A decade ago, I stood up to return my dinner tray at Forward Operating Base Pasab, a U.S. military base in southern Afghanistan, when three or four explosions erupted outside.
They were loud but not large, maybe 300 meters away.
I followed the protocol and headed out of the enormous mess hall tent into what passed for a bunker, two concrete barriers supporting another over my head.
My assignment in Pasab was to find an American soldier who had joined the military because of the September 11, 2001 attacks by Islamist militants on the United States, for a story marking the 10-year anniversary of the attacks.
I had succeeded and was due to return to Kandahar Airfield, about 40 kilometers to the east, to fly back home to Sri Lanka.
By September 2011, it seemed America and its allies had spent a lifetime at war, that that seminal day a decade earlier had begun receding into memory while remaining present, be it because of an Iraq or Afghanistan war zone dispatch, a new loss of civil liberties in the name of catching terrorists or another soldier lost to the “war on terror.”
Already, there was a pervasive sense of futility about the American-led war in Afghanistan. As the graduate of the U.S. West Point military academy, whom I interviewed for the anniversary story, put it: “We’re just tourists here.”
‘America’s prestige and power have been tarnished.’
Understanding Afghanistan’s multi-generational impact on Americans and our national psyche will take years. The interplay of how we left, who we left behind and how our allies will take stock of our future commitments will also take years to understand, as will answering the moral questions.
The lives, dollars and years expended have an as-yet incalculable cost.
America’s prestige and power on the world stage have been tarnished, and those who view American failure as their success are certainly enjoying the moment. For those who believe in the United States of America, there is a palpable sense of both failure and loss.
A friend of mine who won a Silver Star miltary decoration for his valor in combat in Iraq, put it this way: America’s place in the world has lost a step because it is predicated on the dollar’s supremacy and “our ability to settle scores.” Our exit from Afghanistan calls the latter into question.
My friend began his life in the United States as a refugee from Vietnam, one of some 40,000 the United States helped resettle after that war ended.
He is living proof of what happens when America sticks to the social contract that makes it unique among nations: Come, become one of us, be free and build a successful life under a still-evolving experiment in democracy.
That social contract is what makes America very difficult if not impossible to replicate in other nations, especially in those like Afghanistan with its own traditions. What is American is the can-do optimism – occasionally bordering on foolishness – to think we can export our recipe for success. The world is littered with failures of that principle.
America, as a concept, existed in Afghanistan — for a few tenuous years.
Forward Operating Base Pasab lay at the outer edge of where America, as a concept, could exist. And it did, for a few tenuous years.
It is a few miles from where Mullah Mohammed Omar founded the Taliban. The forward operating base, a sprawling affair perched in a fertile area just north of the Registan Desert, served as a major outpost in one of the more hostile areas of Afghanistan for NATO forces, and as a training facility for Afghan soldiers in an army that, 10 years later, no longer exists.
At that time, the administration of then-U.S. President Barack Obama was talking about a full withdrawal of U.S. forces by the end of 2014. Those I knew in the military whispered that 2014 was impossible and wasn’t going to happen.
FOB Pasab closed that year, leaving behind scrap wood from its battlements and fortifications for our allies, a far cry from the billions of dollars of weapons left behind now.
Before that final dinner in Pasab, I had waited in line to wash my hands before entering the mess hall and caught a conversation between two soldiers in front of me. “What do you think happens when we leave here?” one asked.
“Well, they were in the stone age when we got here, we bombed them into it, and when we go, they’ll still be there,” his companion replied.
“Nothing’s going to change,” his friend responded.
It took a decade for the lesson to be learned.
The rocket attacks on FOB Pasab were a fitting end to a trip that began with an arrival delayed by sustained rocket attacks on Kandahar Airfield, the major southern military base where soldiers could enjoy a taste of home at a boardwalk with a Pizza Hut, a TGI Fridays restaurant and a Burger King.
After I was allowed to leave the arrivals terminal, I walked down to that boardwalk for the surreal novelty of it. The presence of American fast food reminded me of the time I saw a commercial for exercise equipment on Afghan TV – another American export that had about as much do with Afghanistan and its culture as it did with, say, Mars.
The regular attacks on FOB Pasab and other nearby outposts – usually 82-millimeter recoilless rifle rounds set up on wooden crosses with a timed fuse – happened several other times during my stay. The military called it harassing fire.
Every time they hit, the army sent up an Apache attack helicopter and a Little Bird helicopter to find the culprits. They rarely, if ever, did.
On my last night in FOB Pasab, I watched the choppers lift off into the sunset and realized that the Taliban knew how to make the most technologically sophisticated and powerful military in history chase its tail.
The lesson took another decade to be learned.