Americans have lost faith in the Afghanistan War because they don’t know what winning is supposed to look like.
In a recent national CNN poll only 17 percent of Americans questioned were in support of the war, down from 52 percent in December 2008. Dwindling public support has led some to argue that the war, launched in 2001 in retaliation for the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, has become the most unpopular in U.S. history.
U.S. and Afghan soldiers on the front lines challenge the pessimistic narrative with which most Americans are familiar, claiming that they’re decisively winning the war.
But they acknowledge that progress is still fragile, and the gains of the last 12 years threaten to crumble if the White House cannot articulate a clear definition of victory and Washington and Kabul can’t come to terms over a long-term security deal designed to keep U.S. forces in Afghanistan as advisors past 2014.
Despite the tenuousness of the bilateral security agreement negotiations and the vague objectives for which they fight, U.S. and Afghan troops remain optimistic, confident that the war is not a lost cause, pointing to the proven ability of the Afghan National Security Forces to unilaterally plan and conduct operations against the Taliban, as well as encouraging political and cultural trends in Afghanistan as evidence that the U.S. and its NATO allies will leave behind a country capable of defending itself.
This, the war-fighters say, is what winning looks like.
What winning looks like
“Do you mind if we make a stop before dinner?” the U.S. Army major asked as we stepped into the pitch-black night at U.S. Forward Operating Base Shank, leaving the Afghan National Army’s war room.
“Of course not,” I replied. “I’m here to observe. Do what you need to do.” Dinner can wait.
It was the night after the final day of a bloody, weeklong battle between the Afghan National Army (ANA) and the Taliban over control a nearby town called Charkh — a battle that the ANA had won decisively.
We drove to the base clinic — a mismatched collection of shipping containers filled with medical equipment, beds and patients, connected by plywood boardwalks. We had to use headlamps as we snaked through the shipping containers; FOB Shank is blacked out at night due to the constant threat of Taliban rocket and mortar attacks.
Alone in one of those containers was the district governor of Charkh, recovering from a sniper’s bullet to the abdomen that he took while defiantly walking with ANA troops through his town’s bazaar that afternoon.
The district governor was still unconscious, lying in the hospital bed under a white sheet. A mess of tubes and wires protruded from his body, and he was intubated. The whole scene was illuminated by halogen lights that made colors seem unnatural and alien. The governor’s brother, who is an Afghan Army soldier, was standing vigil at his side, clutching a Koran, tears in eyes. There was also an interpreter in the room and an American military nurse tending to the wounded man. The movie Fast and Furious was playing on a TV at the other end of the shipping container/recovery room.
The U.S. major went to the Afghan soldier and put a hand on his shoulder. “I’m so sorry this happened,” he said, speaking through the interpreter. “But I want you to know that the doctors say your brother will be all right.”
The Afghan soldier put down his Koran and shook the American’s hands — both of them at the same time. “Thank you so much for saving my brother’s life,” he said, referring to the emergency care provided by the U.S. Army. “He would have died without you.”
“Your brother is a hero,” the American continued, pausing after each sentence for the interpreter’s words to keep pace. “He is an inspiration to all of us. He is a hero to the Americans, and people like him give us hope for your country.”