there is a new kind of pressure because I fear most people in the U.S. will soon stop talking about Afghanistan — the country I think about nearly every day — entirely.
I know it’s tempting. The war is technically over. We saw it “end” nearly three months ago. But in reality, the war spills on in insidious ways that are harder to see and harder to resist: official and unofficial special forces operations, drone strikes and surveillance, and the training and maintenance of proxy forces.
It makes sense that, with the United States’ official withdrawal from Afghanistan, many people in the U.S. don’t want to think about it anymore. I get it — I also hate thinking about it. Most good people are disgusted by what the U.S. has done there for the last 20 years — to say nothing of the U.S. meddling in Afghan affairs throughout the ‘80s and beyond that helped give rise to al-Qaeda and the Taliban.
I loathe waking up in the middle of the night with thoughts of the violence that the U.S. wreaked in Afghanistan swirling like rotor wash in my mind. However, I have resigned myself to the fact that the U.S. war in Afghanistan is part of me. It’s part of all of us. To forget what our politicians, military leaders, big corporations, soldiers and all of our tax dollars did in that far off land for 20 years feels morally wrong. To forget will only allow it to happen again. We can’t just move on.
My regular thoughts of Afghanistan are bookended by the planes hitting the Twin Towers in 2001; and then the images of young Afghans civilians clinging to, and then falling off, the landing gear of one of the last military transport planes to flee Bagram Air Base in Kabul in disgrace on August 16, 2021.
In between those 20 shameful years, 775,000 U.S. service members would be deployed to the country. Over 2,400 of them would be killed. More than 20,000 would come home injured. A trillion dollars would be spent. Around 66,000 Afghan soldiers would be killed, and untold numbers of civilians would lose their lives.
An estimated 3.6 million Afghans have fled their homes because of the U.S. occupation. That’s the rough equivalent of the entire populations of Montana and Arkansas being forced to flee their homes (often after a loved one was killed) to try and find new ones in a space the size of Texas — only with far fewer resources than Americans would have access to, which is a low bar. We can’t just move on.
Mainstream outlets have already dropped most of their coverage of Afghanistan since the shameful exit in August. This is no surprise given that those outlets rarely covered the war when it was officially a war. They certainly won’t be steadily covering future air and drone strikes, or unofficial secret military operations carried out by U.S. special forces, if the past is prologue.
And they hardly cover the acts of war that are being carried out all around the world by the U.S. military at this very moment. Afghanistan is still part of the U.S.-led forever wars. U.S. taxpayer-funded death and destruction will be perpetuated by American soldiers and drone operators in Afghanistan for years to come. We can’t just move on.
So how do we keep reminding ourselves and the war makers that the U.S. military wasted countless lives and enormous amounts of money in Afghanistan? How do we stay disgusted by the violence of war?
The best way is to make sure that young people know the story of Afghanistan and Iraq. They need to know that the U.S. is not interested in spreading freedom and democracy around the globe. This is the line that is fed to students across the country who are being targeted by any one of the 10,000 recruiters that currently stalk high school hallways across the U.S.
One might also look to the 23 million Afghans threatened with starvation after a 20-year U.S. occupation — and now the suffocating U.S.-backed sanctions — to learn more about the “freedom” and “greatness” the U.S. brings.
Then there are the 2.2 million refugees fleeing Afghanistan. I’m sure they can tell long stories about the condition the U.S. left Afghanistan in. There is nothing noble about fighting the U.S.’s wars. It is an immoral act. The evidence is in. It’s been in.
Make sure your kids, your neighbors’ kids, and beyond develop critical thinking to counteract the propaganda spewed by recruiters. Make sure they don’t glamourize war in video games and movies. Find antiwar veterans to speak in their schools. There are organizations such as Veterans for Peace and About Face: Veterans Against the War that would love to help you with this. Volunteer to speak about the horrors of U.S. imperialism in high schools yourself. Protest when U.S. war history is heroicized in school or at sporting events. Fight for free education and health care so there’s less incentive to sign up for the military, particularly in marginalized communities, where Black and Brown youth are disproportionately targeted for recruitment. Make sure your kids are actively anti-racist, because a country can’t fight a war without racism.
The U.S. government knew we let our guard down after 9/11 and hell followed. We can’t ever let our guard down again. No amount of moralizing or drum–beating can ever inspire people like me to fight a war for U.S. war-makers again.
The trillion dollars spent in Afghanistan could have put us well on our way toward building sustainable, green infrastructure in the U.S.
A trillion dollars could have provided a home to every homeless person in the U.S.
A trillion dollars not spent on war could have saved millions of lives over the last 20 years.
There are so many things we can do with our resources and our lives when war isn’t an option. Knowing this, after watching what happened in Afghanistan over the past 20 years makes it impossible to move on.
Rory walked across the United States for the Pat Tillman Foundation in 2008–2009, following two deployments to Afghanistan with the 2nd Army Ranger Battalion. He is a war resister, and writer living in Chicago, Illinois. Haymarket Books published his book Worth Fighting For: An Army Ranger’s Journey Out of the Military and Across America in November 2014. His writing has appeared in The Guardian, The Nation, Mother Jones, Salon, Truthout, Common Dreams, TomDispatch, Peace & Planet News, and others. He is a proud member of Veterans For Peace.