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America's Tragicomic War in Afghanistan

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Judging by their relatively low level of interest in discussing America's longest war, the Obama and Romney campaigns seem to be calculating that the path to the White House in 2012 does not go through Afghanistan.

They're probably correct. Most Americans are tired of Afghanistan and would rather not hear another diatribe about our failures there, much less read a detailed analysis of the specific policies that are implicated in our missteps. I have spent the past three years studying Afghanistan as a historian, and even I sometimes tire of the relentless drone of negative news, which incidentally is often about drones.

Our politicians are more than crafty enough to know that it is difficult to sell a tragic story that people don't want to hear, but sometimes I wonder if a different kind of truth-telling approach to the campaign in Afghanistan might work better for their purposes. Perhaps I can do them a favor by offering some off-color ideas about how to spice up the conversation at their next yacht-club gathering or political fundraiser when the topic turns to "Amurrka's" war in Afghanistan.

First of all, we have long needed to dispense with the notion that all of our soldiers are tall, handsomely proportioned Hollywoodesque heroes and heroines who serve their flag without fault or hesitation. The truth is usually much more interesting, if not always amusing, and makes for lots of "good times" in our current counterinsurgency mission in Afghanistan. I remember one particularly long air assault mission in the mountains of Paktya Province that ended with mixed results. My platoon found the biggest cache in recent memory on that mission, but a tragicomic chain of events more than offset this tactical gain as we were en route to our pickup site.

When the pilots at our brigade headquarters were grounded because of the low cloud ceiling and poor visibility, our large element of Afghan and American soldiers was forced to begin a long exfiltration from the high mountains on foot. For various reasons the decision was made to begin this movement at night. Of course, God doesn't always come to our mission briefings or answer our prayers and about an hour into our march down the valley a torrential rainstorm opened up on our heads. In the best of scenarios, heavy rain is unpleasant. In that steep valley, it meant a flash flood and so all of us began a mad scramble up the slick, muddy slopes of the mountain on the right bank of the river. In that moment all that any of us could do was avoid tumbling down into the rapidly deepening water scouring the rocks that had formed our path only moments before.

On a good day we were all tough guys. But now we were slipping in the mud, using machine guns as crutches, cursing heaven, and lurching one step uphill for every four that we attempted. By the time that I reached the high spot on the spit of land where I would spend the night, my one pair of pants was ripped at the crotch, I was covered in mud, and I must have looked like a naughty version of Swamp Thing. I survived that horrible night shivering by a fire and wearing my sleeping bag as a jacket only to discover that several of my soldiers had experienced a similar wardrobe malfunction during the previous evening's muddy bacchanal. Worst of all, we had to walk another three miles down the valley in our ripped pants that day. And yes, the further downstream that we went, the more populated the towns became. American soldiers covered in mud conducting counterinsurgency and winning hearts and minds in ripped pants? #MuslimRage anyone?

It would be a relief if the anecdotes that our politicians told about the war in Afghanistan didn't center on their efforts to prove their mealy mouthed enthusiasm for the hard work and sacrifice of Amurrkan soldiers. But naturally, I don't seriously expect incidents like "Pants-gate 2008" to make an appearance in stump speeches any time soon. In truth, even though the candidates' bland platitudes about veterans and war are difficult to stomach, there is no end in sight. The various insurgencies in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India are rooted in an interconnected set of seemingly intractable political problems. The complexity of this system of violence virtually guarantees that it will not be directly addressed by American politicians with nuanced policy recommendations during an election campaign.

Soldiers can get into horrible messes even when they don't mean to, and as I discovered in the mountains of Paktya, some days you eat the bear and some days the bear has too much self respect to bother eating you. But although laughter sometimes seems like the only possible reaction to the absurdity of war, I find that it does little more than help me to process my own personal experiences. For a more brutally honest sense of how to form an appropriate response to the nauseating levels of violence that we find across Afghanistan, I have had to turn to some surprising sources.

Part Four of Roberto Bolaño's monumental novel 2666 is a soul-wrenching account of the often futile pursuit of answers about the origins of widespread violence. When I read 2666 in 2010 I was impressed by the applicability of Bolaño's intuition about the series of femicides in Ciudad Juarez to analysis of the war in Afghanistan. Bolaño's novel boldly refuses to satisfy our burning hunger for clarity about the cause of the violence in Ciudad Juarez, and instead forces us to meditate on the possibility that our desire for a simple answer about who is responsible for the murders may be a part of the problem. Like Bolaño's narrative, we should be suspicious of any easy assessments of America's war in Afghanistan, especially when they pretend to offer a simple solution.

With respect to Afghanistan, as Vice President Joe Biden recently put it, we will be "out in 2014." Of course, this is a statement designed for public consumption during a campaign, and it does little to help us understand what kind of calculus is going into our actual strategy for withdrawal in Afghanistan. In any event, the relative lack of focus on Afghanistan in this presidential election season seems to indicate that America will have lost interest in this war long before the eventual withdrawal date. But the spread of extremist groups based in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region that support the use of political violence abroad is not a problem that can be completely solved by the presence or absence of American troops and money in Afghanistan. It would be nice if the American public occasionally demanded a detailed recognition of this fact from its politicians, but I'm no longer surprised when candidates dodge, equivocate, and repeat the same easy lines. It's easy to make war sound simple when you aren't covered in mud and in need of a new pair of pants.

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