America Will Have to Reckon With Its Cynicism About Afghanistan

I was deployed in Afghanistan, and by the end, I thought the situation was hopeless. But my cynicism eventually melted away, as I suppose America’s will.

A broken window of a school in Afghanistan
KIANA HAYERI/The New York Times/Redux

About the author: Elliot Ackerman is the author, most recently, of the novel Red Dress in Black and White and a co-author of the novel 2034. He is a former Marine and intelligence officer who served five tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Very few Americans are allowing themselves to feel anything about Afghanistan anymore. A triple bombing in Kabul left 80 people, many of them schoolgirls, dead last week. In photographs, you see the physical devastation of the bombing—a crater, twisted metal, gouged walls—but the more visceral devastation is in the faces of family members, the contorted, grief-stricken expressions of mothers and fathers at the gates of the school as they search for their daughters. In one image, a little boy holds his missing sister’s backpack. What you see is pure loss. The media covered the bombing, but I didn’t discern any outrage among people in the United States.

I understand America’s indifference. It is born out of a collective cynicism, a belief that the war will never turn the corner. I was deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan five times from the ages of 24 to 31, and by the end, I thought the situation was hopeless too. But my cynicism eventually melted away, as I suppose America’s will. That cynicism, I hope, will evolve into retrospective indictment, and we will see that what we did there had value. We will also come to realize that the decision to completely pull out is negligent.

Toward the end of my last deployment, in Afghanistan, I was nearly killed. I had been nearly killed before. But this time felt different. I was now a father, my daughter having arrived a few months earlier. I was on patrol with the Afghan special-operations unit I advised, and we were driving out of a dry riverbed when the vehicle in front of mine rolled over an IED, vanishing in a concussive pillar of smoke. The IED was part of a larger ambush, and after the blast a firefight ensued. When we returned to base hours later with our dead—or the pieces of our dead—zipped up in body bags, I was angry, exhausted, and completely finished with the senselessness that was Afghanistan.

Now that I was a father, the idea of deploying had come to feel selfish, like I’d developed a weekend base-jumping habit. Those unfortunate enough to love me lived under the tyranny of low-grade terror every time I had to leave. With a family to support, I was too grown up for this. My life now had more pressing concerns than trying to create a free and stable Afghanistan (if that even was our mission). Although I had already decided to leave the wars before that last firefight, for years I looked back on the incident as having brought total clarity to my decision.

War had taught me cynicism, a general distrust of human nature. If you’re going to spend seven years deploying in and out of war zones, a healthy bit of cynicism is a requirement, a way to defend against emotional investment. Those walls protect you. Then, when you come home, hopefully you figure out how to bring those walls down, so you can become a recognizable version of the person you were before. Parenting forced me to let go of my anger about the war and the resultant pessimism that had seeped into different parts of my life. As my children grew older, I knew I couldn’t be a good parent if I carried that burden. I needed to exude the antithesis of cynicism: belief in my children and their future.

Putting my cynicism behind me allowed me to see Afghanistan and all we tried to accomplish there differently. Occasionally, the war has come up as a topic in school for my daughter. Teachers and friends have told her that the war was about many things—September 11, helping the Afghan government and the Afghan people—but the cause that has resonated the most with my daughter is that the war was fought so that little girls like her could go to school.

Ten years ago, if my then-infant daughter had asked me why I was fighting in Afghanistan, that more cynical version of me—the one who arrived exhausted and bloody back at base after that ambush—likely wouldn’t have spoken much about girls going to school. Mentioning that mission would have felt dangerously sentimental. I likely would have said something fatalistic about war’s enduring nature and left it at that. But that’s not who I am today. The parent I’ve become—the one who believes in his children and hopes to raise them to become upstanding adults—is able to tell my daughter that yes, helping girls like her was one of the reasons we were over there, or at least it was an outgrowth of our effort to democratize the country. Saying that does not excuse the dysfunction that has attended the war in Afghanistan. Both can be true.

Withdrawing completely from Afghanistan is a decision I don’t agree with, even if it’s one that fits the mood of our country (or the slick optics of a war’s ending on the anniversary of the attacks that prompted it). To simply wash our hands of an entire country and its people is deeply cynical. Currently, approximately 2,500 U.S. troops are serving in Afghanistan, a fraction of the 100,000 troops serving there when I left a decade ago. In 2020, more U.S. troops died in training accidents at Camp Pendleton in California than died in combat in Afghanistan. Signaling our commitment by keeping a small U.S. force there wouldn’t prevent every attack, but it would go a long way toward stabilizing the region, and allowing the Afghans to finish the fight against the Taliban for themselves. But the Biden administration has made its choice and doesn’t appear likely to reverse course, no matter how many schoolgirls the Taliban or the Islamic State massacre.

The events in Kabul last weekend teach us that our cynicism comes at a cost, to Afghanistan and to the U.S. In the months ahead, we will see more images like those out of Kabul. Our current hard-edged national mood will endure for only so long. Eventually, we will have to reckon with why we chose this path, one that allows girls to die in the very schools we encouraged them to attend. If we as a country are going to actually “come home” from Afghanistan, we’re going to need to find a better answer than Our effort there at the end was hopeless. Because cynicism won’t allow us to move on. It never does.