The Afghanistan War: An Extremely Cold Take
This isn’t really about Afghanistan, it’s about us. Because the crazy things we do are always about America, all of our ridiculous wars are about us.
When I saw the Twin Towers fall on the TV in the early morning of 9/11 in Portland, OR, I had a single thought:
My country is going to go insane.
I wasn’t wrong. We lost our fucking minds in the years after 9/11.
President Bush’s approval rating shot up to 90%, or higher, depending on who you asked. But I still hated him, because he was awful and inept and only got elected because the other side was awful and inept too, and because the democracy I grew up in was so flawed it barely deserves the name democracy. (It has only fallen further into minority rule since then, possibly irrevocably, with castes of political power that demote the majority to the point where legally reforming the political process to reflect democratic will is impossible.)
I remained in the 10% that did not approve of Bush. Something like 80% of Americans were for starting a ground war in a country most of them hadn’t heard of a month before — Afghanistan. I was not. I argued getting bin Laden should be a police action, we should find some way to arrest him, we shouldn’t involve all of Afghanistan. It was a lot of weird internet arguments, and discussions in my wider social circle. It got tense at times. My partners and I joined a march against invading Afghanstan in, I think October, but it was 20 years ago and it’s hard to remember exactly when. We drove up to San Francisco to protest the coming war, and people screamed at us, called us traitors. I remember being spit at by an older man, something I’d heard of in the Vietnam era but didn’t realize actually happened. (He was very far away, I wasn’t in danger of being more moist.)
I did know of Afghanistan before 9/11, and I hated the Taliban, because they blew up the beautiful ancient Buddhas in the 90s. I told you this was a cold take.
For those of you born since all then, I must tell you, the country was real fucked up about Afghanistan. I think if you’d told most people, including the man that screamed and spit at us, that it would take 20 years and trillions of dollars, they might very well have said fine.
Still been all for it.
They would have also said bullshit, there’s no way, we have the greatest military the world has ever seen, but many also would have thought it was cheap for paying back what was done to us. That’s how badly 9/11 devastated the American self-image.
America was so hurt, wounded psychically by 9/11, and this dysfunctional and rugged central Asian nation nobody knew anything about was going to pay for it. It wasn’t any more complex than that. I thought it was stupid, because it absolutely was. But America wasn’t trying to be smart. We were trying to get even.
It went about as well as most revenge schemes do.
So we fucked up a country, killed a lot of people, and ended in the same situation we’d been in 30 years before the war in Afghanistan began, in a place we’d broken, that we’d never wanted to be in, because of our feelings. We’re finding out again what we found out in Vietnam, and even in Iraq in the intervening years — that we’re very dangerous, but also kind of powerless, both to ourselves and others. We’re the nation-state equivalent of a huge muscled guy with a traumatic brain injury.
It was a bad idea to go to Afghanistan in ’01. There was no chance it would ever go ok, much less well. But there is no changing the past. There is only the chance to learn from it, but I’m not holding my breath. Delusional American exceptionalism is the problem, and it’s hard to solve a problem no one wants to admit exists.