On Sept. 9, 2001, a famed Tajik commander and war hero named Ahmad Shah Massoud was approached for an interview by two individuals claiming to be journalists. A bomb concealed in a video camera carried by one of them exploded, and Massoud died while being evacuated to a nearby hospital.
He was known as “the Lion of Panjshir,” named for his leadership against the Soviet Union’s invasion during the 1980s, and had been the most formidable leader of the Northern Alliance against the Taliban. Al-Qaida is the most likely suspect for his assassination, and his death removed a potentially strong ally for the United States, just before the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.
Massoud has been lionized since his death. His courage in fighting the Red Army is well remembered, and portraits of him on billboards can be seen in northern Afghanistan to this day. Karzai’s government declared him an official Hero of Afghanistan, and the reverence shown during his funeral explains why:
I deployed to Afghanistan with the U.S. Army five years later in 2006, right when the war was already being described as the so-called forgotten war, just like the Korean War. The surge in Iraq was about to be in full gear. Most Americans no longer cared about Afghanistan, even as thousands of young men and women felt like they were stuck at the end of the world there. What was once a righteous crusade against Osama bin Laden in the aftermath of Sept. 11 became a footnote in the news in a matter of months.
The scattered mountaintop outpost I knew might as well have been on the far side of the moon as far as the public was concerned. I spent 16 months of my life there, and few Americans could point to it on a map.
When I went back to Afghanistan in 2009 for another year, this time in Wardak province, things had changed. No longer was it a few brigades stuck out in some dusty outposts on a mountaintop. Now we were deep in central Afghanistan, trying to pacify districts that had been written off by previous military commanders.
Even though we had logistics and manpower that could only have been dreamed of before, Nerkh Valley was a tough nut to crack.
By then, Afghanistan had its own surge, and the war in Iraq was coming to an official end. We enjoyed the wonders of building new fortifications and trying to dodge improvised explosive devices while implementing a policy that never had the slightest chance of succeeding.
Suddenly there were more than 100,000 soldiers in Afghanistan and resources beyond the imagination of just three years ago during my first tour on the Pakistan border. The “forgotten war” suddenly became important again.
Fifteen years later, the United States still has more than 8,000 men and women in Afghanistan, not counting private contractors. Just this week, a Special Forces soldier named Adam S. Thomas, a friend of my old platoon leader, was killed by an improvised explosive device in Nangarhar Province. He was 31.
This is an election year, but it’s a rare occurrence when either presidential candidate even mentions Afghanistan. Donald Trump’s campaign has claimed that Afghanistan is “Obama’s War,” with a distinct lack of knowledge concerning time and space. As far as Hillary Clinton goes, during her years as secretary of state, it is difficult to think of a single issue she has impacted there.
It is the same old story: Every Joe knows that no politician is going to come and save you.
I was just 23 when I deployed, and I had no idea what I was getting into. I can understand why no one else knows what is going on there, because after 15 years and two tours I still don’t know.
Massoud said before his death, “We will never be a pawn in someone else’s game. We will always be Afghanistan.”