Eleven Years On

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ISAF photo / Lt. Col. Daniel F. Bohmer

Artillerymen firing an M-777 Howitzer at Forward Operating Base Al Masaak, in southern Afghanistan, August 21.

Sunday marks the beginning of the U.S. military‘s 12th year in Afghanistan.

It ain’t quite the Hundred Years’ War, but 12 years is 20% of this particular Battleland correspondent’s life.

Eleven years ago today – October 7, 2001 — also was a Sunday. I was at the Pentagon, along with scores of colleagues, gathering whatever scraps of news we could. We’ve been doing it ever since.

Four thousand and eighteen days. Two thousand and forty-four Americans killed, one every other day for 11 years straight. Historically, it’s not a lot, as wars go, unless it’s your son. About a half-trillion dollars.

Two months after the war began, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld told me this campaign marked the return of American military might to the world stage:

When I took this job I had a visit with the President shortly thereafter, and we talked about the situation that a lot of the people in the world had come to conclude that the United States was gun-shy. That we were risk-averse. And that there had been a series of things that had led people to believe that, and that the cumulative effect of it was to weaken the deterrent effect of the U.S. threat, if they do things that are harmful to our country’s interest, and that that was unhelpful to have that deterrent effect weakened, and that I wanted him to know and we discussed it and he and I concluded that whenever it occurred down the road that the United States was under some sort of a threat or attack, that the United States would be leaning forward, not back.

Less than a year later, 9/11 happened. President Bush and his war council met at Camp David the next weekend. Rumsfeld continued:

Tommy Franks, the general, the combatant commander, proposed a plan, it was discussed, it was agreed to, it was put in place, and it involved putting pressure on the Taliban and the al Qaeda and recognizing that some of what was going on would be visible, some would not be visible, and that we needed to be patient and that it would take some time, and that the world was expecting an explosion of cruise missiles on television and that they would have to have, that we would have to manage those expectations down. And we did do that.

As people started worrying about the fact that we were on a track where the Soviets had been, or that some people in neighboring countries were characterizing it as being bogged down, and people in the press were characterizing it as a quagmire, the President was very firm and very stiff and said, `Look, we’ve got a plan, it’s a good plan, we’ve agreed to it, leave it in place,’ and General Franks encouraged him to do so, and that is exactly what happened.

Two months later, in February 2002, I asked Franks, an Army four-star general, about the challenge of waging war in Afghanistan as we sat in his office at U.S. Central Command headquarters in Tampa., Fla. He responded with a recollection:

On the day of [Afghan President Hamid] Karzai’s inauguration…one of the opposition group leaders, with whom we had worked earlier in the fight, walked up to me from across the room, hugged me and said, `Who do you want me to fight now?’ That’s instructive, because there’s a lot of that inside Afghanistan.

Despite such concerns, the U.S. would soon decide that kicking the Taliban out of power for providing the sanctuary al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden needed to plot the 9/11 attacks wasn’t sufficient. Washington concluded that nation-building was the way to go, in a faraway land of tribes and warlords, as Franks acknowledged. Afghanistan had never had a strong central government — or even a nation, as most Americans understand the word.

Rumsfeld and Franks have retired from running the war, where U.S. combat troops are slated to fight for another two years.

Surprisingly, the anniversary appeared to pass without notice on the websites of the White House, Defense Department, NATO or the U.S.-led International Security Assistance Force running the war in Afghanistan.

The lone U.S. government-funded acknowledgement seemed to crop up in a Voice of America news story on the anniversary, which concluded:

Coalition troops have begun pulling out of Afghanistan. All foreign combat troops are scheduled to be gone by the end of 2014. The U.S. and NATO say Afghan forces will be capable of taking over the fight against the Taliban after 2014.  However, many analysts predict a bloody new multi-factional civil war.

The Taliban also took note:

With the help of Allah, the valiant Afghans under the Jihadi leadership of Islamic Emirate defeated the military might and numerous strategies of America and NATO alliance. And now after eleven years of unceasing terror, tyranny, crimes and savagery, they are fleeing Afghanistan with such humiliation and disgrace that they are struggling to provide an explanation.

That may be a stretch. But you know what they say about who writes history. Check back in 11 years.