October 7, 2001. Military jets slice through the skies of Afghanistan, marking the beginning of what has evolved into the longest war in American history.
The sorties began 27 days after 9/11, and were followed by a ground invasion of NATO troops. In reality it was — and still is — an American operation, notably assisted with forces from Great Britain. Although a number of allies lent a morale-boosting symbolic presence, that has since melted away.
At the time, the idea seemed clear cut: destroy Al Qaeda, roust their Taliban enablers, establish a secular civil government to replace the Taliban's medieval-minded Islamist fundamentalists, and nudge Afghanistan into modernity.
In a fit of misplaced optimism, our serially incompetent president, George W. Bush, declared "Mission accomplished" on May 1, 2003.
Today, that seems a long time ago.
The United States has been fighting in Afghanistan for 10 years. Al Qaeda as an Afghan presence has been eradicated, although it has established itself elsewhere — most notably in Yemen. Osama bin Laden was killed earlier this year in a daring raid by Navy SEALs. The Taliban, however, remain a fluid and potent force inside Afghanistan and boldly operate from bases within Pakistan, an incompatible ally at best. As for the secular government sponsored by the United States, it is a wobbly gang of thieves with little purchase on popular support.
It was easier to explain why the United States invaded than to justify why we remain.
The simplest and most potent explanation is that conservatives would excrete a red, white, and blue brick if Barack Obama did what he should have done when his order to kill bin Laden was successful: declared victory and ordered the troops home.
With the US in the midst of a slow-motion nervous breakdown, as it has been for at least the past two years, the political price of facing reality is — it seems — just too high. The fear of losing Afghanistan has long been a paralyzing force in national politics. Never mind that it is not ours to lose, any more than it was there to be subdued by the Soviet Union at the zenith of its power, or tamed by England in the days when Britannia governed more of the planet than any nation before or since.
Afghanistan illogically begat Iraq, which tangentially begat Libya. We wage perpetual war for perpetual peace. Washington wishes that the populace would just accept that. And for the most part, America has. The war has become nasty, brutish, and inexorable — a political afterthought, if even that.
Now, however, comes Greg Cook, an unlikely geopolitical rabble rouser. Cook is an artist who also writes arts criticism for the Boston and Providence editions of the Phoenix.
Cook's idea is that the best way to fight against the war is to understand it, and the best way to understand it is to eschew grand strategy, to examine Afghanistan up close and personal in all of its granularity.
His tool: social media, specifically YouTube, which hosts tens of thousands of videos made by and about servicemen and -women who have served in Afghanistan.