There was a time, around 2013 or so, that I secretly worried the Afghanistan war might end.
Yeah, that's an odd concern for a political liberal and self-avowed pacifist. One who, to boot, had by that time been a war correspondent for eight long years in conflict zones all over the world. I'd spent months in combat across Afghanistan since 2007.
I'd seen people suffer horrible injuries. I'd talked to desperate, impoverished and terrified Afghans and traumatized, disillusioned soldiers. In Logar province in March 2011, I narrowly survived the explosion of a massive Improvised Explosive Device that struck the U.S. Army vehicle I was riding in.
Still, two years later, I quietly worried that the war would end. President Barack Obama had pledged to shrink, and eventually halt, the conventional American-led combat mission in the country.
In 2013, the withdrawal was well underway. Twelve years after U.S. Special Forces invaded the landlocked Central Asia country in pursuit of the terror group Al Qaeda—and by extension, Afghanistan's brutal ruling regime the Taliban—it truly seemed like the war was ending.
For Americans, at least.
I should have been relieved. The United States had invested hundreds of billions of dollars in Afghanistan. More than a thousand Americans had died. And yet the country remained poor, uneducated, violent and politically corrupt.
But in my selfishness, I feared losing my easy access—via the U.S. military—to Afghanistan's most dangerous districts. The war had defined my young adulthood. The closer it came to killing me, the deeper my connection with the conflict. For better or worse, the Afghanistan war had made me who I was, and am. I treasured that.
It had also made America what it was ... and still is. An angry, resentful, increasingly powerless superpower. A country where, to many millions, killing foreigners and especially Muslim foreigners—however pointless their deaths might be—somehow represents a political end unto itself. As long as America can still slaughter brown people, America is still great. Right?
In 2013 I squeezed in one last trip to southern Afghanistan with the U.S. Army, patrolling a desolate corner of Kandahar province that coalition air strikes and artillery had all but destroyed. It was peaceful because it was lifeless.
But elsewhere, the war still raged and politics roiled. I should have known that Obama's drawdown wouldn't stick. I should have known that resurgent militant groups, enduring corruption in Kabul and regime-change in my own country would reverse the war's halting progress toward some kind of tense resolution.
Afghanistan has long known war. Afghanistan long will know war. I could take weird comfort in that unhappy truth. I might never lose my connection to the fighting, because the fighting might never stop.
THE 'STAN is a collection of short comics about a long war. The following tales are all true. They're based on my reporting, and reporting by Kevin Knodell and a few others. When we began writing the stories—and Blue Delliquanti began drawing them—it was possible to believe our book, once it hit shelves, would look back on a war that was in America's past.
Instead, it's a book that's still very much about Afghanistan's, and America's, present. And likely future.