A US flag is lowered as American and Afghan soldiers attend a handover ceremony from the US Army to the Afghan National Army, at Camp Anthonic in the Helmand province of southern Afghanistan on May 2, 2021.
We've known for a long time that the Afghanistan War was not going to end with a triumphant victory. Last week, US troops formally left Bagram Airfield with little fanfare. President Joe Biden has said the US’s military mission will end by Aug. 31, something of an anticlimactic end to a war that has lasted almost 20 years.
For Afghans, the conflict is ongoing. Thousands have left the country already, and the departure of US and allied forces, while anticipated, has undermined the slim sense of security that people felt. The country has been slowly sliding toward civil war for months now, if not years. The Taliban, the enemy the West originally set out to defeat, is also poised to reclaim power in many areas outside the capital of Kabul, where the mood is anxious.
"I think this is in many ways the worst possible outcome that would have been visualized during those peace talks leading up to Doha — that the US is withdrawing, but without an end to the war that is continuing in Afghanistan between the two sides there," Madiha Afzal, a David M. Rubenstein fellow for foreign policy at Brookings Institution, told BuzzFeed News, referring to the ongoing peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban in Qatar. In a recent speech, Biden defended the departure and accelerated the timeline. All but a few hundred troops are expected to withdraw by the end of August, well before the Sept. 11 deadline he initially set earlier this year.
The photos taken during the war in Afghanistan never told the full story — the US military got wise to the fact that telling the truth tended to raise questions (and opposition) back home after the Vietnam War. They clamped down on overall access and, at times, outright banned many types of images that were common in earlier eras, such as injured soldiers or returning caskets. The early years of the war were also shrouded in both secrecy and a sense of entitlement after the Sept. 11 attacks, which warped the sense of truth that was reported back home.
This limited access caused a curious flattening of the coverage in Afghanistan — it was harder to understand what was happening there beyond basic patrols. This meant in the US it became easier to ignore, even as the war spanned four presidencies, killed over 70,000 Afghan people and 2,400 Americans, and caused over 20,000 US casualties and untold numbers of Afghan citizens to flee, all at an average cost of $3 billion per month, according to the Pentagon.
After Osama bin Laden was killed in 2011 and the so-called green-on-blue attacks took place in the years that followed, the American public and members of Congress repeatedly posed one existential question: "Should we still be in Afghanistan?" A formal drawdown of troops started in 2014. Seven years later, we're almost fully out of Afghanistan. But big questions remain: Does this mean terrorism is defeated? What about all those girls who can finally go to school and participate in public life? All those kids who watched the soldiers, played with them, and were occasionally orphaned by them — what do they think now? And those same soldiers — so many of whom are barely old enough to legally drink, let alone practice nation building on the other side of the world — how are they doing? Was this worth it? What did we learn here? What will happen next?
US Marines with full battle gear prepare to leave the US military compound at Kandahar Airport for a mission to an undisclosed location on Dec. 31, 2001.
Marines fill sandbags around their light mortar position on the frontlines of the US Marine Corps base in southern Afghanistan November 2001 near a cardboard sign reminding troops that Taliban forces could be anywhere and everywhere.
US Marine Lance Corporal Justin Kelly Little, from Scottsdale, Arizona, stands next to a bullet-riddled building at Camp Rhino in southern Afghanistan in December 2001.
Mohboba, 7, stands against a bullet-ridden wall as she waits to be seen at a health clinic March 1, 2002, in Kabul, Afghanistan. Mohboba has a skin ailment called leishmaniasis, which is a bacterial infection that plagues a great deal of poverty-stricken children in Afghanistan.
US Army soldiers from the 101st Airborne Division offload during a combat mission in eastern Afghanistan in March 2002. The soldiers were participating in the largest American offensive since the beginning of the war.
A combination of pictures shows Sgt. William Olas Bee, a US Marine from the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit, having a close call after Taliban fighters opened fire near Garmser in the Helmand province of Afghanistan on May 18, 2008. The Marine was not injured.
United States Army 10th Mountain Division soldier Jorge Avino from Miami carves their mortar team's body count on a rock near the villages of Sherkhankheyl, Marzak, and Bobelkiel in Afghanistan on March 9, 2002.
An Afghan man and his son watch as soldiers from the US Army 82nd Airborne Division prepare to sweep their home on November 7, 2002, in southeastern Afghanistan.
Afghan girls raise their hands during English class at the Bibi Mahroo high school in Kabul, Afghanistan, on November 22, 2006. Five years after the fall of the Taliban, millions of students have returned to packed schools, making education one of the few success stories in the struggle for a peaceful country.
US soldiers search for weapons on Afghan men, who work for a private security firm escorting truck convoys, after they found illegal weapons in their vehicle, in a village near Kandahar on April 27, 2008.
US soldiers of the 82nd Airborne Division watch over Afghan prisoners during Operation Dragon Fury on June 2, 2003, in eastern Afghanistan.
Afghans carry the bodies of two children who they say were killed by US-led troops in Kabul early on Sept. 1, 2008. Hundreds of protesters blocked a road in Kabul accusing US-led troops of killing three members of a family, including two children, in a raid in the city, residents and witnesses said.
US Marines prepare to load a flag-draped transfer case holding the remains of Marine Lance Cpl. Blaise A. Oleski at Dover Air Force Base on April 9, 2009, in Dover, Delaware. Oleski was killed on April 8 while supporting combat operations in the Helmand province of Afghanistan. A new policy overturned an 18-year ban on news coverage of returning war dead, giving families a choice of whether to admit the media to these events.
Casualty Affairs officer Capt. Miles Wilhelm comforts Tracy M. Hicks during the interment of her son Cpl. Darrion Terrell Hicks at Raleigh National Cemetery on Aug. 1, 2012, in Raleigh, North Carolina. Hicks died from injuries sustained from an improvised explosive device in Ghazni, Afghanistan on July 19, 2012.
An Afghan boy blows bubbles given to him by US Army troops (seen in the background) on Dec. 3, 2002, during a US military–civil humanitarian mission in the village of Tadokhile in central Afghanistan. US military leaders have recently indicated a shift away from combat operations in the war in Afghanistan while increasing the emphasis on civil humanitarian efforts to rebuild the country and provide stability for the new government.
US Marines from the 2nd Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment of the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Brigade walk toward helicopter transport as part of Operation Khanjar at Camp Dwyer in the Helmand province in Afghanistan on July 2, 2009.
Lt. Col. Christian Cabaniss speaks to his Marines at Camp Dwyer on July 1, 2009, in the Helmand province of Afghanistan. The Marines are part of a stepped-up effort by American troops fighting Taliban fighters in southern Afghanistan.
A US Marine keeps watch as others search Afghans for weapons during a patrol in the Golestan district of Farah province, May 4, 2009.
US and Afghan Army soldiers question a farmer after a firefight with Taliban insurgents on March 14, 2010, at Howz-e-Madad in Kandahar province, Afghanistan.
US soldiers from Dagger Company, 2-12 Infantry, 4th Brigade sing karaoke at Michigan Base in the Pesh Valley in Afghanistan's Kunar Province on July 24, 2009.
Marines prepare to carry Cpl. Jorge Villarreal to a medevac helicopter near Forward Operating Base Zeebrugge on October 17, 2010, in Kajaki, Afghanistan. Villarreal was killed on the patrol after stepping on an improvised explosive device.
A weeping U.S soldier salutes as she takes part in a ceremony at Camp Eggers in Kabul on Sept. 11, 2006, to remember the victims of the 9/11 attacks in New York and Washington, DC.
Spc. Jeffrey Hodge mourns the loss of four soldiers from his unit following their memorial service at Soldiers Field House at Fort Lewis, Washington, on Sept. 9, 2009. The four soldiers were members of the 1st Battalion, 17th Infantry Regiment killed in Afghanistan on Aug. 25, when their vehicle was struck by an improvised explosive device.
Afghan children look on as a US soldier from the Provincial Reconstruction team Steel Warriors patrols in the mountains of Nuristan province on Dec. 19, 2009.
Afghan women walk past a US soldier in Parwan province in January 2010.
S Marines Lance Cpl. Michael Horne from 2nd Marine 8th Battalion gives a piece of candy to an Afghan boy in Sistani, Helmand province, on May 5, 2011, as the Marines search for insurgents.
Marine Cpl. Jeff De Young of Holland, Michigan, is nicknamed "Kid" by the other Marines for his youthful appearance.
A US service member salutes her fallen comrades during a memorial ceremony for six airmen killed in a suicide attack at Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan on Dec. 23, 2015.
Teri Johnson wraps her arms around her son's grave as hundreds gather to commemorate the lives of American veterans on Nov. 11, 2016, at the Great Lakes National Cemetery in Holly Township, Michigan, for Veterans Day. Johnson's son, Joe, was killed in Afghanistan in 2010.
A door rests on the floor of a tent that has been dismantled as part of areas being demolished on the massive Bagram Airfield in the Parwan province of Afghanistan on January 2, 2015.
US Army soldiers from NATO use a cruise system in a checkpoint during a patrol against Islamic State militants in Nangarhar province, Afghanistan, in July 2018.
Naseri, formerly an interpreter for the United States Marine Corps in Afghanistan, poses for a portrait in the home of his father-in-law in Kabul, 2019. Naseri moved to the home of his wife's father because his work with the Americans in the past was well known and frowned upon by residents from his village.
US Army soldiers from the 10th Mountain Division arrive home from a nine-month deployment in Afghanistan on December 8, 2020, in Fort Drum, New York.
A general view of the Bagram US air base is pictured after all US and NATO troops left, some 70 kilometers north of Kabul, on July 5, 2021.