3-Minute Civics: Our longest war

September 10, 2021 5:45 am
A child holds up a sign thanking veterans during a parade

A child holds up a sign thanking veterans at the nation’s largest Veterans Day Parade in New York City on Nov. 11, 2015. (Spencer Platt | Getty Images)

“War is God’s way of teaching Americans geography.” This quote, often attributed to Ambrose Bierce, resonates deeply with me. In my classroom, I often have to pull down the wall maps to show my students where Cuba and the Philippines are, or Iwo Jima and Normandy, or Korea and Vietnam. I understand their dilemma, reflecting that I had no idea where Iraq was in high school, only to find out all too well a couple of years later as my own war taught me geography. 

Afghanistan though, seems different. I teach high school seniors, and they have only known us, as Americans, at war. Yet, in an odd way, it may be the least understood of our wars, more background noise than headlines to those teenagers, punctuated by moments: the invasion, Osama Bin Laden’s death, the recent pull-out. Individual students may get dialed in when a father, or aunt, or cousin is sent; or the whole community is suddenly reawakened when the Fates send two men in uniform to their doorstep to deliver devastating news. So how do we explain why we are in Afghanistan?

One of the things that is necessary to understand about the war in Afghanistan is that while American troops have been there since 2001, the Afghans have been fighting, continuously, for more than 40 years. To Afghanistan, America didn’t arrive until after the halftime show was wrapping up, and amazingly, it is still America’s longest war. To put it into perspective, Afghanistan has been at war since “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” topped the box office.

In 1978, in the midst of the Cold War, the Afghan government was overthrown by the communists, supported by the Soviet Union. Events across the region escalated the conflict, including the overthrow of the Shah next door in Iran, and the intervention of a nervous neighbor, Pakistan. Finally, in 1979, the Soviets invaded in an effort to stabilize the government. America saw the chance to bleed the USSR dry by supplying the rebels, or Mujahideen, fighting the Russians with money, weapons, and training. Ironically, 30 years later, U.S. troops searching houses and villages all along Afghanistan would discover that many of the very weapons being used to shoot at them were American made. Much of this American-supported training was done just over the border in Pakistan, and included soldiers from all over the Muslim world, including a Saudi named Osama bin Laden. The Soviets finally withdrew, defeated, in 1989, leaving thousands of heavily armed militiamen and a power vacuum.

Now, I want to leave Afghanistan for a moment and head to a seemingly unrelated war between Iran and Iraq happening at the same time the Soviet-Afghan war was raging. Iraq feared that the new government in Iran wanted to spread revolution, so in 1980, Iraq invaded. For eight years, Iran and Iraq fought a bloody war that claimed over a million casualties. In 1988, after the ceasefire, Iraq owed a great deal of money to foreign investors, money they thought they could squeeze from Kuwait, resulting in the invasion of Kuwait by Iraq in 1990. Saudi Arabia, fearing Iraq, looked for help. Bin Laden, fresh off of his victory in Afghanistan, offered his thousands of battle-hardened troops, but the king of Saudi Arabia chose to accept the offer from the Western world, including the United States. Osama bin Laden turned his group, now called al-Qaida, against the West. 

Meanwhile in Afghanistan, a civil war was raging between rival militia groups. In 1994, a new group made up of former refugees educated in Pakistan during the Soviet War entered the fight. This group, the Taliban, meaning “student” in the local language, had support from Pakistan but also the more fundamentalist Afghans. By 1996, the Taliban had control of most of the country, including the government, opposed by the Northern Alliance in a second civil war. Here is where al-Qaida and the Taliban reconnect. 

As al-Qaida waged its war on the West, including the first World Trade Center bombing and attacks on various embassies, the United States began to pressure Sudan, where bin Laden was hiding, to expel him, which Sudan did in 1996. Bin Laden fled back to Afghanistan, where he joined with the Taliban in their war against the Northern Alliance. During this time, al-Qaida plotted its 9/11 attack under the protection of the Taliban. After that attack, the United States, along with a strange alliance with Iran and Russia, among others, forced the Taliban from power when they refused to turn over bin Laden, and sent al-Qaida into hiding. 

For the sake of simplicity in an unbelievably complicated war, I break the action into two parts for my students. The first decade of the war included the hunting down of bin Laden and the defeat of al-Qaida. After bin Laden’s death in 2011, the war transitioned to increased training and supplying the Afghan government troops coupled with an American withdrawal that would transfer the fight to the Afghan military. This was very similar to Nixon’s Vietnamization policy in the early 1970s as the fight was transferred to the South Vietnamese Army. But, like in Vietnam, the loss of American and allied firepower emboldened the enemy in Afghanistan. As troops from America and its allies phased out, the Taliban turned to the offensive and regained much of the ground it had lost over the previous decade. Like the South Vietnamese, most Afghan troops fought courageously against the Taliban, holding as much ground as they could. 

In February of 2020, the Trump administration announced it had signed an agreement with the Taliban to remove all U.S. troops within 14 months, thus setting in motion the end to America’s longest war. Afghanistan will now and forever be linked to America through its own brutal geography lesson, joining the likes of Korea, Vietnam, and Iraq. On a personal note, as a member of the Veterans of Foreign Wars myself, I hope in the future when we need to know where a country is, we can just look it up online instead.

(Three-Minute Civics is an occasional column that seeks to help the people of New Hampshire navigate the issues and debates taking place at every level of government.) 

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