When does it "end"?
The last U.S. troops left Iraq on Sunday, or so the narrative goes...as long as you ignore the inconvenient presence of robust special operations forces and almost 10,000 militarized contractors. The occasion brings about a serious moment of reflection, at least for those who turn their eyes from pop culture and holiday hype long enough to notice. The numbers tell the story, from casualties to troop numbers to monetary cost, and the regional and global impact for better or worse will take decades to fully tell. But what I can't get over today is the simple storyline that this war is at an end just because large numbers of U.S. conventional units have crossed back into Kuwait, leaving massive amounts of hardware and infrastructure behind and a precarious political system in place.
I am absolutely not taking away from the achievements of our military, especially those who worked so hard, bled so often, and in too many cases, paid the ultimate price for the relative stability and democracy which now exist...but I am disputing the notion that the Iraq war is now somehow over, just as the Vietnam war wasn't over in 1973 and Afghanistan's (latest) war will not be over in 2014, no matter what transpires between now and then. I take this stance because in our rush to declare history in an instant, we hype bookends when the moment strikes. But the story of this conflict is no more easily surmised now than it was in the dire days of 2004-07, and there is much greater continuity once you extend it back to Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait in 1990 and Desert Shield/Storm. It's worth recognizing, or better yet, celebrating, hundreds of thousands of our military men and women being home rather than in Iraq...but let's not pretend it is the end of a conflict.
Analysts: Questions remain as U.S. troops leave Iraq
The continuity of Afghanistan's war arc stretches much further, if you view it this way: the US/NATO invasion in 2001 was in response to the Taliban government's refusal to turn over al Qaeda leadership; the Taliban came to power as a result of the brutal civil war among Mujahideen factions largely armed by the U.S. and others; the Mujahideen first combined efforts to fight the Soviet Union, who was invited in by Afghanistan's communists...and on and on it goes. What lends relevance to my dry attempt at a history lesson are the factions and the major players, most of whom are aligned now as they were in the Soviet-Afghan war, and whose animosity toward each other far precedes even that chapter. For every instance in which President Karzai cozies up to Pakistan, his rivals from the former Northern Alliance get further skittish about the country's future direction, and the demarcation between the Pashtun regions and the northern/western areas comes further into focus. Unlike in Iraq, stability as we recognize it doesn't have a prayer yet in Afghanistan, no matter what "end" date we have chosen.
Finally, I feel it's important to acknowledge the passing of one of our era's most courageous and unlikely leaders. From rebellious playwright, to uniter of subjugated people, to gracious leader of a new (then-struggling) state, to advocate for freedom the world over, Vaclav Havel was more than up to the task. The people of Afghanistan, with their own tradition of beautiful poetry, who yearn for a new beginning would do much worse than to look to the likes of him for inspiration...
Vaclav Havel, Czech leader and playwright, dies at 75