“Dark Star is always playing somewhere. All we do is tap into it.” — Phil Lesh
President Biden famously ended the “forever war” in Afghanistan on Aug. 30 and the nation’s attention quickly pivoted to other calamities: flooding in the East, fires in the West, abortion rulings in the Supreme Court (abortion seems like its own kind of “forever war” in this country). If the Afghan war were a Netflix series, it would have run for 20 seasons and last month would have been the series finale, when Maj. Gen. Chris Donahue, commander of the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division (played by John Krasinski, natch), became the last American service member to leave.
But did we really end the war in Afghanistan? In early 2020, we had roughly 13,000 troops stationed in country, which were drawn down to about 8,000 after President Trump’s peace deal brokered with the Taliban in Doha, with the promise of complete withdrawal by May 1. Biden extended that deadline to Aug. 31, and now here we are.
The Taliban are again in control, as they were 20 years ago, and are promising a kinder, gentler Afghanistan, a sort of “Sharia light” or Taliban 2.0. We’ll see how that goes. Already there are reports of the Taliban backsliding. A TV anchor in Kabul read a statement on air about the good intentions of the Taliban with seven armed fighters behind him. In Daykundi province near Kabul, the Taliban have already banned girls from attending school beyond sixth grade, resulting in the closure of all girls’ schools. There are growing reports of detentions, disappearances and executions. So the Afghan renaissance may still have a ways to go.
The reason we went to Afghanistan 20 years ago was because it had become a staging ground for jihadists, which it may very well become again. So it’s a legitimate question to ask if the “war” is really over just because we don’t have troops on the ground. “Over the horizon” capabilities has a nice ring to it, but do they really effectively replace on-the-ground resources?
We’ve had forever wars for, well, forever. Look at WWI. The Allies and the Germans signed an armistice in 1918 at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month. (President Biden would have loved the optics.) But the war never really ended; it just went into sleep mode. The lingering political resentments that were never resolved exploded again in the 1930s, leading to WWII. In turn, I’m not sure WWII ended, per se. It just morphed into the Cold War, which created a number of proxy wars, notably in Korea. By the way, we now have 28,000 troops stationed in Korea, but I don’t see President Biden rushing to end that “forever war.”
I’m not being cynical. I understand there were unique challenges in Afghanistan. Here’s the thing, as President Biden likes to say: just because we say something has ended, doesn’t mean it’s so.
Now, out West, we have the “forever fires.” The Dixie Fire and the Caldor Fire are still burning. The Dixie Fire has been raging since July 13 and is only 55 percent contained; Caldor started on Aug. 14 and is only 25 percent contained. As of Thursday, more than 15,000 firefighters were deployed across California battling 16 fires that have consumed about 2 million acres. That’s about three times the size of Rhode Island. But as the following chart makes clear, California has been burning constantly since 2000.
There’s a commonality to these “forever” calamities. WWI and WWII both created breeding grounds for subsequent wars. Afghanistan and California both provided staging grounds for continued conflagrations. So we should be realistic about pronouncements that complex engagements like the Afghanistan war have “ended.” And maybe we could even learn from history. If we aren’t proactive, history will just repeat itself, as it loves to do. In the Middle East, I’m optimistic that our “over the horizon” capabilities are what they’re promised to be and that the Taliban will actually mature into a stabilizing force; in California, I’m optimistic that more aggressive forest management and, longer-term, more aggressive responses to climate change will suppress wildfires. And I’m forcing myself to be optimistic that we will learn hard lessons from Covid so we won’t be caught in a “forever” pandemic.
Then we can concentrate on the things that should last forever: human connection, innovation and imagination, and the sounds of “Dark Star” resonating in the celestial spheres.