Happy 10th, Afghan War

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U.S. Marines in Nad Ali, Afghanistan, in May 2011 / Marine photo by Adam Levendecker

I vividly recall being in the Pentagon 10 years ago today, awaiting the beginning of the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, a military counterpunch to the 9/11 attacks that had shocked the nation four weeks earlier. Army General Tommy Franks was in charge as the head of U.S. Central Command, and Don Rumsfeldwas the maestro overseeing the entire military show. President George W. Bush was commander in chief, and breathed life into Operation Enduring Freedom that Sunday:

To all the men and women in our military, every sailor, every soldier, every airman, every Coast Guardsman, every Marine, I say this: Your mission is defined. Your objectives are clear. Your goal is just. You have my full confidence, and you will have every tool you need to carry out your duty.

After a decade, there’s a fresh report – echoing the conventional wisdom – that we have little idea if we are actually prevailing in this conflict. “We just can’t say we’re ‘winning’ the war in Afghanistan,” says Joshua Foust, author of the report by the American Security Project, a nonprofit, national security think tank in Washington, D.C. “There’s no way of saying whether we’re winning or not when the public data about the war is incomplete and, more importantly, keeps changing.”

Think tanks aren’t the only ones with a dim view of the conflict. The U.S. invaded with a “frighteningly simplistic” view of Afghanistan,  Stanley McChrystal, the U.S. Army general forced out of his Afghan command last year after aides disparaged their civilian leaders to a reporter. “We didn’t know enough and we still don’t know enough,” he told the Council on Foreign Relations Thursday. “Most of us, me included, had a very superficial understanding of the situation and history, and we had a frighteningly simplistic view of recent history, the last 50 years.” Speaking of “50,” McChrystal added that the U.S. and its allies are only “50% of the way” toward achieving their goals in Afghanistan.

Bush, Rumsfeld and Franks have long since retired, but their war lives on. Bush’s “defined” mission and “clear” objective have blurred into a decade-long conflict that bleeds soldiers a little at a time and bores most Americans. That wasn’t the attitude that weekend when the war began a decade ago. Then again, no one I recall speaking to that day at the Pentagon ever thought we’d be noting this 10th anniversary with close to 100,000 U.S. troops still there, and 1,801 dead.