The cyclical nature of our infrastructure failures has mirrored that of our strategic ones. The same problems that plagued combat operations in 2004 were still in place in 2010. The Afghan National Army remains undertrained, underequipped and unable to hold off the Taliban. Poor understanding of local politics enables corruption and bad intelligence. Bad intelligence enables bad operations, and bad operations lead to civilian casualties. American and Afghan Air Force strikes resulted in more than 1,000 civilian injuries and deaths last year, according to the United Nations, some 700 more than at the height of fighting in 2010.
The American military leadership in Afghanistan has often congratulated itself on new, innovative approaches to fighting the Taliban over nearly 18 years, but from the ground level they have felt like challenge coins: an engraved eagle here, an embossed dinosaur there, but the same coin at the end of the day. The best kind of challenge coin is the all-too-rare bottle opener, because functionality is anathema to military ornamentation, and because they tacitly acknowledge the fighting military’s dependence on alcohol to patch over the cognitive dissonance required to make a career out of the global war on terror. Their scarcity is doubly paradoxical considering one popular story of the origin of challenge coins: as something for Vietnam grunts to pull out at bars in Saigon to prove their combat-unit affiliation if they were questioned about it. I for one never witnessed any grunts from our more recent quagmire indulging in this ritual, and I spent four years at Marine bars in North Carolina. When I asked a few Army veterans if they’d ever used challenge coins for their supposed purpose, the responses ranged from, “Oh, yeah, those things were worthless trash” to a heartfelt explanation that some can hold real sentimental value.
Challenge coins represent everything my war in Afghanistan was not. They’re clean, bold, simple in their assertions. They symbolize an orderly war that existed only in the sterilized world of Defense Department public affairs and an American public happy to ignore the “good war” after Iraq. I’ve never found a challenge coin commemorating the time a roadside bomb killed two Marines from my company, inside an armored vehicle designed to protect them from exactly that kind of blast. I have yet to discover a challenge coin proudly commemorating the way an insightful Marine colonel’s initiative to encourage farmers in Helmand Province to grow cotton instead of opium poppies was torpedoed by U.S.A.I.D. bureaucrats who seemed to think Afghan cotton could threaten American cotton producers.
As negotiators try to end our participation in America’s longest war, it’s worth taking stock of what we’ll leave behind. Kabul, largely flattened during civil war in the 1990s, was rebuilt with American dollars. Today its uneven urban landscape and drastic gap between the rich and the poor are testaments to our scattershot approach to nation-building. It’s where our mark on the country will stand alongside those of its previous invaders. The capital city’s Mikrorayon neighborhood is famous for the squat, impenetrable concrete apartment complexes built by the Soviets in the 1980s. America’s biggest contribution — in the face of Kabul’s desperate need for housing — is hundreds or maybe even thousands of ornate multistory “poppy palaces” that poke up from behind their barbed-wire-topped walls. They are owned by contractors and warlords-turned-politicians; we didn’t build them, but we certainly paid for them.
On the outskirts of town, these mansions loom over refugee camps overflowing with Afghans who’ve fled fighting between the Taliban and American forces in their villages. Their shacks and mud compounds were not subsidized by American taxpayers. Mughal invaders who conquered Kabul in 1504 left a fortress on one of the city’s hills; it was occupied and then lost by the British, but its parapets are still standing tall more than 100 years later. A 15th-century castle in Herat stands on the site of an earlier one built by Alexander the Great in 330 B.C. Our bases have been largely dismantled, and those that remain have been reduced to a fraction of their former size. Everything about our presence in Afghanistan — military and civilian — reeks of the transient nature of our commitment to the country. Even Kabul’s Green Zone appears to have been designed with its own dismantling in mind. When America finally abandons Afghanistan, hardly a trace of our time there will remain. The billions in infrastructure projects are proving as dysfunctional and short-lived as the peace we said we’d bring. So perhaps it’s only fitting that our trinkets of war be relegated to hiding beneath Soviet medals for valor in a tiny graveyard of empires on Chicken Street, for sale at whatever price you’re willing to pay.